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جمعہ، 28 جنوری، 2011

Sonaar Baangla

  Jessore was already in the thick of a full-scale battle since early November. The brigade battle command post was funtioning from a concrete bunker located a thick clump of trees between the cantonment and the city itself.

By Mehboob Qadir ( retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army )

It was a crisp and pleasantly nippy wintry morning when our plane landed at Dacca Airport on November 18, 1971, after a brief stop over at Sri Lanka. There was an eerie silence and the airport looked almost completely deserted. On the runways other than the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) plane that had just landed the only other plane was that of the United Nations (UN) and that too disabled. The entire length and breadth of the airport was dotted with anti-aircraft gun emplacements, radars, riflemen trenches, machinegun bunkers and all what is needed to shoot down an enemy plane or prevent it from landing. The terminal windows and entrances were either sandbagged or nailed shut leaving only few passages open for men and officers to pass through. Armed soldiers, airmen and officers were walking around with queerly detached expressions; probably compressed under a sense of purpose or foreboding or may be both. An uneasy calm and a palpable whiff of fear hung around in the air, which was rather difficult to grasp or describe at that time.

I found a military jeep to ferry me to the officer’s mess in the cantonment. The driver did not even ask me who I was and whether he expected me or not. He simply dumped my duffle bag in the rear of the jeep, slid over the driver’s seat and switched the ignition on. Perhaps it did not matter to him who I was. He knew that it was the last flight into East Pakistan of those who were without sufficiently powerful connections to have stayed back in West Pakistan. So for him, in that pit of misery and almost certain annihilation, one more the merrier. From the airport to the cantonment the city and its streets looked gloomily empty and unreal. There were signs of destruction, arson, and gun battle everywhere. Some walls were full of bullet hits; windowpanes smashed and unhinged doors were hanging in crazy angles. Smashed boundary walls, shell-holed rooms where torn and dirty curtains hung in shreds and collapsed roofs spoke of the violence and devastation. The whole route was full of military checkposts, concrete bunkers, sandbagged machinegun positions and roadblocks, much like what one sees in our major cities these days. One could see some of those places where before March that year, innocent West Pakistani men, women and children were mercilessly slaughtered. And also those sites too where ruthless army action took place against Mukti Bahini — freedom fighters — and other rebels. The unbelievable brutality was simply revolting and the bloodshed nauseating. Inner Dacca was out of bounds for us as it was not yet fully quelled. General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi had assumed overall command in Dacca with all his trademark brashness and attendant notoriety. His sordid affair with a French female war correspondent had already become the subject of lewd gossip in Dacca.

Early next day I was given over 30 unarmed men, a soldier with a rifle and a few rounds of ammunition, a military truck to travel upon and ordered to move by road to Jessore. The landscape was lush green; farmers were either tilling their fields for the rice crop with the help of short stocky oxen or busy catching paddy fish with twig baskets or shaggy fishing nets. Little flocks of white egrets and purple herons were flying around in leisurely circles from one clump to the other or settling down occasionally on a raised field embankment in search of a catch. In the background of rich green foliage, their brilliant white silhouettes looked so splendid. It felt as if one was travelling in a picture frame. By the evening we hit the bank of a huge river and had to stop in the military camp. It was Headquarters 9 Division, Magura. Officers in the mess were aghast when they learnt how I had travelled unprotected from Dacca and with so many men in a single military truck with just one rifleman as guard. One of them could not help but remark, “Either you are very brave or completely unaware of what you have done, that road is infested with murderous Muktis.” The fact of the matter was that I had not the foggiest idea what kind of mortal danger I was passing through with so many unarmed men on a lonely truck on that deserted road. However, there was no point feeling scared of what had not happened. And what lay ahead would be tackled as it comes. I shrugged the episode out of my mind.

