The Gayari disaster - A victory amid devastation

Courtesy:- Najeeb Amer Gul

It was spring night on 6th of April, and business as usual in Siachen. As the full moon appeared on horizon, the vast snowy floor of Siachen sparkled brighter than a classic daylight in the plains. As the calm and peaceful night progressed, the chill got agonizingly harsh for the soldiers. Dressed in warm attire, especially designed for high altitudes, the sentries that stood in open felt their bones frozen. Those tucked in sleeping bags inside their bunkers were also restless and twitchy; a tiny hole in their bunkers would offset the heat of oil stoves that burnt all night. As the night grew deeper, all sectors were passing on hourly report of “All OK” to the headquarters. It was business as usual at Siachen.

Suddenly towards later part of the night, the officer on duty at Headquarters noticed; all but one sector was out of communication. The Gayari was not responding to calls of Headquarters. Somewhere around four in the morning, Headquarters dispatched a reconnaissance team from the neighbouring sector to find out if everything was alright in Gayari. The team reached Gayari at dawn; only to get shocked with what they saw. The Gayari was no more there. The glacier that hung on tip of an adjoining peak, now sat all over Gayari. The sector headquarters at Gayari was sited in a bowl like low ground surrounded by high mountains. The mountain that shielded against enemy fire, had struck deadliest blow on Gayari.
As the reconnaissance team stood in shock and disbelief, the duty officer at theatre Headquarters was getting itchy. The duty officer couldn’t believe of what he heard from the team. The glacier that sat on top of the mountain had unleashed itself on Gayari. Millions of tons of compressed snow, huge rocks, and debris had buried the sector headquarters. There were no signs of any settlement in the area. Some 140 men lay buried under tons of glacier material. The nature had struck with unprecedented might. Pakistani nation was faced with a tragedy unparalleled.
Gayari is one of the sectors in Siachen theatre that lies along the Line of Control between Indo-Pak disputed region of Kashmir. Siachen is also called the world’s highest battlefield. Here, the armies of two South Asian adversaries are pitched against each other since early 1980s. Positioned at posts ranging from 16,000 ft to over 21,000 feet above sea level - besides enemy’s air, artillery, rockets, and direct fire of small arms - the soldiers are vulnerable to extreme hazards of high altitude. Avalanches come with lightning speed, blizzards (snow storms), crevasses (deep cracks in ice or glaciers), and slides that move millions of tons of glaciers made up of huge boulders, ice, stones, and sand, harder than concrete used in construction of massive structures.
The temperatures can dip as low as?50 °C (?58 F). This demand extreme care, vigilance, and precautions by each individual. A slight negligence can cause fatal accidents and ailments. Some of the typical disorders and their consequences are: Snow Bite; freezing of limbs that can lead to amputation of limbs, High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE); a condition caused by excess fluid in the lungs, can be fatal if not treated immediately. High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE); acute mountain sickness, with symptoms such as headaches and vomiting, can easily develop into the much more serious high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) or pulmonary edema (HAPE), occurs when the brain swells severely. Similarly, Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), psychological disorders are some of the illnesses that can prove fatal or cause permanent disabilities.
Having fought for over two decades - after a cease fire agreed in 2003 - the two belligerents now only fight against the Mother Nature.
By morning of 7th April the news had spread all over the world. Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters was faced with enormous challenge of how to rescue soldiers trapped under the glacier. Having assessed the magnitude of devastation, Pakistan accepted help offered by international friends. Within next 72 hours, besides a number of national, international teams of experts equipped with latest sub surface search and rescue tools were rushed to the site of accident. The foreign teams included experts from the US, Germany, China, Switzerland, Norway, and UK. After 10 days, having applied all their skills, and tools, these experts unanimously concluded:-

“ The glacier had covered over 1 square km area, and 130 feet in height. No equipment in the world could detect any survivors trapped so deep in concrete like material.
“ The total glacier mass weighed approximately 95 million tons. It contained huge boulders (some as big as 50 meters high and 30 meters wide), hardened ice, stones, and sand. The enormity of task can be judged by the fact that total mass of debris from twin towers of World Trade Center (WTC) was only 1 million tons.
“ The US had taken eight months in removing 1 million tons of WTC debris. By this standard 475 months or 39 years were needed for cleaning-up operation. In case of Gayari no digging activity could go beyond December. The snowfall season commences in November, and by December, all dug up areas would again stock up with snow. By end of snow season in March next year, the area will again fill up with snow. Therefore, any operation will have to be completed before December 2012 - which did not seem plausible.
“ Cleaning required heavy machinery at the site. Gayari is remotely located, with no mettled roads and bridges that can sustain weight of heavy machines. Hence, moving of machines to the site was not possible.
“ Disposal of debris from the site was another challenge. It needed 1 square km of area for piling up of debris. No such space was available in near vicinity.
“ Manual clearing of the concrete like material, in below freezing temperatures seemed unimaginable. Additionally, for any manual labour only high altitude acclimatized soldiers could be employed.
“ The sheer weight of glacier material that had plunged on the sector headquarters, coupled with extreme low temperature did not leave possibility of any survivors. Therefore, digging up a mountain only to retrieve dead bodies was not advisable.
Hence, the search, rescue, or recovery of dead bodies was rendered unfeasible and unwise. All domestic and international experts started leaving the area one after the other.
Two weeks had passed. Pakistani nation and perhaps Pakistan Army had also accepted the tragedy as fait accompli. Pakistani media - that was vigorously following happenings at Gayari - had gradually reduced coverage of the incident. Some suggested that Gayari be declared mass grave of 140 soldiers.
Amid haze of uncertainty and sense of helplessness, there stood one man, with a strange self-imposed mission. The mission was; “We will not rest until we recovered every soldier”. This man was General Ikram ul Haq, the Commander of Siachen theatre. Behind him stood all members of ill-fated 6 NLI Regiment, and every soldier present in Siachen theatre. Pakistani soldiers had once again demonstrated their unique character trait: Pakistan Army would stand behind the command, no matter what the circumstances. Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters offered every possible support for this daunting and apparent unattainable task.
The soldiers kept digging the huge mountain with whatever tools that they could muster, few machines that could reach the site kept running all day and night. While the soldiers did not stop for a moment of rest in freezing cold, their commander, General Ikram along with his team of officers stood alongside to supervise and render advice.
As the weeks passed by, the task was getting hard to accomplish. The soldiers seemed tired, and their commanders depressed. There were no signs of success. The experts’ predictions were getting true.
It was 27th of May; 50 days had passed since devastation had struck. Sitting on a heap of snow, lost in deep thoughts, the General was looking up in the skies, as if conversing with the heavens. Suddenly, Gayari roared with screams of soldiers. Fearful of an accident, General rushed to the scene. He could not control his tears for what he saw. The soldiers had found body of a comrade. That evening, the emotions were filled with unexplainable blend of joy and grief.
Recovery of first body had bolstered everyone that worked in Gayari. As the days passed, more bodies were recovered. On 14th August while the nation celebrated 66th Independence Day, the valiant soldiers of Pakistan Army retrieved 78th soldier’s body from the glacier. Mission goes on, and the Commander and his men are harder than the rocks that they confront, and warmth of their blood can offset the harsh climate. 
Pakistan Army has achieved unprecedented glory in Gayari’s disaster. This comes at a time when Pakistan is engulfed with several security, economic, and political crises. There are academics that are forecasting Pakistan’s collapse in few years. While there are others who suggest that; it is the Army that stands between the Pakistan’s collapse and existence.

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