The message was cryptic, and serious enough to ruffle ordinary people. But the commanding officer at the sensitive Indian post at the height of nearly 10,000 feet had seen worse. One of the routine Pakistani shells had missed its target. Nothing unusual about it, except that it fell on a village house, seriously injuring four unsuspecting villagers: three adults and one boy.
Without causing any alarm to the guest journalists the commanding officer instructed his junior, a 25-year-old lieutenant, to stop at the village — an ambulance was already on its way — and accompany the injured civilians to the hospital in Uri. The only catch here was that a good part of the entire road from the post to the village was in the direct view of the Pakistan observation post. So, if it were a cloudless day, anyone at the Pak OP would have a clear view of those travelling on this precarious, serpentine, non-existent mountain road. The bumpy stretch was marked by thoughtful notice boards reading: “The Pak OP can see you. Keep a distance of at least 500 metres between each vehicle. Do not drive after five in the evening.”
With the instructions of escorting the injured to the hospital we began our tricky descend hoping that the cloudy weather would hold keeping us out of the view of the Pak OP. As it turned out, we didn’t have to go to the village as the people had collected on the road. The ambulance was already there with the injured inside it. An additional vehicle was also called for, so that the family members and a few well-meaning villagers could accompany the injured to the hospital. The trouble was everyone wanted to tag along, so people climbed not only inside the car but also on the roof.
The young lieutenant, drawing strength from his AK 56, tried to pacify the people, persuading a large number of them to go back. After much delay the three vehicles, with the ambulance leading the convoy, ambled ahead painfully. It had barely moved 500 metres when a young girl, daughter of the injured, came running down the steep slope right onto the road. She had gone to the upper reaches to graze her cattle. Wailing loudly she sat on the side of the road as a small crowd collected to console her. After a brief break, the journey began yet again. But we had barely turned another serpentine turn, when more people converged on the road; this time the crowd included one of the sons of the injured. He wanted to get inside the ambulance. The young lieutenant jumped out again and tried to pacify the son. Finally, he instructed an elderly man, who was some kind of a village chieftain to ensure that there were no further interruptions. The journey began again.
The trouble with racing against death is that you always start with a disadvantage. After all, unlike a fair player, death never challenges you openly; rather it creeps up on you, often taking a substantial lead even before you realise that the race has begun. The task becomes even more difficult if you are racing on the bumpy mountain roads in the Kashmir valley, where distance is measured in hours, not kilometers. On a good day, one could have reached the Uri hospital in two hours. But that day, even as urgency gained momentum, the pace of the vehicles remained slow. In an astounding show of rapid communication the word spread in every village that civilians were on their way to the hospital. As the ambulance ambled its way through such villages as Chunia and Mahura, men, women and children descended on the road from all sides. It was almost like a tide of people refusing to ebb.
In July 2003, FORCE editors Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab travelled along the
Line of Control to get a sense of life in the line of fire. This was before the ceasefire.
16 years later, we seem to be back in those times.
So that we don’t forget what life meant without the ceasefire,
we are reproducing that article
Then suddenly the ambulance stopped. The army escort accompanying the injured stepped out to consult the lieutenant with an expression of pain and panic on his face. “Sir, the boy seems to have died,” he said. The lieutenant looked around at the mass of people surrounding the three vehicles. Regaining his composure, he instructed the escort to carry on and once again assured the people with a mixture of threat and plea. The journey continued in grim silence, broken only by stray words abusing the enemy for attacking innocents.
We broke off the trip at Uri as our destination lay elsewhere. The young lieutenant, however, carried on with the ambulance. For him it was a journey, which would play itself over and over again. After all, at the line of control, human casualties are incidental. And the army plays a multi-dimensional role.
It was a bunker with a difference. While bunkers at this forward post overlooking the Lipa Valley in Pakistan look nondescript, this one had a bright green roof, making it quite conspicuous. Laughed one army major, “We deliberately painted it green to mislead the Pak Observation Post officer. They think that it is a Pir Baba and wouldn’t dare fire.”