The Siachen Glacier

Life in the Bunker

© The Week - 23 August 1999

The 12 Infantry Brigade headquarters in Uri is a three-hour drive from Srinagar. At the check post here we are flagged down by soldiers and asked to step out of the vintage Ambassador we had hired in Srinagar. It is 4:15 p.m. on August 12th in this last town in the Uri sector and we are heading for the forward-most and highly sensitive Army post, Lotus, in this sector on the Line of Control. A soldier with a no-nonsense look asks us sternly, "Kahan se aaye hai? (Where are you from?)" The moment I start off a well-rehearsed soliloquy, a smile spreads across his face. "Ah! THE WEEK, I am Naib Subedar Somaiah," he says nodding his head, and then quickly adds, "follow us." He comes from the 6th Maratha Light Infantry and had been expecting us. Somaiah turns around to walk away but stops to give us instructions.

"We will head to Gal Pool (Gal Bridge) from where you will have to walk 1.5 km to Fat Bridge. This stretch is visible to Pakistani posts because afternoon the sunlight is on our side and they fire on any vehicle movement on this stretch," he cautions us. "Please note that you will be exposed and within their firing range, so keep at least five metres gap when you are walking on this stretch. Any further clarifications will be given at Gal Pool." We get into our car even as five soldiers saddling LMGs and SLRs jump into a Shaktiman truck; Naib Subedar Somaiah gets into the front seat. The drive through the cantonment presents a duality of sights, Army Officers playing golf and soldiers manning gun positions, soldiers bathing near mountain streams. In retrospect, this prepared us to comprehend the reality of the lives of the soldiers and officers in a forward post.


The frontier male: The bunker is his home (left, soldier reading a letter from home) and the trench (right) his workplace as he secures India's border on the Line of Control.

We take in the breathtaking scenery; the mountain road drops sharply on one side into the Jhelum which has been our constant companion. We have been on the road for more than an hour and are high up in the mountains. The only sounds we hear are of rushing white water over boulders and rocks. Suddenly there is a deafening bang. We jerk out of our reverie and the photographer is out of the car in a flash, ready to capture real-life action on reel. We had expected the soldiers to get into position and let go a fusillade of LMG fire. Instead, some of them had a huge grin on their faces and one pointed to the rear tyre of the truck with his SLR. It was a puncture! While the Jawans got down to replacing the wheel, we walked up to a stream flowing down the mountain to freshen up. Though the evenings are long in the mountains at this time of the year, we wanted to be at the Lotus post before dusk to be able to take photographs.

We have a word with Somaiah. "Let's move on in the Amby," he tells his men, and all of us pile into the car and resume the drive. There are myriad questions I want to ask, but hesitate. Finally, I ask haltingly, "If the Pakistanis don't allow movement from Gal Bridge, how are rations and supplies sent up?" Somaiah looks at me blankly and says, "At night." I probe no further and decide that it is better to fire our salvos at Gal Bridge. Fifteen minutes after having resumed the drive we reach Gal Bridge. Subedar Sampat Shinde breaks away from a posse of Army men waiting for us. "Welcome to Gal Bridge," he greets us. Before he can continue I ask him the same question I had asked Somaiah. "Trucks carrying ration and other supplies (ammunition) drive up to Gal Bridge. After 9:00 p.m. they cross the Gal Bridge and Fat Bridge which is the unloading point," Shinde elaborates. "The vehicles move with the lights switched off."

Shinde offers us tea and engages in small talk, but he soon realises that we expect a detailed briefing and abruptly changes the topic of discussion. "Right ahead diagonally across the bridge are two Pakistani posts, Upper Udham and Lower Udham," he informs us. "The sun is towards us, so you can be sure that they (the Pakistanis) are watching you." The bridge is on National Highway 1 Alpha (Jammu-Srinagar highway) which curves to the right after Fat Bridge, then turns left and runs for a few kilometres before going into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir up to Muzzafarabad. In fact, Muzzafarabad is only 40 km from Fat Bridge. In 1947-48 invaders from Pakistan had come by this road up to Srinagar. For the last 10 years it has not been used because any movement on it is blasted off by the Pakistani posts overlooking the road. To avoid the trigger-happy Pakistanis, the Indian Army has cut the mountain to make a passage for vehicle movement to the last village, Kharboza, on this sector. From Kharboza one has to climb up the mountain to reach the Lotus post.

