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Pakistan: Reminiscing on 1971, 50 years later

Last family days before the war...

Wednesday 20 October 2021, by siawi3

Source:https://www.dawn.com/news/1652500/reminiscing-on-1971-50-years-later

Reminiscing on 1971, 50 years later

Abbas Nasir

Published October 17, 2021 - Updated about 17 hours ago

EXACTLY 50 years ago today, we were in Tehran on an adventurous journey that would take us by road from Mirpurkhas, Sindh, to the Lebanese capital of Beirut and back to Pakistan in a little over six weeks, while the crisis that would truncate our beloved country was reaching a head back home.

My father’s adventurous spirit (coupled with my mother’s faith) was ignited by a visitor, Uncle Mahmood Faruque, my father’s employer then and a friend, who said he’d travelled by road from Europe to Karachi more than once and it was worth every minute of it.

He told my father that our six-year-old (though well-maintained) Toyota Corona was no excuse as he knew of friends who had driven in dilapidated old cars without a problem. This was all the encouragement my father needed, and my mother enthusiastically jumped on board with the lure of ziarat.

The atmosphere had heated up dramatically and one could feel war in the air.

We started the first leg of our journey to Quetta via a night stop in Jacobabad and then after a couple of days we set off for Chaman-Spin Boldak via the Bolan Pass and crossed over into Afghanistan on my 12th birthday and made the night stop at the Kandahar Hotel.

The second night stop was in Farah where I remember the hotel was a newly built building with modern facilities but no electricity. A military man, my father remarked that the incredibly world-class highway built by the Soviets was concreted.

“If need be they can drive tanks on these highways and land planes on them without a problem,” I remember him saying, but of course the meaning was lost on me till Soviets tanks and APCs rolled down those very highways from the Central Asian Republics in 1979, eight years later.

The next day we crossed over into Iran via Herat and then the Islam Qila border and headed to Mashhad. En route, we took a detour to Toos where Firdousi is buried. All I recall of his final resting place were the beds of brilliant red roses surrounding it shining in the October sunshine.

The next couple of days were spent in Mashhad with visits to the roza (mausoleum) of Imam Raza. Our family traces its roots to him. And then it was off to Tehran where my father’s former army colleague and dear friend Col Barkat Ali was posted as the military attaché in the embassy.

Having lived and holidayed in Pakistan till then, Tehran’s modern appearance, its roads, parks, buildings and shopping areas were astoundingly beautiful and so well laid out that a traveller remarked the city reminded him of Paris.

Uncle Barkat’s children took me to watch Omar Sharif’s The Horsemen in a cinema on a very fancy Tehran street which dipped and rose on the hilly terrain and one could see traffic lights for a long distance.

As we emerged from the cinema, suddenly all the traffic lights to the left of me turned green till the eye could see. I was puzzled but my hosts said look out for the Shah (of Iran). Lo and behold! Less than a minute, later three or four Ferraris stormed past with the Shah in one and his bodyguard detail in the other three.

We then embarked on the next phase of the journey, making a night stop in Kermanshah and then on to the Khaniqeen border and into Iraq with the first stop in Baghdad. Over the next 10 days, there were trips to Samarrah, Najaf, Kufa and Karbala. I can never forget my mother crying into her handkerchief as a road sign gave the distance to Karbala.

Then the overnight journey to Damascus and after a night stop and the mandatory visit to Zainabiya it was onwards to Beirut which was still to be destroyed by the civil war. I must say having travelled in my later life a lot, it remains one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen.

Before the start of our return journey, there was an added bonus. My elder brother, who was then studying architecture at the METU in Ankara, Turkey, joined us. And we raced back to Pakistan somewhere towards the middle of November.

On the return journey we came to Peshawar via Kabul and Torkham. Money-changers in Kandahar and Kabul were livid with Gen Yahya Khan using the choicest expletives for him for having demonetised the (I think) 500-rupee note.

By the time we came back, the atmosphere had heated up dramatically and we could feel war in the air. The six weeks’ journey with no satellite TV or social media and a sprinkling of mostly dated newspapers had kept us pretty insulated from the reality at home.

We visited my eldest brother, a recently commissioned officer at the PAF who was posted in Risalpur and then stayed with my father’s university and army friend Uncle (Brig Ali) Tabatabai in Rawalpindi on Harley Street, if I recall correctly. My brother couldn’t join us in Pindi as his leave had been cancelled.

Then via Kala Depot where my sister’s husband was posted we returned home. We’d barely reached home when we learnt my sister and her six-month-old son were coming as my brother-in-law had been posted to an operational area near Multan. As my sister’s train was pulling in, I heard the sound of strafing and saw a PAF fighter chasing an IAF fighter reportedly downed a little later.

I remember the pain in my father’s eyes when he saw an army special at Kotri taking troops from his IX Div in Kharian, who’d been trained for mountain warfare in Kashmir, to Chittagong. My father had taken premature retirement in 1969 after taking a stand over a principle dear to him.

More heartbreak was to follow for him within weeks as the short war ended with the announcement of a ‘ceasefire in the eastern wing after an agreement between local commanders’ turned out to be the document of surrender signed by Lt-Gen A.A.K.(Tiger) Niazi.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.