Confessions of a war reporter
By Barkha Dutt
6 March 2019
A reporter recollects the untold stories of the 1999 Kargil War.
(This article was first published in our June 2001 issue)
I had to look three times to make sure I was seeing right. Balanced on one knee, in a tiny alley behind the army’s administrative offices, I was peering through a hole in a corrugated tin sheet. At first glance, all I could see were some leaves. I looked harder and amidst all the green, there was a hint of black – it looked like a moustache. “Look again,” said the army colonel, in a tone that betrayed suppressed excitement. This time, I finally saw.
It was a head, the disembodied face of a slain soldier nailed onto a tree. “The boys got it as a gift for the brigade,” said the colonel, softly, but proudly. Before I could react, the show was over. A faded gunny bag appeared from nowhere, shrouded the soldier’s face, the brown of the bag now merging indistinguishably with the green of the leaves. Minutes later, we walked past the same tree where the three soldiers who had earlier unveiled the victory trophy were standing. From the corner of his eye, the colonel exchanged a look of shard achievement, and we moved on. We were firmly in the war zone.
It’s been two years since Kargil, but even as some of the other details become fuzzy, this episode refuses to fade from either memory or conscience. A few months ago, I sat across a table with journalists from Pakistan and elsewhere in the region, and confessed I hadn’t reported that story, at least not while the war was still on. It had been no easy decision, but at that stage the outcome of the war was still uncertain. The country seemed gripped by a collective sense of tension and dread, and let’s face it – most of us were covering a war for the first time in our careers. Many of the decisions we would take over the next few weeks were tormented and uncertain. I asked my friend from Pakistan, listening to my anguish with empathy, what he would have done in my place? He replied, “Honestly, I don’t know.”
This then, is the truth of reporting conflict and wars. Often we just don’t know. And even more often, whether we like ourselves for it or not, our emotional perceptions of these conflicts are shaped by how our histories have been handed down to us. Whatever textbook journalism may preach, I think the time has come to accept that every story we do is shaped by our own set of perceptions, and thus prejudices as well. National identity is one of the many factors that add up to make the sum total of who we are and what we write or report. It sneaks up on us and weaves its way into our subconscious, often mangled and confused, but still there, determining what we see and how we see it. And, when I speak of national identity I do not mean chest-thumping, flag-waving nationalism. I mean years of accumulated baggage, what we read in school, the villains and heroes in our popular cinema – in fact the entire process of socialization.
The media may not be reduced to being a crude tool of the nation state, but it will always have to fight with itself to find a space that is honest. And sometimes we will make mistakes. At other times, we may never know whether we made a mistake or chose right. But so long as we hide behind the theoretical notion of objective journalism, as long as we believe that journalists are innately more enlightened than others of the human species, the search for that truthful professional space will be a dishonest one. The war taught me that – just how complex and ridden with contradictions this search can be.
Many days after I had been shown the “brigade’s gift”, hunkered down in a bunker, my mind just could not erase the image of that Pakistani soldier. The lifeless, frozen face simply made the most definitive statement on the hopelessness of it all. “How then are we different from the Pakistanis?” I asked. The media headlines for days had played up tales of mutilation and horror by Pakistan: Indian soldiers whose eyes had been gouged out, their skin blistered by burning cigarette butts, their dignity in shreds. As far as I could understand, a mutilated head displayed as a morale booster fell into the same category. The answer to my question was the blazing anger in the eyes of the soldiers around me. “If that’s how you think Ma’am, you don’t understand anything, you don’t understand war,” said one, his eyes red with lack of sleep, and now rage. The soldiers really believed that our war was somehow more gracious than “theirs”; that we killed and “they” butchered.
That was only one of the near schizophrenic responses that we would see over the next few weeks. Proud tales of how many of the enemy had been downed laced the sundown whisky. “Arrey yaar, this time we’ll get them.” Machismo invariably wove its way into the bunker-room chatter. But the bluster and bombast always had an edge to it, the self-congratulation giving way in minutes to contemplative and nervous silence. One such night, an army major who, typically, looked much older than his 27 years, gulped down his drink and looked at me with a cynical sharpness in his eyes that I hadn’t seen before.
