The snow-capped mountains had always been life-less. No plants would grow there, and no creatures could possibly survive. The peaks were hidden high up in the clouds, jagged, obscure and they seemed condescending to us. They would judgmentally look down upon us throughout our expedition. They were witnesses. They were sorrowful and they grieved. I couldn’t blame them. We were harbingers of death; no life would thrive with us around.
“Hauntingly beautiful. Deceptively peaceful”, the squad leader said. Four words to sum up the entirety of Siachen Glacier. The sunlight reflected off from the icy crusts of the mountains, making the resulting glint too bright to look at. My eyes could not contain their grandeur, and my mind would wander off on a tangent whenever I gazed at the mountains for too long. Then, my heart would be filled with guilt because we contributed to none of the grandeur but only darkened the taint that haunted the glacier.
My mind would drift away and then come crashing down back to reality. We were not tourists. We were soldiers. We had to get to the border camp before nightfall.
We were on the highest battleground on Earth. 3000 feet above. Paranoia plagued my mind. Where could the enemy attack from? One of the peaks? No one could be that high. In the snow? Would it be a landmine that would get me? Or a bullet that I would never see?
My patriotism, that made me parade around in this uniform, was inherited. I had a military family. My grandfather had been martyred in the ’65 war. He was an honored and decorated soldier. Stories of bravery, courage and valor were spoon fed to me since birth. My father and my uncles too had served in the army. The values of a military person, the traditions, and the underlying philosophies, had been indoctrinated into me. Therefore, my fate had been written even before my birth. I would serve till my last breath and if destiny had its way, I’d die with a gun clutched in my hand. Was that the life I wanted? My needs and wants were secondary; my patriotism came first.
In the army, we had drill sergeants. Their job was not to ensure that we followed daily routines. They were there to drill the fear out of us. Their watchful eyes would look for weaknesses, weeding out the feeble and the disorderly as they saw fit. Yet, I believed that my drill sergeant was not able to do his job properly. Fear had settled in the back of my mind and it had refused to leave.
Today, fear was my sergeant. I moved quicker because it told me to. I looked around because it whispered to me. My body had become acclimatized to the cold, however still I started shivering. Fear was pulling the strings now.
Amir was beside me. He seemed to handle it better. He would often talk when he was nervous. He said that it helped keep his mind occupied.
“It’s the frostbite that gets you, or you just crack, you know?” he whispered. His voice was hard to make out, but I could read his lips. He had seen the fear in my eyes.
I nodded. I would accept my fate. It was what I was always destined for. Nothing was promised in life, except death. Our squad leader, Anwar, had carried out the expedition countless other times before. His job was to bring fresh new soldiers to the front and escort the injured ones back. Amir and I had heard the stories surrounding Anwar. In his years of service, he had lost comrades and confidants. His voice, once cheerful and optimistic, was now monotonous and emotionless. The ice had permeated into him, rendering his heart cold and immune to trauma. Apart from basic commands, he spoke little and far in-between. His eyes were like a hawk’s, scanning the surroundings vigilantly.
Amir was a different breed. On the surface, he looked calm and collected. During our time in training, he struck me as a religious man. Often praying whenever his circumstances allowed him. Yet I saw through him. His devoutness was only a guise for his fear. A coping mechanism. Perhaps the only real difference between us was that my fear was overt and his covert.
Our radios had gone quiet by the evening. We had entered the dark zone. This meant that radio signals were out of range. We decided to take a break. As we sat down in the snow, I watched the sun set behind one of the mountains. The orange tinge of the sky blended in with the clouds. Then, eventually all light faded.
Our flasks had kept the water warm. As we opened the lids, steam violently rose from within. I drank slowly, letting the warmth travel through my body. The evening had grown even colder, and we could afford to rest only for a few minutes. Our instructors had often iterated that movement was the key to survival in the cold. If you stopped all motion for more than a few minutes, blood would freeze in the very veins it ran in. Slowly, your body would give in to the cold, the flesh would become blue and akin to stone. To me, it sounded surprisingly peaceful. Perhaps, I preferred a slow and gradual death instead of a final and instant plunge into oblivion.
Then, my heart sank. The sound that I dreaded the most invaded the quietness of the evening. In the distance, the unmistakable sharp boom of an artillery shell shook all three of us. Without a second thought, we threw ourselves on the cold snow. It stung against my bare cheeks. The warmth that the water had brought within me disappeared. I could not determine whether the shell was far away or too close to us. It took a second resounding boom for me to be certain. It was close, very close.
I felt snow land on the back of my head as I laid down still. It had been a clear night, with no signs of snowing. It could only have been displaced by an explosion close to me. My ears had gone numb and I could only hear my own internal voice, and, ofcourse, the fear. I closed my eyes, hoping that I was numb enough not to feel the pain. The third one fell at a distance. It seemed oddly deliberate. Then, as the terrifying boom stopped echoing in the mountains, silence filled the vacuum once again.
“They don’t want to kill us. They want to scare us. We will keep moving”, whispered the squad leader. His words of consolation meant little as he himself seemed shaken to the core. His own icy resolve had been a guise just like Amir’s. My case was worse still, fear had a tight grasp on me. My body had given in to it. I laid down paralyzed. My face fully pressed against the snow. It burnt against my cheeks. The ringing in my ears had finally stopped, but nothing seemed normal anymore. I felt as if my heartbeat would never return to normal.
I did not want to die here. I thought I had accepted my fate as a soldier yet my feelings seemed to betray me. The blind patriotism, that had brought me here, seemed to have abandoned me altogether. I turned my head and looked at the peaks again. They were only dark shadows against the starry night sky. They looked back at me, like they had in daytime. They were witnesses. They were sorrowful and they grieved.