December 27, 03.10 a.m., Air Force Base Awantipora, Kashmir
Corporal Charles Muttiah James of the Indian Air Force rubbed his eyes with the back of his right hand, trying to remain alert on the last watch of perimeter patrol as he slowly trudged across the apron of the runway, avoiding the hardened snow heaps that the monstrous snow cutters had piled up the previous day. Winter solstice on December 22 had summoned heavy and unprecedented snowing which had lasted two days altering the landscape to a delightful white that hid all the minor flaws to present a visual masterpiece no man could create. The Air Base was one among the few bases in the country that were located in scenic splendour. The majestic mountains; ice capped peaks six months a year, the cold Jhelum river that snaked slowly through the state and the old world charm of the traditional Kashmiri houses perched on mountainsides left every visitor spellbound. From the upper reaches the view was breathtaking, the dreamscape and the rarefied atmosphere equally responsible.
The fluffy snow that never failed to lift the spirits of tourists to the valley had other qualities on hardening; effects felt mainly by those who worked late after everyone had burrowed comfortably into their cosy quilts, in their ‘bukhari’ warmed bedrooms. As the snow hardened in the heights, the temperature dropped in the nights, the air turned bone chilling, sending even hardcore wanderlust travellers scurrying indoors.
The all pervading wind nourished by hardened snow heaps seemed to pursue and freeze James relentlessly as he tried to remain warm and alert. He slung his 7.62mm SLR rifle higher on his coat ‘parka’ and re-shaped the wire of the hood, contouring it closer to his face to keep the cold wind from blasting into his face. Aching for a cigarette, he cursed his luck at the twin misfortune of not being granted annual leave, and for being detailed four guard duties as punishment for insubordination, having abused his Junior Warrant Officer over the issue of leave. This was the last of his guard duties, and his last watch before day break, and a day’s off awaited him. He planned to fully enjoy his off duty, sleeping. The mere thought of hitting a warm bed and snuggling into blankets made him drowsy. Reaching into his coat parka, he drew out a damp pack of Gold Flake Kings cigarette, tore the foil covering, placed one cigarette on his cold lips, replaced the cigarette pack in his pocket and fished out a cheap translucent green colour lighter and stopping momentarily, he flicked the lighter on and directed the flame at the tip. The flame died out before it could feed on the tobacco. Cupping his left palm over the cigarette, he lit it successfully. Inhaling gratefully, he peered into the darkness ahead of the snow covered airfield, changing his direction towards the perimeter fence. His tour of duty began at three a.m. and was scheduled to end at five a.m., and he was assigned a guard post within the perimeter fencing of Foxtrot Squadron, overlooking the picturesque village of Charsoo Awantipora. The snow had spattered the trees on the other side of the fence to give them a look that was designer by day and eerie by a moonless night; white patches of snow seemingly suspended in the backdrop of a dark canvas brushed with shades of darker hues. Exhaling contentedly, he picked his way through two parked specialist trucks whose windshield wipers had trapped snow to form white scalene triangles, while the roofs of the vehicles were burdened with unwelcome coolant.