“You want to know how I feel?” he asked scornfully, “I think it’s a crazy fucking war, that’s what it is. Whose half-baked war are we fighting, anyway?” The man who just hours ago had vowed to “get them” was looking at me now with a helplessness that only underscored my own.
This then was the Kargil War (and it was a “war” despite the fact that official government files may never call it one, preferring the more sanitized ‘conflict’) – a war fought by young men who did not always understand what it was all about, and covered by reporters who did not always know which principles of journalism applied. It was for long a theatre of contradiction that embraced courage and fear, head and heart. The very men who scoffed at your suggestion that the neurosis in the India-Pakistan love-hate relationship may yet subside, would in the next breath regale you with stories of bonding sessions with the “enemy across the border. A burly Sardar who had earlier been posted as commander at the Punjab border left me disbelieving and wonderstruck by his little secret: his counterpart across the fence had smuggled him across the border one evening, whisked him away in a car with tinted windows and given him a grand tour of Lahore. In return, the Pakistani had wondered if his wife might one day be smuggled across in the same way and be taken shopping to the saree boutiques of Amritsar. “I couldn’t return the favour,” the Sardar said regretfully. Others piped in with similar anecdotes of cigarettes and books shared at posts where there was no human contact but with the man across the border.
And we reporters were sucked in by this roller coaster of contradictory emotions that plunged and rose, again and again, alternating between anguish and euphoria. We could not help but empathise with these boys-who-would-be-men, their utter helplessness at being landed in the centre of a senseless war and yet their absolute determination to win it.
“Even the Gulf War didn’t allow the media to come this close,” said the Indian Army Chief to me, days after the war was ‘over’. He sounded like he hadn’t yet decided whether this was a good thing. But access was neither automatic nor willingly provided; information had to be cajoled and coerced out of the top brass, and even after this you were left struggling to make sense of the driblets. The army did offer escorted tours: a bus that plied from Srinagar to Drass and Kargil, twice a week. If you took the bus, you would meet grave looking army officials dressed in crisp olive greens and red berets who spoke to you in quiet, genteel tones that hid more than they revealed. Even good news, such as a recaptured peak, was treated as classified information. To ride the bus was, incongruously, to travel the world of officialdom. Soon enough, the fraternity was firmly divided into two – the bus-wallahs and the roadrunners, or the “tourists and the journalists” as one person described it.
For those of us who depended on the motor power of young Kargili boys, some of whom ran phonebooths by day and doubled up as drivers by night, covering the war meant, first getting used to living on the road – the road in this case being a bumpy stretch of sharp curves and steep drops, patches of grey breaking the endless expanse of the mountains. Every few kilometres was what the army called a gun position – the huge Bofors and its country cousin, the 105mm light field gun, sitting shoulder to should amidst the rocks and boulders, looking searchingly at the skyline. For us, each such ‘position’ unfolded a new story. Huddled in tents over cups of chai, generously supplied by men whose job it was to pull the trigger, we’d listen in grim silence to which body had made its way down from the icy-cold, sub-human environs of the heights above.
One of the many ironies of this war was that hundreds of miles away, the cities of India were debating notions of nationalism – an entire section of people were convinced that Kargil had given birth to a monstrous chest-thumping brand of patriotism. But up there in the mountains, the motivation to keep going was not born from loyalty to the nation-state. Battling tears at the news that he had lost one of his “boys”, a commanding officer told me, “I am not doing this for the country, Ma’am, I am doing it for my paltan.” Allegiance to their unit, platoon, was usually the closest It got. That, and the belief that this was somehow a life test and the world was looking over their shoulders to see if they would make it through. “If we fail,” said a 23-year-old Nepali soldier from Dehradun, his eyes misty with sadness, “then our entire existence cannot be justified. Anyone can turn around and say, ‘You are not fit to join the army.’”
