We damaged all the weapons and supplies we found there as quickly we could and threw them down the mountain. The cache was more than enough to sustain a platoon for a week. It had taken us almost 3 hours to march to the camp from our ingress point which was more or less up an incline along with a forced stop of 35-40 minutes due to bad weather. We reckoned that we could make it back in less than 3 hours with some luck. Zahid was gagged up, his hands tied tightly and feet loosely. So that he could just walk, not run. Major and I were to walk in front and behind him with a rope tied around his waist to keep watch. That box with a bomb was to be carried by rest of team members on turn by turn basis.
We had just 4 hours left before sunrise and we wanted to reach India back before Pakis got any hint.  Once everything was decided, I kicked  prisoner to his feet, who got up with a mix of fear and resignation in his eyes. Major was in his front while I was at rear. The sniper team was acting as our reconnaissance scouts and they had left a few minutes earlier to scan for any threats on our way back. If we had everything in our wishlist, a helicopter would have come in fast and low and picked us for the ex-filtration. Like they show Blackhawk helicopters swooping in at the climax of Behind Enemy Lines. But real life isn’t awesome like that. We had to walk back to our base across the border while carrying a dirty nuclear bomb and escorting a highly dangerous and uncooperative terrorist in the dark through a very treacherous mountainous terrain. I was not even sure that our soldiers on sentry duty on border had any idea of this operation. It was quite likely that they’d shoot us if they saw us trying to cross the border from enemy’s side. I just hoped that the old Colonel back home had taken care of at least this thing. 
Till that point, almost everything had went exactly according to the plan. But after 35 minutes of marching, the the scout team reported two men walking on the trail leading up to the camp from other side. Both were carrying torches and we could see the small specks of light bouncing off the rocky path across the ridge. A sniper shot at that distance was impossible and they were only a few minutes walk away from the camp. So sending someone to dispose of them was also not an option. There was really no way to mask the approach and they  would’ve reached the campsite long before anyone from our team could reach within killing distance. Major ordered us to make the best of whatever little time we had left before discovery and we picked up pace dragging a very reluctant yet afraid Zahid with us. When he showed some hope of rescue and defiance after seeing those two Pakistanis, a tight punch on his face from the Major changed his body language almost instantly. Inspite of what he taught his terrorist disciples, he himself valued his own life and complied to our  orders.
Our exfiltration route was nearly the same way as our infiltration route and I recognised a few landmarks like a nearly round boulder and couple of  big trees which are quite rare in these mountains. We  just had 5 ridges to cross before we reached the border fencing area but there was no trail or path. We had to trust our GPS devices and handheld maps for navigation in near pitch dark conditions inside hostile enemy territory and to cross the border back home. Although we were in range of our big artillery guns, we couldn’t really rely 100% on them or air support for that matter in that kind of terrain. Every extra gram of equipment on the body matters in such a situation. We were marching as fast as we could under the circumstances and I never thought that was fast enough.
25 minutes had gone by since we had seen those 2 torch lights and we were reasonably sure that the Pakis would launch a search mission any moment. The first indication came in the form of muffled blasts from west. A few seconds later, the sky in that direction turned red for some time. That was caused by their mortar fired illumination rounds. This round instead of exploding, goes 400-500 meters up in air and deploys an intense source of light by parachute illuminating the surroundings in bright light for up to 30-40 seconds. The rounds were quite a distance away from us but were not that far from our exfil point. With some good luck, we could avoid getting detected.
We picked up the pace but job of carrying that heavy load of bomb and escorting a cunning prisoner over tough terrain made it highly tiring and stressful. We still managed to make good progress and had reached just about halfway when a Paki army’s Mi-17 helicopter flew over our heads. We threw ourselves to the ground and hoped that they had missed us. But it seemed to be running a search mission in grid pattern and flew over our location 2 times again before flying away. Although we couldn’t be sure but it was quite likely that we had been spotted.
We had marched for 15 minutes more when the same helicopter came again flying just 50-60 meters from the undulating ridges and a machine gun from it’s side opened fire on us. We all ducked to find cover and tried to return fire. After finding itself under fire , the helicopter moved some distance away from our field of fire on the ridge further up on our way and started hovering. As we watched ,Paki soldiers started slithering out from a rope and started landing on a ridge slightly higher than us.  By this time,  Shanky had managed to get a fix on the helicopter and fired a 80 mm rocket which hit the engine just below the main rotor.  There was an explosion and the Mi-17 fell careening on the edge of ridge before sliding down the mountain’s side in a blaze of fire and screeching metal.
But we had little time to celebrate as the deployed Paki soldiers were right in our way and we had to neutralise them fast. Shanky had downed the chopper quickly but apparently not fast enough as the surviving Paki soldiers started raining accurate rifle fire on us, Frontal charge was an option but almost suicidal with little chance of survival for us. So Major ordered a flanking action from the right. Bheem took position behind a rock with his INSAS LMG and started firing quick bursts to provide cover. Major and I took flanking positions and started suppressive fire while rest of our squad maneuvered to reach a better firing position.
I was still firing when a rifle grenade exploded a few meters ahead of me temporary disorienting and showering me with small rocks and rubble. But another one targeted towards Bheem’s LMG was more accurate. It destroyed his gun and left him with shrapnel wounds on face, neck and hands knocking him unconscious. I crawled to his aid and dragged him to cover before starting firing again. But our covering fire had given enough opportunity to rest of our squad members who had managed to get better firing positions and destroyed the enemy squad in no time by grenades and rifle fire.
Once the guns fell quiet my attention was diverted towards Bheem was was regaining his consciousness and moaning in pain. I applied field dressing as best as I could and left him to look for the prisoner. Major had blindfolded him and left him in some cover with rope wedged tightly against a rock. Zahid had wisely not risked his life and tried to break free during the fire fight as he couldn’t see a thing. Major took his blindfold off and motioned him to walk in front of him. I carried the box which Viru had dropped when the helicopter had started firing and started moving towards rest of the squad.
We reached there quickly but  a headcount sank our hearts. Viru was missing and the last that anyone had seen him when we were all ducking to cover under the helicopter’s machine gun fire. During firefight, rest of the squad had assumed that he was with us. Shanky and Rana left immediately to look for him back on the lower ridge while we tended to Bheem’s wound. He could walk without support but needed to get proper treatment fast. We were really nervous about staying in any single place for any amount of time, but we don’t leave a comrade behind. Jaggi and Subhash had moved on further to scout for enemy reinforcements and reported clear. A few minutes later, Rana came back with a stoic face and just a human arm wrapped in his poncho. Apparently that was what left of Viru when helicopter started firing. He couldn’t find cover fast enough and the heavy machine gun fire had killed him almost instantaneously. His body had probably rolled down the cliff in to the gorge below and we had no way of retrieving it.
We had no time to grieve though. Viru had died on a mission and it was our responsibility to make sure that his sacrifice was not in vain.Major radioed back to the base and informed them of the situation. Colonel was still there and he informed us that the UAV had just reached station and started beaming back live feed. That was good news for us as we could expect fire support from our guys.  But we still had about 80-90 minutes of difficult journey before us while being chased by the enemy.
Within a few minutes our UAV picked up 3 Paki units moving on foot to intercept us on our direct path. Their coordinates were passed on to our 130 mm  guns in our area of operation. They let loose a barrage of deadly anti-personnel rounds on each patrol which must have come us a complete shock to the enemy. 2 of the intercepting units were decimated while the third one seemed to stopped moving after finding some cover. But this volley of fire from our side goaded Pakistanis in to firing back with their own guns both across the border as well as in our general direction.
By this time, they didn’t have any definite idea of our exact location, so their artillery and mortar shells were way off mark. As we reached closer, the duels between the two sides gained momentum with neither side holding anything back. It was serious enough for us to get worried about a blue on blue incident. The whole region was a war zone with machine gun rounds,  heavy mortar and artillery shells streaking in every direction.
Unluckily for us, our movement was spotted somehow and the heavy caliber fire in our direction got more accurate. Two mortars fell close enough to shower us with shrapnel and rubble. Third one fell almost in front of our squad injuring Vikram who got shrapnel wounds on his arms and thigh. He was given basic first-aid as we stopped and tried to find cover. But we had to keep on moving as mortars with their high trajectory are very good in finding targets even in mountains. If their guns too started firing at us at the same time, we’d be all but dead. But Pakis had very little left to target us with when their mortar crew was taken out by fire from our side. We heard the explosions as our shells crashed at their post and obliterated it.
We sprinted across the border with leftover Paki soldiers spraying some random fire in our general direction and reached the road without further incident. There was a feeling of relief and joy about a job well done even though we were all weighed down by loss of Viru. A truck and a gypsy were waiting for us to take us back. I climbed in to the truck first and fell asleep.
I woke up when we reached our base and we all got down. Major was not with us, probably was in the debriefing meeting. We were are looking forward to get a hot shower, a heavy breakfast and then some sleep. But we were called immediately in to the debriefing room as soon as we disembarked. We walked inside to find the Colonel and some other staff waiting for us. We all took our seats and waited expectantly. After a few minutes, Colonel asked us about whereabouts of the Major and we stared blankly back at him. Someone from our squad said that he had taken the Gypsy along with Zahid and the bomb.
“What bomb ?”, he asked incredulously ?
We all looked at each other before Jaggi stood up to reply, ” The dirty nuke that we found at the camp, the one major told you about and asked permission to carry back. “
“You found a nuke ?” Colonel looked like he was about a pop a vein . “And who ordered it to carry it back to our territory and where the hell is Major ?”
The atmosphere in the room suddenly got tense from celebratory .
Jaggi explained the whole story as quickly as possible to the debriefing staff who looked at us like we were hostile aliens. After Jaggi finished, Colonel asked when did we last saw Major, Zahid and the dirty bomb ?
I had last seen him as I climbed up in the truck and assumed that he was taking the Gypsy or had climbed in to the truck after me. But rest of the squad said that he had put bomb in Gypsy, tied and blindfolded Zahid on the backside and got in to the driver’s seat asking the driver of vehicle to travel back in the truck.
One of the staff officers present ran outside immediately and came back a few minutes later as we were interrogated further. Apparently the Gypsy never arrived and they couldn’t contact it on radio or trace it anywhere.  Even to a low ranking soldier like me, it was pretty clear that something somewhere was amiss. Our squad volunteered to go out to look for Major but were denied permission and told to keep our mouths shut. We walked out of the room to our barracks, highly confused and tense. There are some other things which happened but nothing what I know much about. My part in the story ends here .

