Chandrashekhar Harbola: They waited 38 years for him – then his body came from Siachen

Chandrashekhar Harbola: They waited 38 years for him – then his body came from Siachen

By Asif Ali
BBC Hindi

Image source, @TheArvindPandey

Image caption, Chandrashekhar Harbola was part of a patrol operation when an avalanche hit his unit in 1984

“Mother, when will dad come home?” Shanti Devi’s two daughters asked her this question every day for years.

She would always tell them that their father was away for work and he would come home soon.

Years passed, but their conversation remained the same.

Their father, Chandrashekhar Harbola – an Indian army soldier – went missing in 1984 during a patrolling operation in the Siachen glacier.

The 20-member unit was caught in an avalanche in what is known as the world’s highest battlefield, along the India-Pakistan border.

Image source, BBC/ASIF ALI

Image caption, Shanti Devi waited for 38 years, hoping that Harbola was alive

The treacherous terrain is not suitable for humans to inhabit, but the countries have refused to vacate their posts after fighting a brief battle over the glacier in 1984. Soldiers from both countries routinely die in avalanches.

Harbola and his colleagues also faced similar circumstances. After the avalanche, 15 bodies had been recovered, but five remained missing, including Harbola’s.

When he was declared missing, his elder daughter Kavita was eight years old, while Babita was four. Nearly four decades later, they finally got news about their father, but not the kind they were expecting.

Image source, BBC/ASIF ALI

Image caption, Thousands gathered to pay their respect to Harbola

The army told them that a unit had found his body in the glacier last week. This brought a sense of closure to the family, but also broke their hearts.

All three of them had secretly hoped that Harbola was alive. They thought that he might have been captured by the Pakistani army – and some day, he would return.

But their wait ended in tragedy this week when Harbola’s body was brought to their village in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, where he was cremated with full military honours.

For Shanti Devi, the last 38 years were only about two things – bringing up her daughters as best as she could and praying that Harbola would return someday.

After he went missing, she trained as a nurse and got a job in a government hospital in Bageshwar district.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Siachen glacier is the world’s highest battlefield

Life got busy for her as she focused on her daughters’ education. She never remarried because she never lost hope.

“I used to assure my children that their father would come back one day,” Shanti Devi told the BBC while looking at a picture of her husband.

She would often go to the edge of the path that connected the village from the main road. This was the same path Harbola took whenever he came home on leave or returned to his work after a vacation. The last time he left the village in 1984, he promised, as always, to come home soon.

Every day would end in disappointment, but it didn’t crush Shanti Devi’s hopes.

“I would think that he might have been taken prisoner. He might have been captured by the Pakistani army as a prisoner of war. Many such thoughts would come to my mind,” she said.

Now they are struggling to believe that those hopes have been crushed. Mother and daughters broke down after every few sentences while talking to their neighbours and journalists.

How was the body found?

An army unit was on a routine patrol when they came across a bunker. When they went closer, they found a body.

Harbola’s army ID number, engraved on a piece of metal, was still intact. They relayed the information to headquarters and after a thorough check of their records, they established that the body was of the missing soldier, Chandrashekhar Harbola.

Image source, BBC/ASIF ALI

Image caption, Harbola’s family led the tributes

Then the army contacted the family.

“We got the news on the night of 13 August. The family was contacted on the basis of the identity disc he got at the time of recruitment. Through the disc, they identified our uncle. The news shocked us,” said Harish Chandra Harbola, Harbola’s nephew.

He said his family was still in shock, but they were proud that Harbola sacrificed his life while serving his country.

An officer who was present during Harbola’s cremation said that the army never stopped looking for its missing soldiers.

“We kept on searching for the lost jawans [soldiers] and this summer when the Siachen glacier ice started melting, the search for the lost jawans started again and we found Harbola. We hope to find others too,” he said.

Reports say that the unit spotted another body, but it has yet to be identified.

Heart-breaking scenes

Kavita, who is now 46, and Babita, who is now 42, were waiting with their mother when the truck carrying Harbola’s body arrived.

A huge crowd of relatives, neighbours and members of the public had gathered to pay their respects to him.

The area was echoing with chants of Chandrashekhar Harbola amar rahe (Chandrashekhar Harbola will be immortal). Everyone present had tears in their eyes.

And many of them couldn’t believe that his body had been found. It’s not every day that a body is found after 38 years and brought home to full military honours.

For his family, a chapter has ended and there is a sense of closure. But the pain of having their hopes dashed will stay for a long time.

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