As we reached the ferry port next morning, a military police soldier walked out of his checkpost, saluted and asked “Sir have you come from West Pakistan? Do they know what is happening here?” And then walked back into his checkpost without waiting for an answer. He looked kind of dazed and rather disoriented. It was a mid-sized ramshackle ferry full of diesel and decaying fish stink all over the place that soon arrived. I climbed straight up and onto the upper deck trying to escape the terrible double odour. The ship captain tried to tell me that I was an easy target for a Mukti sniper there. I thought it was better to die ‘honourably’ of a Mukti sniper shot than choke to death by the powerful stink of rotten fish below. It was a mighty river, very broad with a fast current. It reminded me of the olden times when we used to cross the Indus in a similar manner, over to Dera Ghazi Khan from Taunsa.

Jessore was already in the thick of a full-scale battle since early November. The brigade battle command post was functioning from a concrete bunker located in a thick clump of trees between the cantonment and the city itself. It took very little time to familiarise myself with the defensive layout from the map and orient myself with the battle situation. It was my job to accompany the brigade commander during his visits to the deployed units, forward areas and convey his orders in person or bring back battle information from the frontline where required. Indians were attacking incessantly and our brave but exhausted troops were beating back assault after assault by Indian tanks and infantry. They could bring in fresh reinforcements; our troops had had no respite since March that year yet we were holding on. We had no air-force to protect our skies. Indian aircraft, including their trainers, would bomb us at will for hours. Their bombers would drop 500 and 1,000-pound bombs looking for our command bunker. A 1,000-pound bomb is a terrifying weapon. It made a huge deafening blast and would dig out a large room size deep pit. At times even ground water would ooze out of the pit bottom. The ones that fell closer shook the concrete bunker like a tin can on a string. Our casualties were mounting and there was no replacement. Our stocks of weapons and ammunition could not be replenished and they were fast running out. For every dead or wounded soldier the front shrank that much or a gap appeared in the defences. We had to contend with Mukti ambushes and raids in our rear and the Indians forces in front. The double pressure could unnerve any army in the world in a matter of weeks but it was the indomitable grit of our soldiers and officers, despite dismal senior command performance, that we held fast and were a coherent fighting force even after a year of relentless attrition.

There were heartending wailing, piercing screams and extremely painful calls for help from everywhere. The road was narrow and slippery and there were ditches on the sides. People were running and driving in a frenzied panic. Those who fell were crushed and the ones who could not keep up were lost forever.

Our Brigade Commander, Brigadier ‘Makhmad’ Hayat, was a noble exception like quite a few others and what a battle commander he was. He never wore a steel helmet and never carried a weapon. Always wore his peculiar discoloured blue beret and knotted Malacca cane in hand. This officer was completely fearless. His standing orders were that there would be no armed escort when he moves out of the headquarters even when he fully knew that behind every bush and tree there was a Mukti sniper or an Indian infiltrator. I had to match his nerve with a reluctant valour of my own. But as a precaution I would also conceal a sten gun under my seat in the jeep. He was a proud Pashtun from Swabi and an extremely determined fighter. This valiant officer died last year.

The Jessore airport was located between the cantonment and the border and was mined for demolition if needed. A railway line and a road led from Jessore to Khulna and the other over the river to Magura and on to Dacca. Kushtia was to the north and Bongaon to the south, which was an important city on the road and railway line coming in from Calcutta. Next to Bongaon on our side of the border was the town of Satkhira from where a road led straight to Khulna. This is why Jessore was so important a military objective.

It was probably December 6 or 7. Indian attacks on Satkhira and around Jessore had become intense over the last few days. In Headquarters Eastern Command Dacca, they were busy ridiculing our battle reports. They would try invariably to water down the count of thousands of Indian artillery shells and dozens of air strikes on us daily to a hundred and a few sorties. Reported tank movements into the noise of farm tractors ploughing fields and all the dirty tricks of a staff befitting a venal commander like General Niazi, who preferred to hold formal official dinners and booze parties when troops in forward trenches were dying of lack of medicines and inability to evacuate. That fateful night the Indians were shelling our defensive positions heavily. Bongaon and Satkhira sectors were also under intense shelling. It appeared that the Indians were preparing for a major assault in our sector. As the dawn broke they launched powerful multiple tank and infantry attacks closely supported by artillery and their ever-menacing air force. By mid day the Indian armour and infantry broke through one of our forward battalions defending Jessore perimeter.

