‘I thought it would be my last day’: Wars made these villages ‘switch sides’
Ghulam Hussain, 71, poses non-stop for tourists from dusk to dawn. He’s asked to pose either facing Pakistan or with his back towards India’s neighbor; he forever poses for others’ selfies. Tourists ask him to smile but that’s something that has long gone. He can only oblige with photos while they stare in curiosity, as if he’s just arrived from another planet.
In between the photos, Hussain gives the tourists glimpses of Pakistan through his binoculars. He then reveals his Pakistan connection. At the end of the day, he’s richer by Rs 600 ($7.20), sometimes more – though he never demands money; it’s whatever the tourists feel like tipping him.
Hussain is at Thang, the last hamlet along the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan, beyond Ladakh’s Turtuk village. Turtuk is the administrative center of this and other villages, sandwiched between the Karakoram range and the Himalayas; it uniquely lies within range of India’s LoC with Pakistan, and India’s Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. Thang, called ‘India’s northernmost village’ by the army, changed hands from Pakistan to India during the 1971 war; as did Ghulam Hussain.
Tourism in the former war zone
The LoC is, for the most part, a no-go place for civilians and tourists due to the cross-border skirmishes that sometimes become heavy shelling, and infiltrations, so it is tense throughout. The best-known place where Indians and Pakistanis come face-to-face is the Attari-Wagah border crossing in the Punjab, where tourists gather to watch the ceremonial end-of-day closing of the border.
But on the LoC, the government has permitted tourists to two quiet spots, though they still have heavy military deployment: Turtuk, which has been quiet for a decade and therefore open for tourism, and Kargil’s Mushkoh Valley, where a war took place in 1999 and that was opened recently.
Some 50 to 100 tourists a day who are visiting Leh make the trip of over 200km to Turtuk and Thang. They usually go to Hunder in the Nubra Valley, famous for its scenic views, monasteries and Bactrian camels. Turtuk is 85km from Hunder, and it is a breathtaking drive; at the end is the LoC and apricot plantations.
Along with the sights of the LoC, a novelty for thrill-seeking tourists, Ghulam Hussain also tells his story of how he unwittingly turned from Pakistani to Indian overnight. For tourists, his story is nothing short of a Bollywood blockbuster, and that they lap it up is evident from how Hussain’s India-born family joins him too, making it a sort of India-Pakistan family business!
Wrong time, wrong place
Clad in a salwar kameez and donning a Nating, the traditional Balti cap, Hussain, who knows the LoC and the adjoining Pakistani villages like the back of his hand, arrives at the border around 8.30am everyday, armed with his binoculars, cigarettes, and some of his family members in tow. He wears sneakers, which is necessary as he is yanked around by visiting tourists for photos.
“I left my home in Pharnu village in Pakistan along with my sheep to graze them across the hills in Thang village of Turtuk, which was then under Pakistan’s control. It was the first week of December. I was a teenager then and married,” he tells RT during a break for a smoke.
His Indian-born daughter Rukmayun takes over the story. (His family has a dry fruit stall at the spot, in business for five months a year when weather permits tourism.)
Hussain’s parents owned a tiny piece of land in Thang. Perched under the K2 peak, Thang is a quaint village, barely 2.5km from the LoC. “My father wanted me to spend a few nights on our land as none from the family had paid a visit for months,” Hussain says. “I walked up to Thang a couple of days prior to December 8, when a fierce battle broke out between the Indian and Pakistani troops.”
Back then, he had no choice but to remain hidden on the family property, surrounded by trees and rocks. “Pakistani troops were always on the front, but did not anticipate that India would take over the area,” he recalls. “This was a war zone. Battle tanks rolled, soldiers fired indiscriminately and there were war cries amid heightened tension.”
By the time there was a ceasefire on December 14, the Indian Army had captured Turtuk, which until then had been under Pakistani control. Besides Thang, two other villages in the vicinity – Tyakshi and Chalunka were also taken by advancing Indian forces. As per the Simla agreement after the war, Turtuk was incorporated into the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, and became a part of Ladakh.