The outpouring of solidarity that accompanied the Kargil war was not something that any of these soldiers expected or were even aware of. Cut off from their homes, miles away from newspapers, with one telephone line that barely worked and shared by hundreds, this was a lonely planet. Our “hack-pack” was welcomed with an almost bizarre level of warmth, not merely because these men were scared that their stories would slip into anonymity but more because they were just glad to have someone to talk to.
And so, four to a car, every day we would drive from Kargil to Drass, sometimes twice of thrice on the same day, the 50 km distance stretched out over regular roadside halts. The journey was its own story; to navigate these roads needed an astonishing skill and a certain willingness to abandon life to chance. Much has already been written about the road that came to be known as “the highway of terror” – the sound of falling shells, the clouds of smoke, the ducked heads, learning when to step on the accelerator and when to slip in unobtrusively behind the snail-like army convoy. What was perhaps far more interesting is how we internalized the surreal-ness of it all. Looking back, there were moments that seemed deeply unreal, even comic. Like the time the sound of shells sent us leaping for the comforting shelter of the army truck’s sizeable tyre. Theatre we were – five journalists, lying flat on our stomachs, only 100 metres away from a burning oil tanker that had received a direct hit. With one hand, I held onto the helmet a soldier had generously slapped on my head; with the other I was furiously working my satellite phone, my mind searching for the right adjectives to use for my phone report. Were the flames orange or orangish-grey; was the fire dying or simmering; were we 30 km from Kargil or 35? In those split seconds, these were the details that raced through my head; the constant tension of communicating the right words and the representative images somehow overtook every other fear. It was not that we were brave; it was more that right till the very end, these tensions kept us somehow oblivious from the reality of the risk.
And in perhaps yet another of the many ironies of this war, one of the lingering images of my drive down those roads was the sheer beauty of the surroundings. Yes, beauty. Not even the thunderous, sharp and ugly roar of the Bofors or the sudden proliferation of metal and guns could take away from the grandeur and overwhelming power of the mountains. Many days after we returned from Kargil, we all agreed that the experience had somehow left us feeling much smaller, somewhat irrelevant. The mountains, I think, played their part in humbling us. As always, one of the soldiers described it better than I ever could. A field major, he had ‘been up’ nine times, seen friends die, bodies collapse and grown men weep on those jagged peaks. Back at base, he would now spend hours staring up at the skies in silence. “I feel the mountains are mocking me,” he said trying to explain to us the frenzied restlessness building up inside him. “They are looking down at me and laughing. They are saying, come and get me, come and get me.”
One way of trying to “get them” was to mark the landscape through the oldest and best-tested tool of all conquerors – maps. Almost as if in their very naming they would become more accessible, every little bump and ridge now had an identity. Point 4875, Point 5353, Saddle, Three, Pimple Hump – this was the strange new language an entire nation came to speak for those two months. Some, of course, caught the public imagination far more than others – Tiger Hill was to become as much of a household name as Surf washing powder. This amazed even the general who had led the operations in Drass and Kargil. “I am convinced if I had named it Rabbit Hill instead, no one would have cared,” he joked many days after the Indian army had taken it. But till it was recaptured, Tiger Hill was the central symbol of the war. If I needed proof of this, I uncovered it in Bihar while reporting on the elections nearly two months after the war had been declared over. In the narrow muddy by lanes of Nalanda (coincidentally, then defence minister George Fernandes’ constituency) hundreds of miles away from Kashmir, a bus was blocking my car. I leaned out of the window, preparing for an argument with the driver, when the bus windshield caught my eye. Splattered across the width of it, in big blue letters was a banner that said “Tiger Hill, Kargil”.
Perhaps one of the reasons that tiger Hill managed to engender a strange sense of familiarity was its proximity to the Srinagar-Leh Highway. This was of course what made it strategically crucial to recapture, but also what allowed us more access than any other mountain peak. Stand anywhere on the road running through Drass, and you could see it – barely five kilometres away, its sharp conical peak defiantly towering over the rest of the landscape. Even if the army wanted us nowhere near the place – which was mostly the case – the road was public property and often we would park our car at the foothills of Tiger Hill and wait.
