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Cover Story - Then There was Peace

Two years after the War, Kargil has become the world's highest memorial with the government's decision to open the area to tourists. An exclusive first-person account of what it was like to filmattle from the front line

Most people have no trouble remembering where they were on the day the Kargil War broke out. It was the summer of '99, June, the beginning of June to be precise, and we were on holiday in Kullu. We were staying in my father's house, over which the AN-32 and IL-76 aircraft winged their way from Chandigarh to Leh. As the battle escalated, we watched Mig-27 and Mig-29 scream overhead and infantry battalions move up the Kullu-Manali-Leh axis. Banners had sprung up everywhere saluting the soldiers who were off to Kargil. These brave young men went past the people lining the narrow streets, their faces rarely betraying .

My father, a retired general who had commanded an infantry battalion during the Bangladesh War as well as a brigade in Ladakh, would gaze in the direction of Rohtang and Ladakh. It was easy to guess what he was thinking: I wish I were there. Of the hundreds on both sides of the border who would lose near and dear ones. Of the thousands who would return crippled from the icy heights of the Great Himalayan ranges. Once the euphoria of victory had subsided, the images that would linger would be ones of the horrors of the war. And the question that would eternally haunt everyone: 'why'?

As a filmmaker who had made documentaries on all the three defence services, I was desperate to get to the war zone. As the only civilian to have flown in a fighter aircraft and operated with the army in Kashmir, I felt duty bound to get to the frontline and film the war. The trouble was, I had very little idea of how to proceed. For starters, I bundled my little family into a car and raced to Delhi. The next few days were spent knocking at the doors of air and army headquarters. Finally, Colonel Raj Williams, the man who was co-ordinating publicity on behalf of the army, called me up and said I could move to Kargil with a skeleton crew. The Ministry of Defence, he said, would give me helicopter support but the funds for the film would have to be raised by me.

The first signs of the war hit us as we flew over the Banihal pass in a Jet Airways flight on June 30. The captain asked everyone on board to down the shutters. I couldn't resist a peek and saw two Mig-21 aircraft flanking us as we descended towards Srinagar. After a calm night at the army transit camp, early next morning I left in a Sumo that had been hired for me by the corps headquarters for the airfield with special permission to film fighter operations. Quick briefings were followed by rapid take-offs. Sortie after sortie got airborne, the aircraft swinging westwards armed with lethal armament to be deposited on the windswept heights. The pilots, mostly in their twenties, carried brown holsters and joked as they walked towards their aircraft. In case they had to eject, they said, the first four rounds were for the enemy, while the last two for themselves so as to avoid being captured alive.

We crossed Zojila later that day and stopped at Gumri, a forward base hospital. Here the reality of war hit us: the wounded awaited evacuation to Srinagar. There were no wisecracks, and little conversation as doctors in bloodstained aprons worked desperately to save the lives of the seriously wounded. The medics moved from man to man, comforting them, checking on them. Most of them had hardly slept for days. Their eyes would scan the skies every now and then, soon as if in answer to their prayers a Mi-17 helicopter appeared, flying low over the ridgeline. Even before it landed, stretcher-bearers moved efficiently towards it. In a cloud of dust and amidst the deafening roar of the rotors, the big machine lifted off, turned in the air, and was gone. The doctors hadn't paused and fresh cases were lined up for evacuation.

Not long after, we reached the actual war zone. The crump-crump of shells landing in the distance was getting closer. Indian guns were firing from all around us. After a while, I could tell the difference between 105mm guns and the larger Bofors as they belched fire and smoke. Overhead, a Mirage released flares as decoys for enemy missiles. Commands were being barked as more gunfire smashed through the stillness. Around us the stark mountains were scarred by Pakistani shells, the smell of cordite filled the air. A soldier armed with an AK-47 flagged us down, checked our papers and waved us on. Be careful, he said, the enemy is shelling the road.

We got to Pandras where the battle for Tiger Hill was raging. Shells screamed overhead and exploded fairly close to us, shattering the windscreen of the Sumo. The driver was driving too fast. I had to threaten him with bodily harm to slow him down. The thought of getting hit by a shell was dreadful enough, without having to worry about fishing ourselves out of a river. Our nerves shot, we got to Drass where the area around the brigade headquarters was blackened by shelling. I managed to get a tent for the night. A captain pointed to a bunker: "Jump in there if the shelling starts. Good night."

