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Redefining the word ‘Service’

Redefining the word ‘Service’
The recent terrorist attack on Pathankot airforce base once again highlighted the stupendous sacrifices that Indian soldiers make every day to safeguard the country. In times of hostility, the soldiers fight for our motherland till their very last breath. However, we tend to forget that these brave men and women are not only there for us during times of war but stand by us during any and all emergencies and crisis - whether it is rescuing lost travelers, airlifting Indian nationals from hostile situations, flood relief, or repairing damaged roads- theirs is a 24x7 job.

My first-hand experience of the Army’s rescue operation when stranded after a cloudburst in Ladakh during July-August 2015,  has left me in awe. The fact that Army officers risked their lives like they do in the battlefield to make sure the tourists reach home safely have only deepened my faith in the Indian armed forces. It will not be an exaggeration to say that I owe my life to them (and also to the warm-hearted locals who helped us all the way, even while facing a great personal loss of property).

Our trip to Ladakh was going just fine, as scheduled in the travel itinerary. The long drive to Khardung La and Nubra Valley through the picturesque countryside was wonderful. The trouble started the night we reached Nubra Valley. The light drizzle turned into torrential rain and the sky was overcast. However, we couldn’t fathom that it was a cloudburst until we reached Diskit the next day. The entire road was washed away leaving a huge gorge in the middle. With only one crane working on that road full of slush and mud, there was no way that the road could become motorable. After waiting for more than eight hours on the road, we went back to Nubra Sarai where we had put up the previous day. We only prayed that it did not rain more. All communication lines were disrupted and we were really worried about our family. Many tourists requested the Army officials to help them to get in touch with their families, but their situation was not any better. All the supply lines were cut and it was difficult to know what obstacle was lying ahead. Given the limited time and resources, army officials had to stay up the entire night and filled up the gorge and repaired the entire road at Diskit. When we saw the road next day it was hard to believe that there was a huge gorge there just a few hours back.

After an hour’s drive we reached T-More (it was a crossroad) and here we realised the actual impact of the cloudburst. The torrential rain led to a landslide and a six kilometres stretch was completely washed away by the gushing river, leaving behind just the boulders and slush. No cranes or human effort could do anything to repair the road within a short span of time. Many foreign tourists had to board international flights the next day. After hours of agonising wait, many tourists decided to go back to Diskit and request for government help. Our group comprised eight people who chose to camp near the two shops on the cross road and sleep in the car. Another big group of tourists also camped at the junction along with us. An Army official came in the evening and took stock of the situation and he promised to arrange for some food. He was true to his word and a huge truck came at around 10 at night and the Army officials served quite delicious food to all of us camping near the crossroad. The quantity of food was huge since it was meant for all the tourists who were waiting at T-More till evening.

Our guide Sangdup and two of the drivers belonging to our group had crossed the landslide the day before. He was prudent and sent one of the drivers back to his village from where he would be able to call the agency head and arrange for two cars to pick us up from Khalsar. The driver who was sent back to his village, his home and his shop (his alternate sources of income) were washed away by the river. Despite this personal crisis, he made it a point to arrange for cars to pick us up. Our guide Sangdup and driver were very supportive as well; they took the risk of crossing the landslide and made these arrangements beforehand so that we didn’t have to wait for long like other stranded tourists. The owner of the shop, Gyaltsen and his crew along with our guide Sangdup made sleeping arrangements for the family that camped at the shop during the night. They bought pillows, blankets and mattresses from a hotel at Turtuk (three kilometres from where we were stranded, this is the base camp for Siachen). Gyaltsen also made it a point to cook dinner for us before the Army truck arrived with food. The generosity of the locals touched our hearts. They treated us as guests and made sure that we faced no discomfort.

The next day we crossed the landslide as planned. It was an uphill task to cross the six kilometres  stretch strewn with boulders and covered in soft mud. Some parts of the road were washed away by the furious river flowing along the road, a misstep and you land there. Once we covered the stretch we felt a little relieved, but that feeling was short-lived. As soon we reached the end of the road we found that Khalsar was swept away by the river leaving behind just the rubbles. The Army official there told us to wait since the river had changed its course and a stream that was gushing past the village made it perilous to cross to the other end of the road. As we were waiting, the Army again announced that “now is the right time to cross the stream”. A couple of jawans held our hands and helped us to cross to the other end. As we reached the other end we had to climb on top of rubble that we guessed was a terrace of a small hut of this village. The destruction caused due to this cloud burst was massive. After crossing the rubble, we were faced by another gushing stream that had to be crossed by a ladder. The officials held on to the ladder as we crossed. He advised us not to look down at the river but to concentrate on the steps we take. We held on to the rope as we crossed this stream and then walked a little ahead and climbed on the metalled road. We just couldn’t believe that we had crossed a landslide and two gushing streams, the whole thought was a little overwhelming.

Whenever I think about Ladakh I think about the army’s efforts in helping us crossing the two gushing streams. It also reminds me of the warm plate of food served to us as were stranded under the dark night sky. It was an adventure of sorts for us and a “good” story to be told to relatives back home, but for the locals, it is a daily fight for survival against the odds. After this life changing experience, I can only remember these brave saviours with reverence. For them it was duty, for us it was a breath of fresh life gifted to us again!

(The views expressed are strictly personal)
Surela Chakraborty

Surela Chakraborty

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