By the end of June, it was the only remaining peak in Drass still held by at least 30 Pakistani soldiers; how and when it would be taken back would determine how much longer the war would drag on. We knew that any day now, the army was to push forward with its meticulously planned assault on Tiger Hill, and the only way to be there when it happened was to obsessively patrol the area. Not everyone was ready to do this, and one night when four of us readied ourselves for the two-hour journey from Kargil to Drass our “recklessness” was attributed to the arrogance and folly of youth.
Looking back, perhaps it was exactly that. No one drove on the highway at night. Driving with the headlights on made you a ready target for those guarding on the other side of the mountain; to travel with lights off meant negotiating treacherous curves in absolute darkness. We were lucky that particular night because the light of a full moon bathed the road and lit up at least a part of our path. But in the stillness of the night, the silence in Drass was almost audible – a little bit like the quiet that descends over a house at night, when even the fridge has stopped its gentle hum. An inadequate analogy, I know. But as we huddled closer together in our car, not sure what to do next, we all felt utterly dislocated by the surreal quality of that moment. It was almost poetic, except that we were in the middle of a grim and bloody war. From where we stood, we could see gentle bursts of light over Tiger Hill, squirts of orange and pale pink, rather like Diwali firecrackers, but nowhere near as noisy at this distance.
By now, we had been in Kargil long enough to know that these pretty looking lights that broke the darkness of the night were in fact the lights of flare guns being used by the ‘intruders’ atop Tiger Hill. The lights were used to help spot the movement of the Indian troops, who had already begun their silent journey up, in preparation for the final assault.
The actual assault came only two nights later, on the 3rd July, and nothing that we had experienced thus far could have prepared us for it. It was the first time in all these days that we could smell the war in the air – the tension, the air of anticipation, the hurried and purposeful stride in the walks of the officers, the edge to their voice. An artillery officer whom we knew well by now motioned us to hop into his keep, which we did, camera on shoulder and microphone wires wound around the wrist. Within minutes of speeding through the deserted streets of Drass, we were standing next to a Bofors gun. The gun was pointed skywards, directly at Tiger Hill, which seemed almost within hugging distance. “Stand there and get ready to speak,” yelled my cameraman Ajmal Jami, shoving the microphone into my hands and pushing me closer to the gun. It was about five in the evening, when the guns fired the first round, and for the next 13 hours, we would be a witness to a battle unfolding before our eyes and recorded on our cameras, bewildered, tense, nervous and struggling to keep pace with the twists and turns of a story that could have ended either way.
Within seconds, huge mushroom clouds of smoke were dancing over the entire area, as if to the beat of an invisible orchestra that made its presence known through deafening and staccato sounds. “Run from here, get out quickly,” yelled the commanding officer, as his own men looked for corners to hide in, “they’re going to hit back now”. Swimming in dust and smoke, we fled the spot, searching frantically for the next point, right at the foothills of Tiger Hill where we were told a rocket launcher was getting ready to begin the second phase of the attack.
Rocket launcher – what a strange, cold feeble term to describe what happened next. Streaks of blazing, orange light dashed across the entire length of the horizon at what seemed like the speed of light. The skies crackled with the sharp piercing, electrical sound of rockets taking off, one after the other, hundreds of them in a matter of seconds. In the midst of this, I was trying to say something suitably coherent into my microphone, knowing that here there would be no Take 2s. No one had any idea what would come next. And although I nearly jumped out of my skin the first time a rocket went whizzing past my head, once again the tension of keeping pace with events blocked out the sense of danger. Within minutes there were only four of us left standing on the road. Rockets had invited immediate retaliation – it was raining shells on Drass – not the intermittent, sporadic shelling that we had witnessed on the highway, but direct, concentrated and ceaseless bombing. Chaos broke out, as hordes of people – journalists and army men – were jostling, pushing, tripping over each other to somehow get out of there. In front of us, bodies collapsed into small heaps on the ground, enveloped by orange flames rising from the road because of the impact of the shells. Miraculously as we waded through this burning maze, Kami never stopped rolling his camera, prodding me to keep on recording my observations. There were those who saw these images on television and accused us of glamourising the war, of giving it a “larger than life” image. But the truth is that in those hours we were mere chroniclers and the story unfolding before us was larger than any reality most of us had ever known.