Perhaps if we had kept 1-2 terrorists alive then we had a better chance, but we had only Zahid and no one in our team was ready to trust that feral pig. But he was the only chance that we had and we took it. He was dragged inside the hut and thrown in front of box face down.  It was hard to read his facial expressions at that time but he did stare at the box for some time before looking back at us. Even then I noted that his stare fell back only at the Major, not anyone else.
He walked up to the Zahid, grabbed him by his hair and put his knife on neck of the prisoner.  Then he brought his face close to prisoner’s and growled, “Now you’re going to tell me what’s  in the box  or I will cut your throat just enough to make sure that you bleed to death in a long and agonising way.  Trust me, I’d rather cut you to a million pieces while you’re still alive rather than take you back. Now I’m going to take off this cloth off your face and you are going to tell me what’s inside and you’re going to tell just that. Do you understand me ? “
While the Major was doing this, he had pressed the knife to Zahid’s throat hard enough to draw blood and his eyes were streaming tears probably due to pressure on his head and neck and as well as due to fear.  He just blinked his eyes and gestured towards the knife silently begging the Major to remove it. Bheem advanced and removed the gag from his mouth. Zahid perhaps wanted to get his arms free too but the icy stare from soldiers in his field of view stopped him from asking for it. As the Major left his hair, he let his head fall down on the floor and sobbed. Major yanked his head up again by hair and gave him a loud smack across the face which must have loosened atleast a couple of Zahid’s teeth. He hissed again, ” Are you going to tell me what I want to know or do you want to be cut in to pieces ? “
Zahid had recovered from the smack just enough to moan a vehement no. He tried to sit up and was yanked up by the arms in to a sitting position. He moved his gaze towards the box and said simply, “It’s a bomb”.
Major nodded, walked around to the back of cowering terrorist and asked, ” What kind and why are you carrying it that way?”
“It is not an ordinary bomb. It is what you call a dirty bomb. No nuclear reaction but the fallout caused by spread of radioactive material is enough to contaminate a small town.”
” Where did you get this from and what was your target ?”
“What do you think ? Anywhere in that kafir filled land that we could take it.”
He had just finished uttering these words only to be smacked again across the mouth. His cheek started to swell up and his eyes were streaming copious amount of tears.
Major let him moan and writhe in pain before speaking again, ” Now you are going to answer just what I asked, no attempts at being funny or cryptic. Why did one of your students jumped on it instead of going for a grenade or a gun ?”
Zahid held up his hands in front of his face in anticipation of another blow, ” I don’t know ! May be he wanted to kill you all ? “
Major walked around Zahid and squatted to bring himself on eye level with the terrorist. He stared at him for a while before saying, “If that’s the case, then why shouldn’t I make you open the case right now ?”
To be honest, I was not very comfortable with the idea but if anyone else felt the same way, it was not enough for them to speak up and everyone in the hut remained quiet. Zahid looked past the major at the box and shrugged, ” I could do that but it is just what I told you, nothing more. There will be an explosion of 4-5 kg of RDX, whoever is within 35-40 meters will be dead or severely injured and people within a few hundred meters or may be kilometer will get severe radiation poisoning. No one will die in a second or perhaps even a month even if I throw what’s inside at any of you. This bomb even if it’s rigged with more explosive and exploded in a crowded city street will lead to only a few hundred immediate causalities if extremely lucky. It is all about making a point, not increasing the kill count by thousands or lakhs,”
 At this point, we had no reason to trust Zahid, but it was simply a thing which we couldn’t pass up. Capturing him was our primary mission and if what he was saying was true, that would change the whole equation of Pakistani terrorism. The job of opening it was better done by the experts, not by us. It was the best decision we could make at that point under the circumstances. Some of us had doubts about the whole carrying back the bomb inside Indian territory considering it was part of plan of the terrorist, but some one above me had the to take final call for it and he ordered us to take it back with us. Major went out for few minutes and came back to order that the bomb to be carried back.

