The terrorists were now holed up in two caves and had cover from fire. One of the party was eliminated by a JCO of Khyber Rifles, who crawled closer to the cave, under fire, and fired a RPG inside. Now there was the other cave remaining. The approach to this cave was over clear moonlit ground.
The day had just broken on June 5, 2009, and I was standing in the small bowl amongst boulder strewn hills which had seen a fierce fighting the previous night. I recognized Capt Meraj’s bullet proof jacket and bandolier the moment I saw it. It was lying where he had fallen, on the boulder strewn ground. I felt a tinge of pride in picking up the shaheed’s equipment and personal weapon. I was after all, following an ancient ritual of the soldiers. The losses of the night lay heavy on my heart, but there was a satisfaction that we had killed all of the terrorists and retrieved the bodies and equipment of our comrades-in- arms.
When I picked up Capt Meraj’s equipment, my mind went back few months when I had first met him.
“Sir, we have some officers of the Frontier Corps Special Operations Group (FC SOG) coming over to meet us. Would you like to see them?” asked the Battalion’s Adjutant over the field telephone and I agreed readily. The FC officers turned up quickly and that is when I met Capt Meraj Muhammad for the first time. A physically fit and athletic looking young officer with a good military bearing and a dignified thoughtful expression on his face. He was accompanied by another officer of his outfit and we chatted for a while over tea.
“Capt Meraj, a Sword of Honour of his course, has been doing an excellent job with the SOG, and has been selected for a short training course in the USA”, one of my officers’ filled me in by way of introduction. I asked Meraj about the SOG, and was impressed by the successful number of small tactical operations which they had conducted. Capt Meraj was one of the pioneer commanders of the SOG and was rightly proud of this honour. As he started to get ready for departure, I noticed the somewhat different design of his bullet proof jacket. It was not the standard Army issue, and the bullet proof plate was of a smaller size than the standard design. I asked him about it out of curiosity and was told that they had been newly issued with this jacket. It was not a military grade jacket but was meant for use by para-military or police forces. He preferred this jacket because of its lighter weight and size that made it less cumbersome. I recalled that small conversation, when I picked up the same jacket on June 5, 2009. The SOG party took off in their trademark silver coloured vehicles in a streak of dust. When I was later posted to the FC myself, I learnt that it was a near impossibility in getting your FC driver not to press the throttle to the floor, and you could manage the feat only at the cost of a sulky driver. Seemingly reckless, they were highly skillful drivers, and would drive with passion and élan. The slowly rising dust plume of the vehicles merged with the high mud walls of the majestic Jamrud Fort, in beautiful contrast to the dazzling blue sky. The battlements of this ancient fort must have seen such scenes countless times, I thought.
The bodies of the terrorists were already putrefying, while the body of the Police sepoy was still fresh. Signs of shahadat, I thought.
I had recently been posted to my battalion, 3 Sind Regiment, which was based in Jamrud Fort, as second-in-command. As part of the formation reserve, the battalion had participated in quite a number of operations, by the time I joined. Most of these had been conducted under the operational command of the FC and there was a spirit of camaraderie with its units like the SOG as well as the leadership of the FC.
In April 2009 a major military operation was launched to regain the areas of Swat and Buner from the terrorists. The secondary operation in Buner would be launched in an earlier timeframe to the main operations in Swat. Headquarters FC was made responsible for the conduct of operations in Buner, and our unit was given under command Headquarters FC. Operation Tor Tander II commenced on April 28, 2009, from the western direction of the district with the main attack on the Rustam-Ambela Axis.
By June 2009, a large part of the district had been cleared. The main route of Rustam-Ambela-Dagar was firmly under control of the Security Forces, and, Buner was considered to be stable enough to induct the Police Force for taking up its functions.
June 4 was a warm clear day. My battalion was involved in heavy fighting in the northern part of the district. The day’s battle over, myself and the Commanding Officer (CO) moved back to our base. As we neared our camp, a unit signaller was standing on the road side with a wireless phone set. “Headquarters FC has been trying to call you”, he told the CO. “What is it about?”, inquired the CO. “There has been an ambush on an FC convoy, fighting is still going on” was all he knew. When the CO called up Headquarters FC, he was told that a Police convoy being escorted by an FC Quick Reaction Force (QRF) had been ambushed short of Ambela, that QRFs of SOG and 2 Wing Khyber Rifles had already been moved there, but fighting was still going on. Communication had been lost, and we were asked to go and ascertain the situation and help if required. The battalion being at the other end of the district, the QRF accompanying the CO and myself were the only combat troops readily available. We picked up the Regimental Medical Officer and his assistant, some extra ammunition, signal equipment and marched off towards Ambela. The Subedar Major (SM) was told to thin out the nearest piquets and muster a force in the meanwhile.
When our QRF reached near Ambela, I could communicate on wireless with our hill top piquets. I asked the situation from the piquet Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) who could hear the wireless traffic coming from the ambush site. He told me that there had been a number of own casualties including an officer. “Who is the officer” I asked him.” “Capt Meraj” replied the JCO after a small pause. Almost all of our men knew Capt Meraj of the SOG. It was a shocking bit of news.
