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In this exclusive report, an American writer and photographer spend two months inside the ultimate no-man’s-land, witnessing the human and environmental devastation of a conflict without end.
WE WERE MARCHING up a strip of shattered rock laid out between two streams of the purest white, frozen highways extending in great ripples toward the head of the Siachen Glacier—the largest alpine glacier on earth, nearly two trillion cubic feet of ice. The air was frigid and the light crackled with the crystalline clarity found only above 16,000 feet. The sky was an unusually deep blue—a blue that bordered on violet, a violet that shaded into black, a black that warned of cold that could snap bones and stop the dance of molecules dead in its tracks.
Up ahead rose a snowy 18,950-foot saddle that marked the end of the Indian subcontinent and the beginning of Central Asia. From its crest you could gaze into India, Pakistan, China, and Tibet. Surrounding us on all sides was an unbroken wall of pinnacles—huge cetacean humps barnacled with impossibly large cornices, seracs, and needlelike spires. “I am so happy to be in these mountains!” cried Mohmad Yaseen Khan, a 47-year-old Kashmiri Muslim who was serving as our guide and cook. “The number of peaks I want to climb here is… is… well, I will have to make a special trip back just to count them. See how each one shines in a different way? See how their shapes are different? This is a place where a mountaineer would want to be buried.”
Within a 25-mile radius of where we stood, 48 peaks rose above 19,000 feet; only 16 of these have names, and only six have been climbed. Above them towered 27 giants with altitudes exceeding 23,000 feet. Thirteen of these have never been scaled, and they include some of the greatest remaining prizes in Himalayan mountaineering: Saltoro Kangri II, four peaks in the Apsarasas group, and another three in the Teram Kangri group.
But there’s a reason these mountains remain untouched: They sit in the middle of a 250-square-mile war zone where India and Pakistan have been fighting for the past 19 years as part of their intractable dispute over the state of Kashmir. What might be a climber’s paradise is instead the site of a harrowing and improbable siege, the highest and coldest combat theater in the history of the world.
For four days, Yaseen and I, along with photographer Teru Kuwayama and 11 Ladakhi porters, had slogged up the middle of the glacier, ascending through a series of Indian army camps, toward a place called Kumar Base, a bleak outpost at 16,000 feet that serves as the central supply depot for two battalions of Indian troops. Daily artillery barrages and small infantry skirmishes occasionally mushroom into full battles, but for most of this war, India and Pakistan have been mired on the ice, burning up huge amounts of resources and manpower to hold the lines at heights that reach 22,000 feet.
At Kumar Base, the by-products of this stalemate were glaringly apparent. The camp is a cluster of 20 fiberglass huts and tents shared by some 35 officers, enlisted men, and porters. Perched on the crest of a massive, scabrous pile of reddish-brown rubble roughly 60 feet high and 900 feet long, it has the same features as the surrounding mountains—cols, ridges, arêtes—with one significant difference: It’s made of garbage.
We picked our way through the scab with the kind of care normally reserved for a high Himalayan traverse. At the base of the camp, a recent avalanche had disgorged burlap sacks, old door frames, mortar boxes, rolls of bailing wire, and pieces of fiberglass. Running down the flanks were chutes filled with an unstable layer of plastic sunscreen bottles, bent stovepipes, charred wood, helicopter wheels, and rotting vegetables. As we trudged toward the summit, precarious cornices threatened to crack off and bury us in a deluge of empty jerry cans, burst oil drums, tattered parachutes, ammunition cases, crushed cartons of mango juice, box upon box of two-minute masala noodles, and large metal containers labeled ANTI-PERSONNEL MINES.
All of the other camps we’d passed through were miniature versions of Kumar, and their collective filth—a dietary and industrial record of nearly two decades of uninterrupted war—was bound for the same destination: the bowels of the glacier. From there, this toxic compost would leach into the headwaters of the Nubra River, and then into the Shyok River, the Indus River, and ultimately into the Arabian Sea.
There was no wind to disperse the odor that hung over Kumar like a malignant bouquet: raw kerosene, raw vegetables, raw sewage. I breathed it in, tasted it. Even by the standards of men who are too busy fighting one another to care about the damage they’ve done to a magnificent ecosystem, this was too much.
Yaseen, however, seemed oddly cheerful about it all. “I am so happy to have come here and been given the chance to see this garbage!” he declared. I asked why.
“Why? Because many of my friends in the army told me about how much trash was here and how it has spoiled the glacier, and I didn’t believe them. But now I’ve seen it for myself. Now I know that my friends were telling the truth.”
THE MOST CRITICAL SECTION of the 1,800-mile border between India and Pakistan is a 450-mile line that cuts through the valleys and mountains of Kashmir. Here, for more than half a century, at least 500,000 Indian and Pakistani troops have faced off. In 1965 and again in 1971, the armies fought two conventional wars, both of which Pakistan lost. Since the late eighties, the border has also been the focus of a brutal guerrilla-style conflict. While thousands of Islamic militants trained in Pakistan have crossed the border to wage jihad, Indian security forces in Kashmir have imprisoned, tortured, or executed hundreds of civilians suspected of collaborating with the militants. In the past 14 years, more than 36,000 Kashmiris have died. These facts alone would probably qualify it as the most dangerous border in the world, even if it did not harbor the potential to trigger a nuclear holocaust.
Ten years ago, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency concluded that Kashmir was emerging as the most likely place on earth for a nuclear war to break out. This seemed imminent in the early spring of 1999, when 800 Pakistan-supported militants seized a 17,000-foot ridge overlooking the cities of Kargil and Dras in India-controlled Kashmir and began shelling a vital Indian military road that connects Srinagar to Leh and the Siachen Glacier. India responded with full force, and by early May of that year there was heavy fighting along 100 miles of the border. The situation was especially unstable: Only twelve months earlier, India and then Pakistan had each carried out successful nuclear detonations for the first time. By July 4, when the Clinton administration forced Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif to back down, both sides had reportedly put their nuclear strike forces on alert.
The origin of this larger conflict can be precisely dated to midnight on August 15, 1947, when Britain’s Indian Empire was officially partitioned into the new nations of India and Pakistan. The upheavals of Partition produced one of the largest migrations of refugees in modern history—some ten million people—and the slaughter of as many as one million Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims as neighbor killed neighbor during the chaos that ensued. Another casualty was the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (commonly referred to simply as Kashmir), which had a Muslim-majority population ruled by a Hindu maharajah and would soon become the object of a bloody tug-of-war. Two months after Partition, India and Pakistan crossed swords over Kashmir, and they’ve never really stopped.
When the first round of full-blown fighting ended in January 1949, two-thirds of Kashmir was in Indian hands, including Jammu, the Buddhist region of Ladakh, and the biggest prize of all, the legendary Vale of Kashmir. Pakistan got the regions of Gilgit and Baltistan, which it now calls the Northern Territories, plus a sliver of southwestern Kashmir. According to the United Nations, the final disposition of the entire region—pending to this day—is to be determined by a plebiscite among Kashmiri citizens, the majority of whom are still Muslim. Until that vote takes place or an acceptable alternative is put forth, the de facto border has been the cease-fire line, now known as the Line of Control, which begins near the Indian city of Jammu and cuts a wobbly path northeast toward China.
That line stops well short of the Chinese border at a map coordinate known as NJ9842. At the time of the cease-fire, no fighting had taken place beyond this point because the area was too remote. Negotiators from both countries simply agreed that, starting at NJ9842, the line would be understood to extend “thence north to the glaciers.”