‘We did not surrender in East Pakistan’

The 2ndLt. (now a retired Colonel) Naeem-ul-Haque landed at Dacca East Pakistan in June 1971, after attending his basic course which was reduced to about nine months instead of the scheduled eleven due to the war situation.

He reported for duty at Janaida, and was sent to Mymensingh. Around September/October1971 the unit moved to Brahmanbaria; SaldaNaddi was the dividing line between formations, which though named a naddi (stream) was like a small river. It was called Khooni Naddi(stream of blood) due to troop casualties as a result of ambush of troops ferrying across or over the bridge to Comilla, Brahmenbaria and Sylhet.

The surroundings were teeming with Mukti Bahini with the threat of an ambush especially at night. 2nd Lieutenant Naeem was tasked to lay mines and prepare bridges for demolition, which was done at night. In an exclusive interview with The Nation Naeem talks about the experience of war and what happened after the surrender. Following are excerpts of the interview:

“My first encounter with Mukti Bahini was when they came from across Meghna River. They were fully armed. They were asking the Indian Army to let them take us on and teach us the lesson.

“Indian firing across the border and artillery bombardment was routine from October 71 onwards, and became more intense in November. The area was under constant pressure at Akhura from Agartala on the Indian side. These cities are linked by road and rail, which went to Dacca. Early on 4th December the Indian force attacked. Troops at Akhura fought very bravely. Later I learned that Indian attack had come in waves and the anti-tank ditch in front had got almost filled with Indian dead bodies.

“I was at Brahminbaria when I was asked to report to HQ where I was told that Titas River Bridge had been lost to Indians and had to be demolished. I was asked to lead a platoon of troops with as much explosive as possible and try and demolish other bridges falling on the same road rail link starting from Titas River Bridge back to Brahminbaria. I managed to blow a few bridges, but these were small and no substitute to Titas River Bridge. Yet we managed to keep the enemy away for two days. It was night by the time I came back with my troops who were relieved to see me as we had been already been declared Missing in Action. Our coming back intact after accomplishing the job was a miracle.  “The Indians took about three days to reach Brahminbaria and forced Pakistan Army to move back to Ashuganj. The Mukti Bahini with the Indian troops could be heard night/daymaking ugly signs and using foul languages on loud speakers. Two days after reaching Ashuganj, the enemy launched an attack that night with heavy artillery fire, aiming to capture the Meghna River bridge, which was demolished in day light to prevent crossing. A hastily planned counter attack was launched that day, and after a fierce battle by afternoon we managed to break the momentum of the enemy who got a beating from us. The fleeing Indians left seven tanks and a large number of casualties behind. We honorably buried our dead and the wounded were sent back to Ashuganj by ferry.

“The battle at Ashuganj had consumed all our resources and we were low on stocks. However two barges reached Bhairab bazaar with food and ammunition after surviving bombardment and ambush.

“The troops in this area did not surrender as our commander refused to surrender. We heard on radio that surrender had taken place in Dacca. We had sufficient ammunition and were ready to take on the Indians if they came, but they did not attack us and were content to wait and see by containing us in about five mile radius circle. The Indian Commander sent a message for us to surrender but we said no to it. Later two helicopters landed in our area and we heard that probably Gen Arora himself came to appreciate the efforts of our troops. However they were told these troops will not surrender here but there will be no more fighting. And we would keep our personal arms and ammunition till the entire force was evacuated to Dacca. Engineers were to stay back and work in coordination and under protection of the Indian engineers for clearing the mines etc. Evacuation was arranged by Indian Army through ferries down Meghna River and the next day the Indian Army Units walked in peace to takeover.

“Valuable equipment, guns, tanks etc were disabled/damaged or thrown in the river or big lake inside our area on last night. The Indian engineers in command of a Sikh Major and a Hindu Lieutenant joined us and we spent a few days clearing the land mines. It took us about 15-16 days to clear all the mines and give them the clearance certificate. The Indians then took us back to Bahairab Bazar River Jetty site and we embarked on a Ferry for Dacca. “The next morning we were moved to a POW Camp in Dacca where we met many of our other colleagues. It was here that we handed over the personal weapons and as such our troops did not surrender as such, and Allah saved us from the humiliation of surrender.

“The next phase was our movement from Dacca to POW Camp in India by trucks and trains. We were first taken to Faridpur by trucks and on foot. From there we were sent by train to Rourki Camp in East Punjab. Rourki Cantt is also the Indian Army Engineer Centre. It took four days by train to reach Rourki. We were asked to remove all personal and valuable items and hand these over which would be returned when we were sent back to Pakistan.  However later after our release valuables were not returned.

“On reaching Rourki after four days –  sick and weak with hunger and thirst –  we were told to leave all luggage in the train which they said would be sent by truck. We were 13 officers and the first to arrive in that POW camp. We kept on waiting for our luggage. We even tried to convey to the guards but they paid no attention. In the evening an Indian Officer was seen strolling with his dog (must be trying to impress us). We managed to get his attention by waving and calling him. We explained the situation. He was surprised to know this and said that the train had left within an hour of our arrival. “Later we came to know that the Indian Unit under whose escort we had come all the way had remained POW in Pakistan during the 1965 war and had taken their revenge by keeping us hungry, and thirsty for four days and three nights and robbing us. The matter was reported and at least I am not aware if some action was taken by Indian higher ups.

