GAYARI ARMY BASE, Pakistan – Rugged gray mountains of snow and ice spotted with heavy machinery and rescue workers are all that remains of Pakistan's Gayari army base.
An avalanche struck the battalion headquarters of the 6th Northern Light Infantry 14,000 feet up in the mountains of Kashmir on April 7, burying alive 129 Pakistan army soldiers and 11 civilians in the wee hours of the morning.
After nearly two weeks of struggles, rescue and recovery efforts at what’s been called “the world’s highest battlefield” are over and the search for bodies is on.
Pakistani and Indian soldiers have been sitting eyeball to eyeball in this remote outpost for nearly 30 years -- fighting less against each other than against the extreme weather.
The first opportunity for the Pakistani army to take media up to the site came on Thursday -- 12 days after the horrific avalanche -- because of continuously bad weather. Situated in the mountains more than 680 miles north of Islamabad, it took traveling in a military plane, helicopters, 4x4 trucks and then on foot to reach the site.
Towering snow-covered peaks against a lush blue sky, with an aquamarine stream flowing in the valley and terraced fields of potatoes and wheat were beautiful, but there was nothing but sadness at the site of the incident.
This was my second visit to the area in 15 years. Seeing the size of the mud-filled snow slide, heavy rocks, boulders and slush spread over about a third of a square mile was horrifying. And at 14,000 feet above sea level, I really felt difficulty breathing.
“Tell us immediately if you feel any pain in chest or neck,” Brigadier Saqib Mahmood Malik, the Siachen brigade commander, warned the gathered media. “We will give you quick paramedic service,” he promised.
Weather has been a major difficulty hampering the efforts to dig into the ground where the battalion headquarters was stationed.
More than 400 soldiers have been busy with heavy machinery such as bulldozers and excavators looking for the remains of their compatriots, but there has been no sign of life, let alone any bodies.
The tragedy triggered a response from the world community, with the U.S., Germany, Switzerland and Norway sending expert teams immediately to assist with the rescue effort.
“The whole mountain has fallen,” said a soldier, pointing his finger toward the snow-covered peak where the avalanche began. Pakistani army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani promised that they will continue to dig into the mountain to recover the bodies until they succeed. Soldiers are busy digging a tunnel 70 feet deep into the mass of the avalanche.
Standoff in the mountains
The missing soldiers were part of the Pakistani military deployment to the area that sits just below the Siachen Glacier, in the northern part of the Kashmir region. The Kashmir is the area that is the main source of tension between India and Pakistan, the nuclear-armed rival India has been fighting against since 1947.
The avalanche is the biggest loss for Pakistan at the Gayari base since the conflict with India began in 1984.
Guns have been silent between India and Pakistan since a 2003 ceasefire. But both armies have stayed put to guard their respective territories and continued to fight the harsh mountain weather with sub-zero temperatures. More lives have been lost over the years to the freezing temperatures and treacherous conditions than combat.
Of all the problems plaguing the two countries, Siachen is often described as one of the easiest to solve. But any resolution to the conflict has been held hostage by general mistrust and hard-liners on both sides who don't want to give up their claim on territory, however strategically insignificant.
Hope for peace
The tragedy has brought to light the need to put an end to the senseless fight.
“Both are fools,” said Shujaat Ali, a 50-year-old civilian resident of the area. “They can earn more with tourism in this region than what they spend on the battle here,” he added.
“Both countries must work to pull out troops from the region. Siachen is a difficult front,” Kayani, Pakistan’s top army officer, said on Thursday. "This conflict should be resolved, but how it is resolved, the two countries have to talk about it," he added.
Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesman said Thursday that “various proposals have been made under the Siachen dialogue process, and that includes redeployment of forces.” He said dates have already been proposed to India for a new round of talks on the issue with Pakistan.
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