The nation had not begun to draw any sort of closure over the Gayari tragedy when it experienced the loss created by the Bhoja Airlines crash outside Rawalpindi. On the face of it, there was no apparent link between the two tragedies, but there were similarities, some coincidental and some created by the common humanity of both, and there were some differences, not just created by the different natures of the tragedy, but because the avalanche fell on soldiers, while the plane was, as were those on board, civilian .
Some of the similarities include the involvement of the military in both. It is true that the military does not have to do with either incident, in the Gayari incident, military personnel were victims, but in the plane crash, the pilots were ex-PAF. It is also worth noting that both incidents involved a defiance of the natural order of things. The troops should not have been at Gayari in the first place, and the name given to Siachen, ‘the highest battleground in the world’ indicates two things: it would not have been possible to have used it as a battleground had it not been for recent advances in high-altitude technology, and it was a new battlefield, because the technology simply had not been there earlier.
Another similarity is that both incidents occurred while attempting to defy nature. Siachen is not meant to be lived on, let alone fought over. It is hard to imagine a more inhospitable terrain. Yet man not only lives there, but has sent whole battalions of his troops there. After all, the avalanche did not kill some exploring adventurers, but the headquarters of an army battalion. The plane crash may have shown how routine flying has become for human beings, but it also provided ammunition for the argument, used ever since the dawn of aviation: if God had intended man to fly, He would have given him wings. While older than the attempt to live on a glacier, aviation is still very new, newer than other modes of transport, such as sailing, or its main rival, the road.
However, one of the big differences lay in the involvement of the military in one, and their lack of involvement in the other. At Gayari, the military was fully involved in the rescue effort, something it was also involved in Rawalpindi. However, while the avalanche rescue remained an army operation, in Rawalpindi the army may have been involved, but it was a civilian operation. It is another matter that, whether civilian or military, both operations soon became exercises in the recovery of bodies.
Much was said about the previous AirBlue flight which crashed under similar circumstances in 2010, with similar loss of life, and that was an example of the difference between civilian and military. The report of that accident was only made public after the Bhoja crash, and it seemed as if there was a collective unwillingness to allow that crash to intrude too far onto the public memory. On the other hand, with the Gayari avalanche, the military assumed ownership of the recovery to the extent that the Chief of Army Staff himself visited it, made the President visit the site and conveyed that he would expend his last soldier in the effort to recover the victims. No one denies the extremely hard duty that is undertaken by the officers and men of the military not just in Siachen, but it must be kept in mind that they are supplied at the taxpayer’s expense. And while they lay down their lives, their bodies are recovered at the expense of the taxpayer, as we are witnessing in the current operation. There is a peculiar military tradition about recovering corpses, which probably ensures that there will be greater efforts made at Gayari than civilians would make at an avalanche site. Even in peacetime, the military is always closer to death, and one of the inducements to making men risk their lives has been the knowledge that if they somehow die, above-normal efforts will be made to recover their bodies so that their families will obtain some sort of closure from the punctilio and ceremony of a military funeral.
Another, rather indirect, point of involvement was the involvement of the same airline, Shaheen International, in the succeeding accidents at Lahore and Karachi, which made it seem that the Bhoja crash had been part of a chain of unacceptable risk-taking, rather than an accident or at worst the result of the government to take action. Shaheen is an airline run by Shaheen Foundation, which is meant to parallel the Fauji Foundation, which is supposed to look after the widows and orphans of military personnel killed in action. This has been criticized as enjoying too prominent a position in the country’s economic life, but an important part of a military man’s motivation comes from the knowledge that his family will be looked after if he is killed. Shaheen Foundation was set up by the PAF on the same pattern. Apart from the families of those killed, one purpose is to find jobs for retiring personnel. Airlines have always recruited their pilots among ex-PAF pilots, and the outgoing Chief of Air Staff becoming PIA chief is a reversion to an old pattern. It was therefore only logical for Shaheen Foundation to operate an airline, and to find retired PAF pilots jobs within its ranks. It was perhaps inevitable that some of these pilots, having made the transition to civilian life, should adopt the private sector ethos, and be ready to switch airlines, and one of the Bhoja pilots was ex-PAF, ex-Shaheen. Shaheen Airlines itself had near-misses at Karachi and Lahore, which reflected badly on safety consciousness not just in Shaheen, but in private airlines generally.
This might be a product of the current economic climate, in which airlines have seen expenses balloon because of the price of oil, but it also shows the government as a poor regulator. Nothing is known about how good a regulator it is of the military. While the taxpayer has to pay for the avalanche rescue, he will never have access to any report about that disaster, and what has been done, or is being done, to safeguard our men in uniform against future disasters. The AirBlue crash report issue was raised after the Bhoja crash took place. However, it would be surprising if the Gayari avalanche was ever debated. It would be the responsibility of the government to ensure that neither disaster ever recurs, and that the right lessons are learnt from both. The government has to ensure that there are proper investigations of both, as a sure beginning of the process.
n The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of TheNation.