The story of escape of two comrades from an Indian POW camp.
It all happened in a flash. How many minutes did it all last? Not a clue. I had no idea about the ruckus that prevailed in the spur of the moment inside our bus on that fateful day. What all I know now, after half a century has elapsed, is how starkly true is the saying, “There exists a thin line between cowardice and courage.” Something that man can only discover himself when he either opens that imaginary door to leap to see the other side, or to choose to retreat to the safety behind, thereby never attempting to know as to what lies on the other side. Whether the door is opened due to one’s intended courage, ignorance, defiance or simply stupidity–I still don’t know the difference. What all I knew at that fateful hour was that I had to run, surpassing all thoughts of reason, logic and critical thinking–to run as far as my legs could carry, pushing my body to extreme limits. I was bleeding profusely in my forehead, and in my ears I could still hear the penetrative swish of the bayonet entering my right thigh. I had read somewhere that when it came to physical performance, one needed to listen to their body, but this was different. Great athletes are known to master the art of pushing their bodies to the highest extremes; however, a few in the world, get the lifetime experience of crossing the insurmountable human threshold. This only happens when there is struggle for survival—the struggle to stay alive. Minutes earlier, I was embroiled with an Indian Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) trying to wrestle away his Sten (a type of an automatic gun), while others were nervously onlooking this spectacle. I could still hear the frantic yells of the Guard Commander (a JCO), “Isko shoot karo!” ordering the sentry to shoot point-blank at me, and each time I would drag the same JCO before me, using him to shield myself. Super-consciously, I noticed Captain Inam (name altered to keep anonymity) sitting in the bus, watching us with his eyes wide open, befuddled like a pigeon in disbelief. I shouted at him to rescue me, upon which he dismounted, and grabbed the sentry from the rear. This enabled me to overpower the JCO. I was able to snatch his Sten, and flee towards the thicket on the other side of the road. At that very moment, I knew I was not alone, since Inam had finally chosen to dive on the ‘other side of the door’—the door defining the line between cowardice and courage. But, to my chagrin, as soon as I looked back, Inam had jumped into the bus again. I still don't know if what I did was an act of valor, or a knee-jerk reaction, or simply an attempt to break away from that fettered, hostage life. On the other hand, Inam, who did show the physical courage in the yolk of death, putting himself in a perilous situation to save the life of his comrade, thereby crossing the barrier of that invisible line defining courage from cowardice–later, chose to retreat into the safety of the bus. Was it a matter of sanity or cowardice, or an unseen fear of unknown, or simply a benign neglect. I still do not know the difference. All I knew was that I was all alone, and that I had to run for my life at that instance. I could hear gunshots behind me. Each time I heard a gunshot, and each time I realized that I was alive, it made my heart beat faster, fiercer. I lobbed the Sten into a nearby puddle. While running, I hit a field of tall-grown sugarcane, and quickly plunged in. The sugarcane as sturdy as they were, parted side to side as my hands worked through them as a machete. It was getting intensely dark, and murky; the sound of the gunshots and the yelling had also seized. At this moment, a silhouette running parallel converged with me, and upon our paths crossing, I realized that he was Captain Irshad Mirza–a comrade who was sitting in the same bus as us. Providence had planned uniting us in this convoluted, irksome and arduous quest replete with perils, to win freedom.
My name is Captain Abdur Rehman. I was posted to 3 Signal Battalion, Eastern Command Dhaka from Quetta, West Pakistan. In the radio company of the Battalion, my job was to convey messages from the Forward Defensive Localities (FDLs) of 14 and 16 Division elements to headquarters Eastern Command. On December 2, 1971, my elder brother, a Special Service Group (SSG) Commando, Major Abdul Qadir also reached Dhaka on what was supposed to be the last PIA flight. The next day, the Indians waged a full-fledged war at all fronts. We had some brief moments to ourselves in a trench before Qadir departed to his own set up.