For this mission we had to choose a small, mobile yet sufficiently armed group of men. Major wanted only 10 other men to accompany him and each one of them volunteer from our unit. Every hand went up when we were called in to CO’s office and listened of the Major’s plan to go into the Paki territory for some mission. He personally chose each member based upon he soldier’s specialty and his own personal opinion while CO just sat and smoked quietly. After that, the chosen ones were given full mission briefing along with warning of severe consequences if we let one word about the mission out to anyone unless given explicit permission to do so. We had just enough time to get our equipment and weapons and leave as time was short. The men who had been left out gave us curious glances but we just helplessly shrugged our shoulders. We left at 1900 hours jut after sunset on a covered truck and were on our egress point on LoC about one hour later. The truck went back after dropping us . The egress point was chosen due to it’s lack of any enemy post nearby which could spot us. The nearest enemy post which could prove to be a nuisance was about 1 km away hidden behind numerous mountain ridges. Even though, we had butterflies in our stomach as we crossed over to PoK under the cover of darkness. After that, it was a long walk to our destination the while trying to escape being noticed by Pakis when the rain storm caught us.

I was half dozing when I realised that the noise due to rain and had stopped. I woke up with a start and checked my watch. We had stopped for only 20 minutes . Most members of my squad were already up checking and strapping up their gear. Within a few minutes we were all ready to move. Major got us all in a huddle and said, “Our UAV had to go back to the base due to bad weather. Now we’ll be able to get it back on station only after 100-110 minutes. But there is nothing to worry. We are very near our destination. As we had expected, Pakis have withdrawn most of their patrols to their forward posts in order to help with their covering fire. They’ll remain pinned there by our own fire when we give the word.” He grinned, “This is going to be one long crazy night for those basturds. Now lets move. ”

Walking on mountain was even more difficult due to snow banks, mud and wet slippery rocks. It slowed down our progress a little but we were on our checkpoint soon enough. Our first way point was a small Paki army post adjacent to a small goat trail which split in to two going towards their larger camp. According to intelligence, it was lightly guarded and used only by mules and porters as a temporary shelter on their way to LoC. From aerial photographs, it was just 2 tin sheds on a comparatively flat area on a ridge. The camp ground itself was a flat roughly circular area no more than 30 meters in diameter A diversion from the trail divided it in to two parts. One had a small hut made of wood, stone and tin sheets and the other side only had a small tent. That night the camp ground was occupied by Hussain and his bunch of trainee terrorists.

