Before I visited the Kargil War Memorial at Drass, Tiger Hill, Tololing Hill were mere names for me associated with the 1999 Kargil War. Only when I stood in the shadow of Tololing Hill I realized how close it is to the road. Hell, it is right across the Srinagar Leh Highway NH 1D! The battle was fought that close to the city!
Pause for a moment and think about the altitude at which the war was fought. Tiger Hill at its peak is 5307 meters high. If you watch the documentary screened in the audio visual room at the war memorial, you can see at what great heights the entire battle was fought. I have been above 5000 meters only once in my life, when I was trekking to the Everest Base Camp. And I know what it feels like, just to walk at that altitude!
Kargil War Memorial is situated on the Srinagar Leh Highway. Kargil was my base where I was staying with the Axis Dil Se team. The War Memorial is about 60 Kilometers from Kargil, and 8 km from Drass. At the entrance you are required to show an ID proof. For us, they let us go in with one ID in the group. There is no entry fee to visit the memorial.
The War Memorial is right below the Tololing Hill. At its heart are the Amar Jawan Jyoti and the Wall of Heroes. When I looked at the size of the wall and the names inscribed, the enormity of the war dawned upon me. Such a staggering number of young lives were lost … It is not that I was not aware of it before, but at Drass it was staring me right in my face. I am not prone to goosebumps easily, nor do I like to put on sunglasses on my eyes.
But at the Kargil War Memorial, I was wearing my shades inside the Manoj Pandey Gallery too. The Gallery depicts the story of young people, people mostly in their twenties, who lost their life in the war. It is that age when the rest of the world posts weird photos on Facebook and tells the world they are trying to find their true calling. At that age people passionately debate the meaning of ‘freedom’ from their comfortable living rooms. It was that age these young people in uniform were defending the nation with their lives!
While walking out I read the words of John Maxwell Edmonds itched on the gate “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow we gave our today.” What it doesn’t say is how young they were when they died!
My taxi driver Ahmed mentioned, “madam when you go back, do write about us, about Kargil and tell them it is a safe place. People think of Kargil only in relation to the war. It is not true.” And yet war, in some sense, is Kargil’s identity too.
Talk to the locals and they will tell you that army and civilians have cordial relationship in Kargil. Another taxi driver told me, “People of Kargil serve the army, they work with the army”. It is said that the locals informed the army of infiltration in 1999 as they saw strangers buying rations in the local markets. The people of Kargil proudly tell you, “you cross the Zojila Pass and it is different world out here.” I agree with them! I wonder what it is about Kargil that is so different from Kashmir!