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The fallen autumn leaves crunched softly underfoot, a crackly sound interspersed with heavy breathing. The surrounding forest was a web of silence.
The sky above was a pale shade of blue already heavy with the cold of the approaching winter.
Pale, cold and silent, the snow-capped mountains and the grey-green forests on the foothills appeared to be quite near. The stony ridges on the slopes, even the jutting rocks and crevices between them, the grey-white snowline, everything appeared crystal clear in the rarefied mountain air.
A small band of people trudged slowly, trying to find the way down the steep mountainside.
June’s breathing was fast and shallow. It was painful for her to inhale the cold mountain air. She could hear her own breathing and through it the throbbing of her beating heart. She was trailing the band by a good thirty paces, her right shoulder numb from the weight of the gun she carried and her mind strangely vacant, emptied of all thoughts.
She felt as if she was walking in a present that was already past and each breath she took felt like a breath taken in some distant past.
They were approaching a small clearing, a narrow slanting meadow covered with grass and strewn with rocks of different sizes. Jagged outcroppings of rocks that rose like small mounds were scattered on it. The group, which was travelling under the thin conifer forests of the mountain slope, stopped silently before entering the open patch.
It was already late afternoon and the band had been walking since early morning, lugging their baggage, equipment and the makeshift stretcher. Their injured leader continued to waft between consciousness and unconsciousness as he lay on it, with spells of guttural groans interspersed with a stream of unspeakable obscenities.
The four persons in charge of transporting the stretcher carried it on their shoulders in pairs at a time—the other two then carried the guns, bags and blankets.
It wasn’t easy to carry the unconscious person on a stretcher over the steep and tortuous mountain track. The band had been doing exactly that for the last three days, frequently changing shoulders and exchanging duties. Occasionally, the boys would put the blankets over their injured leader’s legs, removing them hurriedly the moment he stirred.
The person now leading the group went cautiously to the edge of the clearing while the others waited silently. His name was Ron. He surveyed his surroundings, trying to get a general feel of the area. He then looked up at the sky, scrutinizing it in a thoughtful manner and moving his head from side to side as if he was trying to hear a particular sound.
Yesterday, when they were crossing a similar meadow, a helicopter had suddenly appeared over the shoulder of the mountain and fired at them.
The memory rankled. It was so vivid yet so unreal….
Ron cautiously went forward, crossed the meadow swiftly and looked down beyond what looked like a slope. He descended a little, disappearing from their view. After some time he reappeared, climbed up and rapidly crossed the meadows. As soon as he entered the tree-covered area, the distant drone of a helicopter became audible.
Inside the clump of trees, everybody instinctively hunched their shoulders, as if trying to draw their necks into their chests like tortoises, and scanned the sky with anxious eyes. Some hunkered down immediately.
The two stretcher-bearers squatted with the stretcher still on their shoulders. Soon, a small speck of a helicopter appeared in the sky and then disappeared rapidly.
‘We’ll stay here tonight,’ said Ron. The two stretcher-bearers placed the stretcher down on four tripods made of split bamboo so that it did not touch the ground.
Everybody put down their packs and stretched their limbs in relief.
The leader on the stretcher remained unconscious.
It was early afternoon that day, when the first shell had exploded inside the camp.
The sun was very bright that day, the sky cloudless, and the whole camp had shimmered like a mirage in the bright sunshine.
There was an eerie high-pitched whine in the air for a second or two, followed by a deafening sound and a crashing jolt that shook the ground as in an earthquake.
Silence followed for a few moments, after which a tall plume of dirty white smoke rose to the sky. June, sitting in front of her hut in another part of the sprawling camp, felt as if a strong gust of wind had hit her. She saw Ron leaping out of a hut followed by two or three boys.
‘They are shelling us!’ he had screamed.
People ran out of the huts like excited red ants.
Then a second shell burst in yet another part of the camp. ‘They are attacking us!’ somebody had shouted hoarsely near her. All she saw was a contorted face, but she couldn’t make out who it was. She instinctively started running towards Ron in the distance.
The air was filled with shrill whining and mortar shells burst like firecrackers near the outer defences below.
They had subconsciously expected the attack, but had lived in a state of denial, refusing to believe in the inevitable.
They had built the large armed camp in an outlying part of a foreign country—Bhutan. The area was quite inaccessible and sparsely populated. And from the sanctuary of that armed camp they had carried out their political and militant activity against their own country— India. It is true that such insurgent camps had come to abound in the upper reaches of Myanmar where various tribal ethnic groups hid in their lairs.
They had spent more than three years in that camp! Yes, more than three years! They knew the local government didn’t look at them kindly. June had heard the top leaders in the camp talking about trying a diplomatic engagement with the government of the country and planning alternatives, but no action took place and, amidst the increased uncertainty, the attack suddenly occurred.
By the time she had reached Ron, June could see that he was already ordering everyone to gather as much arms, ammunition, implements and supplies as they could and assemble near the eastern part of the camp. The attack was from the west.
‘Stay close to me,’ Ron ordered her.
June gasped at the devastation before her eyes. All the main wooden buildings of the camp were already flattened or blown to smithereens. The meeting hall, council chamber, the offices were all gone. Some were burning fiercely. People were running helter-skelter carrying various items towards the eastern slopes.
We may have to leave camp and move to the forests and the mountains, June thought with a shiver, and ran towards the arms store behind Ron.
At that moment, mortar shells started bursting inside the camp.
‘They are closing in!’ she heard Ron shouting. ‘Get your arms, move…faster, faster…’
It was in this way that they had been blasted out of their fortified mountain camp, without putting up any real resistance.