ah the joys of pto...so let slip the hounds of war.
10PM, west Khasi Hills...
Rain squalls and high winds based on a pre-monsoon depression in the bay of bengal were sweeping north up the thickly wooded valleys and wet terraced rice paddies of the Khasi hills.... dripping wet vegetation, low dense clouds, the sound of gurgling water from a hundred rivulets hidden among the vegetation.
Here and there isolated villages eked out a living off the hostile topography, their people used to gravest hardship for the simplest of things, yet having a simple faith in a Govt they seldom saw - unloved, unsung in the remote reaches of the empire...sneered at by their luckier cousins in wealthier parts of the country, under constant pressure from streams of BD settlers fleeing the greater poverty and chaos of the Meghna flood plains to the south.
Tonight was just like any other night, of huddling around the cooking pot keeping the flame alive against the howling wind and rain outside, children snuggled up to their parents, rice and scraps of port meat were laddled out at dinner. clear strong rice wine (lao-pani) served to wash down the peasant food.
Very few if any noticed the column of six Dhruv and Mi17 helicopters flying in single file, lights out and very fast just over the forest canopy overhead. The wind and rain muffled their passage well. It was not a picnic for their pilots' sweating fearfully through their NVGs, monitoring their instruments , expecting at any moment a unmapped power line or ridge to snag them permanently...
In the cargo hold men from various JTFs sat quietly , lost in their own thoughts. nobody had anything to say. A few fingered their gear nervously. Most looked forward to this mission, they had some issues to settle....two men in the convoy had lost their own brothers. A place called Hedayatpur that wasnt marked on any western tourist map.
12km from the international border, while five of the helicopters paused momentarily near a clearing in the forest, one of the Dhruvs laid down carefully on a well camouflaged helipad now lighted by a bunch of light sticks by dark amorphous figures standing nearby.
A short bull-like man walked briskly up , loaded with 40lb backpack almost fully packed with small arms ammo and grenades ...the rest of his six man team in trooping behind him.
Major Doley reached down from the Dhruv to lend a hand up. "Sir, I am Doley, we have not met".
"I have heard good things of you Brinde. They say you requested to be on this?"
"Yes sir" doleys voice was soft in the semi darkness, the wide set eyes blank and cold, the face impassive as always.
"I can understand, but dont lose control" - Major Chauhan settled down, glanced briefly to see his men were set and tapped the pilots seat.
"I always try Sir". doley's large paw unconsciously fingered the handle of his dao again...seeking comfort and security in troubled times....
The Dhruv rejoined the convoy and they set off again, crossing the international border and immediately starting the descent down the foothills towards the unseen plains below.
in the darkenend holds, men clipped in the first loaded mags into their Tavors, fine tuned the large night scopes and checked their watches. FN-FAL LMGs and Galil sniper rifles were also readied by a select few. One very large built man with half the hold to himself opened a long bag and pulled out a beltfed gun of unknown parentage that looked right out of the predator movie.
12 Midnight , ULFA-NLFT Camp#12 in foothills.
Camp#12 was one of the largest camps run by the ULFA. Started in 1994 under ISI sponsorship it had quickly blossomed into the logistical and training node of the outfit for western assam. A initial investment of 1 crore BD taka routed through slush accounts in thailand, dubai and dhaka had taken care of clearing the land (canopy was left intact for cover), establishing kitches, dormitories, exercise and arms training ranges, a public meeting ground, granaries, radio hut, fuel storage,a jeepable track to nearest village road and finally a ladies dorm added in 1999 when the ULFA managed to implement the idea of girls joing the outfit.
The camp's main role was ofcourse to house and train recruits and act as a staging post for experienced members resting between trips to assam to create terror. it was ideally located to reach into western assam and then into bhutan. NLFT had expressed a 'desire' to share all this institutional expertise and learn from their more experienced peers, ULFA had been reluctant initially, some of its leaders being uncomfortable with the NLFTs religious agenda but finally under pressure from the ISI sponsoring committee they caved in and the NLFT walked in. The camp expanded, a hospital for ill and injured members came up soon. The able bodied manpower soon dug themselves a small canal from the nearby padmai rivulet to ease the task of taking their morning bath and washing their clothes. 4 feet deep, this 300m long canal passed right next to the camp and rejoined the padmai downstream..it was always full of clear, fresh water.
perimeter security was tight and section of 14 people armed with AK47, powerful torches and walkie talkies always patrolled the perimeter, another 4 occupied two watchtowers at both ends of the camp offering clear fields of fire on the possible threat axis. their MMGs were always loaded and ready for action. The radio hut was manned 24x7 to talk with other camps, Dhaka, thailand and a score of other hideouts. the high power set was a donation from PA surplus stock with all markings carefully removed with acid.
