Authors: Ben Coes
One of the village elders came to Aquil-eh.
“Where will you go, son?” the old man asked.
“South. Along the Shyok. In Pullu there is an army camp. There will be soldiers.”
“Hunder is closer.”
“From Hunder I will have to ride again. In Pullu there will be soldiers.”
“Perhaps in Hunder they will have a radio and you can call the camp,” said another villager.
“Perhaps,” said Aquil-eh. “That would be nice.”
The old man reached into his pocket.
“Here,” he said. He handed Aquil-eh a large leather swatch of material with black markings on it. “This is the chart of the stars. And there,” he said, pointing to the leather strip of material, “is Khardung. Pullu is just south of Khardung. You will be traveling at night. You must be careful here, and here. This is where the mountains have the great invisible crevices. You must go around them. I have traveled to Khardung. When I was younger.”
“Thank you, Father,” said Aquil-eh.
Aquil-eh smiled calmly. But he knew it was a race against time now. He had more than sixty miles to travel. It was a clear night, and he would be able to move beneath the stars. Still, it would be slow going. He felt perspiration start to bead on his forehead but tried not to show his nervousness. The entire village stared at him in silence as he prepared to move out.
He smiled one last time as he glanced at the hushed gathering of villagers. He pressed his boots into the side of the horse and sent the small mare galloping down the gravel path. He had to reach Pullu, and soon. He had to reach the camp before the Pakistanis found their dead.
* * *
, twenty-nine miles to the north, at the Pakistani Army Base at Skardu, the topic of the missing patrol had consumed the regional ranking officers of Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry Regiment, or NLI as it was referred to. The soldiers out on patrol had not responded to repeated efforts to reach them on handheld radios, nor had they attempted to report back in. They had left on patrol more than seven hours before, a regular north-south patrol along the Line of Control that separated the Northern Territories of Pakistan from India-controlled Ladakh and Kashmir.
The ranking officer at Skardu was named Mushal. He was a brigadier in the Pakistan Army, forty-seven years old, a Baltee who grew up in Khaplu. He had worked along the Line of Control for more than two decades. Mushal knew that even the smallest incidents along the LOC needed to be dealt with, that tensions were so high between Pakistan and India that small accidents could quickly spiral out of control.
Three separate wars had been fought between Pakistan and India since the British decolonized and left the region in 1947. The most recent full-scale war occurred in 1971, but there had been countless deadly skirmishes along the Line of Control. Kashmir Territory sat at the northern reaches of India and was surrounded by Pakistan, India, and China. All of it should have been Pakistan’s by heritage, by culture, and by religion. At least that was the way Pakistan saw it. But the British left the decision of which country to affiliate with to the ruler of what was then called Jammu and Kashmir, and despite the fact that Kashmir was predominantly Muslim, he chose to throw his allegiance to India. Ever since then, tensions had repeatedly flared over the region.
Only now, unlike the wars of 1947, 1965, and 1971, both India and Pakistan possessed nuclear weapons.
, Brigadier Mushal dispatched seven separate patrols from Skardu Base. Each patrol had two soldiers, either in a jeep or on motorcycle, each armed with high-powered Kalashnikov semiautomatic rifles. There were about twenty villages within a fifty-square-mile radius, including Yagulung and a few others that were in India-controlled Kashmir. Mushal told the search patrols to move across the LOC if necessary to search the villages, but to do so quietly, quickly, and to not get caught. He doubted the missing patrol had ventured over the LOC, but he had to know for sure and so he allowed the patrols to go.
In the meantime, one of Mushal’s lieutenants contacted NLI general command in Gilgit, to the southwest, notifying NLI’s top leadership of the missing soldiers. This action, in turn, established a “Black Flag,” so called because it involved the LOC. An alert was sent electronically across the army’s chain of command. It was the twenty-third such Black Flag this year. Typically, there were at least a hundred Black Flags annually, most of which amounted to nothing. Still, at 8:44
, the Black Flag went out electronically, reaching the fax machines, desks, cell phones, computer screens, and PDAs of more than eight hundred senior ranking officers in the Pakistani Army.
