From regular POW Camp to Model Camp – the story of 1971

Major (Retd) Shamsuddin was a lieutenant in December 1971 and was posted in a Signal unit in Pasrur, near Sialkot. It was commonly known that war with India was imminent and deployment of the Pakistan Army in the Sialkot sector was almost complete. Following are excerpts of the interview:

“In the third week of November I got orders move Reinforcement (Rft) Camp Dacca immediately, for which I reported to the Rft Camp in Karachi on 19/20 November.

“My seat was on a PIA flight however it was changed to travel by sea as about 750 army and 150 naval personnel were to move to East Pakistan. Since I was the only officer available at Rft camp Karachi, I was detailed as the Officer In-charge of the troops for the journey.

“We sailed from Karachi on the Chand Raat of EidulFitr in November 1971, by Safina-e-Abid, a newly commissioned passenger ship of Pakistan National Shipping Corporation; those days ships were used for Hajj operations and cruise which were taken by the Army for this operation.

“The voyage from Karachi to Chittagong was usually of 7 to 8 days however as hostilities had erupted, the Captain changed course to go to Burma (Myanmar), and traversed back to Chittagong making the journey longer.

“The staff of Rft Camp Chittagong received us, and told us we would go to Dacca by train the next morning and so I was given an option to either stay back in the ship for the night or go Chittagong Rft camp officers mess. I opted to stay on in the ship.

“When I woke next morning and came to disembark the ship, I was surprised to see the ship in the centre of River Karnaphulli; I could see a jeep waiting for me on the shore, however the information that the previous day while guiding a ship inside the harbour, a pilot had slipped and drowned in the river and his body was not traced due to fast under water current of the river and not having full confidence in my swimming skills, I did not gather the courage to disembark using the precarious rope ladder. So while waiting for the ship to come ashore; I missed boarding the train. Later I proceeded to Dacca by an Inter-city steamer.  

“The steamer journey was a unique experience, as was the journey from Karachi to Chittagong. The difference in the uniqueness was that while Safina-e-Abid was a luxury liner, this cramped steamer was a plain rotting at the seams vessel, mostly carrying arms and ammunition, with a few army persons as guards. The steamer was stopped midway in the river at night due to threat of attack by Mukti Bahini; it was a long night and none of us could sleep due to fear of the unknown.

“On 2nd December1971, we reached Dacca and I reported to Rft Camp around midday. We were accommodated in the MNA Hostel Dacca located near Dacca airport. That evening I and a few other officers stood on the rooftop and saw a flight of PIA taking off from Dacca airport, little did we know it was the last flight of PIA from Dacca.

“I was initially told to report to Jessore, but as there were no available flights I was told to join a Signals unit at Dacca which was providing communications to the Headquarters Eastern Command.

“I reported to the unit about 6 pm, and after early dinner in the makeshift officers mess necessitated due to black out being observed from dusk to dawn in Dacca we all retired to our rooms for the night.

“At about 8.30 PM the Commanding Officer informed us of the declaration of war on the western front. Since war conditions were already prevalent in Dacca cantonment, the city area was out of bounds for all and no one was allowed to purchase or consume any food items from the open market; Army rations were the only eatables allowed for everyone.

“The night of December 3 was peaceful. However, December 4 dawned with IAF aircrafts flying over Dacca the whole day. PAF had only a single squadron of F 86 Sabres; that day we witnessed dogfights over Dacca, and that was the end of the air war.

“On the evening of December 5, in spite of pitch dark and black out the IAF played havoc with the runway at Dacca airport destroying it totally. It is a well-known fact that they were supported by light beams coming from various areas focusing on the runway helping the Indians to destroy the runway rendering it unusable.

“This was the routine after this, with IAF flying sorties over Dacca a few times a day, bombing and flying away. The only resistance presented was by the anti-aircraft guns deployed around Dacca airport and the cantonment. The bombing continued for another nine days after that the Indian aircrafts started dropping leaflets, urging the Pak army troops to surrender.

“The General Head Quarters Rawalpindi, the meetings at the UN Security Council, proposals by various people including the Governor of East Pakistan Mr. Malik, and many others called for resolution of the issue. Additionally the rumours of the arrival of the US 7thFleet, movement of Chinese Yellow force etc., are well known to everyone, which made the uncertainty greater.