Tonight had been good. A jeep loaded with goodies from Dhaka like chocolates, goat meat, magazines, latest ***** vcds (very popular with the younger lot), medicines (always short on these), new clothes, two months salary , high quality packed combat rations had arrived just as dark fell. An hour later , a senior leader from dhaka had escorted a BD army official in civilian dress. Talk around the camp quickly led to his identity spreading like a brush fire among the excited inmates. This was *the* Col maruf mortaza who had repelled the indian attack at hedayatpur with heavy and proven casualties to the indians, who had mutilated the corpses to set an example,.....people practically fell over themselves to talk to him, ask him to repeat over and over his numerous exploits around the campfire, the man had been in this business for 21 years and as a budding young terrorist was told in his first classroom session - in this line of work you learnt by working side by side with the best, by absorbing their wisdom gained from many a hard situation, you either learnt or you died and there wasnt a book to teach you anything. A wall of memory with the names of fallen comrades in the parade ground served as a constant and grim reminder of the fearful toll extracted by the hated indian colonialists.
Dinner, campfiring and drinks over, the Colonel and senior leaders retired to the command hut for night long meetings. the juniors dispersed, most of them to the TV hall where a generator powered TV set served as their prime link to outside world. today however the main attraction was the fresh lot of dvds.
It promised to be a long night.
As the colonels 4x4 had passed a thicket of bamboo groves at the point where the camp road met the village road, nobody had noticed a pair of figures in ghillie suits lying motionless in the shadows, focussed binoculars had caught the Colonel in the front seat and shortly thereafter the call had gone on the satcom terminal.
The helicopters were coming.....
A solitary AN-32G took off quietly from the runway and disappeared into the low cloud cover. A heavily modified AN32 with russian and israeli assistance, it sported two engines of higher thrust and a full set of blind and night havigation instruments. poking out of an orifice on the left fuselage wall was a 3-barrel GSH-30 cannon with 5000 rds of ammo beltfed from 3 huge drums that sweating technicians had rolled into the hold earlier and locked into place. towards the rear, a twin 0.50cal HMG setup was fitted atop just fwd of the rear ramp, again pointing to the
rear, one on each side. A co-ax AGL was paired up with the HMGs. boxes of belted ammo around 10000 in all were stacked hip deep inside. While the weapons operator seated behind the pilot had a LLTV/IR pod atop the cannon and a fancy stabilitization and target designation MFD, the HMGs were totally manual and operators had a single large kevlar glass window each and HHTI equipped spotters paired to try and locate targets.
the basic tactic was to orbit the target counter clockwise to bring the GSH to bear and the gunner did the rest. the tail gunners were left to their own devices with minimal adult supervision. brainchild of retd Col Ray it had been tested secretly in the upper reaches of pir panjal away from media and NGO glare - always ready to suck up to the 'militants' .... the results as mentioned earlier were utterly horrifying for the targets. A vomiting gurkha Liet and his men had tried for 5 mins to piece together the fragments of 5 terrorists but had given up and gone home quickly. due to the 'sensitive' nature of the issue and the need not to cross self-imposed 'redlines' (in public) the AN32G was the nearest thing to a B2 in the indian armed forces. it hung out in isolated bases like charbatia and weapons were retracted when not on mission duty - for the casual observer who didnt know a Arjun from a Abrams it was just "another green military plane".
It was gunner Kulendu pathak's first mission. just back from a stint in israel on the weapons targeting system, he still remembered with fondness his friendly israeli trainers but esp that pretty brunette 'sabra'
Lt. esther schnyder....she had promised to look him up when she left the service next year and went for decompression trip to the Manali region.
he hoped to make it back alive. there were things to live for....
[to be contd]