Death is a very real threat and ever-present for the soldiers stationed at the border himalayan between India and China, but since 1975 only the topography and the elements had killed. Until 15 June.
“We have been more than 100 deaths each year just because of the terrain, weather conditions, avalanches, explains to AFP the general Deependra Singh Hooda, former commander-in-chief Northern Command of the indian army until 2016. “The danger is constant.”
“We’re talking about 4 300 to 4 600 metres above sea level. It is very tiring for the physical and mental condition,” he continued, when asked after the clash’s murderer on Monday in the valley, Galwan.
Military indians and chinese fought each other with fists, stones and sticks studded, it was in this valley in Ladakh (Northern India), to the disputed frontier between the two countries. It was the first slam killer in the past 45 years between the two nuclear powers nearby.
India has state of the victims “on both sides,” including 20 soldiers killed in its ranks. According to security officials, 18 indian soldiers are currently being treated for serious injuries including four in a critical condition.
China declined to confirm the losses, but the media in india have said that at least 40 chinese soldiers had been killed or seriously injured.
In this “cold desert” that is the valley of the river Galwan, winter temperatures can plunge to -30°C, seize lubricant to the machinery and fêlant the guns of the weapons.
The roads are few, and the soldiers, fed them meals, hyper-protein, must fight to clear a path with their heavy equipment, a rarefied air and a ground to the multiple treacheries.
For those who fall ill or are injured, “the evacuation becomes a huge challenge”, says D. S Hooda. Transported to a heliport “can take hours” and as soon as night falls it is too dangerous for the helicopters to fly.
This may be the explanation for the abrupt increase in the balance sheet, past three dead initially to more than 20 on Tuesday night. According to the indian army, 17 soldiers, seriously wounded during the clashes which lasted until after midnight, have “been exposed to temperatures below zero on a terrain in high altitude” and have “succumbed to their wounds.”
At this altitude, the soldiers need time to acclimate under penalty of suffering from the evil of the mountains, linked to the lack of oxygen and can kill in a few hours someone who is young and in good health.
“For a human being who does not live there, to survive is in itself a huge challenge,” says AFP colonel S. Dinny, who commissioned until 2017 an indian battalion in the region. “It is one of the places of the earth where it is more difficult to serve as a soldier”.
Normally, soldiers are sent into the zone for a period of two years, interspersed with leave. Those who smoke give up quickly, the cigarette.
“With the low rate of oxygen, the more the climate, the more the tobacco, the risk of having a heart attack to explode,” adds the colonel, Dinny.
The cold and altitude, also affect the vision, making the soldiers even more confused. The weather, which can change abruptly, and the steep terrain, can hinder radio communications.
No cards exchanged
In addition, the Line of actual control (“Line of Actual Control” (LAC), the border de facto after the war of 1962 between India and China, is not properly demarcated, and this may lead chinese soldiers and indian encounters in which each thinks that the other is violating the line.
“The cards have not even been exchanged to allow the other party to know what each one claims. There is no terminal border,” says the colonel, Dinny.
Over the years, the two sides have developed a detailed protocol of the procedures to be followed and agreed that nobody was to open fire. If patrols rivals fall one on the other, they keep their distance and deploy flags to warn each other that they left their territory and must return to it.
Apart from occasional incidents, these meetings normally take place between the “professional soldiers serving their respective countries, they treat each other with that courtesy,” according to the colonel.
But in the past few months, the confrontations are growing and the two sides strengthen their military presence as well as their infrastructure. A road constructed by India appears to have particularly indisposed China.
And according to New Delhi, China multiplies the encroachments, especially on the north shore of lake Pangong, and in the valley, Galwan that Beijing claims now in full.
The violent body-to-body-murderer on Monday night was preceded in may by the two clashes between chinese soldiers and indians. For the general Hooda, “it is time to revisit our protocols and our rules of engagement in order that any dispute may be resolved in a manner more military rather than fighting like thugs in the street”.