As the number of recovered bodies of martyrs begins to grow, a national salute is due to the boys conducting the search and rescue operations at the highest battle zone of the world. This would, probably, be remembered as one of the most challenging rescue operations in the military history. The Pakistan Air Force has made a significant contribution towards this effort by quickly airlifting the requisite heavy machinery. Acknowledgment is also due to the friendly countries for their expert advice, material contribution and physical participation in the effort.

The Gayari incident is, indeed, a great national loss. Pakistan lost 129 hardened combatants and 11 skilled civilians. All Gayari avalanche victims were declared as martyrs on the 53rd day of the occurrence. After the passage of 52 days, the nature and magnitude of the calamity was suggestive of no probability of recovering anyone alive. The ISPR said: “…….given the improbability of recovering anyone alive, and after consulting religious leaders, it has been decided to declare the remaining brave soldiers as shuhada (martyrs) to try to reduce their families’ suffering.”

This certainly eased the agony of their immediate dependents, relatives and other mourners, who were keeping their hopes alive, though unrealistically. Their dilemma of hope against hope came to a logical close and the natural healing process set in. Keeping the sensitivity of the matter in view, the Pakistan army did a commendable job by consulting religious scholars before making the promulgation, because this decision was to have its implications under various provisions of Sharia and jurisprudence. Against this backdrop, religious scholars from all sects and factions were consulted. Aspects related to the socio-religious dimensions/implications, requirements to initiate the process of documentation, and reduction of the sufferings of the bereaved families, were thoroughly evaluated.

This unfortunate proclamation was received by the public with mixed feelings of pride and grief. The army’s unflinching resolve to continue all-out efforts to recover the bodies of all martyrs has gone down well with the public. Even though over two months have passed since the tragic incident, the resolve of the rescuers is unwavering and hence commendable, while the excavation work is still going on with full vigour. Though it may seem that this activity is taking longer than usual time, it is mainly due to the constraints imposed by the terrain and weather. Despite these hazards, brave Pakistani troops with the help of experts from some countries and sniffer dogs, aided by helicopters and heavy equipment have been trying their best to find their comrades buried under a deep layer of snow. And they are determined to continue the effort until they recover the bodies of all their fellow soldiers.

On April 7, a huge chunk of hard snow broke away from the parent glacier and overran battalion headquarters of the 6th Northern Light Infantry, which was also the army’s base camp for Siachen Glacier. This piece of snow covered an area of about of one square kilometre, and was up to 80 feet high. It was, indeed, a huge glacial slide. After the main slide, 12 small slide falls were also triggered in the vicinity of the Gayari site from adjacent mountains. However, due to limited extent, no additional damage occurred; yet these slides hampered the search operations. Due to a concerted effort by Pakistani and foreign teams, the number of recovered bodies is increasing each day; these martyrs are being buried with full military honours in their respective native towns. One can safely assume that the recovery of the remaining dead bodies is only a matter of days.

The site of the incident is 13,000 feet up in the mountains, just below the glacier, where Pakistani and Indian troops have faced a standoff since the 1980s. India and Pakistan fought over Siachen in 1987, when India cowardly occupied a portion of the un-demarcated patch of land which until then had the status of no-man’s land. This stabbing at the back came at a critical time when Pakistan was preoccupied in the Afghan war during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Presumably, India did it at the behest of their Soviet mentors. Nevertheless, the guns on the glacier have, by and large, been silent since a peace process began in 2004.

Excavation is going on at the maximum speed, within the constraints that be. Around 450 engineers and workers, 49 heavy duty electromechanical pieces including 10 dozers, 11 excavators, 18 dump trucks and 9 FE loaders have been working almost round the clock. Simultaneous efforts are being undertaken to tackle effects of water on the site, in the shape of pondages, erosive cuttings and crevasses. This water started cumulating in the vicinity after the glacial slide, which slowed down the pace of rescue efforts. However, as a result of extensive engineering effort, the water has started draining out, resulting in its quick reduction. It is good that General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is directly monitoring the rescue efforts.

President Asif Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, General Kayani and a number of leading personalities have visited the Gayari sector to express their solidarity with the unfortunate troops. The whole nation has expressed deep sorrow and regret over the incident. It has shown remarkable solidarity with the aggrieved families of the soldiers and has been continuously praying for their survival and safety.

The Siachen issue was part of the agenda when President Zardari visited India just after the incident and held a semi-official meeting with Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. Though the media is speculative that the two sides are looking into the prospects of declaring the glacier as a military-free zone, the optimism is misplaced. In the present state of superpower phobia and affiliated hubris, India is unlikely to agree to a mutually acceptable solution. Though there is political will on the Indian side to resolve the Siachen issue, the Indian army is the main hurdle. Dispute was a part of composite dialogue and is also on the agenda of the current dialogue process. National morale is unwavering; Pakistan will maintain its garrison at Siachen until the aggressor pulls back.

The Pakistan Army is poised to stay on the glacier for an indefinite period. Hence, there is a need to install appropriate sensors in the area, which could forewarn of such major glacial and landslides. Moreover, there is a need for precise site registration with the help of GPS or other equipment so that rescue effort could be more focused and precise.

Furthermore, units and personnel should be equipped with specialised gadgets for transmitting SOS messages through thermal or acoustic signalling; this would help in determining the exact location of the entrapped personnel. Some of the best practices from the mines’ rescue operations could be adapted to enhance the survivability of the victims of such tragedies.

The entire nation salutes the Gayari martyrs for their supreme sacrifice. May Allah Almighty rest their souls in eternal peace and grant fortitude to their survivors for bearing this great loss with patience. Surely, each martyr of Gayari continues to live in the hearts of the nation!

And to those digging snow and mud while braving chilling temperatures and shearing wind: sons! The nation watches you with an pride and honour! Well done, keep it up and go on till the last body is recovered!

n    The writer is a retired air commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University.