Written By: Ali Shehzad
Ali Shahzad, brother of Flight Lieutenant Umer Shahzad, pens his personal account about his martyred brother
It was 13:15 p.m. on September 24, 2016, an unusually sunny Saturday in Beijing.
I had just returned to my dormitory after attending an exhibition held by the different clubs in my university. Had I not been exhausted from the guitar I played alongside my crew, I would have loved to spend the whole day over there. It was a jolly good day filled with memories I had made through my interaction with the Chinese students, expanding my social circle. Unusual to my routine on a weekend, I decided to take a mid-day siesta. My last thoughts, as I would remember, comprised of how thankful I was to my God for giving me all the success and happiness a person of my position could possibly desire.
And then the clock struck 17:18 p.m.
As per norm, I swiped my finger across my mobile to check the time. Incidentally, I also decided to share some of the pictures of the exhibition on social websites. And then I saw a message sent by an old colleague from Pakistan.
‘I have just come to know that your brother has ejected from his aircraft. I hope he is safe’.
‘You’re damn right he is safe’, I thought to myself. I had suddenly realized that I had no remaining balance in my mobile phone, hence there was no way to contact my father in case of an emergency, unless he had a live internet connection in Pakistan. The sun was setting, and I remember everyone rushing to the makeshift prayer rooms we had set up in our dormitory. I rushed to a friend’s room, grabbed his mobile phone and returned to my room for making the call.
And then the hammer dropped.
As my father would describe in a melancholic tone, my only brother (Flt Lt Umer Shahzad) had embraced martyrdom in an F-7 air crash during a routine exercise in Peshawar.
There was no one else in my room, since everyone was either busy with maghrib prayers or fixing up a meal in the dormitory kitchen.
The first thing I could think of was to muster up the courage to offer my prayer in my room, including the longest bows I have ever made to the Almighty. All my spoken and unspoken prayers must have shaken the clouds. And then, after 30 minutes of fully absorbing the news and coming out of shock, I realized that I should call my room-mate and get help.
“Talha, please come to the room. I need some help,” I called my room-mate.
“Coming in a minute,” he replied. And then he was the first one I broke the news to.
“Talha, I am not in a position to book my air tickets. I can’t think clearly. Help me, please”.
There is a problem with the flights from China to Pakistan; only 3 flights in a week and all of them on weekdays. How was my air ticket booked? Who called the taxi to the airport? How did I keep my composure (with no one else)? And how on earth was I able to attend my brother’s funeral/burial service in Lahore in the next 24 hours? Only Allah would have the answers to these questions. The truth of the matter is that I had to find a connecting flight to Lahore from Beijing, with a 6 hour transit time in Abu Dhabi.
As a student striving to open my eyes to the world, I have always struggled in finding inspirational personalities to learn from. Alas! Who knew that I had the biggest example right beside me? I had to face the most difficult flight plan ahead, so I kept my mind calmly occupied with the thoughts of my brother’s personality, and what I had just lost.
I had lost my best friend.
Flt Lt Umer Shahzad Shaheed was born in Lahore on July 19, 1990. He was 26 when he embraced martyrdom. He was the eldest of the two sons of Air Commodore Asif Shahzad. He was intelligent, well-disciplined and a friendly person, always acquainted with most of the people around the block. And there’s a possible explanation to this too; Umer was talented on nearly all levels, so he appealed to large number of people from different backgrounds, with different tastes. No matter what kind of lens is used to gauge the personality of Umer, he would always stand out from the crowd.
He had an academic strength about him. He always stood in the top 3 positions in his class. He broke all records in his college with his A’s in the GCSE O-Level. And honestly speaking, he was one of the best teachers I have had the pleasure to learn from. As a younger brother, I would inherit all of his important ‘notes’ in the school, and he would always be ready to give me a crash course whenever I needed one.
Umer also had a liking for performing arts. His acts and plays were still remembered among the senior faculty of his schools and residents of the Air Force bases. One of his feats of acting, called the ‘Little Man’, also went viral on social media websites. He was a self-taught guitarist, and similar to many things, I also learned this art from him. I remember Umer alone, having enough confidence to participate in all of the local gigs with his own musical band called the UKS.