* * *
, Aquil-eh had been riding more than five hours. The night was clear. There was a sharp half-moon, and the stars seemed like candles in the sky above him, so close to the ground.
He paced the small horse along the banks of the Shyok River. The sound of the water rushing by guided him.
He had traveled this far south once before in his life. When he was six or seven, he had traveled to a town called Diskit to see a doctor. But this was the first time he’d seen the peaks and valleys of the Ladakh Range at night, under the stark, beautiful illumination of the stars. He never forgot how amazing Ladakh and Kashmir were, but sometimes, like tonight, its beauty astonished him. The moon cast unusually strong light down from above. It framed the mountains at each side of the plateau. He felt as if he were riding on the moon.
Aquil-eh sometimes wondered what the world was like outside of Kashmir. But tonight he focused solely on his duty to his family and town, and his fear. He felt a constant, gnawing sense of fear as he pushed the horse along at a good pace; a chemical uneasiness at the realization that everything in his world had just changed, forever. He couldn’t forget the terrible incidents of the day. He hadn’t seen Arra being assaulted, but he had watched Tok destroy the man’s skull and had stood less than a foot from Artun when he was shot through the chest.
At a small pond he stopped to let the horse drink. With a match he examined the leather map. He was more than two-thirds of the way to Khardung, if the old man’s etchings were drawn to scale and accurate. Twenty more miles. The army camp at Pullu would be a short trip from there. In a mile or two, if the map was correct, he would pass Hunder, another small village. He remembered the words of the old man; he would stop in Hunder and ask if they had a radio.
* * *
The two Pakistani soldiers parked the jeep and walked, one in front of the other, up the steep path to the village. On their helmets, Petzl headlamps cast a bluish glow for twenty feet in front of them. They each carried their Kalashnikovs aimed in front of them as they marched, safeties off. They were more than ten miles across the LOC; they’d done it before—it was part of what they were trained to do—but even so, both soldiers knew they could be shot on sight if they were discovered by the Indian Army.
“There,” said one of the soldiers, turning to the man behind him. He nodded at the path. “Yagulung. We’re nearly there.”
The soldier in back took a radio from his belt and depressed the sidebar.
“This is field unit two,” he said. “We’re at Yagulung. We’ll report back.”
The soldiers each pulled a set of ATN night vision goggles from their combat backpacks. They pulled the goggles down over their helmets and flipped the switches on. The goggles gave each soldier a clear view up the gravel road toward the small village. The outlines of the low-flung homes, clinging to the mountainside, were illuminated for the soldiers in apocalyptic orange.
“Let’s move,” said the first soldier. “I want to be back by sunrise.”
* * *
Aquil-eh trotted the small horse into the village of Hunder at half past two in the morning. Hunder sat at a higher elevation than Yagulung and he felt the thinner mountain air in his lungs. He had pushed the mare hard, and she was exhausted.
Hunder, a town of nearly one hundred inhabitants, was a collection of wood frame and stone huts arrayed at differing elevations around small steppe plots. In the middle of the village was a small square with a restaurant and a general store. The town was shut down for the night, but remained illuminated by a pair of kerosene lanterns on iron poles in the middle of the small dirt square.
At the first house, Aquil-eh stopped and dismounted. He approached the door and knocked hard on the wooden frame.
“Hello,” he said loudly as he knocked. “We need your help.” He knocked on the door for more than a minute, saw a light go on through a tiny crack at the eave line of the roof.
The large door opened. A teenager stood inside the door, darkly tanned, with long black hair, shirtless. He rubbed his eyes as he opened the door.
“I’ve ridden from Yagulung,” said Aquil-eh. “The Pakistani Army killed one of our men. The Pakistani Army is coming. They will be there soon.”
“Let me get Father,” the teenager said.
Within five minutes, a small group had gathered in the middle of the square. More arrived with each passing minute after the teenager’s father rang the town bell. Aquil-eh retold the story of the violence at Yagulung to the small group of men. He was interrupted only by a small, stooped elderly woman who brought him a mug of scalding hot chai.
“We have a radio,” said one of the men, the owner of the general store. “We can call the Indian base at Pullu. Northern Command is there.”
