The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Quake bridge over border smashes peace bridge
- Pakistan fears 30,000 toll, 660 dead in India
Pak: 20,000-30,000
India: 660
Pak: PoK, NWFP
India: Uri, Baramulla, Sopore, Kupwara
Pak: 215
India: 50

Uri, Oct. 9: Cracks made by earthquakes know no borders.

Aman Setu, the peace bridge on the Line of Control through which traffic between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan Kashmir, passed, has collapsed on the Pakistani side.

So has an Indian Army post. The Srinagar-headquartered 15 (Chinar) Corps is seeking a flag meeting with the Pakistanis to recover bodies.

For the military, this is a “casevac” mission; “casevac” is short for casualty evacuation. The Northern Command has thrown everything into it. Still the pilot flying the helicopter to Tangdhar, which has suffered the most after Uri, said: “If I take you, I won’t be able to bring back casualties.”

Inside the helicopter from Uri, it is so packed with bodies there isn’t enough space to plant a foot and walk to the tail.

Swinging bottles of sodium dextrose chloride intravenous fluid that hang from hooks and pegs inside the Indian Air Force Mi-17 helicopter leak life-pumping liquid.

Outside and down below, the Jhelum and the Jhelum Valley Road snake between Muzaffarabad and Srinagar. On the other side, there are asbestos-roofed houses even atop the brown and green hills, many of them with collapsed walls.

Flies hover inside the chopper even as it hovers over Uri and Baramulla. One sits on a deep bruise on Basheer Fatima’s temple.

Her husband, Deg Sadiq Hussain, 56, who’s escorting her, says their village Kamalkot in Uri is devastated. Never mind, he says, that he doesn’t know where one of his three children is. Right now, says Deg Sadiq, I want her to live.

There are 23 passengers inside the Mi-17 that took off from Air Force Station Srinagar at 3.45. In the half-hour it has spent at the helipad of the Kala Pahar Brigade in Uri, a dozen Cheetah helicopters of the Army Aviation Corps have landed and taken off, each offloading a casualty.

The smaller Cheetahs are flying between the villages and the army posts on the LoC and to the Kala Pahar Brigade’s helipad. At the helipad, the casualties are offloaded from the Cheetahs and loaded into this Mi-17.

“We sent out patrols last night for recces,” says Major Shyam S. Sarathy. “One patrol leader said he was on his way to an army post near Kaman ' at the LoC s7 km from here ' but he had to walk through a village where not a single house was intact and the night air was riven by wails.

“He did not get to his destination but came back with two men and a child. He took them into the field hospital here. The boy’s legs are broken but the two men are badly hurt in the head. We are loading them into the Mi-17.”

At one end of the perimeter of the helipad in Uri, angry villagers huddle, waiting for food packets. This chopper has not brought any. It has brought emergency medicines for the 419 Field Ambulance unit, the first stop for every casualty ' civilian and military.

“More than 100, I think 110 houses are now rubble in Uri town,” says an indignant Faroukh Ahmed, a police constable. “Leave aside Uri, look at these people from the nearby villages. No one has been there. Sonia came and gave a bhashan. We don’t want Sonia, we want food and medicine and doctors.”

Ejaz Ahmad ran the “Beg Provision Store” in Uri. It does not exist any more, he says. He is here because this is the link to the world.

“Banihar, Banihar,” shouts Sajjad Hussain. “Please write about Banihar. And Powda, and Thajal. We live in hilltop villages. Only the soldiers have come. Not a single officer. The soldiers came and asked how many houses and how many people and left.”

The villagers are angry but understanding. They have no argument with the army. The army and the air force make the lifeline here.

Inside the chopper, six out of 17 are soldiers. Most army casualties on the LoC are in the Uri sector ' till late this evening, the count was around 240 civilians and 38 for the army. Another 61 were on defence-related duty.

Rifleman Torka Bahadur Kharka says they were in a bunker when the roof came down on them.

Why were they in a bunker' What were they sheltering from' There’s been no firing across the LoC here for nearly two years. Bunkers are where you shelter when the enemy is getting at you. Stupid questions.

“Life here is in the bunker. Where else do you live'” Torka Bahadur is surprised.

“We live 16 inside mine. We are ready for shells. But we didn’t know the hill we were dug into will collapse on us.”

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