Our UAV had caught the group walking on the trail leading to this camp and they were sure to come this way unless they took to climbing full height of mountains in darkness. Through better part of it’s length it was barely wide enough for a single person to place a single foot. Only the ocassional Paki army patrols and their beloved wild goats ever put their feet on it as the terrain area wasn’t conductive for human habitation. There were dozens of boulders all over the mountains and often it just took a single push to roll them down the steep slope. There was sparse vegetation in form of various small bushes and grasses. Little else grows on such mountains at such altitudes and trees are few and far in between. There were big patches lacking any sort of vegetation mostly due to big bare rocks. Other times it was due to snow and landslides. Parts of the ground were still covered by big and small snow deposits which had not melted by then. This made detailed planning of routes and waypoints very difficult. It’s not always possible to plan a mission like this just by the maps and a lot of work and improvisation is needed for any chance of success.

After one more hour of walking, we checked our bearings on GPS a little more closely. According to maps, we were very near the camp but we had not spotted it yet. No trace of fire or light either. Our sniper team broke away to scout for the camp. Rest of us found a spot to huddle up under cover. I had butterflies in our stomach now that that we were so close. If any one else was feeling the same, he didn’t show it. After a few minutes, which seemed like hours to me, the scouting team came back. They had spotted the camp on a small bump of a hill less than 100 m from our location. It was on an elevated clearing at some height from the trail and thus not visible for most part from the path we took.

After a little talk, we split up in to 3 different teams. The sniper and Carl Gustav guys took a circuitous path around the ridge and took positions at some height from the camp to provide cover and warning of any enemy approah. Rest of us sneaked upwards slowly without making a sound. A strong breeze was blowing which helped cover the sound of our footsteps. Through my nigh vision device, I spied 2 Paki soldiers sitting in front of a sheltered fire-place leaning against wall of hut on left, apparently in deep sleep. The fire itself was long extinguished, most likely due to rain. It takes more than just exhaustion to sleep in that kind of weather and position. Probably army issue liquor or high quality gaanja. They died more or less peacefully in their sleep. We had expected at least 1-2 more soldiers, but a careful reconnaissance showed none outside. By this time, most of the clouds had dissipated and moon was throwing some light on ground every now and then.

Two of our guys slowly crawled forward to take a look inside the hut. There was a small glass window on the side opposite to door on each. Ordinarily it was impossible to see inside a dark room from outside by naked eye, but there are ways. One guy switched on his infra-red light and pointed it through the glass. Figures of 10 men sleeping in 2 rows on the floor were clearly visible in night vision goggles. One wall of the hut was lined with Klashnikov rifles, some heavy looking bags and rucksacks, Presumably the weapons and supplies carried by the group.

There was only one pair of boots outside the only tent in the ground. Our best guess was that it was occupied by our most wanted man Zahid. He was a short, squat man, with a long scar running down his left cheek which parted his long bushy beard. We had seen his ugly mugshot on our units board a hundred times and knew it well. So there was almost nil chance of any mistaken identity.

Our squad divided in two. 2 men took positions on each one of the exits of the camp. 2 men were assigned to cover the tent while rest were assigned to clear the hut. In order to maintain stealth, we had to do everything with as little noise as possible. Contrary to what’s shown in movies, firearms with silencers are not silent. Even the best military grade silencers can’t lower the noise to anything less than 120 decibels. A sound like this in uninhabited mountains echoes and travels a long distance. Our whole plan hinged to being quiet and stealthy. So use of a firearm was a matter of last resort. That left us with knives; silent, efficient and brutal.
But there was one small problem of storming the hut without waking up everyone. Any noise could’ve woken up the terrorists inside and made our job a lot more difficult and probably endanger the mission and our lives. After a few minutes of brainstorming, we eventually agreed on opening the door as quietly as possible and pounce on sleeping terrorists before they knew what hit them.
But we had a stroke of luck when one of the terrorists woke up to take a leak and opened the door for us. He was quickly grabbed, debriefed and dispatched. Inspite of his love for hoors in jannat he blabbered on and begged for mercy before he was silenced. That left 9 sleeping targets for 7 of us. We assigned ourselves our targets and checked our weapons one last time

My team lined up besides the door with knives in hand and pistols within quick reach before entering the hut.

I was second in line to enter the hut and was moving towards my assigned target on the extreme end of hut when he turned and opened his eyes. He probably registered imminent threat to his life quite soon and sat up bolt upright and shouted as I lunged towards him. He jumped up and moved towards where their luggage was instead of the guns which I had expected making me miss him by just centimeters. His shout was enough to awaken some of the sleeping terrorists inside the hut, but not enough to help them survive the murderous assault by my team. All of them were in process of being killed by a broken neck or severed arteries while he was trying to find something in a bunch of heavy looking rucksacks. A lot of us were chosen due to our proficiency for unarmed combat and it paid off. Apart from some muffled thuds and screams, no one outside the huts heard anything.

His decision of not going for guns proved fatal to him and he was killed just a few moments later.

Major had chosen himself and 1 other soldier as the team storming the tent and they went to work at the same time as my team. When we came outside , our hands and uniforms covered with the blood of Paki terrorists, we found Zahid with sitting on his knees in the mud with his hands tied and mouth gagged, staring in absolute disbelief at the Major. There was a hint of recognition in his eyes, or so I thought.

He was kept at gunpoint while we searched the site. We had no real need of carrying any of the terrorists’ weapons back with us. So we just made them unusable by breaking them as quietly as possible. We’d have rolled rest of the supplies down the slope from where most of them would end up in the stream but actions of that terrorist made us search each individual bag. more carefully. There were 2 satellite and 4 mobile phones which sometime prove to be a great source of intelligence and leads. This was entirely what we expected but the thing which captured our interest was a big plastic box inside one of the rucksacks where the last terrorist died.

