The Escape Story
Twelve of our pilots had to eject in West Pakistan during the war. Two of them were repatriated earlier than the others because of ill-health and injuries. Three tried to escape from the POW camp in Rawalpindi on 12 August 1972. They made an excellent attempt but unfortunately were detected just about three miles short of the Afghan border.
Flt Lt Harish Sinhji, of No. 29 Squadron was one of them. On the afternoon of 5 December, 1971 he was flying from Sirsa towards Suleimanke. Flt Lt Dawar was number one, he was number two. Short of Suleimanke, they turned north across the Sutlej and climbed down looking for opportunity targets as they had been directed by the Signals Unit. Dawar started a left turn, facing west and Harish followed. Harish heard, and felt, an explosion. His aircraft lurched and went on to its back. There was a tremendous tearing sound. The controls jammed. He pressed the rudder manually with all his might, the aircraft levelled out but then went into a shallow dive. He was about 800 m above the ground over Haveli, with heavy ack-ack. So he tried to delay ejection and saw his leader, already fairly far away, going southwards, a speck in the sky. Harish called out over the radio, “Dawar, I am ejecting.” No answer. The radio was dead.
Harish probably blacked out for a while. When he regained consciousness, he felt he was dreaming— a “dream of a golden coloured cotton field — fields of cotton glowing in the afternoon sun”. Perhaps it was a movie? Why was he feeling terrible? Oh no! He was jerked back into full consciousness; This was war and he was in Pakistan. Above him his parachute billowed and down below— he saw a big column of dust and smoke— that was his aircraft. As he came closer to the ground he saw two trees in the field looming larger and larger. Desperately he tugged the cords to manipulate his parachute away from them. He missed the trees but not the chute. The big orange and white piece of silk hung on one tree, very conspicious, and he landed. His left leg started hurting but the pain was not unbearable and his back seemed unhurt.
He could see no one. The first thing he wanted to do was tear up the call-sign card. Of course, the moment anyone was missing, the call-sign was automatically changed but in that semi-dazed state that was his reflex. What he actually tore up was his mother’s letter. Next he thought of tearing up his identity card, but for some reason or other he did not.
He was wondering whether to hide in the field till it was dark and then try to make for the border when, within minutes, he heard and then saw in the distance thirty or forty people coming. In the fields, the crops stood tall and he ran into a track through the crop. Suddenly he realised that he still had his mask and helmet on which made it very awkard. While still running he took them off and threw them away. After a while, when he was exhausted, with perspiration streaming down, his throat and mouth parched and dry, he dived into the crops and hoped and prayed that he would not be found. It was a vain hope—a man was standing right there whom Harish had not noticed. The man shouted and soon the crowd caught up. Harish saw a man swinging an axe and coming at him and resigned himself to his fate. Some others stopped the man with the axe but there was no dearth of beating, kicking and abusing. And they kept shouting: “Where is the other pilot?” Ultimately they had to accept that there was no other pilot. Then suddenly the frenzy stopped. They grabbed him, tied his hands and blind-folded him. Stalling for time, he asked for some water to drink. . .
He heard a vehicle drive up, a jeep, and a voice asked in English, “A Flight Lieutenant ?”
“I won’t tell you.”
“Your friend has been caught and shot.”
Of course he had no one with him. He turned the tables on his questioner and asked, “What is your name?”
“Jimmy,” was the answer.
Harish was made to sit on the floor of the jeep which then jolted along on a kutcha track for about half-an-hour. Then the jeep stopped. Someone attended to his injured leg and a kindly Lt Col gave him a a cigarette. Then still with his hands tied behind him and blindfolded, he was put in a truck. There he was asked his name, rank, service number and date of birth. Harish mentioned the Geneva Convention but was told to shut up. “What squadron are you from?” Some one demanded. Answer — “Delta squadron”.
Then the truck started on a long drive and it was getting dark and cold. When it stopped they brought in two other prisoners, Subedar Nur Mohammad and Sepoy Ali Akbar, both from some tank unit. The Pakistanis were surprised to know that Indian Muslims, they called them Kafirs, joined the Army willingly, they had thought that the Indian Muslims were made to join the army at gun-point! One might ask what loyalty a country can expect to have from men on the battlefield if they are put there at gun-point? In fact, Nur Mohammad was awarded the Vir Chakra when he was still a POW. Then another POW was brought into the truck, Captain Malhotra or Mehrotra. A Pakistani Army Captain took command of the truck and they started off again. It may have been 7 or 8 p.m. They drove till 2 a.m. or so and it got bitterly cold. The guard was
kind enough to share his blanket with Harish whose hands were now tied in front.
