He spoke in brusque, staccato sentences, the matter-of-fact tone in dramatic contrast to the enormity of the moment. To some he would have seemed clinically cold, his face and manner shorn of any obvious emotion. But all I saw was his lack of guile, and the gentleness in his eyes. And, as the roar of guns drowned out his voice to a barely audible whisper, he suddenly seemed childlike and vulnerable. Vishal Thapa, a captain with 16 Grenadiers was twenty-three years old. I was twenty-seven. It was 3 July 1999. This was the first war either of us had experienced.

We were huddled together in the safety of a tiny underground bunker, high in the Himalayas. In a space no larger than a double bed, eight of us – soldiers and journalists – had been brought together by the vagaries of war in a moment of unlikely but intense intimacy. Outside, cloud bursts of orange lit up the skies over the mountains of Drass and Kargil, as Indian soldiers fought to reclaim territory from Pakistani intruders.

The silence of the night was broken by the intermittent thunder of the Bofors gun and the sharp snap of the multi-barrel rocket launcher (MBRL) as it catapulted rockets into enemy lines.

Every so often, a crackly update would be relayed to us on the internal communication line. In the background, in a disconcerting semblance of normalcy, a decrepit cassette recorder was sputtering out old Hindi movie songs.

The war, which had already been raging for nearly two months, seemed to be entering its final and decisive phase. From the Indian perspective, one of the most important objectives of this part of the campaign was the recapture of Tiger Hill – the strategically crucial mountain peak that loomed perilously close to the national highway that connected Srinagar to Leh.

Marked on the map as Point 5062, Tiger Hill was over 16,500 feet high. Although it was about ten kilometres north of the highway, the Pakistani fortification right on the peak enabled the enemy to dominate large stretches of the road below. Approximately one company of Pakistan’s 12 Northern Light Infantry held the feature.

The Indian Army was about to mount a final assault on Tiger Hill. Just an hour earlier, I had been holding my satellite phone up to the sky to try and bring it into signal range. I had been desperately trying to get word to the news desk in Delhi about the imminent assault when I was pulled into the bunker by a total stranger.

This was the age before satellite transmission vans could broadcast live from the front line. Forget iPhones, Androids or Blackberries, even the un-smart mobile phones of the time were blocked across the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir for security reasons. As shells from the Pakistani side poured down on the highway, we were trying to capture it all on our camera – the – guns that spat flame into the dark sky; soldiers emerging from the trenches to fire their weapons and then quickly ducking for cover from the instant counter-attack; the fallen bodies that lay unmoving on the tarred road.

Nothing in my experience could have prepared me for reporting from the front lines.

I remember recoiling sharply the first time I heard the Bofors gun blast its way across the expanse that separated the highway from Tiger Hill. And on TV, people saw me jumping out of my skin. War did not allow for any second takes…

That evening in July 1999, the assault on Tiger Hill began from a Bofors gun position; individual guns had been ranged so as to directly fire at the three flanks of the mountain. An intricate fire plan prepared by the 41 Field Regiment provided covering fire to the soldiers of 8 Sikh and 18 Grenadiers who were stealthily moving up escarpments and sheer cliffs from three different directions.

Usually, six guns were deployed to provide covering fire to every infantry unit. In Kargil this was increased to eighteen guns. Kargil has often been called a classic gunner’s war and the Bofors gun was its mainstay. The gun could fire three rounds in twelve seconds, and it had a range of thirty kilometres in high altitude terrain; 250 of them were deployed at the front line and 250,000 rounds were fired during the fifty-day war. During the Tiger Hill operation alone, 9,000 shells were used.

The artillery points had become both the first tier of attack and defence in the war. Field gun positions were now veritable forward posts, inviting attack on themselves as soon as the Bofors gun fired the first round; 80 per cent of the casualties on both sides were from mortar fire.

Writing in Artillery: The Battle Winning Arm about the peak period of the war, when each artillery battery fired one round per minute for seventeen days continuously, senior military analyst Major General Jagjit Singh (who started his career in the Royal Indian Navy and saw anti-submarine action during World War II) said, “Such high rates of fire over long periods had not been witnessed anywhere since World War II… The men at the guns had blisters on their hands from carrying and loading shells and cartridges. Very few of them got more than a couple of hours of sleep in every 24-hour cycle.”

With the advantage of height, Pakistani observation posts had a clear line of vision on Indian gun points. So assault positions had to be shifted as soon as they became vulnerable to counter-attack. As they moved, so would we, jumping on to the back of a Jonga jeep or just darting across the smoke-saturated road, unsure of where it might be safe to halt even for a second, trying all the while to keep pace with the magnitude of what was unravelling before our camera’s gaze.

Two hours into what would end up being a thirteen-hour battle, an enemy artillery shell landed close to a 122 multi-barrelled “Grad” rocket launcher right outside the headquarters of the 56 Mountain Brigade, which had just taken over the sector. With forty rockets stacked upon the back of a single carrier, the Grad was a fire-breathing dragon that spat flames into the sky. In Russian, its name meant “hailstorm”, a fitting appellation, as it hailed destruction down upon the intruders.

Suddenly an enemy shell landed within spitting distance of the launcher. It was time to move to a new vantage point; the commander of the Grad immediately halted the operation so that the MBRL could be shifted. Four soldiers had already been killed in a counter-attack on a gun position earlier and he wasn’t taking any chances. Over the next twenty minutes the battle escalated. The town of Drass was carpet-bombed by Pakistan. A curtain of grey closed over the highway as the final acts of the fight to take back Tiger Hill began.

“Run, run, run, now, now, now, run,” shouted out an anxious voice behind us, and so we did, our bodies bent over, our hands forming a useless protective cover over our heads, our camera shaking and jerky, but still switched on and filming, trying to get some of this across to the news centre, our hearts pumping with adrenalin – it offered a temporary antidote against paralysing fear.

At this point in the battle I got separated from Ajmal Jami, my cameraman. As Pakistani shells began to pound the area right around the rocket launcher, I took shelter behind a broken wall, and frantically worked the satellite phone. Suddenly, a long arm lunged out and pulled me back, unfailingly polite even in that life and death moment. “Ma’am, you’re standing next to an ammunition dump,” said the soldier. “If a shell hits the target, this place will explode and you will be finished.” He waved me towards the shelter of his own underground bunker.

“I need to call my office in Delhi,” I insisted, “and I have lost my cameraman, I can’t go down leaving him out here.” He offered to find Jami for me and urged me to hunker down immediately before I got injured in the shelling.

I still had the call to make but there was no way the satellite phone would pick up any signal underground. I sat with my legs inside the dugout and the rest of me leaning out of it, holding the phone outwards. “I can’t talk long; I’m calling from a bunker,” I said, “just tell everyone, the assault on Tiger Hill has begun.” We would spend the next few hours here, trying to make sense of the latest war between India and Pakistan.

Excerpted with permission from This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines, Barkha Dutt, Aleph Book Company.