Sandbags covered everything. I had dinner at the mess, as we ate two 155mm guns were fired at Tiger Hill from less than 200 metres away. Vikram Chandra of Star News TV channel had an Imarsat telephone and I called my wife, Dipti. While talking to her, the guns went off and I could virtually see her jump. Vikram and I then sat in the open and watched as every second or two, shell after shell arched upwards, lighting up the sky. Somewhere from the direction of Tololing, flares were fired. The orange flames of exploding shells on Tiger Hill were even more dramatic in the pitch of the night. After a while, too tired to stay awake, we crawled off to sleep.

The next day, I got into trouble in the Mushkoh area. This was a narrow valley with a small stream running through it. To the east were the skree covered, almost barren slopes leading up to Tiger Hill where the battle was still raging. In a bid to film 120mm mortars in action, we skirted around the base of Tiger Hill, moving cautiously along a dirt track that ran through the middle of the valley. MMG fire and the odd shell disturbed the beauty of this serene valley. A village was completely abandoned, its mud walls in a shambles thanks to the battering it had received. Windows and burnt doorframes still propped up the rubble in a few places. Yellow roses seemed to be growing everywhere and yellow wagtails and rose finches were belting out their music as if nothing had changed. A jonga with a colonel approached us, as he neared I could see he was livid with me for standing out in the open to film the village. "Anyway, it's your funeral," he said and drove off. Five minutes later, Pakistani observation posts picked us out and we got a hammering. Woosh! Bang! Shells screamed past us and I dived behind a rock, dragging my camera assistant with me, while the driver and escort sought shelter behind another rock. The camera and the Sumo were out in the open, but amazingly, nothing happened to either. The firing stopped and we took off like frightened rabbits.

We ran into an Infantry battalion and stopped to collect our breath. After a while, a small party of men appeared carrying one of their dead. The body was wrapped in sleeping bags. The dead soldier had left behind three daughters, the eldest just eight years old. I moved away, thinking of the grief and tears that would follow the telegram to his village. My crew was obviously thinking the same thoughts, I could see their eyes well with tears.

On the morning of July 8, a shell blew the wall of the bunker in which I was sleeping. I was thrown out of bed and lay in the dark wondering where to run. I felt tiny claws on my bare leg, and groped for a flashlight. A small lizard stared at me, unblinking through the haze of dust. I knocked it off, crawled into my bunk and went back to sleep. Later in the day, I opened my camera bag inside a helicopter and saw the lizard sitting in it. We landed at Dah, a small helipad next to the Indus in the Yaldor sector, which was relatively safe from enemy fire. I set my reptilian friend free among the rocks.

While covering a war, time loses meaning. Hours, days, weeks blur into one another. But days, even months, later, going through the footage one shot then is like reliving every moment. We moved onto Kargil, here I operated with GOC 3 Division, Major General V.K. Budhwar. In their wisdom, army headquarters had ruled that to fly in an army aviation helicopter, I had to be accompanied by the GOC. My father's old command, 70 Infantry Brigade, was now in the hands of Brigadier Devinder Singh. After a five-day march from the road head, the men were zombies. Carrying huge loads along with their weapons and ammunition, they were moving forward. More shelling, more dead and wounded till one lost count of the bodies one saw. We flew from one sector to another, and I marvelled at the human spirit that drove these men on. Some of them hadn't shaved or bathed for weeks and some looked disoriented, yet they listened attentively to orders before moving off to capture yet another hill.

If Drass and Kargil had been bad, then Batalik was the next thing to hell. The Indus here churned its way through steep gorges, a tumbling mass of muddy water waiting to pull into its swirling depths any man or beasts that dared transgress too near its banks. The guns here were dramatically located, literally wedged into the mountains from where they belched their flame and fury. As the battle raged all around us, I flew with the army aviation cheetahs, shooting film after film.

Then abruptly, on July 9, it was over. I was waiting for a helicopter when I saw Lieutenant General Kishen Pal, the corps commander, alight, a huge grin on his face. His staff officer was carrying a stinger missile launcher that the Pakistanis had abandoned as they fled. Word spread like wild fire that the enemy was on the run. I flew in the same chopper towards Chorbatla and we could see the enemy dead everywhere. Our boys were now moving up to bury them. The tri-colour was flying on most of the peaks. There was a huge surge of relief and everyone was hugging everybody else, glad to be alive. The pilot turned to me, perched in a glass bubble up in the sky, his voice on the radio loud and clear, "We've won!".

The guns were silent as I made my way back towards Zojila. Litter and spent shells were being burnt everywhere. At the base of Tiger Hill, I waited for the commanding officer of 8 Sikh to return to his battalion base. He arrived shortly, and though we didn't know each other, we hugged. After visiting his unit's gurdwara, he spoke on camera, describing the war and the actions fought by his men. Surrounded by his men, they sounded the regiment's battle cry, a scene that we used to wrap up the final film. It was a touching moment.

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