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The Highest Battlefield on Earth

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In this frozen wasteland, the historic rivalry between India and Pakistan seems as enduring as the glacial ice.

On the Siachen Glacier, where nearby peaks reach 23,000 feet and temperatures drop to 50 below zero, the frostbitten armies of two implacable foes have faced each other for 15 years in a conflict both bloody and surreal.

Cold and crevasses kill more troops than opposing armies. In the high, frigid air, skin bonds with metal, sweat turns to ice, and there’s not enough oxygen to light a match. Artillery shells, freed from the normal laws of ballistics, sail for miles. On Siachen’s lifeless crags, a soldier’s only solace is the pity of his god.

“We are closer to God here, and if I die for my country, he will take me,” said Sgt. Rashid Abul, stationed at a 17,000-foot-high Pakistani border post.

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The war on the world’s highest battlefield has survived every thaw in Indo-Pakistani relations. The fight for Siachen alone has cost two of the world’s poorest countries a combined 3,500 dead and 10,000 injured, and an estimated $1 million a day.

Now, after a meeting last month between the prime ministers of India and Pakistan, both governments are signaling that they may be willing to pull back from their high-altitude fight. They have agreed to negotiate the future of Siachen and say they would quit fighting there if the terms were right. A growing number of voices say neither nation should sacrifice another life to hold on to a block of prehistoric ice.

“Siachen is worthless to both countries,” said A. G. Noorani, an Indian lawyer and columnist who has called for a settlement. “Both armies should vacate the glacier.”

The fight over the Siachen is one of the strangest conflicts of modern times, combining the usual stuff of history and politics with mountain climbing, high-altitude survival and a phrase unique to this part of the world: “cartographic aggression.”

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Siachen, the world’s largest glacier outside the polar regions, straddles the Himalayan territory where India, China and Pakistan collide. A spectacular river of congealed snow, the 48-mile-long Siachen forms the eastern edge of the Karakoram Mountains, where five peaks--including K-2, the famed destination of climbers--reach higher than 26,000 feet.

An Indian Cry of Plunder by Map

For most of the nearly 52 years since India and Pakistan broke from the British Empire, Siachen was considered unfit for human habitation. In 1949, the year after India and Pakistan ended their first war over adjoining Kashmir, the two nations agreed to a cease-fire line that cut north through the region--and stopped near the foot of the uninhabited Siachen. The point where the cease-fire line ended is still known by its map coordinates--NJ9842.

NJ9842 forms the point of an inverted triangle that spreads northward to the Chinese border.

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“It was the Empty Quarter,” said Varun Sahni, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “There was absolutely no expectation that anyone would go up there.”

For decades, the only people who ventured to Siachen were tourists--mountain climbers and trekkers scaling its peaks. Because many of the climbing teams came through Pakistan, some Western maps began to show Siachen as part of Pakistan. In India, this prompted calls for cartographic aggression--meaning, roughly, seizing territory by redrawing a map.

“We decided that we had no alternative but to protect what was ours,” said K. C. Singh, spokesman for the Indian government.

In 1984, the Indian army sent several hundred troops to seize Siachen. The Indians took most of the glacier and the high mountain passes along its western edge. So remote was Siachen that Pakistani officials say they learned of the Indian move only after a group of trekkers returning from a climb reported spotting troops there. The Pakistani army rushed north and seized a handful of peaks, and the battle lines froze in place.

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Today, the war on the Siachen Glacier seems part Ice Age and part Flash Gordon. The Indians installed the world’s highest phone booth here, at 15,000 feet, so their soldiers could call home. Village-born troops on both sides roam the gelid wastes with the most modern equipment, darting through mile-deep gorges in $1-million helicopters and firing at enemies they cannot see.

“We can hear the Indians--we know they are on the next mountain,” said Pakistani Col. Javed Hassan Khattak, who commands an artillery unit near the glacier. “We can’t see them, but we start firing.”

For all the futility of the struggle, the Indians don’t want to withdraw because they command the heights and the glacier. The Pakistanis don’t want to leave, in part because the conflict is costing India more, in both money and dead soldiers. Each nation deploys about 3,000 soldiers in the area.

“If Mexico occupied a desert in the United States--a worthless desert--do you think the U.S. would let them keep it?” queried Maj. Mohammed Suhail, a Pakistani stationed on the glacier. “I don’t think so.”