Lotus and Bhayanak are strategically the most important Indian posts in the Uri sector. They are atop the shoulders of two mountains flanking the Jhelum and NH-1A runs high along the river. But the Pakistani posts are at a higher level than the Indian ones, so they are able to dominate movement on the road. However, what is important for India is control over the bridges and NH-1A. "Pakistan has been trying to blast off Gal Bridge for years," says Shinde. "It was shelled from 3 posts, Khanmuri, Upper and Lower Udham, and around 1000 shells have landed in this area." The bridge is under constant surveillance to foil any attempt to blast it with Improvised Explosive Devices or mines. "This bridge is the lifeline of our forward posts and strategically one of the most important," says Shinde. While we are talking to Shinde and the Jawans, the last bus from Baramullah via Uri stopped at the Gal Bridge checkpost. Kashmiris living in Kharboza have to trek for 2 hours from here to reach their homes. Those whose houses are in the upper reaches of the mountain have to trek about an hour longer. They line up at the post for identification and security check; those living in the border villages had to always carry identification cards. As they identify themselves a jawan ticks their names written in the register. A middle-aged woman, Bilquis, gets down wearily from the bus and looks up with surprise when we greet her. We tell her we are journalists and that we want to talk to her. She moves her tired head slowly and whispers dryly, "No."

Shinde walks up to us saying, "You are getting late and they are waiting for you at Fat Bridge." Bilquis smiles at us as we wave a goodbye to Shinde and the jawans. Three Army men accompany us as we walk across Gal Bridge and make our way to Fat Bridge. After walking a few hundred metres we bump into Mohammad Akram. "I am a teacher in the Kharboza middle school," he introduces himself. "Our difficulties are untold and miserable." He rattles off a litany of complaints. "We don't get ration regularly and have to buy provisions in the black market; we face firing every day and yet there is no ambulance or doctor stationed in the village; many women die during childbirth for want of medical attention; there is no water supply & electricity; the first telephone is 15 kilometres away, in Uri town." I tell him that THE WEEK will write about it. He thanks us and walks off to his house 8 km away.

Two young men from 12 Infantry Brigade Signals come abreast and we strike up a conversation. They are going to repair communication lines that were damaged in the shelling. "We will do the job at night to avoid the Pakistani firing," says Signalman Devi Dyal. Many a time they have to do the restoration work even while the shelling is going on. "If we don't, the forward posts will be cut off and we might put our forward forces in great danger," says Devi Dyal. Added Signalman Girish Barua, "I had just completed my training in Goa and was posted here when the seven-day war took place. Now it is quiet because we have given back to them (Pakistan) more than they (Pakistanis) had asked for." Slowly the conversation shifted to thoughts of home. "I have given an application to go home, but the Pakistanis won't let me go home. They will again shell on August 15. Perhaps after that my leave application will be accepted." As we approach a curve, Signalman Dyal suddenly changes tack and says, "This is where they (Pakistanis) fire from their posts most of the time." The curve straightens up and we see Fat Bridge in the backdrop of mountains littered with Pakistani posts. We walk across the bridge one at a time and are greeted by Naib Subedar Dilip K. Tawar.

Dusk is setting and my photographer is worried that he may lose a good photo opportunity. It's 6:45 p.m. and the Fat Bridge post receives a message on the field phone instructing Naib Subedar Tawar to send up the media team quickly. Before we begin our climb to Kharboza, we ask Naib Subedar Tawar the Fat Bridge post's main task. "We distribute supplies to eight forward posts during the night and in the morning we send road-opening parties to clear the road of IEDs and mines placed by militants," he says. Halfway up the climb we stop to take a breather when we hear two distinct series of LMG rounds. "The Pakistanis are saying hello to you," a jawan tells us.

There is a slight drop in temperature, but we are sweating profusely. There is still light on the upper reaches of the mountain, but dusk has set in in the valley. After a five-minute halt we resume the climb. We clamber over a huge rock and spy on Bilquis sitting on a rock, still and tranquil. We greet her and she smiles back. This time she talks without reservation. She says that she had gone to Baramullah to see her four children who are studying there. "I have been staying here for 20 years since we moved from Srinagar, but we have never faced the kind of shelling that Pakistan rained on us. I was having tea at 6 a.m. with my husband on July 30 when the shelling started," she says.


Hard beds, harder battles: Jawans in a 'living bunker' which can accommodate 8 persons.

We reach Kharboza at 7.15 p.m. and are asked to get into a waiting Shaktiman truck. After a nerve-racking 45-minute drive without lights on a rock-strewn road with a steep drop on one side we reach the unloading point of Lotus post. We immediately start the climb to Lotus led by Company Havildar Major Patil. At the post the company commander Major Santosh Kurup of 6th Maratha Light Infantry is at hand to receive us. After asking us to take rest he asks the nursing assistant Nityanand, who had come up with us from Fat Bridge, to dress the wound on his leg caused by a shell splinter.