“Later Rourki Camp was declared as family camp and we were moved by train (three days and two nights journey) back all the way to DhanaSagar POW Camp in Central India. A list of personnel was handed over to the Red Cross representatives in Dacca, and it took about three months for us to be given aerograms by the Indians to write home. That established communication with our families. “However all outgoing and incoming mail was censored. Once the mail contact got established the atmosphere improved, people eagerly awaited for a letter on the mail day and it was a significant event which changed the mood of the camp. However, the younger lot like me did not care much. But I can only now realize why the senior behaved as they did after receiving letters.

“Life in the POW camp was interesting. It turned out to be leave for an indefinite period with nothing to do except morning and evening roll call. Everyone was supposed to stand in line with the senior most officer standing in front. Indian staff would come and take the roll call, announce any instructions and that was it. Rest of the day was available for own activities. Officers formed groups according to courses or arms affiliation. In our barrack we were five sapper officers at one end of the barrack and we named it Sappers Corner, boldly inscribed over the fire place. The other end of this barrack accommodated the officers from an infantry battalion who had fought very bravely at Hilli. I think most or all of them were Sitara-e-Jurat holders. “In the central hall of the barrack was a mixed collection of almost all the arms including some doctors who unlike us were not spared and were taken to the Military hospital of Dhana Cantt daily.

Their professional superiority over the Indian doctors soon earned them respect among the Indian military patients.

“For the rest of us, gradually various activities started; some started teaching Shorthand, or Arabic, or any subject any officer had command enough and desirous to impart the knowledge asked to come and volunteer to keep the officers busy. I joined shorthand. Sincere and repeated advice by good elder officers also converted many of us into better Muslims and we started attending prayers regularly. Camp life experience has been a unique affair.

“It gave the insight of human nature from very close quarters. It showed the degree of tolerance one can sustain or possessed. Some had tremendous power of tolerance and some were a total disaster. Officers’ fighting over a piece of meat is shamefull. We saw one such fight between two officers in our barrack resulting in serious injuries. We five though had our individual social and play group, but used to be always together at meal times. A small 3ft x 3ft plank placed between two charpoys on its edges would serve as our dining table. Indians had allowed us one batman for every six officers, no one had any use for the batman but we needed the cooks and personnel to serve us. All these batmen put together were organized as cooks and divided in teams of two to serve the food in every barrack.

“There were five barracks in our camp and each barrack had about sixty or so officers. They used to bring curry and bread or rice in separate buckets and serve in our plates which were later washed by individual officers or the junior most. The curry left at the bottom without any good meat and laced gravy was found tasteless and difficult to consume. “Later the food distributing batmen were advised as an order to start distribution by turn. Once from one end, next time from the other end and third time from the center to provide equal chances of comparatively better gravy and meat to all. On seeing this fight and though being extremely fond of meat, my OC swore not to have any meat from that day on and really stood by his oath till we returned.

“The living accommodation was standard army barracks furnished with Charpoys and small bed side tables; one steel box among two or three officers for keeping things like cigarettes, sugar, coffee, tea, biscuits  and other stuff purchased from the pay we got every month. The Pay we got as POW was Rs.110/- for Lt. Colonel and Majors and for Captainand below Rs. 95/-, the Civil officers only Rs. 10/-,so all contributed and brought all the civilians at par. This money was credited to the canteen and not given in cash.

“A canteen officer was nominated who used to take our requirements, gave it to Indian In-charge and the items were delivered next month. The only problem was that we never got the full items, and on the average we got about 50% of what was ordered. The left over balance of money lapsed and not carried forward. The next month the order was against the new credit.

“We were about 300 plus in the camp, and the time was spent in playing cricket, football and volleyball matches besides indoor games like chess, bridge, ludo etc., became the afternoon and night time, pre-bed routine. Chess became a group game, with the about half a dozen officers telling the player which move to make! The bridge players were a little serious group, all quiet, no noise, and polite calls at the end of each game sudden anger directed at the junior among the losing partners. We were lucky to be very young and with no worries, and couldn't care less when the repatriation would occur. The Indians did not bother us much except of taking a group of five six officers for interrogation and bringing them back by lunch time. We had to fill a set of forms. I had written my true place of birth which was in India which landed me in trouble. I was called five or six times I think no bad treatment but was repeatedly asked by the interrogating officer (always in civil clothes) over a cup of tea, to give the address of the relations I must be having and still living in India. I had heard in family that some of our far relations were still there but I really did not know about their details.

“I told them this but they kept insisting, anyway the tragic part was that when I came to know that an officer in our camp had been noting activities of all officers in a list and my name was also included in it. A senior infantry Lt. Col. whose name was also in that list, told me this just the evening before his repatriation next day, and asked me to be prepared. “When I told this to my unit sapper group they were not surprised and said they had known it for many days. Naturally they were my Unit officers and had known me and my activities from day one. The officer making the list was a Major and had been in some intelligence outfit in East Pakistan; having read spy novels, I had a special image of those serving in intelligence setups, but this officer was nowhere up to that image!

“News had started circulating in the camp about repatriation to start in February or so. All started waiting impatiently for the schedules to be announced. And during one of the evening roll call in March the names of officers to travel to Pakistan in the first train from our camp were announced. A thrill went through, everyone was happy. Within two weeks my name came up. I came through Attari Railway Station in India. We were told to walk to Wagha border post. I will never forget that pleasant morning’s walk, and in hardly an hour we were passing through the Wagha border check post.

“The sight of my mother and the way she held me in her fragile arms, tight with her shaking grip, kissing my face all over and the first time seeing tears in the eyes of my father I can never forget,” Naeem said. He was reluctant to talk of the bad memories as they were many and telling them would be painful.

Umaima Ahmed is a member  of staff

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