By now, the road was deserted and we were just running with no idea of where we were headed, when an arm shot out to catch me. It was an officer I had never met before, a young major with a bunker just off the road-head. We were all shepherded inside, only to discover that we were sharing that tiny space with dozens of others. There we sat one atop the other, someone’s leg atop another’s back, waiting for further news. Outside, Drass was enveloped in darkness and the war raged on, seeming to get louder and louder. Inside, and I will never forget how stunned I was at the juxtaposition, a decrepit little tape recorded was belting out a Hindi pop song. Guns. Shells. Film Songs. At that moment, for all the power of the camera, I felt I would never be able to convey the strangeness of this war, how moments like this pulled you in and left you completely confused and inarticulate. Humming along with the music, the soldiers seemed unperturbed and it would have been easy to confuse that calmness with a gung-ho endorsement of the war. But to understand these boys, was to know that the outward calmness was merely their painstakingly learnt formula for dealing with a situation they had no space to question. The army was a cold taskmaster, an effective indoctrinator, cultivating in its followers the art of fatalistic acceptance. Time and again, we’d heard officers pleading with their brigades that they were not ready to “go up” at a given time – either for military reasons, or just because they were sapped of strength, But when the orders came, they through their packs of cigarettes into their rucksacks and started the trudge up with this suppressed pain. That would come bursting out if you scratched the surface just a bit.
There was this one officer in the bunker the night of the Tiger Hill assault, whose eyes were half-crazed, but filled with sadness, the eyes of a man who wanted desperately for this war to end, for his “boys” never to have to climb another mountain. Ever. Sensing the intensity of his rage, his junior officer, who was only 21, would constantly crack cavalier jokes about life and death. But when word came that their unit had to go up again, he turned around and said quietly, “I can feel my whole life passing in front of my eyes, like a short film. I can see all my loves and my fears. But I know I can’t afford to think about it, can I?”
Thirteen hours on, at the crack of dawn, we toasted the ‘victory’ mat Tiger Hill by passing around a casket of gin. An entire lifetime had been lived in that one night. Later, still crouched in one corner of the bunker, I watched as the euphoria crumbled and collapsed, when the orders for the next assault came in. The unit was to move up that very evening. Would they survive to tell the tale this time around? The Hindi pop song had been replaced by a Kenny Rogers cassette. Country music in the hills was our flimsy veil, our wall to hide behind. It was time to return to the moth-ridden, no-electricity, no-water Hotel Siachen in Kargil. If I hadn’t been so conscious of being a woman reporter, whom everyone expected to be fragile, I would have cried openly and loudly, instead of burying my head in my shirtsleeves. And if someone had asked me why I was crying, I am not sure I would have known the answer.
I know that in the eyes of some, my reportage from Kargil made me a bigoted agent of the Indian nation-state. Ultimately, as long as we do not question the nation-state, as long as we map borders and then learn our geography in different schools, we as journalists cannot escape the stamp of our citizenship surfacing in our reportage. All we can do is be honest to ourselves, and know that there is a truth that exists with as much validity outside the one we choose to pen. One man’s mujahedeen is always another man’s terrorist. And moreover, certain situations are larger than life itself – they are in the end, human stories, stories of people, which draw you in emotionally.
I have no doubt that were I reporting from the frontline on the other side of the divide, it would have evoked as varied and intense a set of emotional responses in me. Our only choice as journalists is to be emotionally honest; to have the courage to give voice to more than one truth. The irony is that, since Kargil, most of my energies have been spent reporting from the ravaged lands of Jammu and Kashmir, trying to bring to life the stories of the human beings trapped between the battle lines. It is reassuring that the label I have been branded with this season is “anti-national”. A friend of mine likes to say, if every side hates you, it must mean you are doing something right.
~This article was first published in our June 2001 issue.
~Barkha Dutt is a journalist based in New Delhi, who is currently a columnist for the Washington Post and a contributing editor at The Week.