Under Cover of Night

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GHULAM HASNAIN The Line of Control, PakistanDragging deeply on a cigarette, Major Nadeem Ahmed contemplates his map, which shows more than a dozen Indian gun positions on a 17-sq-km target grid. Each position, marked in blue, has a name laced with hatred: Devil Gun, Kafir (non-believer) Gun, Hindu Gun, Gandhi Gun and so on. The Pakistani officer and his men have just fired 10 shells from their single artillery piece at the Indian positions a few kilometers away across the Line of Control. It is 10 p.m. and Ahmed is surprised that the Indians have not responded. Usually they fire back immediately.

The major turns on a cassette recorder and plays Western pop music, trying to break the tension in his dingy bunker. I don't think the Indians will fire tonight, he says. They may fire around 5.30 a.m., and there could be some air sorties. Ahmed asks his batman for his rifle and places it beside his cot; he has been warned by headquarters that the Indians might make a commando assault on his position during the night. He goes outside and in the darkness has a quiet word with his men: Your eyes and ears should work like a snow leopard's. Do not ignore even the slightest sound of a rolling stone.

The men sleep in a simple bunker with a mud-and-thatch roof; rats rummage freely inside. In the wee hours, an explosion shakes the night. A soldier runs in. Hurry, the Indians have started firing, he says. It is 1 a.m. Everyone moves to a shell-proof bunker. Fifteen minutes later the barrage stops. After another 15 minutes, some men return to their cots. At 4 a.m., as the major begins his morning prayers, the Indians start another barrage. The major is furious. He orders his men to target each Indian gun on the grid: Hit all of them, especially Gandhi. Teach them a lesson. This is the routine of the mock war that has been going on for the past 10 years along the LOC. Until recently, the Indians and Pakistanis lobbed shells across the mountains mainly to remind each other of their presence. But now there's much more at stake. This is no shadow war: soldiers are fighting and dying in one of world's most inhospitable terrains.

As far back as last November, the first batch of Pakistani troops from the Northern Light Infantry Regiment--a unit experienced in mountain warfare--crept over the 3,500-m-high passes along the LOC to occupy the high ridges that the Indian army held in the summer. To avoid raising suspicion, even among local Pakistanis, they went without weapons. Their task was to build new bunkers on the ridges--but as far as possible from the empty Indian positions that would be unsafe because they are marked on Indian army maps. Pakistan was stretching the LOC to its advantage, to be able to block at will India's strategic road from the Kashmir Valley to distant Ladakh--the military base for that other source of conflict between India and Pakistan, the 6,600-m-high Siachen Glacier.

Near the town of Kargil in Indian-held Kashmir, Pakistani soldiers have assembled a Chinese-made 57-mm anti-aircraft gun inside a man-made cave protected by steel girders and concrete. It sits on top of a 3,000-m-high ridge that overlooks a 500-m stretch of the Kargil road. When a lookout spots a vehicle, he shouts Allahu Akbar (God is great), and the gunner pulls the trigger. The soldiers cheer each hit. The weapon has scattered convoys and made Indian troop deployments hazardous. Bombs and artillery shells fired by the Indians have failed to penetrate the cave.

Islamabad insists that the soldiers on the Indian ridges are Islamic mujahedin, or holy warriors, fighting for the freedom of Kashmir. That was the alibi Pakistan used for its military advance. Men from the Northern Light Infantry Regiment and later the Khyber Rifles were used because of their high-altitude experience and because they are from the region. They were encouraged to look like mujahedin, and they discarded their uniforms for traditional shalwar kameez, or tracksuits, grew beards and wore traditional white religious skullcaps. The soldiers say that when they reached the heights in February, some genuine mujahedin were at the abandoned Indian positions. But these men left after a few days because they could not survive in the high altitudes. They are now used for reconnaissance and as porters.

Morale is high among the gunners. But ask Pakistani soldiers why they are on India's side of the Line of Control ducking shells, bombs and bullets, and you're unlikely to get a clear answer. Some officers talk of the futility and danger of a war that their government denies they are taking part in. There is also the hint of a divide between the men at the front and the government. None of us wants war with India, says one officer. It is very damaging for Pakistan's economy, and we feel it will be difficult to sustain. A soldier adds: The capture of these mountains has given us extra advantage, but I doubt that the Indians will forget this.

Not many of the men expect to come down from the mountains alive. At base camp in Skardu, 150 km from the frontline, phone-booth attendant Yawar Shah says the men weep when they call home to bid good-bye to their families. You can see them crying in the cubicles, he says. It is very sad.