My best guess was that it was a bomb which he was trying to explode in order to take us all down with him. It was the size of a thick carry on suitcase but heavy. It must have weighed atleast 25- 30 kgs. It had a simple latch system for locking it close.
At that time, we had no way of knowing if it was a bomb or we could safely open it. But last actions of that terrorist made it a very mysterious and potentially vital object which we could not leave without investigating. Carrying the whole thing back with us with all our gear was out of question without making sure and neither one of us felt comfortable enough to try opening the box without any required equipment.

My first posting was in some remote corner of Assam, not far from Guwahati. Till a few years back, the area was hotbed of numerous insurgent groups due to it’s proximity with Bangladesh border. But by the time I was posted there, the terrorist movement had lost most of it’s steam. There were still a few irritants mainly funded by China and Islamists but our good intelligence network and improved relations with Bangladesh ensued that the area was enjoying a period of peace. But we never let our guard down.

Life in an army cantonment where I knew no one except my colleagues wasn’t easy for me at first. I had thought that the time of those soul crushing drills, long marches etc was over with the completion of training. But I was wrong. Drills, albeit of a different variety were still a part and parcel of our daily routine. What was known as long march during our training period was replaced by even longer patrols. We had to wake up early at the crack of dawn and get ready to leave for patrol. Almost every other day the route changed . Maybe it was an attempt by our higher ups to prevent monotony, but I never knew. We were told to keep an eye open for suspicious characters, anything out of ordinary and all that. Nothing ever came up. It was always just a long walk carrying our rifles and a small bag of supplies.

Locals were not exactly hostile but they were not very friendly either. The insurgency which had lasted for decades had left them wary of both the militants as well as security forces. But I thought that confidence building measures initiated by army like the free medical camps and schools had a good effect. At least the kids loved us. Older generation was a little hostile to change but they were gradually coming over their mistrust of the uniform. In any case, army provided them with free medical care, education, relief operations and sometimes even transport without asking for anything in return. It was a better deal for them than militants who had scant regard for the same people for whom they claimed to be fighting for.

Due to peace and lack of any violence we had a fair amount of free time, but the remote place had little to offer in terms of entertainment. We had to endure a 90 minute long bumpy ride in an army truck if we wanted to watch a movie in the nearest town. Even the food was strange and mostly tasteless to my taste buds. Enduring such long ride for these meager rewards wasn’t exactly an appealing idea. I could drink my free time away on the cheap army liquor but I never liked alcohol that much. Only saving grace was the comparatively well stocked library. It wasn’t much but certainly was better than nothing. During my 6 months long stay there I read more books than I had read during my entire student life . I don’t know if it was my performance on field or in library which helped getting my name in list of a few men from my unit shortlisted for special counter insurgency training in Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJW) in Vairengte, Mizoram.

The six week long training that I got there was unlike anything that I had ever experienced. It was much harder, very unconventional and there were many occasions when I thought that I’d flunk it. We were taught to survive on just what jungle had to offer. We ate things and animals which we never even thought could be eaten. Instructors taught us to think, act and attack like guerrilla.

After successfully completing the grueling course, I came back to my unit. A few weeks later, I was posted to J&K as my first posting in an actual active combat zone . The place is a sensitive area due to it’s proximity with Line of Control and Pakistani attempts to push in terrorists. I volunteered and was accepted in to Ghatak Platoon which is tasked with some of the most difficult missions. I had my first taste of combat there and on 3rd week of my posting there. My platoon was credited with killing 4 Paki terrorists in two different operations. It”s usually during summers when the Pakis are most active due to favourable weather and lack of snow blocking their routes. During summer months when snow melts, usually in May till September, the LoC is a virtual war zone due to Pakistani firing in order to provide cover to their terrorists. Most of their attempts are thwarted due to the fence and our vigilance. A small fraction which manage to sneak in are usually hunted down like mad dogs within a few days. But this never stopped Pakis from….well, being Pakis. Over the last few years, number of infiltration attempts had came down as terrorists lost their support even amongst the most rabidly Islamist people in J&K, but apparently Pakis refused to learn. They still manage to get a steady supply of delusional, horny fools who think killing non-muslims or dying in process will get them 72 whores for eternity after death. At first it was surprising to see such people and hear of their ideology but then I realised that it’s the only expected behaviour from a country founded on principles of hatred and exclusivity.

Over the last few years, Pakis have grown more brazen and they think nothing of firing on our posts even when they aren’t providing cover fire to anyone. Their terrorists too have become more desperate as they try sneaking in through more difficult paths as we keep on closing the gaps. It’s an ongoing cat and mouse game with no end in sight till that scourge of violent Islamism is rooted out. Fat chance of that happening though.

Two weeks back, we got reports that Pakis were trying to push in a large group of terrorists numbering up to 10 from infiltration points near our area of operations. We had some intelligence about where they were staying before their infiltration attempt and support by Paki army being extended to them. They even had a SSG major deputed to command and get them safely across LOC. This Major Butt was involved in training as well as helping terrorists sneak in to Indian territory for a number of years. But the terrorist we were most interested in was Zahid Hussain, a highly wanted commander of Pakistani terrorist group, Lashkar-E-Taiba. Earlier he operated as self proclaimed ‘Area Commander’ recruiting young men as terrorists in terrorism affected areas of J&K. He did this by brain washing and often kidnapping vulnerable youth to force them in to joining LeT. He was infamous for his brutality, even for his own cadre who ever crossed his path. He was forced to flee after Indian Army tightened the noose and support for terrorism amongst local population waned. He resumed his ‘work’ in Pak Occupied J&K and Pakistani Punjab and had quickly risen in hierarchy of LeT . He was believed to be one of the strong contenders for the title of chief of the terrorist group once the current one died or removed. He had also made a lot of contacts in Paki polity, Islamic clergy as well as ISI over the last few years. Quite a few of the terrorists in the group were recruited by him during the last 2-3 years. In Pakistan, he operated openly under the patronage of Paki authorities, safely out of our reach.

