“Are you scared?” Mumtaz asked me.
“Slightly,” I replied with a slight smirk. Curious that Mumtaz read my mind I asked, “Aren’t you scared?”
She burst out laughing and replied, “Why should I be afraid? Aren’t our soldiers protecting me?”
Despite always adoring the soldiers and their bravery, the confidence in the words of an ordinary woman in the village of Tang was astonishing. It was only after arriving in the Turtuk village of Ladakh that I learned that the border village of Thang was open to visitors. Thang is the northernmost village of India. It’s only been two weeks since it was opened to visitors. I decided to visit it.
I have already been to International borders at Wagah ( Pakistan), More (Myanmar), Kakarbita (Nepal), Phoenshling (Bhutan),Ã‚Â .Till date I never felt a fear of the border. So I started for Thang very cheerfully. All along the way Shyok river, that flows into Pakisthan , followed us.
For the people of Ladakh since ancient times, Shyok has been like a security border that has constantly protected them from foreign invaders. If any foreign invaders, such as the Mongols and Chinese, tried to cross the river, they would drown and die. That is how the Shyok River came to be known as the “River of Death”.
After learning the origin and path of Shyok reminded me of friend who broke up and decided to travel in opposite direction. The Shyok River originates from the Rimo Glacier, one of the tongues Ã¢Â€Â‹Ã¢Â€Â‹of the Siachen Glacier. The river, which first starts flowing in a south-easterly direction, takes a ‘U’ turn at Pangong and flows parallel to the previous route to Pakistan!
Army camps and soldiers could be seen along the way to Tang. We also saw the beautifully equipped Army Goodwill School. I was doubtful whether the army people would come and stay here with their family.
On the way we passed Tyakshi village, another village recaptured by India after 1971 war. Tyakshi village still has a school which was built by Pakistan and now taken care of by India. A signboard by the roadside caught my eye :
“You are under enemy surveillance”.
I looked around. There were large hills all around. It was frightening to think that somewhere Pakistani soldiers might be looking at me with their binoculars. Fear increased as I approached the border. The vehicle only goes up to the entrance of Thang village. Then one has to walk half a kilometer through the village to reach the border.
It was while walking to the border that I saw Mumtaz resting in the shade by the roadside and the initial conversation happened between us. After our chitchat, Mumtaz stood up. A tin trame hung over her shoulder. Her friend put two big stones on the frame. Mumtaz walked slowly with it to a house under construction nearby.
After talking to Mumtaz, my fears were allayed. I walked to the border. From far, I could see the Tri colour flag flying carefree. I passed a makeshift tea shop and reached the border viewpoint. Ã‚Â There were a few people standing around an old man. When those people left, I went and talked to him.
His name was Ahmed Shah. He is now sixty-five years of age. He was born and raised in Thang. “I was born in Pakistan and I grew up in India,” he said with a smile.Thang is one of the four villages recaptured by India in the 1971 war. He held out the binoculars he was holding towards me. I saw few houses, the LOC and few bunkers. The village was Pharnu village of Pakisthan.
When I returned the binoculars to Shah Chacha, he shared his sad story: “The Indo-Pak war took place when I was fifteen years old. One day when the dawn broke, we became part of India. My brothers and sisters who went to visit relatives were separated from me. Even though they stay just two kilometres away, I am unable to visit them. ”
I was saddened to think of the villagers who still feel the effects of the war. I spent some more time with him. There were twenty-five houses in the village Winter is the time of famine. They cannot even get out of their homes.Ã‚Â It was the soldiers who brought everything from salt to camphor for the villagers. “The soldiers run goodwill schools here to educate our children. They send their own vehicle and take our children to school. They give them lunch and send them back in the evening.” I realized that soldiers were not just brave warriors who guarded the border villages from the enemy but also had a huge hearts.
On the way back we saw a museum near the parking lot. A museum in this remote location was a big surprise. Beautiful house, was surrounded by even more beautiful gardens full of flowering plants and grape wines from which bunches of green and black grapes hung. The woman standing there informed me that this was Goba Ali’s house. The then five-year-old Goba Ali was separated from his parents and relatives during the war in 1971. He was raised by soldiers. Ali excelled in his studies but did not want to leave Thang . He took care of the garden and other things there and also looked after the affairs of the villagers. Many of the items collected in the area were on display at his home.
I could not talk to him because some high government officials had come to see him.
On way back, the realisation that the borders were not just lines on the land, some boundaries tore apart human hearts hit my mindÃ¢Â€Â¦..