In Kashmir Conflict Zone, The Glacier Is The Enemy It's been years since shots were fired on the Siachen glacier, where troops from Pakistan and India face off. Still, both countries devote considerable resources and often pay high costs — a point driven home by the deaths of 140 Pakistanis in an avalanche.
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In Kashmir Conflict Zone, The Glacier Is The Enemy

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In Kashmir Conflict Zone, The Glacier Is The Enemy

In Kashmir Conflict Zone, The Glacier Is The Enemy

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.


And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning. The conflict we're going to talk about next surely made sense to somebody when it started, but outsiders have always found it a little hard to understand. Even the participants may be coming to agree.

NEARY: For almost 30 years, troops from India and Pakistan have faced off for possession of a glacier high in the Himalayas. It is part of their larger and even longer contest over the disputed province of Kashmir. Yesterday, the head of Pakistan's army said it's time to end the face off in the world's highest combat zone.

INSKEEP: The general called for peaceful co-existence, following an aerial tour of the avalanche that buried a battalion of Pakistani soldiers at the Siachen glacier. NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to the site of the disaster.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: There is a majesty and a menace to the Siachen glacier. Along this northern tip of Kashmir, which is the emotional heart of the conflict between Pakistan and India, troops from the two nuclear powers square-off, eyeball-to-eyeball, in unforgiving conditions and cold.

There is no hot conflict here, though, not a shot has been fired in years. The main enemy in this desolate, craggy outpost 13,000 feet above sea level, is the cold. Atrocious weather conditions - temperatures plunge to 50 below zero here - have killed more soldiers than any combat. Eleven days after the avalanche, rescuers have yet to pull out a single person - dead or alive. The anguishing incident has raised the question whether uninhabitable Siachen Glacier is worth fighting for.


MCCARTHY: Bulldozers operate around the clock to unearth the headquarters of Pakistan's Sixth Light Infantry Battalion and the 140 souls smothered beneath a square kilometer of ice and rock.

Soldiers in snowy white down jackets swarm the area that has suddenly turned spring like and more prone to fresh landslides. Members of the media, escorted to the area, are given a primer on what to do if there is a slide

BRIGADIER SAQUIB MEHMOOD MALIK: If you listen to long blast of whistles and the shouting avalanche, you have to run that way, please leave. Look at that back. Please, leave your stuff and run to that.

MCCARTHY: Siachen Commander, Brigadier Saquib Mehmood Malik explains that the massive landslide encased the 129 soldiers and 11 civilians under two hundred feet of crushed granite and ice

MALIK: So, therefore, this effort is a very, very large magnitude. And the boulders are as big as the one you can see at the back.

MCCARTHY: The boulder he points to sits like a cenotaph above the site where workers now dig.

Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani said yesterday that the army will dig as long as it takes to retrieve the men. And he suggested that Pakistan was interested in demilitarizing the frozen installations that are costing $5 million a month and polluting the environment. Kayani said that had to stop

CHIEF ASHFAQ KAYANI: For us, Pakistan, it is very important. You see, this is the glacier which feeds our rivers, which feed the Indus River, with the main river in Pakistan. So we understand that physical deployment of troops in these areas, and the glaciers gets affected, environment gets affected. If there's no other reason, I think it is one enough good reason that this area should not be militarized. You can't afford to be firing guns in the glacier regions. We understand that.

MCCARTHY: Brutal conditions have claimed the lives of an estimated 3,000 Pakistani soldiers over the years. Many more had limbs amputated due to severe frost bite. Sardar Mohammad Tariq Aziz lost his toes and heels serving in Siachen in 1999. His patrol mate had to have his legs amputated after they both fell from their post during a landslide

SARDAR MOHAMMAD TARIQ AZIZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: I fell into a crevice. It must have been 15 to 20 feet down. We were lying there the whole night, crying out of pain. It took about 26 hours for them to finally pull us out and get us to a hospital, he says.

This veteran of Siachen adds, No soldier should be there.

Retired Brigadier Javed Hussain says the Siachen glacier has no strategic importance and being there is folly. He calls the deployments for the past 28 years pointless, and says the governments must negotiate a withdrawal.

BRIGADIER JAVED HUSSAIN: And arrive at a settlement which could be based on demilitarization of the zone, pulling out of the forces by the sides, with the United Nations acting as a guarantor.

MCCARTHY: With a tentative peace process underway, Pakistan-India relations are their warmest in years. For many, the disaster in Siachen should accelerate that warming.

Julie McCarthy NPR News, Islamabad.

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