If we managed to catch or kill Zahid, it’d have been a big victory for us and a major setback to LeT and Pakistan. But it was easier said than done. According to our intelligence, he was part of group only for the ‘moral support’. He himself was supposed to come up only till the LoC to ensure that as many as possible of his trainees could cross the border while he’d go back to indoctrinate some more fools back in his camps. We had no idea about their likely route of infiltration. With most of snow melting away during the last 2-3 weeks, they had a lot of places to sneak in as our fence had been damaged in heavy snowfall and landslides. Repair work was under progress but it was clear that Pakis will try pushing them in to our territory before we could plug all gaps. They had already stepped up their artillery as well as small arms fire to hamper the repair work as well as to create even more gaps in the fence. Our response was limited due to political pressure.
Even if their attempt to cross over didn’t succeed, it was quite likely that the terrorists might retreat and try to sneak in some other day. We had the chance to eliminate the bugger after such a long time and we were not going to let it slip away so easily.

Everything we had on our disposal was dedicated to this task. Frequency and duration of patrols were extended, work on repair of fence was stepped up and all of our intelligence sources put on overdrive. We had access to imagery by a few Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) but the numbers we had were not enough for kind of surveillance we wanted. Tracking a small group of men in heavily forested mountains is no easy task. But we had a stroke of luck in morning when one of our UAVs noticed a group of 5 men walking on a narrow trail leading from a small settlement towards LoC. Just a few hours later another group of 7 Paki terrorists was observed on an adjacent route 3 kms away from first one. According to reports sent in by our HUMINT (Human Intelligence) sources, Zahid was with the second group. Going by our guess, considering the terrain and their speed, they were less than a days walk away from the border.

The likely area for infiltration attempt by both groups happened to be under the grid of our battalion, so it was up to us to prevent it and to eliminate or capture Zahid if possible. One easy option was to wait for them to reach the LoC and then capture or kill them in as they tried to cross over. The problem with this approach was that they could have chosen any of the numerous breaches to cross over and we didn’t have enough manpower to set up ambushes on every breach. But the most important flaw was that we had no way to eliminate or ca[ture Zahid. The closest he’d come was some Paki post out of our sight, perhaps give a small pep talk and then slink away after sending his recruits in to jaws of death. Even if all of them died, it was no skin off his back. There are always more where they come from, each one thirsting to get in to that imaginary whorehouse they call jannat by killing non-muslims.

Second option was suggested by The Major who I suspected had a death wish. His plan was to take some men across the LoC on foot and setup an ambush on a location the terrorist group led by Zahid was sure to cross on their way. That meant we had to watch out for Paki army manning the border as well as their rear echelons which could come to aid of the terrorists. His solution was to keep them pinned down by fire from our side if necessary, as we ambushed the terrorist group. Our CO had to make a choice between the comparatively safer (for us) 1st option and riskier but more rewarding 2nd. He chose 2nd and this is how we found ourselves on a god forsaken mountain in middle of a very rainy night a few km inside enemy territory.

That long night, I found myself sitting under a rocky ledge on middle of a mountain trying to protect myself from the rainstorm in progress. Above me were dark clouds which had completely covered the night sky and 2 meters in front of me was a long, almost clean fall to a small mountain stream, 400 meters or so below. That stream flowed down to Indian territory about 3 kilometers from my position as the crow flies. Every few minutes, I tried to move my neck and squint in the general direction of border hoping to catch a glimpse of lights on border fencing. All I could see were flashes of thunder in distance which shadowed massive mountain peaks all around us. It was supposed to be a full moon night 3 days later, but the clouds covered every inch of the night sky. The mountain on which we were went on for another 600 meters or so above from our location but we were not here as mountaineers to climb it. The temperature was just marginally above freezing point but felt like the blood in my body had frozen over already. I could neither see or feel my fingers but I was sure that they must be an odd shade of blue by now, even under the high quality thermal gloves.

The rain was falling as if someone was pouring the water down by buckets and the ledge barely provided any shelter against the downpour. I was a bit careless with my waterproof parka. Apparently it’s good in keeping it’s wearer dry only if the buttons and zips are all tightly fastened which I had neglected to. At one time earlier, I was sweating due to the effort of walking on the mountain, and a few minutes later I was shivering due to cold. Some quantity of ice cold water managed to seep through folds of my clothing down to my spine and I assure you, it isn’t a nice feeling. My feet were still dry and comparatively warm due to those special shoes and socks but a large part of my combat trousers were soaking wet. Every few minutes a strong cold gust of winds blew in my direction bringing a bucketful water of ice cold rain along with it. Couldn’t even get up to piss without getting wet as a fish or worse tumbling down the mountain into the swollen stream below. Couldn’t even sleep even if I wanted to. Certainly not a nice feeling at all.

To make it worse, I couldn’t talk to anyone else. I didn’t knew what rest of men in my team are doing. We were sitting too widely spread apart to hold a proper conversation. Talking loudly or even in a normal way was out of question due to two reasons. First, the rainstorm was too loud. Second, we were on a covert operation. So talking loudly, lighting a match or lighter, checking mobile phone or any other activity that may reveal our presence was not allowed. Talking on radio was also prohibited unless absolutely necessary as we had to observe complete radio silence. Only the Major leading our party could speak, that too only when absolutely required. It’s not that he needed to shepherd us around anyway as we were all pretty well trained or at least I like to think so. We had left our base at 18:45 and were supposed to be on our objective by now. But this rainstorm came out of nowhere and forced us to take shelter right on the face of this mountain. Some of us wanted to press on, but the Major who is a veteran of numerous such missions ordered us to stop and I agreed with his decision. There was no path or even a proper trail on these mountains and one slip could result in a deadly fall down the rocks for hundreds of meters. Pressing on in such lousy weather without any source of light is virtual suicide. Hell, even the wind seemed strong enough to push a grown man off the mountain. Although we had some night vision devices between us, they were not enough for the whole squad to travel safely. We also needed to conserve the batteries for actual combat, if and when it happens. Better to wait out the rain rather than risking life and limb.