His mind a little more alert, the pons and dopamine pathways bombarded and rewarded by nicotine, James thought he detected some movement towards his right on the fence side. Expecting it to be the Orderly Officer of the unit on his rounds, he spat the cigarette out while simultaneously drawing the rifle from his left shoulder. Grinding the butt into the snow, he turned in the direction of the movement, ready to start the ‘challenging procedure’ to ‘prove his alertness’. Finding no Orderly Officer he strained his eyes to see what he thought to be some movement. His cognitive abilities fully functioning, he reacted as trained. Swiftly going down on his left knee, he nestled the rifle butt in his shoulder and aimed the weapon in the general direction of the movement that he was sure he saw, or thought he saw. His eyes already accustomed, he peered into the swathe of darkness trying to distinguish the difficult terrain within the perimeter. He could make out silhouettes of small bushes, two disposed giant tyres of KRAZ trucks, a barrel on its side, and beyond that, more small bushes that were cropped. The snowfall of two days that had melted in patches had turned into small puddles of slush mixing with the clayey soil. Adjusting his sight to look further he started a slow visual scan of the area beyond the bushes and nearer the double barbed wire fencing. His eyes rested on a shape inside of the fence, around 100 feet from where he knelt. It was that of a human, supine and in a crawling position adopted for stealthy approach. His throat went dry. This was his first posting to an ‘active’ unit, and the forward base was surrounded by sixteen villages classified as ‘hostile’, courtesy increased militant activity during summer. Though all personnel were trained for such eventualities, he had not hoped to come across one in the biting cold of a dark December night on his last watch of punishment duty. He would have been glad to take on any situation in daylight, but in the middle of the freezing night, with the shape showing no signs of movement, his mind raced to react. He could either challenge the individual which was the routine, or he could open fire without warning and face a Court of Inquiry, with a possible cashiering from service and imprisonment. Summoning his courage, he called out “HALT” in a faltering voice, forgetting the additional “Who comes there?”. Eliciting no response he yelled again “HAAALT”. The figure made no response or movement. James’ panic levels started ascending to paranoid levels, and having not been specifically trained to take on unresponsive intruders, he decided that he’d better take a chance. Removing his gloves, he released the safety catch, stood up and strode purposefully towards the individual, with his finger on the trigger, his ten knuckles tight and white on all positions of contact. He made his way carefully towards the shape, feeling his way around with his gum boots without looking down, his eyes focussed only on the subject. When he was around thirty feet away, he paused to again holler out one more challenge, this time more loudly, nearing panic. Getting no movement, his next thoughts were that this could be a decoy with others somewhere outside the fence. For a moment, he thought of retreating and calling for backup from the Quick Reaction Team on standby in the unit. Dismissing the suggestion instantaneously, he aimed the rifle carefully, and continued his approach to the figure. When he was ten feet away he again screamed, actually screamed ‘raise your hands’ at decibels that shocked him, unable to believe the tenor of his own voice. There was no response from the shape.
Walking even faster towards the individual, he aimed the rifle steadily, with his finger on the trigger and barked out “raise your hands slowly” when he was within a few feet away. It was then that he noticed in the darkness that something was amiss; the position was awkward, unnatural, the right leg bent at the knees and turned outwards, the left foot dug into the earth, both the hands under his chest, face turned sideways, the eyes closed. Reaching over, he turned the person over, and saw what he could easily identify in the darkness as a blood stained phiran, the traditional working dress of a Kashmiri. Bending down, he checked and found a feeble pulse in the neck. Knowing no further first aid, he slung his rifle, and trotted towards the guard post, whipping out his Motorola GP300 two way radio to call for assistance. Depressing the Push To Talk he breathlessly croaked into the mouthpiece “Oscar.. Foxtrot……..Oscar.. Foxtrot”. The radio offered no reply. His nostrils trailed vapour in spurts, fogging the air with plumes of his condensed breath as he reached the guard post and opened the door noisily. The guard post was a small ten foot by ten foot room equipped with two camp cots and one intercom, the beds occupied by slumbering off duty guards who remained undisturbed as he shook them violently. Switching on the single light, he reached for the intercom and quickly punched the number of the Orderly Officer. The sixth ring of the intercom turned human as James heard a gruff, groggy voice, apparently disturbed, acting alert, “Orderly Officer”.
“Sir, Duty Guard here, Foxtrot Squadron, we have an unconscious intruder near the perimeter”
“Wh.. what, come again?”
“Sir, an unconscious intruder’s been found near the inner perimeter fencing of Foxtrot squadron”
“Identify yourself, and transmit on the radio”
James shook the two guards again with more violence that they showed signs of stirring, as he took
The radio crackled into life “Foxtrot Oscar, go”
Motioning the now partially awake off duty guards to follow him as he left the post, he continued “Cpl James….duty guard, Foxtrot squadron. Sir, we have an unconscious intruder near the perimeter”
“Be available near the intruder. An ambulance and the QRT will reach there. See to it that they are directed to your location”
The first bullet slammed into the guard post window cracking it just as James was about to clip the radio into his belt. Diving to the ground and rolling over, James lay still as a procession of bullets whistled in the night air to slam into the window and wall, shattering the panes and terminating noisily into the wall, erupting in small white plumes of the powdered mortar of the wall. The two resting guards were now fully awake as pilots on final approach, cowering behind the camp cots. The firing from the fence continued as James tossed the radio into the room yelling “You report, I’m moving out……turn off the lights, turn off the lights”.