The dressing done, we wave a goodbye to Nityanand before Kurup guides us to the bunkers through a ridge. "Walk in a file because the slopes on both sides of the ridge are packed with mines," he cautions, but quickly reassures us that "there is nothing to worry because there are wire railings on both sides". The railings are "an indication that both sides of slopes are embedded with mines." For some 20 minutes we stumble along the narrow track in pitch darkness, before entering through a gate into the Army's network of communication trenches and bunkers. We tell Kurup we want to take a look at PoK. He leads us to an Ops Bunk (operations bunker) overlooking the PoK town of Chakhoti. Chakhoti is completely blacked out. "When it's illuminated the town is a spectacular sight from here," says Major Kurup and adds that "the nearest Pakistan post is at a distance of 2 km as the crow flies". This post had faced the major brunt of shelling in the Uri sector. Kurup takes us to a bunker to brief us.

Fierce mountain dogs, trained by the Indian Army, trail us as we make our way to a bunker. "They will tear apart anyone who is in a civilian dress," says Major Kurup. We look behind our shoulders, but can only see brightly lit eyes riding on fierce growls following us. We walk past fighting bunkers containing different kinds of weapon systems. Soldiers move around confidently, while we gingerly pick our way in the darkness. The living bunkers are on the reverse slope of the mountain not visible to the Pakistani post. Here all the bunkers are lighted up by a generator. "You have to finish whatever work you have before 11:30 p.m. after which the generator will be turned off," Major Kurup informs us.

Every Jawan has to do three hours of duty in a day in a fighting bunker. Once the operational duty is over the jawan is busy performing other duties. He may be assigned to the kitchen or for repairing and maintenance of bunkers. The day time is also spent for personnel administration like washing clothes, reading newspapers (which reach 3 days late) or writing letters. They have been staying in the posts for months. "We stay here for six months and get two months of annual leave and 20 days of casual leave," says Sepoy Shapurkar. We reach the guest house (a living bunker for guests) and CHM Patil introduces us to two artillery officers, Major Sudhir Lamba and Captain Bhanwar Singh. A few minutes later Major Kurup gestures us to be quiet and we hear distinct thuds. "Artillery fire?" asks Major Kurup. Major Lamba shakes his head to say no and they conclude that some forward post in Bhayanak is under LMG fire. Lotus itself has four posts, one only 300 metres from the nearest Pakistani post.

Even as we are settling down with a hot cup of tea at around 10 p.m. we hear the trat trat of LMG fire too close for comfort. CHM Patil runs in to tell Major Kurup, "Sir Ops post pe fire aa raha hai. (Sir Ops post is under fire)" Major Kurup asks him "Kitna round mara? (How many rounds have been fired?)" "Teen. (Three)" replies CHM Patil. Major Kurup orders "Paanch round lagao. (Fire five rounds)"


Ready to retaliate: A jawan on duty at the forward Lotus post in the Uri Sector

Led by Major Kurup, we jump into a communication trench and run crouched into the fighting bunker where Sepoy Kailash Madige is firing away in retaliation. "This is peanuts to what normally happens," says Major S. Lamba. "After the shelling they have quietened because they have suffered crippling damage because of our retaliation." In fact, the Jawans on night sentry duty are expected to fire in retaliation without seeking any clearance if the Pakistani post opens small arms fire. To ensure that the Jawan knows what to do when the post is assaulted by indirect fire like shelling, a "stand-two" is held daily at 4:30 a.m. during winter and at 6 a.m. in summer. Every day a "last light" is also held at dusk which is similar to "stand-two." These are drills where all the men rehearse their roles. For instance, which bunker to go in and which weapon system to handle, if the post is threatened. That night the drill was put into practice.

The officers, Major Kurup, Major Lamba and Captain Singh, rush into the operations room to report the situation to their HQ in Uri. Meanwhile the Jawans set up the mortars in a flash & wait for instructions to open fire. Major Lamba concludes that no mortars are being fired and decides not to contact the fire direction centre in Uri. When the forward posts come under artillery fire they ask the FDC about retaliating. Depending on the volume of fire being faced by a post the FDC orders the Indian gun positions to open up at Pakistani targets. We rush through the trenches to take real action photographs. "Click and take cover," shouts Major Kurup as he runs towards a bunker which is being engaged by Pakistani LMG fire. An hour later the firing stops and Kurup comes to the bunker from where Madige was firing his LMG. "This is routine," he says. "On an average 350 shells landed on this post every day between July 30 and August 6." We ask Madige what goes through his mind when he is engaging his targets. "I have nothing else on my mind. My attention is always on the target," he says.