My attention was diverted by someone coughing and trying hard to stifle the sound. If I remember and identified the voice correctly it was probably our squad’s machine gunner Bheem. He was stocky, built like a tank but hated cold weather. It was a running joke in our unit that his cough and sneezes were louder than the firing sound of INSAS LMG that he carried. Just to make it clear, I’m using fake names and descriptions of certain people in my story have been changed for obvious reasons. Not mentioning ranks or parent unit of anyone in the squad apart from Major’s, but that may or may not come later.

Somebody close to Bheem, probably Harry threw a rock in his general direction which rolled down the slope and stopped a few inches away from my feet. During flashes of thunder, I could briefly see rest of my squad as we tried to wait out the worst of rainstorm. Subhash and Jaggi, our snipers were furthest from rest of us, but straight in my line of sight. Shanky, our only heavy fire support guy with his Carl Gustav was on my left, probably sleeping as he could manage to do in the most uncomfortable and least likeliest of places. Rest of our 11 man team including me, Major, Vikram, Pandit, Viru and Rana all carried AK-47s as our primary firearms and 9 mm pistols as secondary. We had to travel light, but had to wear heavy combat boots, upper body armour with two plates for back and front, a kevlar helmet, popularly called patka. All of it weighed around 12 kgs plus the additional gear like grenades, knife, water, basic climbing gear, radio, NVGs, utility belts and so on. There were 3 axes, wire and bolt cutters each between us and I was carrying one of the axes. We had very limited time to check all our equipment and had done most of this work while we were in the truck being transported to our staging area. I’d have brought something better to eat than the tasteless biscuit packs that I hurriedly grabbed if I had the time to think about it. But there was nothing better at the moment.

I was so sleepy that I’d have fallen asleep immediately if it weren’t for rain. Since I couldn’t sleep my brain was playing games by running images of my thoughts like a dream in my head.

As I fought the urge to doze off, my thoughts were diverted to my life before army. My parents were from a small mountain village in Garhwal region but I lived almost all my life in Pune where my father worked in a small factory. I was the younger of two children, my sister was 5 years older and a second mother to me. Living so far away from our native place, we didn’t have many people who shared most of our festivals, language or food habits, but we adjusted somehow. I was born there, so it wasn’t any difficult for me unlike my parents. My father often spoke of settling back in his village after retirement and living off his share of farm back there. Considering that he had two brothers, I doubted that our whole family could survive on that. Although I liked the mountains, school wok and distance prohibited me from visiting often. So inspite of having pahadi ( पहाड़ी ) genes inside me, I hardly had any exposure to mountains. During my annual visits, I was a source of amusement to my cousins and temporary playmates in the village who could run up hilly paths without any trouble while I huffed and puffed my way much behind them. I wasn’t fat or unfit, but it was just too difficult for a plains dweller like me

With time, these visits got shorter and more rare as school and other stuff took it’s toll. Things changed a bit when my sister got married to a armyman from our village when I was 16. I visited the village after a long time for the wedding ceremony and observed the simple but hard life of people there. It was not like we lived a life of luxury ourselves, but you had to be strong as well as hard working to live in a mountain village. At first, I wondered if my sister could adjust to the new life as she was as clueless about living in mountains as I was. But later I realised that she’ll be living with her husband wherever he was posted which happened to be in Rajsthan during the first year of their marriage. Things changed for me too as I finished school and enrolled in to a college for my graduation.

It was during the 3rd year of their marriage when tragedy struck. My brother-in-law stepped on a land mine while on a routine border patrol and got severely injured. I took leave from college and visited him in the military hospital in Delhi along with my parents. By the time we reached there, doctors had already amputated his left leg just above the knee. He had sustained injuries elsewhere too and most of his body was wrapped in bandages and plaster. His left arm was broken in three places, four ribs were fractured and had shrapnel wounds all over the body. Although my sister’s in-laws were there, my mother stayed with my sister to help her through while I and father came back after a few days. My college and his work couldn’t wait. Even after returning, I couldn’t stop thinking about my brother-in-law. His discharge from army was certain, he had lost more than half of his left leg and even with therapy and an artificial limb he’d never be able to walk as well he used to. I wondered how he would manage to move around in his village with an artificial leg. Army did gave him some monetary compensation, but was it enough considering that he wasn’t even 30 at that time ? He wasn’t that well educated or sophisticated to land a job in either private or government sector easily. Working in his family farms wouldn’t be an easy job either. They had a baby girl just about an year before that. What was her future in such a situation ?

It took 4 months for him in hospital to recover from his injuries after which he was discharged and fitted with an artificial leg. Training to use it and therapy took almost as long. He was finally able to go back home 9 months after the incident. Slowly he recovered and started to move around on his own with help of a walking stick. He also bought some land from the money that he had received from the army and started to work in the fields trying to rebuild his life. Although he couldn’t wok the way he used to earlier, it was still something. His strength and power of will never ceased to amaze me.

