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 .