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High Altitude the Real Menace

At a Pakistani base dubbed the International Himalayan Expedition Camp--it was once used by mountain climbers--30 soldiers stand watch atop a snowbound 17,000-foot peak. IHEC is a desolate place: The temperature on a clear morning in late February was 30 degrees below zero. The nearest village is 10 days away by foot. There are no trees, no grass and no wildlife--only an unending desert of snowy white.

Just over the next peak lies the Indian army, though no one here claims ever to have seen it. Occasionally, an artillery shell flies over, and the men scramble for their shelters.

“The hardest thing here is not the fighting--it’s walking,” said Tariq Mahmood, a 35-year-old captain. “Walk for 15 minutes, and you are dizzy.”

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The most common killers are cerebral and pulmonary edema--conditions, caused by high altitude, in which fluid invades the brain and lungs. One man died at the camp last month from cerebral edema. On Feb. 25, a dozen Pakistani soldiers patrolling near Siachen died in an avalanche.

“If we bring someone up who is not properly acclimatized to the altitude,” said Dr. Jamail Ashlam, a Pakistani army physician, “after three days, he will be dead.”

Guns freeze at IHEC; so do cameras. Pick up a rifle without a pair of gloves, and the skin peels from the fingers. If he strays from one of the designated footpaths, a soldier risks being swallowed by a hidden, snow-covered crevasse. One ravine cuts straight through IHEC, bridged only by three wobbly switches of bamboo.

“Fall into there, and you go to God,” said Mahmood, pointing into the abyss.

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Water at the camp comes from melting blocks of ice, but that’s not always possible, the soldiers say: The portable heaters sometimes melt the snow beneath them and sink into the glacier. Baths are out of the question. For the soldier, home is a squat fiberglass shell, not tall enough to stand in, that stinks of men’s bodies and kerosene. The igloos lie buried in a snowdrift, marked only by the fluttering green and white of a Pakistani flag.

Most of the soldiers fighting on Siachen come from the plains and have never experienced extreme cold or high altitudes.

“The most frightening thing was the shooting stars,” said Mohammed Ofzal, a 35-year-old sergeant from a village in the Pakistani province of Punjab. “I thought the Indians were shelling us.”

When India and Pakistan first rushed troops to the glacier, the soldiers were not prepared for the conditions--and they suffered horrendous casualties. According to one report, of the first 52 Indian soldiers who went to the glacier, 30 either died or had to be evacuated due to exposure. And an account by an Indian professor and a Pakistani journalist said that snow, avalanches and high altitude inflict 97% of the Indian casualties.

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Today, the two armies say they have developed sophisticated methods that allow their soldiers to survive atop Siachen. The soldiers wear puffy white high-tech snowsuits--which make a platoon on the glacier look like Pillsbury Doughboys. Soldiers, tethered together, walk only on footpaths tested for ravines.

Even the equipment gets special treatment on Siachen. Artillery is flown up piece by piece--the helicopters can’t carry a whole gun--and assembled on the spot.

“Once the artillery is up here, it is here for good, it is never coming down again,” said Khattak, the artillery colonel. “Maybe a million years from now, people will come up here and see these things and wonder what on earth we were doing.”

The rules of war are different here too. To the south, along the disputed border of Kashmir, both armies have developed a largely unspoken language to keep their border war from getting out of control. Along the poorly defined border on Siachen, there are no such limits: Helicopters are often shot out of the sky, missiles streak across the horizon, and troops regularly try to overrun the other side’s posts.

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Mountain-climbing tourists cannot come to Siachen, but they do flock to the nearby Karakorams. Sometimes, they come dangerously close to the action.

In 1989, India and Pakistan reached a tentative deal to pull their troops off Siachen, but the Indian side backed out. Last November, when the two nations began talking about Siachen for the first time in years, the meeting ended in a stalemate.

Even the most hardened warriors wonder how long the glacial war can go on. Pakistani Brig. Nusrat Khan Sial, who commands a force on the glacier, stood at the base of Siachen and scanned the magnificent horizon.

“It is so beautiful,” Sial said. “I wish humans were not at war here.”

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Frozen Prize

India and Pakistan have been fighting over Siachen, the world’s largest glacier outside the polar regions, since 1984, when the Indian army sent several hundred troops to seize it. Each nation now deploys about 3,000 soldiers in the remote and high-altitude area.


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