We arrived at the ambush site in a grim mood. Dusk had set in by this time. The ambush had been carried out on the road while the fighting was ongoing on the adjoining hill. Sounds of intermittent gunfire greeted us. A number of FC soldiers, some of them wounded were on the road. A party of FC soldiers was bringing down a comrade on a stretcher. Our Medical Officer, Capt Amir sprung into action and started to check up the wounded soldier. “He’s embraced shahadat”, he announced. There was no visible sign of injury on the soldier and he looked warm and alive but Capt Amir was sure. The doctor and his assistant then proceeded to attend to the various casualties. They separated the serious casualties from the minor ones and prepared them for evacuation to CMH Mardan. These two dedicated men saved a number of precious lives that night.
An SOG JCO, whom we were well familiar with, approached the CO and myself. We asked about Capt Meraj. He took us to an ambulance parked close by. Capt Meraj Shaheed was lying in the ambulance covered with a white sheet. His face was very peaceful and calm, and it looked as if he was sleeping. I offered a silent prayer for him. My mind was filled with rage at the enemy who had brought about an end to this dashing officer’s life; not in open battle, but hiding and slinking behind boulders and using IEDs. Kipling’s lament of a hundred year ago, came to my mind, “two thousand pounds of education, Drops to a ten rupee jezail...”
“We will avenge you,” I made a silent promise to Meraj and came out of the ambulance. In battle, there are only the primary emotions of fear and anger. “Where was he hit,” I asked the SOG JCO. “On the side of the chest wall.” The SOG JCO briefed us on the situation. The terrorists had exploded an IED device on the convoy. Capt Meraj’s SOG was moved to the site. Meraj could have escorted the convoy to safety but his sense of duty did not allow the incident to go unchecked. He wanted to find out the perpetrators, and started searching the adjoining hill. His party was also accompanied by some police personnel. Unable to find the perpetrators, the party came back. Thereupon, it was revealed that DSP Farid Bangash Shaheed who had accompanied them was missing. Capt Meraj went back again and was in the lead. On the hill side, there was a small bowl shaped area surrounded by boulder strewn heights. The terrorists were lying in ambush in the small caves formed by the huge boulders. As Meraj descended into the bowl, he was fired upon. The brave officer engaged the terrorists till his last breath and shouted to his soldiers not to come towards him, as they would be in the line of fire of the ambusher. However, seeing their commander hit and wounded some of his soldiers couldn’t resist and went forward to pick him. All of them were hit. The remaining SOG troops and the additional QRFs then laid a cordon around the bowl. All the terrorists were trapped inside this cordon now. After this update, we started to climb towards the bowl. The moon had started to rise by now. There was intense and chaotic firing all-around. Lead was flying like hail. Major Shaharyar of the FC, who had led a QRF was hit in the chest by five bullets. His bullet proof jacket had saved him. This courageous officer was in full control of himself, as he was led away by his men. Our CO’s signaller was hit in the abdomen. He was evacuated to CMH Mardan, but embraced shahadat after few days.
The terrorists were now holed up in two caves and had cover from fire. One of the party was eliminated by a JCO of Khyber Rifles, who crawled closer to the cave, under fire, and fired an RPG inside. Now there was the other cave remaining. The approach to this cave was over clear moonlit ground. It was decided to exhaust the terrorist out instead of risking more lives. We settled in for a long wait. With taut nerves, everyone was on guard. At that moment, the surviving terrorist rushed out of his cave with a grenade in one hand and a pistol in the other. Sepoy Ajmal of 3 Sind reacted with lightning speed. He wrestled the terrorist to the ground, whereupon, the terrorist exploded the hand grenade which seriously injured him and also injured Ajmal’s leg. Lt Ali of my unit, rushed towards the two, and finished off the terrorist. The last of the terrorists had been killed. We arranged for evacuation of their bodies to camp. The weapons and equipment of the casualties were strewn about. While our immediate task had been completed, we did not want to leave the site till securing all the weapons and equipment and decided to guard the site till day break. Meanwhile, some extra troops of our unit had arrived. At day break, with a fresh cordon in place, we searched the site. All the weapons and equipment belonging to Police, FC and own troops were recovered. I recognized Capt Meraj’s equipment and personal weapon, and retrieved it. Dead bodies of two more terrorists and a police sepoy were also recovered. The bodies of the terrorists were already putrefying, while the body of the Police sepoy was still fresh. Signs of shahadat, I thought. Ten security force’s personnel including five policemen had embraced shahadat that night. It included the outstandingly brave SHO of Police Station Rustam, Sub Inspector Sherullah Khan. 12 soldiers were injured.
It had been a costly night. We had lost a fine officer and some courageous men. But we also had the satisfaction of avenging them there and then, and not allowing the terrorists to retrieve the bodies of their men. Captain Meraj gave his life responding to the call of duty. The hills of Buner are greener, and the waters of its springs sweeter because of the sacred blood shed by Meraj, our soldiers and policemen that fateful night to cleanse this pure land from the evil of terrorism.