At Kargil post, only animals are welcome from across the LoC

LINE OF CONTROL: The nearest Pakistani post is less than a kilometre away. Indian Army soldiers guarding the LoC on this mountain ridge, 15,000 feet above sea level, are alert to every movement on the other side.

No one is welcome from that side. Except for a few furry friends. “Two Pakistani dogs from posts across the LoC regularly come to our post,” Sanjay Kumar, a soldier on the Indian post jokingly said. “I guess they don’t get food there”.

For these dogs there is no distinction between friend and foe.

During the 1999 Kargil War, the Pakistan Army bypassed this location in the Kargil district and occupied key features near it. At this moment, a dog is seen climbing down a cliff. “He is probably coming here,” said Kumar.

Kumar is excited to see his canine friend from across the LoC but as a soldier he has been trained not to let his guard down, even when friends are near. “We first frisk them to ensure that there are no cameras attached to them. Only then do we allow them inside,” he said. Once inside, the dogs have a good time. “They are fed. They play with the dogs here and go back at their leisure,” he said.

All dogs calling on the Indian Army posts are regularly fed, morning and night. As if in return, they bark to warn the soldiers of an approaching danger, human or animal.

Dogs from across the border are first frisked and then made welcome

“Bears come here often, looking for food. They pick up expired tins of preserved fruit from pits. They are very strong. They can break open a can with just a swipe of their paw. When we come here in the morning, we find empty cans with holes in them,” said Praveen Kumar.

Accommodation of Indian troops.

Chickens are the other creatures here. They are not only a source of high protein, but also entertainment for the troops. Bhagwan Singh said he has stopped eating chicken after he recently passed by Sonmarg to head to this location. “At this altitude, I prefer not to eat it. I start developing health issues. Most of us have stopped eating chicken here,” he said.

The usual diet here is dal and rice with pickle and papad as accompaniments. But a guest, though a rarity at this altitude, is treated with pakodas and biscuits, served with cinnamon tea. The only people here are soldiers returning from leave or going on leave, those on supply rounds or officers making sure that the objectives are being met. Any other visitor is an outlet to the world. What he says during a conversation is repeated to those who could not meet him.

Soldiers on guard inside a bunker

Meanwhile, Praveen asks Bhagwan why can’t the hens be sent to the posts at higher altitudes. “They too have stopped eating. They have just gathered the hens,” said Singh.

Even at this post, more than a dozen hens have grouped themselves next to their homes—tall, cubicular structures lined together. When asked if they are able to survive the cold, he said, “We have placed heaters for them inside their homes”.

One of the hens, sitting on just one leg with eyes closed, appears hurt. But Singh dismisses the thought. “Dhoop ke mazee le raha hain (she’s enjoying warmth of the sun)”. Weather can change drastically at this altitude in a matter of minutes. “Sometimes, there are storms for days. We cannot move out of our bunkers, even for toilet,” said Manjeet Singh.

Unlike in the plains, toilets here do not have a running water supply and a pit is attached to the bottom. The living accommodation are mostly made of fibre reinforced plastic. Although they warm, they can easily catch fire due to the bhukharis (heaters) placed inside during winters.

Bath is taken only occasionally as there are chances of falling sick. “We have a bath in winters, even though its cold and snowing outside. It is usually once in 15-20 days. In summers, its once or twice in seven days,” said Bhagwan.

Life in the post is disciplined. Soldiers wake up early in the morning and exercise. “We walk to a designated point, where we perform our physical training exercises. Some also stretch and do yoga,” said Jatinder Kumar.

The rest of the day routine involves fixing damages caused to the bunkers due to snow. Sentry duties are carried out on time. To ensure sentries remain alert, officers regularly inspect the post.

The post is well equipped with high calibre weapons and the bunkers are well fortified. “We usually notice Pakistani troops fixing their bunkers. They move out of their bunkers less as compared to us. Sometimes we see them sitting on the roofs of their bunkers for a long time. They may be enjoying the sun, just like the hens,” said Jatinder.

And after all the tasks are done, if the soldiers get some spare time, “we watch television, talk to each other and joke”, said Jatinder. “Mostly, the time is spent talking about family and friends back home.”

Sitting in his bunker, Jeet Singh rues the scarce mobile network. He moves his phone around at an arm’s length, constantly glancing at the screen for signs of a network signal. Free moments also allow thoughts of reflection. “What else do we do!” says Bajrang Singh, who has already watched a music video thrice.

Cricket matches are also keenly watched on the television set. “When the Pakistan team lost (against India in the World Cup), we could hear the other side yelling… our men are no less. On one particular night, we didn’t let them sleep. And then obviously, abuses are exchanged from both sides,” said Jeet.

Electricity is produced by a generator for a few hours. When the lights go off, solar powered torches that are recharged by keeping them out in the sun are used.

At another post, life is similar. Exercise here is playing volleyball. It is also for entertainment. Work is equally hard here. Trekking and climbing to other posts requires that one must remain fit.

“Remember to exercise and drink water,” an officer told his men. Soldiers here often fall ill due to clotting of blood.

“Life here is so difficult that only soldiers can survive,” said the officer. “Thanks to our army training that we are able to bear the harsh conditions. Army makes a man out of you. You become a survivor.”

(Names of all soldiers have been changed to protect their identities.)

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