The lights were turned off as one of the guards shrieked on the radio “Foxtrot under attack, Foxtrot under attack” to the accompaniment of bullets thudding into the walls.
The reply was immediate, the voice of the QRT Commander composed “Report intensity, your location”
“Heavy fire from the fence side, automatic weapons, number not known, we’re inside the Guard Post”
“Move out now, move out now, lie on the ground, we’re on our way, turn down your speaker volume, I repeat turn down your speaker volume”
More bullets searched the post for human life, cutting lower as the trio hurriedly crept away. James cut loose ahead as he headed towards the position of the prone figure. From the other side of the fence, the guns continued unleashing their projectiles from the darkness, the flaming barrels the only indication. The rate of fire was too much for the guards to attempt a counter.
The radio came alive again with the authoritative voice of the QRT Commander, “Romeo to all stations. Romeo to all stations. All call signs maintain radio silence and monitor. Foxtrot switch to closed channel 2. Transmit on changing”
One of the guards plugged in a headset accessory, turned the rotary channel selector switch to 2 and transmitted “Foxtrot on Channel 2”
“Report present location of gunfire”
“Two weapons firing from same location outside fence of Foxtrot”
“Standby for backup. Remain in location”
All of a sudden, the guns fell silent, causing more tension among the two guards who were crawling behind James. They were careful to avoid the slush that created unwelcome noise, while the guard with the radio held it in the palm of his left hand, carefully shielding the LED, at the same time holding the heliflex antenna safe from bumping into objects ahead.
Five minutes after they left the guard post, as the three of them crept closer to the figure that was now thirty feet away and still in the prone position, one armoured Tata 407 charged down the parallel taxi track with its headlamps doused. The vehicle left the concrete track and bumped over the rough shoulders to head towards the now deserted guard post, and was instantly welcomed with one round of gunfire that caused superficial dents on the mini truck. The gunfire ceased, as the Tata QRT vehicle parked silently abreast of the post.
A few seconds later, the QRT Commander came over the radio “Foxtrot, report”, as the guard handling it replied in a hushed voice “We’re ahead and to the right of the post, position 2’0’clock. We’re flat on the ground”. He reached out and held the foot of the crawling guard ahead, who stopped, turned and crabbed sideways to come closer to him. Whispering that the QRT team had arrived, he motioned to him to pass on the message to James, just as he heard the next transmission, “Foxtrot, I see you. Lie low. We’ll draw fire. Open fire only at our command. Hold fire till instructed. Confirm”
The two of them crawled towards James faster and caught up with him just as the guard post lights were turned on. The guns from the fence started up again to pepper the guard post, the three guards closer to the fence able to clearly make out in the light of the muzzle flashes, the outlines of two figures just outside the fence lying in typical assault position, firing at the guard post and the stationed mini truck. The bullets found and clanged into metal as the quick reaction team quickly took up positions behind the post, two choosing the safety of the tyres.
“Foxtrot, fire located, searchlight coming on at countdown of 3, select target and OPEN FIRE. Confirm”
“Three.. two.. “
“One..”, the area in the fence was enveloped in bright light focused from the powerful searchlight mounted on the Tata 407. The twelve thousand lumens searchlight came on silently with no ballast sound. The pure white light illuminating at 8 Hz, blinking eight times a second was designed to disorient a human mind. The two figures were undaunted by the light, as they continued firing, rolling over and moving to their left. The light pursued them as they rolled over and fired.
This is an excerpt from the novel The The peacenik swap by Joseph Sebastian