Silent guns, rising hopes, blooming orchards and lurking fears

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

The apricots are blossoming, suffusing the landscape with gentle pink. The air is redolent with the whiff of fresh grass and greening trees which are finding life once again. The marketplace is bustling. With more and more people preferring to sit out in the gentle sunshine than next to their bukharis at home. The summer has set in early this year and the ceasefire announced by Pakistan on the Eid day in November2003 is still holding fast. It is truly spring in the sleepy town of Kargil. In more ways than one, notwithstanding the all-pervasive presence of the army.

As you drive from Leh towards Kargil, the only constant is the presence of the Indian Army. Either through its vehicles on the lonely. But now well-maintained. Highway or through transit camps enroute or through conspicuous war memorials throughout the highway. While some have been the scenes of fierce battles, at some places solitary soldiers have died thwarting the enemy. That apart, everything else changes every few minutes: the weather, the landscape and course the layout and architecture of the villages flanking the national highway. The 10,000 to 13,000 ft high gentle sand dunes give way breathtakingly formidable rock formations in a matter of minutes. But it is not until you reach the vicinity of Kargil that you are greeted by the intimations of spring. The desolation of the high-altitude desert disappears in the thick foliage of apricot trees and hope. The banks of Suru river, which runs the length of the town and goes beyond. Are bursting with freshly planted wheat and maize. Concealing in their flourish the remains of war.

Peace is yielding its own fruits, and it is not just apricot. A new kind of hope is surging among people who are welcoming a peaceful spring after many years. “When Pakistan first started shelling the Kargil area in 1997.  The shells used to fall on the mountain slopes,” recalls 22-year-old Mohammed who runs a successful PCO in the market. Then teenager. Mohammed and his friends used to run to a vantage point in the mountains to watch the shelling. “It used to be a tamasha (show).” he says. Till one deadly shell fell on a house. The Pakistan had found their target and things were not the same for the locals.

In a few months, shelling was a word even toddlers became aware of. In the beginning, whenever shelling would start people would run towards the mountains. But gradually they realized that it was not a good option. “once we were all running to the mountains to escape shelling when our neighborhood girl slipped on the slope. Before she could get up a shell fell directly on her.” Recalls Mohammed with a shudder. So the residents decided to move en masse to Sanku and Panikhar. a few kilometres away from Kargil and out of the range of Pakistani shells. Every few days one member of the family would come back to check the house. “We lived on our own rations till the government started giving us food relief,” says Shah Ahmed. Subsequently, the army helped the locals build under ground bunkers in their homes so that they wouldn’t have to leave their houses. “Those were terrible days,” recalls another resident. “We lived in constant fear. Despite the bunkers and the security that the army provided, nobody had the courage to return to Kargil.”

Even a year before the actual war started in 1999. Kargil was a ghost town. No structure had escaped the relentless attack by the Pakistan forces. Not even mosques and schools, There were only a couple of PCOs in the town, o9ut of which only one functioned spo-radically. There were few schools though, but children hardly ever went. Even after the actual war got over, the pattern of sporadic shelling continued till as recently as November 2003. One of the favorite pastimes of the locals is to show visitors the places destroyed by shells. Not just the locals, talk to any army personnel and the conversation is peppered by such statements as, “Can you see that plateau-like structure there? There was a direct hit. Or just beyond that house, three people died in their sleep. The shell fell on their roof.” And so on.

However, the silence of the guns since the ceasefire has changed all that. Hope is surging not only among the locals but the army personnel as well. Today, the Kargil market is bustling with a number of hotels, restaurants, bakeries, PCOs, beauty parlours, shops for readymade clothes, and even a Jet Airways office. The number of schools has also gone up, and any time of the day, once can see children with school begs walking up and down the road. The cloth banners announce school for competitive examinations and so on. In the nooks of unpaved steep lanes, Amitabh Bachchan peers down at you, wagging a finger, reminding people not to forget their date with polio drops. In the backyard of dilapidated houses where the repair work is still going on, children and adults play cricket.

Walking on the crowded, diesel fume infested (due to the passing heavy vehicles) streets, one almost forgets that this was the war country till a few months ago. The enthusiasm for life is palpable. Says an officer. “The people here want a slice of normal life. Nobody is sure how long the ceasefire will hold, but as long as it does they want as much of a routine as possible.” Hence, the tiny town of Kargil, which hardly has any traffic except the army vehicles and a few taxis, has speed breakers and a traffic light. According to a brigadier, he installed the traffic light because the locals had never seen one before. “We had to teach the local policeman how to use it,” laughs the brigadier. “But even today he prefers to use his hands. “This is not all. The people are now demanding air connectivity, similar to Srinagar and Leh. Currently, army’s AN-32 aircraft ferry local people from the Kargil airstrip, charging them a nominal amount of a few hundred. But the clamour for an airport has been gaining momentum. The brigadier reasons that even if the ceasefire does not hold and Kargil is once again the target of sporadic shelling, Pakistan is hardly likely to shell a civilian aircraft because of unnecessary collateral damage.

Signs of prosperity are visible even in places such as the remote Drass (the second coldest place in the world) and Leh. Though Leh was largely unaffected by the Kargil war of 1999, the increased presence of the armed forces personnel, with the formation of a new corps, and the ceasefire has yielded its own dividends, Unprecedented construction by the army (headquarters, residential buildings, roads, messes, camps, etc) has energized the moribund economy. Besides, to accommodate the increasing number of officers in the area, the army has rented many hotels pending its mess to come up in Leh. For example, hotel Thongsal is paid a monthly rent of Rs 70,000 for nearly 30 officers living there, According to Spalzes Angmo, a councillor with Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), the presence of the army has yielded positive spinoffs for the local people. “There is an increased economic activity throughout the region, which is adding to the purchasing power of the people. The demand for hotels, restaurants and other consumer perishables has gone up.”

Civilians apart, even the armed forces are enjoying the thaw in the weather and relations with the recalcitrant neighbour. “We hope that the season of peace lasts at least for some more time,” says a senior officer at the 14 corps headquarters. “The real test of our enemy’s intentions will be in the summers when the snow melts completely and we start strengthening our defences.” In the end, it seems to be an even play between hope and fear. For a region that has seen at least three full-blown wars and one regional war as recently as 1999, to expect more would be foolhardy.




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