Came the fateful day of December 16, 1971, when the instrument of surrender was formally signed in the presence of General Aurora and General Jacob in a discreet and quiet ceremony in Headquarters Eastern Command. On December 18, we were summoned to gather in the race course ground, where the formal ceremony of laying down our personal arms was held. Afterwards, we returned to our barracks. I was the last of the men to contact West Pakistan on wireless, and talked to my family. Thereafter, the communication was shifted to Calcutta. Following the surrender, we remained in Dhaka cantonment for ten days, during which Abdul Qadir also joined us. On the eleventh day, we were rounded up and shoved into a few buses and brought to Narayanganj, where steamboats waited to carry us. After sailing through Meghna and Padma rivers for a whole day, we reached the Faridpur jetty. We then were made to march on foot to Faridpur railway station, and thereafter, once again crammed into a train which was marked to take us to Bareilly, India, where we were to be kept in a prison camp. After locking the compartments, the doors and the windows were sealed with barbed concertina. After two days, the train reached Bareilly, and we were escorted to Camp 58. During our journey, we came to know that one of our Non-commissioned Officer (NCOs) was shot dead while attempting to escape. In all probability, this seemed to be a cooked up story to justify the killing. This dropped a dampener upon our spirits. Thereafter, our captives had resorted to extremely stringent physical measures of keeping us grounded.
Camp 58 was a typical prison camp with appalling living conditions. It lacked basic amenities, such as service mugs and plates, resultantly we had to eat our food on old newspapers. For the purpose of toilet, long trenches were dug which were covered with wooden planks with round holes at periodic intervals. The lack of proper disposal and sewerage resulted in an unbearable, intoxicating stench. There was no arrangement of hot water for washing and bathing, except for a single faucet in the open that offered bone chilling water. Bareilly could turn outrageously cold in the month of January, so cold that it seemed seeping right into one’s marrow. In the absence of enough charpoys (a light bedstead), most of us had to sleep on bare floor, perennially damped owing to lack of proper ventilation. At night, while the streamers of searchlights penetrated the dark interiors of those barracks, there could be seen a myriad of vermin and bugs alongside rodents flitting about. In one corner of the camp was an old abandoned horse stable in a highly decrepit condition. While sauntering around, a few of us discovered some old ragtag remnants of the blankets which had been used to cover horses at night during winters. Those smelly decomposing pieces of blankets triggered an immense sense of delight. In that, I discovered a yet another dimension of the nature of human mind, that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys. In the teeth of the terrifying cold, this proved to be no less than a royal luxury for it provided us the kind of comfort and relief that cannot be described in words. The camp was barricaded with double concertina all around the perimeter, reinforced by armed patrolling on foot with dogs. The perimeter was interspersed with towers with large penetrating search lights. One month or so, the life in the camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. To me, however, the suffering completely fills the human soul and mind no matter whether it is great or little, but the fact remained that those officers did get looked after. To me, this was simple mathematics; a simple case of quid pro quo, but this view or perception differs from man to man. No two situations are alike and each warrants a different response or action to shape one’s own fate or destiny. It may or may not be the right answer to deal with the situation at hand. In both cases, it keeps us from being broken apart, even when the circumstances completely seal the chances of getting out alive.
Under such trying conditions, Qadir and I hatched the plan to escape. According to him, it was utterly impossible to dodge the vigil of the sentries, and the overlapping coils of concertina. However, he was of the opinion that the plan to escape could be executed feasibly in the event of being shifted from one place to another in the bus or train. For this purpose, Qadir had started motivating other officers to join in should an opportunity arose; however, most of the officers were not interested in our escape plan.
Soon came the opportunity when a Red Cross inspection team was to visit the camp to ascertain the living conditions there. Since the camp was not just overcrowded, but also lacked the basic facilities of health and hygiene, the camp authorities, in a bid to avoid being pointed out, decided to shift 40 officers to a prison camp at Meerut near Delhi. Seeing the long awaited opportunity, Qadir and I, once again started pursuing the officers to be a part of the escape plan. 12 out of the chosen 40 showed their willingness to take a chance on the way.
The day arrived when we were supposed to be shifted; we were huddled in two busses. As luck would have it, the 12 officers got split among the two busses of 5 and 7. I was among the latter in the bus moving in the rear. In our bus, there was a JCO, an NCO and two young sepoys, all belonging to Kamaon Regiment. The in-charge officer was Captain Lembo travelling in the bus in front. When the darkness started to descend, I started to look for an opportunity, preferably when the distance from the front bus stretched out. As soon as I saw the front bus getting obscured, I lunged on to the JCO. Suddenly, a pandemonium broke loose inside the bus and the baffled driver in a state of shock applied a sudden brake. Someone pushed us and I, entangled with the JCO fell out of the bus. It was here that one sentry thrust a bayonet into my thigh, while the other was trying to shoot me in response to the shouts of the JCO. It was the timely intervention of Captain Inam that I managed to escape the situation. Probably during the fiasco, Irshad Mirza, who was sitting in the front, had decided to cross over the proverbial ‘thin line.’
