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Fighting in the Heavens

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MICHAEL FATHERS Kargil
They line up by the score--truck after truck, tanker after tanker--parked in a convoy of more than 100 vehicles, some 20 km from Kargil on a dusty road beside the Drass River. These brightly painted vehicles, owned by private hauling companies, display small paper signs on their windshields: on military business. The civilians behind the wheel have driven through the night without lights, ferrying arms, ammunition, fuel and food to India's attacking army in the forbidding mountains of Kashmir. The trucks have gathered just after dawn under the protective heights of the steep slopes, waiting for an all-clear signal before they roar off one by one or in broken groups across a wider, open section of the river valley targeted by the heavy guns of Pakistan.The guns fire less frequently than before, now that India's battle-hardened soldiers are slowly and with great difficulty clearing the surrounding heights of Pakistani intruders and denying them forward observation posts, military officials say. Behind the convoy, over a stretch of 150 km from Kargil to the 3,400-m Zoji Pass at the entrance to the Kashmir Valley, the Indian army is settling in, acclimatizing hundreds of frontline soldiers to the high altitude and adding more long-range guns to a bevy of artillery batteries along the river bank or tucked under the shelter of cliffs--all firing from barrels aimed almost vertically.

Away from the range of Pakistan's artillery, newly erected tents dot the upland meadows. Commandos from India's White Devils Úlite mountain and high-altitude warfare group train soldiers in rock climbing. Commandeered civilian trucks and military transporters rumble along the narrow road, spewing clouds of exhaust into the air. The scene is one of unending activity. At last, after weeks of uncertainty, miscalculation and indecision, India's military juggernaut is beginning to roll.

In this conflict, everything is hyperbole. The setting is spectacular; the fighting is difficult and brutal, taking place mainly at night; access and resupply is hazardous, requiring porters to carry heavy loads up near-vertical rock faces 5,000 m high and exposed to deadly crossfire. On the heights where Pakistan has penetrated deepest (about 6 km) into Indian-held territory--where some of the heaviest fighting is now taking place--the locals call it the second-coldest place in the world. No one seems to know where the coldest is.

If you go by climate alone, India has until mid-October to win back its mountain tops before snow blocks the Zoji Pass and cuts off road access to the battle zone. Well over 70% of the job is done, though I will admit that the last 30% will be the hardest, says Colonel Avatar Singh, a spokesman for the Indian Army in Kargil. At a base camp near Drass, Colonel A.S. Chabbewal, operations chief for the Indian forces at that part of the front, predicts it will take a few months more to clear the area. I'm quite hopeful it will be done by October, he says, adding that the army could, if necessary, fight a winter war.

The sanitized pronouncements of the military command cannot mask the dirty, vicious reality of the fighting around Kargil. This is war. It is not a limited conflict, as politicians on both sides of the Line of Control insist. It will go on until one side wins or the other gives way. Whether by design or miscommunication, both countries appear to be understating casualties. Numbers issued in New Delhi and Islamabad do not tally with reports from fighting units in Kargil and Drass, where soldiers from both sides have told journalists of bodies lying abandoned in inaccessible ravines and on rocky outcrops. India's young officer corps, in particular, are being decimated as they lead their units in World War I-style assaults straight into enemy guns. In one skirmish last week, three young officers were killed in an assault on two Pakistani-held peaks, which left 26 Indians dead. No prisoners are taken. The Pakistanis prefer to fight it out rather than surrender, says Colonel Singh. Nor do the Indians give any quarter, say soldiers and porters who have returned from the battlefront. Most of the fighting is close-quarter combat, with bayonets fixed and rifles fired straight from the hip. The intruders are first softened up with round-the-clock Indian artillery bombardment and air attacks. The units on the mountainside inch their way forward at night, often covering as little as 100 m.

In the town of Kargil, once the halfway stop for tourists traveling to the Buddhist uplands of Ladakh, immigrants from Nepal take a break between their newly found work as porters for the Indian army. The money is good, they say--$7 for an 18-kg load. Some days they make as much as $40. It is they who usually bring back the Indian bodies or bury the Pakistani dead in a shallow bed of stones. Most of the 30,000 inhabitants of Kargil have fled; houses are shuttered and only a few shops are still open. Local doctors reported a rise in the number of miscarriages among Kargil women soon after the town became a target for Pakistani artillery.

From the 4,000-m-high Hamboting Pass, northeast of Kargil, one can see the snow-covered mountain chain that marks the Line of Control, 10 km away. Closer, near the village of Batalik, is a series of ridges the Indians say Pakistani forces occupy. This was the site of another round of heavy fighting last week. Above is a dazzling blue sky; small clouds float by, seemingly an arm's length away. For long periods, there is no sign of war. The landscape is empty, silent, sublime. The calm is shattered when an Indian helicopter appears in the distance, and a volley erupts from guns hidden behind a nearby ridge. This sums up the war: at times it is almost unreal, then its horrors are suddenly upon you.