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By: Masood anwar, courtesy of Defence Journal December 16, 1971 is part of our history. The day will always be remembered, always talked about and always written about by many and for many years to follow. To me this day is very special. I have lived through every moment of this day and I can fully recapture what it is to know the beginning. With the rising of the sun, daylight interrupted the silence of the night. I was awakened by the sparkling light filtering through the drawn curtains. I lay motionless overwhelmed with the spirituality of life. I could hear the whispering of the trees. I could hear chirping of birds and insects, I could feel the rhythm in the buffeting of the wind and I could feel the mellow hum of life. Stretching forward I drew the curtains apart to receive full view of the morning. It was fascinating to see the harmony, the serenity the beauty the modesty the freshness all combined in a single reflection. Indeed Nature's commitment was unchanged. But something was different which made me instinctively uneasy. I could hear no sound of guns, no blasts no buzzing of aircraft. Everything seemed intriguingly quiet. All of that made me curious about war and peace. I said to myself why wars have to be fought to establish peace. Why wars have to be fought to decide the character of international relationships. Why this war (1971) had to happen. Why we (West Pakistanis and East Pakistanis) are tearing each other down. Why could we not find a better solution to our disputes. Why did we have to suffer the pain of brother killing a brother. I kept shaking my head frustrated and disappointed. I said to myself why did we let this happen? Finally, shaking myself from the daze I tried to sense reality and prepared myself to meet surprises that lay ahead. Out of total of six helicopters three MI8 Russian made helicopters and three Alloutte-III French helicopters stationed in Dacca, two Alloutte helicopters remained in Dacca on the morning of December 16. Other had flown across to Akyab in neighbouring Burma in the quiet hours of night 15/16 December 1971. We were fortunate that besides helicopters pilots and engineers, many women and children who could not leave Dacca earlier, were rescued from what could have been long drawn suffering for them. Flying time between Dacca and Akyab in MI8 helicopter was 2-1/2 hours, this helicopter could cover the distance in one hop. Alloutte-III helicopter required refuelling en route, its flying time was 3-1/2 hours. A contingency plan to this effect had earlier been finalized and necessary preparations had been made. Our colleagues who had left Dacca in the early hours, we hoped, should have reached Akyab by then but there was no way to know. We were also anxious to know how the Burmese had treated our people. Needless to say what mattered at that point of time was to find out if any possibility of our escaping against all odds still existed, and if we were to attempt
any such action we had to obtain formal approval of Eastern Command Headquarters. We got ready early to proceed to Eastern Command Headquarters laden with feelings of hope, fear and uncertainty. We were engrossed in the thought that if Eastern Command allowed us to escape, attempting 3-1/2 flight in a low flying helicopter over unfriendly terrain in broad daylight with so many 'ifs' and 'buts' would not be a simple task. The thought was frightening, but we had to win this battle of wits with the strength of our belief, with faith in the beneficence of Almighty Allah, with hope and the conviction that something miraculous was bound to happen. We also believed that shadows of fear tend to lessen when commitment is sound and we believed that honesty of purpose transforms uncertainties into realizable opportunities. Driving through the streets of Dacca towards Eastern Command Headquarters, we witnessed extraordinary scenes of defeat and victory. New realities replacing old realities, new country in the making, relationships being destroyed, trusts being shattered. Those were emotional scenes, afterall a chapter of the history of Pakistan was coming to a close. Indeed, it was a sad ending to a good beginning. As I now write about my impressions, I hope my writing will provide food for thought to the younger population about perceptions and interpretations and how they change the course of one's thinking. How leaders develop collective consciousness of the people and how they influence their future. How ideologies take birth how opinions change and how new thinking supersedes old thinking. When we arrived at Eastern Command Headquarters, there was unusual activity to be seen. Cars and jeeps by dozens parked all around, among these were jeepsters of UN Staff. Security personnel guarded every nook and corner of the Headquarters. Panic-stricken officers running in and out of the underground offices. We stood aside astonished and witnessed the happenings soon to learn that discussions on the modalities of ceasefire were in progress, UN Staff mediating between Eastern Command Headquarters and Indian Army Headquarters in Calcutta. Pakistani Commanders asking for conditional surrender and wanting Pakistani troops to leave E. Pakistan honourably. Indian Commanders insisting on unconditional surrender of troops. Needless to say whatever we might have desired, Indians would have not let such an opportunity of disgracing Pakistan and its Armed Forces go waste. Anyway, having witnessed the proceedings in silence for sometime, we decided to return to our quarters to prepare ourselves to face the consequences of losing the war. We were now pretty certain about the end. Eastern Command we knew had lost Command as well as Control and had been rendered intellectually impoverished. Our visit to the Headquarters added no further wisdom to our understanding. Whatever hope we carried had diminished altogether. But destiny had other plans for us. While we were on our way back to our quarters, halfway we were stopped by Air Officer Commanding East Pakistan Air Vice Marshal Inam Ul Haq (later retired as Air Marshal). When we met he hurriedly said "what are you boys
