The FatehGarh Tunnel

Brigadier ShahidUllah Jan Sitara e Jurat (Retired) is from an infantry battalion that moved to East Pakistan in March/April 1971. Shahid was a Lieutenant at that time, this is his narrative, personal experience of the war and as a Prisoner of War recalling:

“After landing at Dacca the unit spent two days there to acclimatize and then moved to Barisal for operational duty. Some troops were dropped by helicopter while the rest went by ferry.” Shahid was the Company Officer and Major Nadir Pervez, Sitara e Jurat and Bar was the company commander. Soon after arrival they were deployed to clear Barisal and surroundings of MuktiBahini; they would spend the whole day in clearing the pockets of resistance and it was almost a wartime operation of clearing and avoiding loss to own troops.

Jan further shared, “The MuktiBahini were active in that area with the advantage of knowing the terrain, language and population, and they constantly kept firing on our troops. On one occasion I was with the leading troops when the MuktiBahini pinned us down, I got up and made a dash towards them shouting for my troops to follow me, they soon grappled me down to the ground and after that someone was always ready to take the lead and would not let me charge the MuktiBahinis.”

Major Nadir Pervez SJ Bar, was my OC and that gave me greater confidence to undertake such missions. Barisal, Faridpur, Jessore and upto Khulna was in our area. By November 1971 we were concentrated in Kali Ganj north of Jessore, war was imminent and this was one of the areas where the Indians were expected to attack in an attempt to break through. The Indians attempted an excursion into our territory and captured some area in Jessore, an attack to dislodge the Indians did not succeed and our unit was re-inducted in the theatre to evict the Indians. Around the end of November (21 or 22) we launched an attack on the Indian troops who put up stiff resistance with the aid of air and tanks; I with my troops managed to out flank the Indians and go behind them, resulting in a heavy fire fight; our troops fought with valor and we managed to dislodge the enemy from their position after almost a whole day of fighting. This action and its result saw me being awarded the Sitara e Jurat.

We stayed there in defensive posture till the war broke out. However the Indians were able to exploit the gaps in our defenses and infiltrate with the aim to mass up and reach Dacca. We kept fighting for six to seven days continuously with small arms as we had run out of other ammunition, while the Indians had Air and Artillery fire to attempt to break our defense and enter the area. We Alhamdolillah were able to contain their moves, even though they had almost a Division strength in front of us, yet our troops put up a brave fight and kept them at bay. In the meanwhile on December 15, we got the news that there would be a cease fire with effect from 15th. Later we learned that there is to be a surrender, and Dacca had already surrendered. This was hard to bear, however a day after the fall of Dacca we also followed suit! However all ranks were badly disillusioned that if this was to be done, it could have been done earlier, as the odds were never in our favor, that would have saved the loss of blood, weapons and territory.

During the talks between the Indian officers and our CO to negotiate the laying down of arms, the Indian officer asked about who was in command of our troops and when told it was me, he said how did you manage to keep us at bay without ammunition and fire support, because the only thing we heard was Allah hu Akbar from one end to the other of the defense layout!

We were not mentally ready to surrender and all ranks took it with a heavy heart, we feel that with a little reinforcement and replenishment of arms and ammunition, which would have been easy for HQ’s to provide, we could have held on against the Indian assault for much longer.

After surrender, we were gathered together and made to mount trucks while being given the impression that we were headed to West Pakistan; after almost a day’s journey we stopped at a place near Calcutta from where we boarded a train which brought us to Chiriguri near Nepal. A little later we reached FatehGarh and that is when we realized that we were being kept in a camp and were Prisoners of War!

Camp life was like a military life, since we were together as a unit, we could maintain the routine without any issues since we all knew everyone in the unit. So it was like cantonment routine of physical training, games, rest and recreation.

Life in camp was really miserable, and unbearable, especially when night fell, as we had nothing to do. The daily staple food was daal (pulse) and when we came back to Pakistan most of us forbade our families to cook daal for a long time. The senior and married officers along with troops were more distressed as they had thoughts of their families, kids, and issues related to family life, whereas we young bachelors did not have such kind of worries; which in hindsight seems surreal!

It was here that we made a plan to dig a tunnel which is a story in itself, the tunnel was seven feet deep, three by two feet inside, and 150 or so feet long, which we dug using kitchen and dining knives. It was a tough task, in the pitch darkness in the tunnel, lack of air, suffocation etc.

It took all our wits to dodge the Indians and their surprise Roll Calls, but finally in about seven months we did manage to get the tunnel dug and five officers went through and managed to escape including Major Nadir Pervez, they returned to Pakistan through Nepal and Burma. After the escape, the Indians came down hard upon us, and I was one of the officers to face tough interrogation; after this I along with few other officers suspected of having a part in the tunnel scheme, were shifted to Agra jail POW Camp.

It was in Agra that we learned that some efforts were underway to take the POW’s back home, and it was in the end of November 1973 that we were put in a train which had barbed wire strung all round it and it took us to Attari on the Indian side of the Wagha border, from where we were made to walk across to Pakistan though Wagha.

It was a pleasant surprise for us to see a nice welcome in contrast to what we had thought of that we would be received with a hail of rotten tomatoes! There was a nice tea arranged while the paperwork was completed, since it was the month of Ramzan and I was fasting, I had to forego the good cup of tea! However it was a very good break from the almost three years of war and captivity in East Pakistan and captivity eating watery dal and often having to go hungry.

We were posted to different units as our original units were disbanded pending re-raising after proceduralarrangements. Later when the units were re-raised we were reunited with our mates and troops and restarted life as a unit once again. No one can understand how we spent our life in East Pakistan where behind us was the MuktiBahini and in front of us were the Indian Army, it is only the people on ground who have borne the brunt of the mutiny, civil war and actual war, know what really happened in East Pakistan.

Talking about one good and one not so good memory that Shahid carries from that time, he said that the shock and pain of surrender is the worst thing that happened to him and the others, and it is still fresh with them even after a lapse of 45 years.

The good memory of the time is that they fought till the last minute, and the second that they had challenged the Indians that we will escape, and we did that. Books have been written about this escape and it is a good memory, even though I did not get out due to many reasons five did escape and that is a great achievement!

R Umaima Ahmed

Umaima Ahmed is a member  of staff

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