Many who were visiting friends or grazing that day in 1971 were never able to return. For years, India sealed the area and maintained strict control.
The battle of Turtuk lasted seven days, from December 8 to 14, 1971. India’s Ladakh Scouts and Nubra Guards were engaged in fierce battle with the Karakoram Scouts and Gilgit Scouts, who were outnumbered. Pakistan suffered heavy casualties.
When the Indian Army found Hussain hiding, they took him into custody. “I thought it would be my last day,” Hussain says with a smile.
After questioning, the Indian Army comforted him and offered him food. “Thereafter, I started helping them transport material and doing odd jobs. I know the terrain well,” says Hussain. The inhospitable and rugged land has deep narrow gorges and ravines.
He became Indian overnight and had no option but to leave behind his wife and parents. He remained a helper with the army for many years, and settled within the multi-ethnic cultures in Turtuk, which has less than 4,000 residents – mostly Nurbakshi Shias, Sufis, Sunnis, Buddhists, Ahmadiyas and Ismaili Shias (while the rest of Ladakh is Tibetan Buddhist, Turtuk and Kargil are populated by Baltis). They are mostly farmers, and grow apricots.
Years later, Hussain married a local with whom he has seven children. “We are a family of 30 members including my children and grandchildren,” Hussain says, stubbing out his cigarette as a visitor approaches to ask him to show them Pakistan.
He quickly poses for photos, takes the visitor to Pakistan and back through his binoculars and even pinpoints the exact Indian and Pakistani army positions on the rocky terrain.
“We avail of all facilities each Indian family gets,” Hussain says. “It’s a comfortable life here.”
The Indian tricolour flag flutters atop his house in Thang. Through letters exchanged with relatives, he found out about his parents’ death many years ago.
For many years after the war, Turtuk was out of bounds for civilians. Once things settled down, people who wanted to visit needed an Inner Line Permit from the authorities, until 2010. Thereafter, the few visitors needed only to identify themselves at an Indian Army post and then proceed.
Eventually, both systems were done away with. Over the past two years, visitors are allowed hassle-free travel right up to the LoC.
Divided but not lost
More than 400km from Turtuk, on rockier terrain along the LoC, is Kargil’s Hunderman Broq village, where Ali, 48, like Ghulam Hussain, earns his livelihood cashing in on his Pakistani origins.
Armed with a high-end telescope on a tripod, Ali has a 360-degree view of Pakistan. From their army bunkers, their Dargah (a sufi saint’s shrine) and other activities along the LoC, Ali can watch it all.
“The place where we are standing now used to be Pakistan once,” smiles Ali, who was born to Pakistani parents. The 47-year-old, who has lived all his life along the border, charges Rs 60 per person to show Pakistan from the closest quarters possible.
Like Turtuk, Pakistan took control of Hunderman Broq towards the end of the Indo-Pakistan war of 1947. By the end of the 1971 war, the Indian Army regained control. It lies in the Baltistan region and is divided into lower and upper Hunderman.
“Growing up, my parents told me stories about the many families that got separated in 1947 and then again in 1971. It’s tragic but it’s destiny,” says Ali, who not only witnessed the Kargil war as it unfolded but, being well-versed with the local geography, even helped Indian troops.
Working as a tourist guide for five or six months a year, Ali takes up other jobs once winter sets in. His Pakistani roots and stories of his work during Kargil war is a hit with visitors.
“Some of my relatives stay in a village right across the border,” Ali tells RT. “They were separated from my parents in 1971. I’m not sure if they are still alive.” He adjusts his lens to show the Pakistani villages.
“During the Kargil war, I used to hide under rocks to escape constant shelling from the enemy, who bombarded several homes and even the marketplace,” he tells RT.
He trekked along with soldiers in the rugged mountains for hours at a stretch, mostly under the cover of darkness. “Any movement during the day would invite heavy fire from Pakistan,” he recalls.
Ali knows the exact locations of the Indian Army bunkers as well. But that, he won’t reveal.