“On 14/15 December 1971, the HQ Eastern Command decided to establish contact with the Indian Eastern Command over wireless using the radio frequency given in the leaflets dropped by the Indian aircrafts. What followed was the surrender of Dacca by General A A K Niazi and an arms laying ceremony at Dacca. I was part of the arms laying ceremony at Dacca, and even today after 46 years I find it difficult to express the pain I felt on that fateful day.

“After the surrender we were allowed to keep our arms and ammunition as the Mukti Bahinis were still about and this saved us from attack, till the time we had our weapons with us even the Indians behaved nicely.

“On December 31, we were told to prepare to leave Dacca. We were told to take only essential belongings, no civilian clothes were allowed. Since we had already destroyed our official documents, ID Cards and other private items, we took a small bag with few pairs of uniform, shaving kit etc.

“Early morning on January 01, 1972, about 16 Officers, a number of Junior Commissioned Officers and men left Dacca by train and reached Narayan Ganj by afternoon. From there we were shifted to a steamer and after a day we reached Faridpur; from here we again boarded a train. Here we were given a packet of Shakarparay (sweetened cookies made of wheat flour) and told this was to be our ration for the next 4 to 5 days.

“After travelling for a day or so, we stopped at Calcutta Railway station. It was big junction and lots of trains were moving or standing at the platforms, the hustle bustle was typical of any large railway station.

“Some interesting dialogues took place between the OIC Train (an Indian Major) and the rest of us, during which he even challenged us to a bout of boxing. He turned to be a friendly person and offered all of us breakfast at the station in exchange for a few packets of 7’O Clock shaving blades.

“After travelling for four days and three nights almost non- stop, we reached Bareilly railway station. While there were a few incidents during the course of the journey, one still stands out in my memory; one of our men tried to escape by jumping off the train, but his ill-fated attempt was aborted by the bullet of an Indian guard.

“Our destination was Camp 58, at Bareilly, the accommodation resembled a stable; the barracks did not have doors or windows and as Bareilly has extreme weather conditions and as it was January the conditions in a long barrack without doors and windows can only be imagined. We did not have any bedding however, after a few days the Indians took pity on us and provided us with blankets.

“As we did not have any utensils, initially we used our shaving mugs for drinking purpose. Later somehow, some luggage with some utensils etc., was brought to the camp, presumably these must have belonged to some Officers mess of one of our units. All of us managed to get hold of something or the other – like a plate, glass etc., which came handy for use at meals. As for the food initially we literally had to dive into the plate full of watery gravy to search for a grain of pulses.

“After a few months, the Indians asked for 60 volunteers from among the officers, to move to a new POW camp established at Meerut, a few kilometres from New Delhi. I with six officers of my unit volunteered. We were told that being near to New Delhi, it was a model camp and expected a lot of visitors, especially international agencies, like UN etc., and local dignitaries to visit frequently.

“Two buses took the sixty officers to Meerut. The escort/guards were from a Sikh Regiment with a Captain incharge. I was in the leading bus and the Captain with six soldiers rode in it with JCO with six soldiers in the second bus. The travelling time from Bareilly to Meerut was about six hours. During the journey the Indian officer and men became friendly with us and a relaxed atmosphere in ensued in both the buses.

“At about dusk the officer offered us tea from a roadside tea stall which we readily accepted, and this break took around an hour. En-route, there was a fork in the road one leading to Delhi and the other to Meerut.

“The leading bus after taking the turn towards Meerut stopped and waited for the second one to arrive. We waited for some time when a passenger bus stopped informed the officer that firing was going on in the other bus. On hearing this the guards took positions with their weapons pointing at us and asked us to keep our heads down and not to move. They were so infuriated and restless that we felt that even a slight movement on our part would make them open fire on us.

“We were fairly disturbed as nobody knew what was happening. After a while we started and reached Meerut and lodged the 30 officers in one barrack. Night fell leaving us in a state of confusion and unsure of what would happen next.

“Next morning the officers from the next bus also were brought to the camp and lodged in the adjacent barrack. We were not allowed to talk to them and they were put on 50% rations with no cigarettes and other restrictions.

“Later as the officers punishments were relaxed, we came to know that a few officers overpowered the Indian guards and managed to escape from the bus and hid in a sugarcane field; after feeding themselves with sugarcane, they reached the main road, got a lift in a truck but were intercepted at the octroi post near New Delhi and brought back to the camp after being subjected to some physical manhandling by police and army. However two officers managed to reach Nepal and finally reached Pakistan.

“Camp 40 at Meerut was visited by delegations from UN and other important people, especially Indian Muslim leaders who claimed to be secular would visit often.