The cross-country travel time to our command post by jeep from the reported breach was not more than 20 minutes. The brigade commander ordered me to take out his jeep, hopped in beside me and we drove off in the direction of the battalion where the enemy had finally broken through. I did not quite understand what was in the commander’s mind but to me it looked as if he wanted to fight the enemy tanks barehanded as he was looking for them everywhere. He had ordered the brigade to occupy a defensive position in the rear astride the road leading to Khulna from Jessore and the units were slowly moving into their new locations. Darkness was falling and it was nearly a half moon in the black starry sky. Indian shelling had stopped and the battlefield had fallen silent after the day’s pitched battles. The brigade had just escaped being surrounded thanks mainly to overcautious Indian field commanders and their faulty assessment that we would withdraw to Magura rather than Khulna. This tactical error would cost them part of the glory of eventual victory latter. There was a Y-junction immediately behind Jessore where the road coming in from Bongaon-Satkhira joined the road to Khulna. The brigade commander ordered me to set up a blocking position at that point with whatever weapons and troops I could muster to prevent the Indians from hot pursuit, which could jeopardise our new defences.

A roadblock was set up with the help of an anti tank gun, a light machine gun and few stray soldiers. A terrible drama of human suffering, pain and panic was unfolding right before my eyes. It was an unusually cold night and Jessore was being emptied. There was an immense flood of humanity fleeing Jessore and its surrounding villages for their dear lives. An endless crowd loaded on cars, buses, trucks, horse and bullock carts, rickshaws, wheelbarrows, cycles and on foot was racing madly towards Khulna. There were heartrending wailing, piercing screams and extremely painful calls for help from everywhere. The road was narrow and slippery and there were ditches on the sides. People were running and driving in a frenzied panic. Those who fell were crushed and the ones who could not keep up were lost forever. Sick, elderly, children and women were in pitiable condition. Fear, selfishness and helplessness diluted all care for blood relations; each one was on his own. That night how many were crushed to death or killed, no one knows. Which grand and honourable families lost generations of respect and ancestral properties, nobody can guess. What horrible tragedies and grief were inflicted cannot be imagined. But one thing was sure: that fateful night, the Pakistan for which Muslims of the subcontinent struggled for hundreds of years, died on the road to Khulna, unlamented. That night a thousand years of our romance with history finally and decisively soured. What a colossal tragedy indeed. It was a massive and unforgivable let down by those in West Pakistan of their countrymen in East Pakistan.

On an impulse I decided to go see for myself where the enemy was as a lot of time had passed without making contact. I had to pass through Jessore. It was quite close to the false dawn and the moon still shone feebly. Jessore was an incredible sight. It looked like a ghost town, not a soul stirred anywhere. Bazaars were completely empty. Tables and chairs in the restaurants were toppled over, doors to homes wide open and things littered around, as if people left in a hurry. There were cooking pans still on the burners in some kitchens with food badly burnt and abandoned. One could also see an odd dead body lying around badly mutilated. I thought I heard a baby crying somewhere maybe due to the cold or hunger and no one to feed or cover him, possibly. There was an old and very frail woman sobbing uncontrollably while sitting on her doorstep. Perhaps missing her family who had fled. A few goldsmith shops were broken into and looted either by Mukti Bahini or by the citizens themselves, I was not sure. There were a few dead bodies stuffed into city gutters. Not even dogs and cats could be seen. I have never seen a more dreadful sight than that ever before. A whole living city utterly abandoned and literally extinguished. Jessore was inevitably pillaged, whoever was left behind ravaged and the city torched, burning for many days. Dense clouds of smoke and blaze were visible for many days.

The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army. He can be reached at
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