doing here?" We informed him about our visit to the Eastern Command Headquarters. He said, "look there is no Eastern Command anymore. Surrender ceremony is to take place at 1:30pm. You have very little time. I suggest if you can you should leave and leave now. Good luck". Air Marshal left leaving us in a state of limbo. We looked at each other for a while, the next moment as if life had been breathed into us, we said "Allah-o-Akbar", a rush of blood and off we went to our respective helicopters. There was no looking back - our mission - 'Escape'. Around 1300 hours both helicopters were airborne. We departed Dacca on what was to be the last flight out of East Pakistan. Defying all odds amidst confusion of war in broad daylight under the watchful eyes of the enemy, two Alloutte-III helicopters skimming the top of the trees were on course to Akyab on a 3-1/2 hours long flight. We did not for a moment hesitate taking that decision knowing fully well that we could have perished never to have been found again but for our strength in our faith and the conviction "luck favours the brave", was uninhibited. Thorough knowledge of the terrain made our task easy otherwise navigation from a low flying helicopter zigzagging to avoid areas suspected of enemy locations would have been an impossible task. Journey seemed endless as if time had slowed its pace, but each minute that ticked brightened our spirits and every inch of land we passed we felt we were closer to our destination. Finally after 2-1/2 hours of tense flying, we crossed over to Burma. We were now over Arakan Hills. The forest below us was denser than we had thought. It was difficult to find an opening to land the helicopter for refuelling. Soon we found a small opening large enough to land the helicopter vertically down. Refuelling was hurriedly completed. We did not switch the engine off because we did not want to take any risk. Luck had indeed favoured us so far. We were soon airborne on course to Akyab. Our immediate concern now was to discard our military uniforms, equipment, documents, weapons and ammunition in order to hide our true identity. We saw a small lake in the vicinity. Stationing the helicopter over the surface of the lake, everything including, documents weapons and ammunition were bundled together and thrown into the lake. We were releaved. We thought we had destroyed everything possible that could have revealed our identity but once at Akyab in the custody of the Burmese Authorities we could not fully convince them. Perhaps they knew who we were, otherwise our flying into Burma unannounced in military aircraft according to International Law amounted to invading a sovereign country, for which we could have been dealt with severely. Burmese Government indeed considered our case on humanitarian grounds and provided us asylum. After a brief session of questioning, we were driven to where our colleagues had been housed. These were WWII vintage barracks located in a deserted corner of the town. We were made comfortable with two bed sheets and a wooden bed. It took some time to be acclimatized and adjusted to sleeping on wooden bed without mattress and pillow. Food was not to our taste. Although a few local Muslim families sent specially cooked food for us, but it did not help. The interesting part was the rotis which were cooked alongwith dozens of red ants
(Soondis). We had to pick each one by one before eating. Spending time was not easy. We kept ourselves busy in gossip and discussions and taking long walks. Luckily after a couple of days staff from our Embassy arrived. They made arrangements for our repatriation. Within a week we were flown in a Burmese Air Force Freighter plane to Rangoon via Mandlay, a Burmese Air Force Base. At Rangoon our Embassy took over the responsibility. They made arrangements for boarding and lodging and also loaned each some money for our day to day needs. We were free to move around in the town. We took this opportunity to wander around in the town visiting sites even doing some shopping. Three weeks stay in Rangoon was like paid holiday comfortable and enjoyable yet I never enjoyed the peace of mind. Often when alone I would ask myself why we humans are so forgetful and so ungrateful. How could we, so soon, forget the ordeal, the humiliation and the loss of face. How could we forget that we had been robbed of our pride and dignity. How could we forget that we had failed to come up to the mark in the hour of trial. Regrettable to say, we showed little remoarse and regret. We behaved as though everything that happened was inevitable. Unfortunately, our behaviour even today has not changed. We show no signs of anguish, regret or sorrow. We continue to destroy relationships, betray friends, compromise on morals and ethics only to satisfy our greed for power and money. We continue to live from moment to moment occupied with self-indulgence and fortune-hunting. I do not know how long we will go on this way. How long will Allah forgive us for our follies and sins. Let us hope for the very best. All in all we had a pleasant stay in Rangoon. Burmese are good people humble and soft-spoken. During our stay we visited the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar, last Mughal Emperor extradited to Rangoon by the British. His tomb was located in a narrow lane in a residential area. While I offered Fateha, I was reminded of the famous poem written by the Emperor during his captivity in Rangoon. The verses depict the intensity of emotional pain and suffering the emperor must have gone through. The philosophic depth in these verses can be well appreciated. "Lagta nihin hai jee mera Ujree Dyaar mein. Kitna hai baad nasib Zafar Do gas Zamin bhi Na mille Kooye Yar mein". Among other places, we visited Buddhist Pagodas. Their pyramid like shape and lofty structure colourfully decorated added attraction for the tourists. Rangoon is also known for parks. The largest park called ONSA park is named after the founder of the country. Everything that begins must come to an end. So did this episode of our escape from Dacca. After five weeks of stay in Burma, we were finally flown back to Pakistan to be reunited with our families and friends. All that is now history and I sincerely believe history should be remembered because history is about people and people reflect the image of the Nation.
All in all we had a pleasant stay in Rangoon. Burmese are good people humble and soft-spoken. During our stay we visited the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar, last Mughal Emperor extradited to Rangoon by the British. His tomb was located in a narrow lane in a residential area. While I offered Fateha, I was reminded of the famous poem written by the Emperor during his captivity in Rangoon. The verses depict the intensity of emotional pain and suffering the emperor must have gone through. The philosophic depth in these verses can be well appreciated. One has to read the "aapbiti" of one of the princess too ! Really touching & worth reading. Defying all odds amidst confusion of war in broad daylight under the watchful eyes of the enemy, two Alloutte-III helicopters skimming the top of the trees were on course to Akyab on a 3-1/2 hours long flight. We did not for a moment hesitate taking that decision knowing fully well that we could have perished never to have been found again but for our strength in our faith and the conviction "luck favours the brave", was uninhibited. Imagine they could not even catch our helos ! This shows how come courage our armed forces have !
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