Umer was also an honourable sportsman and a fair competitor, too. During our 2-year stay in England (from 2003 to 2005 due to my father’s post-graduate education), I clearly remember my brother winning all sorts of trophies, while playing cricket in Cranfield University. His coach was very much impressed by his performance, to the point that he even decided to approach my father one day, seeking permission to recommend Umer for the county cricket. Football, basketball, volleyball or any other sport, Umer was not only a participant in such activities, he would also prove himself to be a true captain leading by example.
I will never forget his tears of joy, as soon as he received his call letter to join Pakistan Air Force. It was one of those moments (as described by most of the successful people in literature) where a person receives his calling towards what is destined for him. Now that I think of it, Allah definitely had much better plans for him. Indeed, there’s a lesson to be learnt here for the youth.
He exhibited peak performances after his induction in the Air Force. At PAF Academy Risalpur, the senior cadets would always describe Umer as a true specimen of a 'Gentleman Cadet'. His strength in the academics, physical fitness, discipline (and all the qualities that are required for a good officer) combined with his management and leadership skills, earned him the award of the AUO (Academy Under Officer, the most prestigious appointment for a cadet in the academy). On completion of his training as a Pilot Officer from the PAF Academy, Umer also won the General Service Training (GST) Trophy as well as the Sword of Honour, due to his exceptional performance as a young cadet. For anyone not familiar with the jargon, these are the most prized awards in the PAF Academy, a dream of every cadet enrolled. But Umer was destined for a place much higher, indeed.
Even during his service as a Flying Officer and Flight Lieutenant, Umer’s senior officers were always satisfied with his learning curve and adaptability to the profession. He was a true leader, a humble man to work alongside, as described by his coursemates in the Air Force. Come what may, no one ever doubted in his ability to lead. On a personal note, I always thought that at his time, he would make a great Chief of the Air Staff, and I always motivated him to do his best in the line of duty, and become the best!
In September, his squadron arrived at PAF Base Peshawar for an exercise and Umer visited our home in Peshawar. Perhaps it was fate that brought him to see our parents for the last time before leaving. The last wash received by Umer’s green flight suit was given by my mother herself.
After the crash, his body was brought to CMH, Peshawar. It was a closed-casket funeral service, which was attended by the highest ranking officials of our armed forces including the three services chiefs. Former Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Shareef expressed his feelings to my father saying, “Asif, you know that I have become the Chief of Army Staff yet my mother still remembers my Shaheed elder brother, Shabir Shareef all the time. You have suffered a great personal loss, but you have also been honoured by the Almighty to be the father of a martyr. Never lose sight of this lasting pride."
The funeral prayers were offered multiple times in various cities including Peshawar, Lahore and Quetta, the home base of his squadron. His body was taken to be buried in Lahore with a service procession to our uncle’s house. It was the same house in which we had celebrated Umer’s engagement to our uncle’s daughter. Plans were in hand for his wedding next year. Alas! Carrying my brother’s coffin from the same house where we had plans to celebrate his wedding was devastatingly painful. I pray no one suffers this way; it is too tragic for human souls to bear.
Umer’s funeral was the only event that I was able to attend 2 hours later after landing in Pakistan. I had to say goodbye to my brother before I could say anything to anyone else in Pakistan. It is not a coincidence that he has been buried very close to the airport (a place echoing with the thunderous sound of the turbo engines every now and then) alongside some of the greatest martyrs of our country. Many brave soldiers have laid down their lives for our great nation, Pakistan.
The frequent postings of our parents in the armed forces do not allow us to settle in a particular place for a very long time. Therefore, I would like to imagine that most of the people like me do not get the opportunity to have solidified friendships outside of our homes a lot. Therefore, on a personal level, I have not only lost my only sibling, but also my best friend!
But interestingly, I still feel Umer’s presence around myself, reassuring my faith in a verse about the martyrs in my religion "And do not say about those who are killed in the way of Allah, they are dead. Rather, they are alive, but you perceive [it] not" (Bakrah, 2:154). For the last 6 years, we have never lived in the same place anyway. Although he is now away from my sight, I still feel that my brother is just a call away.
“If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live on after he's dead, then maybe he was a great man.”