Do they think of home, wife and children? "When we are on duty there is no point of thinking of such things. Anyway what's the point of being emotional when we have taken a vow to fight for our country," he says. Miraculously, though Lotus was hit the most in the Uri sector on those 7 days there were no casualties. "Survival is a matter of luck in such situations," said Sepoy Shapurkar. We get out of the bunker and head for the guest house. It's 12:45 a.m. and there's a slight drizzle outside. The mountains surrounding the post are sombre and dark, and there is an eerie stillness in the air. It is around 2 a.m. when dinner is served. After dinner we go to the living bunkers of the Jawans.

Eight Jawans live in one bunker. We duck into one and find 3 Jawans around a radio listening to BBC. All India Radio, BBC and Pakistan radio are all monitored by the Jawans hungry for news from outside. One of the Jawans has a smile on his lips as he reads a letter from home. "Everything all right." we ask? He nods and says, "My wife wants me to write to her when I would be home." I head towards Sepoy Shapurkar, who is unrolling his sleeping bag, and sit on his wooden bed. He has been in the Army for 3 years. "There are no Sundays or holidays for us and we like it that way. There is so much to do that one doesn't miss home, but we look forward to going home on leave. We do everything from cooking to going out on night patrols and ambush duty," he says.

Madige and Patil join in the conversation. "Being in a post means 24 hours of duty. One has to be alert at all times," he says. The Jawans have a TV, a carrom board and play cards during leisure time. "These moments are rare because the Pakistanis do not sleep well, if they don't fire at us. We fire and make sure that they don't sleep at all," says Patil. I turn around and see the TV switched off. Madige nudges me and says, "The shelling destroyed the satellite dish, you see it tomorrow morning." We wanted to know whether they have written back home after the shelling. "We did not get time to write after the shelling stopped because we had many tasks to accomplish," was the refrain. And how many letters do you get in a month? "Each of us gets eight letters in a month, postage free, through the Army Postal Service," says Shapurkar. "The field post office sends up the letters in the supply truck that is sent to Fat Bridge every night."

We don't realise that we have talked throughout the night. We apologise because the Jawans have had no sleep and have to get ready for "stand-two." They reassure us and tell us that our visit was a welcome break from the daily routine. We step out of their bunker after telling them how much we enjoyed our stay with them. Daylight breaks suddenly in the mountains though the visibility is restricted by fog. At 4:30 a.m. we move to the observation post to look at Chakhoti. As the veil of fog lifts slowly we see a well spread out town stirring itself awake. "Don't thrust your head way out of the bunker because you will be a sitting duck," warns Kurup. We want to stay and take photographs of the town bathed in sunlight, but have to head down by 6:30 a.m. to start our return journey.

We get into a trench for a final tour around the post and see it in daylight. There are freshly-filled shell craters all around the post. "We went through hell," Kurup tells us. All the bunkers except one, the guest house bunker, was hit by the shelling. Trees bore splinter marks and scores of them were felled by shells and mortars. A bunker containing an anti-aircraft gun had collapsed. An armoured piercing device was fired on it to penetrate through the bunker. Subsequently it was targeted by artillery to ensure that shells passed through the hole made by the APD. But the most sobering thought was that we had inflicted a heavy damage on them. "Pakistan has stopped its artillery assault because we inflicted heavy damage on their forward gun positions," says Kurup. As we walk around the post I spot a collapsed bunker sporting a sign saying "AWS." We ask Major Kurup what it means. "That was our advance winter stocking (AWS) store where we stock up supplies like canned food for the six months of winter," he said.

It's 7 a.m. by the time we finish our guided tour and we are already half an hour late. A jawan runs up to tell Kurup that the truck is waiting for us in Kharboza. We take leave of the jawans, Kurup accompanies us. He stops near the Lotus post's green gate and gestures towards a line written in white paint on top of the gate, "Please visit us again." For a post that has hardly seen visitors it was a touching thought. We see Kurup carrying a register under his arms, but we don't ask him what it is for. We are guilty of having grilled him throughout the previous evening & night and in the morning as well. Kurup embraces us before we clamber up into the Shaktiman. He hands the register to us and tells us, "This is a guest register, please write something before you leave." My colleague and I look at each other not knowing how to express our feelings. Finally we write, "To the most courageous men that we have come across...the only words that come to our lips at this moment are Jai Hind!"