He ran to the store and opened the door. Inside, he found the dust-covered satellite radio in a drawer near the back of the room. The man flipped the switch, then adjusted the dial.
“Pullu,” he barked as he depressed the sidebar to the handset. “This is Mar Ah’glon in the village of Hunder. Do you hear me? Pullu, do you hear me?”
After several tries, a scratchy response finally came back.
“Roger, Hunder,” the voice said, “this is Northern Command. What is it?”
“Yagulung,” the shopkeeper said, speaking loudly into the handset. “Near the Line of Control.”
“What about Yagulung?” said the voice.
“The Pakistani Army has been there. They’ve killed a man, a farmer. There are two dead Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistani Army will be coming for their dead.”
* * *
In Yagulung, the two Pakistani soldiers walked up the gravel path toward the small town square, mortar and wood shacks were visible through the night vision goggles. They walked side by side now, Kalashnikovs at the ready.
The soldiers walked cautiously into the square. A light was visible; a small kerosene fire that burned in a low steel can near one of the huts. Next to the flames, a man sat, head against the wall. He was barefoot, with white hair, a farmer. He had a small wool blanket across his shoulders. The soldiers moved in silence toward the man, until they stood just above him. One soldier glanced at his watch. It was 3:08
The soldier kicked a small stone at the man, which struck him in the hand sharply, awakening him abruptly.
The villager looked up, startled. He saw the two Pakistani soldiers, their eyes masked behind bulky black goggles. The nozzles of two Kalashnikovs stared menacingly down at him, less than two feet away from his head.
“Where are our soldiers?” asked the soldier whose rifle was closest to the villager’s head. “Our soldiers, old man. Where are they?”
“It was an accident,” said the Yagulung farmer. “We’ve been waiting for you. We’re only farmers and herders. We are sorry. It was an accident.”
The Pakistani soldiers glanced at each other. The one doing the talking took a step back. “Are you saying they’re here?” he demanded.
“Yes,” said the farmer, his voice inflecting in nervous fear as he stared at the rifle. “We want to return them to you for a proper burial. They raped a woman and killed a man. We don’t want any trouble, Officers.”
The other soldier took several steps away from the scene, picked up the handset at his waist and clicked the sidebar three times.
“This is field unit two,” he said. “We’re in Yagulung. We found the patrol. Both soldiers are apparently dead.”
“Copy unit two,” a voice returned. “What happened?”
“We’re finding out right now. I’ll report back. Over.”
“Where are the bodies?” asked the soldier holding the rifle.
The villager stood up. He pointed across the dirt square. In front of another building, two simple wooden coffins were lying next to each other on the ground.
Other villagers soon began to appear, awakened by the harsh voices of the Pakistani soldiers. The small square filled with other men, as well as a few women and children. The villager who had been waiting next to the kerosene fire was joined by more than a dozen of his family and friends.
One of the soldiers walked toward the coffins. The other kept the Kalashnikov speared toward the growing throng. He took a step back, rifle aimed at the growing crowd.
The soldier flipped on his headlamp, then lifted the wood from one of the coffins. Reaching inside, he pulled back the cloth muslin material that had been draped over the dead soldier’s face.
Beneath, the badly disfigured face of the dead man was unrecognizable. The soldier let out a small gasp. He was momentarily stunned. Unseen by all he closed his eyes and tried to gather himself. He didn’t bother opening the second box. Instead, he turned. He looked back at the gathered group of peasants. They stood quietly, waiting. Raising his Kalashnikov, the soldier stepped forward. He aimed the weapon at the group of peasants as he moved slowly across the gravel square.
” he barked.
The soldier began firing. A woman screamed as the first slug struck her thigh. The soldier held the trigger back and did not let up, cutting slugs in a horizontal line across the gathered villagers, slaughtering men, women, and children in a tide of bullets and blood.
* * *
At the small Indian Army base in North Pullu, the radio dispatcher awakened the base’s ranking officer, Lieutenant Benazem Banday, who immediately contacted the larger army base to the south in Leh, part of the Northern Command’s XIV Corps. There, Colonel Faris Durvan, the watch commander, dispatched two Mi-25 helicopters, multipurpose choppers designed for flexible missions, including high-altitude combat and reconnaissance.