Coming back to the point where mine and Irshad Mirza’s paths crossed. Bumping into each other was the greatest of joys one could possibly expect to have in a lifetime. The whole of the cold night, we wriggled across damp and slushy fields completely soaked in our sweat. The blood oozing out of my thigh had stained the hem of my trouser. At the crack of the dawn, we spotted out a few peasants sitting around a small fire trying to warm them. The sight of warmth once again made human nature to behave in a mysterious manner, transcending or pushing aside all reasoning and fears. We quickly joined them, telling them that we were soldiers and were to join our unit in Delhi the next day. During the course of grape wine, we made out as to the direction of Grand Trunk (GT) road from where we could catch a transport to Delhi. I remembered that prior to embarking on the journey to Faridpur, I had sold my transistor radio to an Indian soldier for Rs 100 and split the amount with my elder brother which we carefully tucked in our socks. It took us some more time to hit the GT road. We signaled an incoming bus heading to Delhi and purchased two tickets for Rs 6. En route, there have been a number of spot checks. Those were to hunt down the two Pakistani fugitives, but we managed to evade them. Irshad was wearing a civilian jersey while I was in a Khaki trousers with one hem drenched in blood which had by then stuck to my leg. During the course of our escapade, I had somehow managed to find an old abandoned chadar (a type of men’s woolen shawl) which I wrapped all over me, masquerading as a critically ailing man travelling to Delhi for treatment.
On reaching Delhi, we dismounted the bus near Lal Qila. There, the first thing we did was to purchase old clothes and shoes for ourselves from a roadside vendor selling old stuff. We then spotted a Sarai (rest house) and stopped there to have some food. While having food, we were encountered by a man (a Sikh by religion) who sat beside us and started asking questions as to where we had come from. We told him that we were labourers and looking for work. The sikh offered that he was willing to offer us work with a shelter to stay as he was constructing a small hotel nearby. However, during the course of the conversation, he spotted my bleeding wound and started asking me questions in an investigative manner as to how I received the injury. He then instructed us not to move and headed for the counter. Preempting the situation, we had no other option but to take flight from the very site. At that moment, the sikh started shouting loudly to the others to grab us. Running out of the hotel, and to our good luck, we bumped into a maze of narrow streets. The intertwining streets were like never-ending labyrinth. When we finally managed to emerge out on a thoroughfare, we saw a rickshaw coming our way. We signaled it and quickly hopped in. We asked him to take us to the railway station. On reaching there, we purchased tickets for Jalandher. We were inching towards our intended destiny and that was to cross over to Pakistan either from the side of the Indian Punjab, or alternatively, from Line of Control at Jammu–not knowing in our ignorance that the entire Indo-Pak border was completely sealed and heavily deployed with troops. While in the train, we spotted a small army detachment along with an officer. The officer had an English newspaper in his hand. A few stations later, the detachment dismounted the train leaving behind the newspaper. On the first page the news of two fugitive Pakistani PoWs was printed. By the time we reached Jalandhar, all our money had completely exhausted. It was midnight and terribly cold. We saw a couple of ragamuffins snuggled in their worn out blankets on the side of the road having a sound sleep. Their very sight made me envy them. How fortunate they were to be so comfortable in this cold. Once again, I noticed as to how human nature worked in different situations, something that would remain etched on the surface of my mind for the rest of my life.
When the day broke, we had no other option but to sell Irshad’s wedding ring. In the absence of a receipt, we had to settle for much less an amount–Rs. 60. That night we rented a room and ate to our heart’s content. The next day we purchased an atlas and studied it well. Since the Punjab border was heavily guarded, we mounted a bus to Jammu to cross over to Pakistan from that direction. We dismounted at Tawi near the town of Samba and started walking towards the Line of Control. To our horror, we found that the area was deluged with military troops occupying every inch of ground. Seeing the situation, we deduced that the only option left was to enter Nepal and hand ourselves over to the authorities there. We were certain that our embassy over there would then officially negotiate our release to Pakistani authorities. It took us seven more days and nights of travelling on road and train to reach the towns of Shahjahanpur and Lakhimpur (Uttar Pradesh). There onwards, we wriggled our way cross country through jungles and thickets, strayed across hills and valleys, sometimes wading through chilling waters, finally to cross over to Nepal through a desolate border post of Chandan Chawki. It took us another two days of wandering through harsh and hostile terrain of Nepal before we finally hit a military Unit and handed ourselves over to the safety of that military outfit–only to discover that our ordeal was still far from over, the details of which I now save for some other time.
The author is a retired Cavalry Officer. He is a historian and a regular contributor to The Nation.
E-mail: [email protected]
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