Life went on as usual for me in the meanwhile. I had appeared for my final year exams and was waiting for the results when I faced the worst day of my life. An out of control truck rammed the cab my parents were traveling in, killing them both on the spot. I was completely numb from the shock and hardly knew what was going on around me. My sister and brother-in-law rushed in as soon as they heard the news and after rituals were over and done with, took me with them to their home. It was a good change for me and I slowly started to recover from the grief. My uncles from my father’s side lived in the same village but I had only limited contact with them. They tried to help in their own ways and slowly things started to get back on track again. We didn’t have any property of our own in Pune except for some basic household possessions. My father’s meager salary hardly allowed for any luxuries or even a house of our own. Only property we had was the partial ownership of ancestral farmland in the village which was tilled by my uncles jointly. They generously offered to take me in, but it was obvious even to me that eking out a living just by land wouldn’t be enough. Besides they had children of their own. I needed a job fast.

I was getting more depressed when my b-i-l noticed it and asked me about it. He started taking me along to the farm to divert my mind. It was only then that I observed him closely for the first time. He had been really different in our previous meetings. First was during the wedding, a person hardly looks like a human being in an Indian wedding. Second time was when he was wrapped in bandages in hospital. Hardly normal on both occasions. So it was only after I had been living in his home for a few days, I realised what kind of a person he really was. Like most pahadi people, he woke up at th crack of dawn and performed pooja after bathing. After breakfast, he left for his fields nearby and sometimes came back for lunch or at other times it was carried to him. He did a lot of work himself but had hired some labourers to do the manual work which was no longer possible for him. He’d have needed labourers anyway even if he was totally fit. He came back home in the evening sometimes accompanied by a few friends and they had long chats, a lot of time over drinks which extended till sundown. He rarely if ever watched TV and went to bed early. In between, he found time to play with his daughter and help her with whatever little schoolwork the primary school entailed. Overall, a pretty normal life. Once over dinner, he told me that this was the life he actually wanted after retirement. Then laughed over the fact that the retirement had come too soon. I wondered if there was some regret in that laugh.

He was not only cheerful and happy with his life, but also was much fitter than me. Even with his artificial leg, he could walk faster than me even on inclined rocky paths on mountains as I struggled to keep up with him. Although he carried his walking stick all the time, it’s use was down to a bare minimum. It wasn’t like he was completely fit. He had suffered some hearing loss in one ear and his left arm and ribs were still not 100% healed. According to doctors, he needed therapy for full recovery. But that meant leaving his home and fields for 2-3 weeks every 3-4 months and live in a hospital 100s of KMs away. He once said to his wife who kept pestering him to go for the therapy, “I’ve had enough of those fancy doctors making me walk in water, do silly exercises and what not. All I need is weekly massage from the village barber and I’ll be fine.” He never complained about the pain and discomfort to anyone though. He patiently taught me the basics of farming, tending to animals and lots of related stuff. With him, I started to get over my depression but the question of what to do with my life was still there. One day while working on the farm, he was telling me an anecdote about his life in the army when I hesitantly asked if I could join the army.

His expression grew a bit serious at the question and he thought for a while before replying. ” I’ve thought about suggesting you to join the army, but you know what happened to me. Sure, there are lots of good things about the army, but theres always the chance of things happening.” He grew silent for a few seconds then said, “Do you want that risk ” ?

“Tell me one thing that’s really safe . My parents died just like that while traveling in a taxi. You can’t really control such things.” I replied.

“You’ve started talking like an old philosopher” he sighed. “Have you talked with your sister yet ?”

I shook my head to which he replied, “Your sister loves you more as a son than a brother. Although we were virtual strangers before, I too have grown to love you like a younger brother. You don’t have to do anything under the assumption that you are a burden to us. If you want to study more, sit in a competitive exam, anything you want, I’ll be happy to support you. You can go to Delhi, Pune whatever place you like for your studies. I’ll be even more happy if you stay here with us and help me with farming. I already have more land than I could manage anyway. ”

I didn’t know what to say so I kept quiet. Observing my silence, he asked me to think about it and we went back to our work. He must’ve told my sister about our conversation. She came to me next day and repeated whatever he had said, but in a more womanish way. But she didn’t seem too enthusiastic about me joining the army.

After a few days, I came to know about an army recruitment camp about to be held near our village. I made up my mind and announced my decision to join the army as we were all having dinner in kitchen. On hearing this, my sister dropped everything she was doing and walked away from the kitchen with teary eyes. He nodded once at me and then left to look for her. I went to bed soon after but couldn’t sleep. Next morning everything went on as if nothing had happened. Once in the fields, he called me over for a talk and told me about his conversation with my sister. At first she had opposed but reluctantly acquiesced. Then he said that I needed to improve my stamina in order to increase the chances of getting recruited and from that day, I was supposed to train for the physical test instead of working on the farm. So, my initial training began right there and then. He made me run laps around the field, do chin ups and push ups till I dropped and much more. When I reached home that evening, covered with even more dust and dirtier than usual, my niece laughed at me. Sister didn’t say anything. Slowly I started gaining strength and stamina needed to pass physical exam but I was always worried if I’ll be able to pass competing against rest of the locals.

Soon, the army setup their recruitment camp in a village not very far from ours. I took the overcrowded bus and attended the camp along with thousands of other young men who had gathered from perhaps hundreds of villages. Luckily, I cleared all the physical and written exams and was shortlisted . My brother-in-law who didn’t care to leave his farm even for his physio-therapy, came to see me off till Delhi as I left for my training in Mhow. Although he had prepared me for it, the training was still hard, mentally as well as physically. But somehow I managed to keep my wits around me. After completion of training, I was assigned as a Rifleman in Garwhal Rifles, same regiment as my brother-in-law. Even my sister who seemed unusually pensive ever since I declared my decision of joining army seemed happy when I broke the news to her.