“Initially Indian staff used to cook our food however soon we were given rations and we were allowed to let our cooks do cooking. Things became bearable.

“The officers were in two barracks, each segregated by barbed wire. The whole camp was sealed by many layers of almost ten feet high barbed wire walls. Even the open areas were completely covered with multiple layers of barbed wires to restrict movement. The last layer had armed guards with watch dogs, patrolling 24/7. A watchtower on each corner with automatic weapons/machine guns fixed overlooked the camp.

“The camp had round the clock electricity and even at night lights in the barracks were on. The outer cordon had trucks parked at each watch tower, which would switch on the headlights in case of any power break down.

“Life settled to routine, with morning and evening roll calls when we stood in a single file were counted physically. There were open trench latrines toilet and the bathroom an open water tank with taps on two sides with cemented floor where we took bath and washed our clothes. Normally this was done around 10 am, followed by lunch, prayers etc. Most of us offered regular prayers and turned to religion for solace. In summers afternoon nap, and in winters sitting under the sun, was usual. Some played games like volleyball or jogging.

“The Indians decided to put a cross mark on our uniforms on the back of the trouser and shirt. We objected to this the more vocal were put in solitary confinement with reduced rations. Later these orders were withdrawn and the cross mark was put on the side of trouser and back of shirt.

“Naib Subedar to Captains were entitled Rupees 92.00 per month as pocket money, Majors and Lieutenant Colonels Rupees 110.00, in canteen coupons which were exchanged for toiletries, cigarettes etc. from the canteen.

“The civilian prisoners did not get any rations or pay so the military officers contributed from their salary and rations for the civilians and families welfare. Similarly about 20 merchant Navy officers and staff were brought to the camp and one merchant navy officers was looked after by one or two officers to get them toiletries, and cigarettes etc., as they too were not paid salary.

“Once a week we were shown a movie in the open field; later we were allowed a radio and some newspapers. These were our connection to the outside world through which we got news about Pakistan. Seven of us Signal officers formed a small group and made Captain Aziz Malik the incharge, who collected some money from all and would spend it on various things like the purchase of a radio etc. We were also allowed newspaper and other books and magazines.

“Letters from our dear ones in Pakistan written on blue aerogrammes were eagerly awaited every day by every one of us. These were a lifeline to back home. The camp had a public address system used by the Indians, the annoying thing was they kept playing a famous Bollywood song from the movie Sholay ‘maar diajayeyachhordiajaye’ (should we kill you or let you go?) day and night. In retrospect I think the person in charge of music really liked the song and did not intend it for us.

“Our lives of monotony and incarceration lasted 22 long months. 22 months of being away from home, from our loved ones. Special occasions like Eid were especially hard on all of us. We had few Pakistan army doctors in camp. They were taken to the Indian Military hospital especially to treat Pakistanis.

“UN and Red Cross teams visited us frequently. They would meet all of us together in the dining hall. These meetings were in two parts one with the Indian officers present and second also with us thus giving us an opportunity to talk to the UN team alone. In every meeting with the UN teams we always asked them to convey to the Pakistan Government not to get blackmailed by the Indians over the POW issue and deal with them purely on principles.

“The Indian attitude was very rash and rude in the beginning. They had put lot of restrictions on us but with the passage of time their behaviour became sort of pitiful.

“Maj Muhammad Hussain from Ordnance Corps died in captivity. He was a chain smoker who one fine morning said he was quitting smoking; after that day he developed a headache which turned out to be meningitis, he was admitted in the Indian hospital and died after remaining in coma for many days. He was buried in Meerut and we all attended his funeral.

“We all were anxiously waiting for the good news of our repatriation. Every day this hope made us survive another day, when finally one day we were received this news. At the same time the news of 195 officers were to be retained was circulating which had a very bad effect on our morale.

“Finally we boarded a train which brought us to Attari railway station at night. The last dinner as POW’s was served to us in the train by a Battalion of the Madras Regiment guarding the train. “Next morning we came to Pakistan via Wagah check post.

Anyone reading this account may think that things weren’t so bad for us in the POW camps, but as a soldier nothing could be more painful than being in the custody of the people you have lost a war to, to have every move monitored, to not know what the next day would bring, is a torture not everyone is capable of bearing for months on end.

“But we did it, for our homeland, with the hope that someday our fellow countrymen will realize that we paid more than our fair share of dues for the fall of Dacca.”


Umaima Ahmed is a member  of staff

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