I had not heard of Kargil till it made the headlines in the summer of 1999. Like everyone in India we followed the news in those days and debated the whys and wherefores of the conflict between the Indian and Pakistani armed forces. We all heaved a sigh of relief on July 26, 1999 when the war came to an end. Slowly the headlines changed to whatever was the burning issue of the time and barring a few mentions Kargil became another name stored away in memory.
Last summer when planning a road trip to Ladakh, Kargil became a destination on our itinerary. A nondescript hill town with a swollen, muddy river flowing down the center was my first impression as we pulled into the town late in the evening. A river in a rush were the last sounds I heard before I dropped into a tired slumber. The next morning was bright and sunny, looking out from the hotel window at the snow covered ridges surrounding Kargil was a treat in itself, the Suru River was still muddy, but now in the daylight the town looked charming.
We did not linger long there and headed towards out on the Srinagar-Leh Highway towards The Dras War Memorial. Do take a local guide to point out the various points of interest along the way or you will miss out on a lot many details. Our guide pointed out the towering wall that the Engineering Corps of the Indian Army built in a single night to protect from shelling the road that is the supply lifeline of the rest of Leh and Ladakh. We stopped to gaze in wonder at the Indus that starts its journey in India and the Saru as it flowed into Pakistan. There was no barrier and the unbound waters danced on unaware from my country to the other. As I gazed across the landscape the guide pointed out to bunkers on ridges that belonged to Pakistan, I was struck by an oft heard abstract thought that became so real there that nature does not create barriers, humans do. The land on both sides of the LOC is the same, similar flora and fauna, even the people including the soldiers and yet the divide is so great that so much of our human potential just goes into drawing up lines of demarcation.
The landscape as we drove towards the Kargil War Memorial in Dras on both sides was breathtakingly beautiful with snowcapped mountains visible in the distance and rolling hills of soft green grass, rivers flowing on one side and fields being tilled on the other. Signposts along the way ominously remind you of the area being under temporary ceasefire. Then from a distance the guide pointed out Tiger Hill, the decisive 11 hour battle here had turned the tides in our favor on July 4, 1999, after which the Indian Army had regained control of Dras and soon managed to drive the insurgents away. There was silence in our car after that. Soon we were at the Memorial, Vijaypath built by the Indian Army in Dras with Tiger Hill overlooking it.
The sandstone wall in the open has the names of all the army personnel who laid down their lives during the Kargil War. Your breath will catch in your throat as your eyes skim over each name. Walking into the Manoj Pandey War Gallery you will experience the war recounted with every step that you will take melting even the most hardened heart at the ultimate sacrifice of our soldiers. As tears flow down your cheeks the epitaphs on each tombstone will humble you. The freedom that we enjoy comes at a price that the soldier pays to protect us. I did not lose any loved one in the Kargil conflict. I was not affected by it in any way till that day that I stood at this monument of bravery and courage of the Indian soldier and my heart was full of pride and my eyes full of tears. The silence here was palpable, what a contrast to those days and nights of the summer of 1999 when guns thundered and patriotism bloomed in the hearts of those brave men who laid down their lives while I slept safe in my bed.