When they arrived at their destination, their eyes were uncovered. The place was possibly Montgomery Central Jail. Here the prisoners were told to deposit their valuables, including watches, which of course they never saw again. They were locked up in cells with mud floors, given a blanket each and a pitcher of water but no cup or glass to drink from. They lay down in the darkness, in solitary confinement, lonely, cold, insecure.
In the morning Harish asked for a chair to sit on and a glass to drink water from, but neither was provided. For breakfast a man came around with a sack of chanas (gram or chick-peas). Harish put some in his pocket. Then some photohraphs were taken.
At around 10 a.m. an Air Force officer, a Wing Commander, came to interrogate him. Two chairs were brought and tea and some biscuits. The bits and pieces of paper that Harish had thrown away—his mother’s letter and an old bill of the Tea Club at Hindon along with the names of several officers—were produced. He was asked, “There were two Mig squadrons there—29 and 49. Which one are you from ?”. Harish did not speak. He was threatened with the third degree and let off for the time being.
At mid-day it started again.
“Come on. Which squadron are you from ?” Harish hesitated. They used a cycle tyre like a whip on him.
“How many squadrons are there in the IAF ?”
And so it went on.
Lunch was dry chapatis and dry chanas. Then another long drive until sunset, again handcuffed and blind-folded. At the destination, one sharp slap on the back. But that was the last of the rough handling.
The prisoner was thrown into a room, a portion of which was like a cage.
“Have you eaten anything ?” somebody asked.
“What would you like to eat?”.
“Anything but beef.”
Some tomato sandwiches were brought in. Harish’s hands were freed and a blanket was provided. He wrapped himself in it and lay down to sleep.
Morning of the 7th. Another vehicle. Another long ride. The Army POWs were sent to Lyallpur and the Air Force ones to Rawalpindi. En route, another POW was put on the vehicle. That was Flt Lt Aditya Vikram Pethia, moaning and groaning, in a daze. Drove the whole day and arrived at Pindi. Lodged in Cell No 3 in the Provo and Security Flight. There were offices and more cells. For the night, the cement floor was the bed but with a mattress and a couple of blankets. Given a mug of water to drink. The ceiling of the room was high. There were no windows but there were ventilators and two doors. One door had bars, the other was of wood with a hole covered with a piece of cardboard.
In the morning a smartly dressed Corporal, Rizvi, delivered essentials. such as tooth brush and paste. Breakfast was daal, one paratha and tea. They soon learnt to eat the paratha slowly so that the pleasure would last them for a while. For three weeks, until Christmas it was solitary confinement. Meals were vegetarian with tandoori rotis.
The interrogation was not him even when caught bluffing. Their intelligence was very good. They knew the number of Harish’s squadron, the name of his CO and other officers and the fact that Sirsa had No. 12 FBSU (Forward Base Support Unit). They asked him to draw diagrams. of the bases at Sirsa and Hindon. He drew the runway correctly but the rest of it wrong. Two weeks later they said they had lost the paper, so could he draw it again? Again he drew it wrong. Three or four days later they showed him a correct drawing.
The Pakistanis seemed worried about the missiles and the radar units. At times they ill-treated Sqn Ldr Jafa, who had hurt his spine and was in plaster, for this information. They interrogated him right through the night, not letting him sleep, not letting him sit, making him miss a meal. They tried to be sweet to the Sikh POWs: “For the next round, friends, Pakistan and Khalistan will be together against India” was the propaganda, but the Sikh officers of the IAF did not fall for it. Once two Wing Commanders, Hakimullah Durani and Nosey Khan, from a Mirage squadron came to enquire about the performance of the Mig 21s, their speed and the altitude they can go to. To begin with, the PAF officers were very reserved and cautious when speaking to the Indian POWs but after some months, they relaxed a little. They said then that during the war, they felt bad about not being allowed to go out and fight.
Apparently Yahya Khan’s decision was that the PAF aircraft should not be exposed to any damage till IAF aircraft were reduced in strength by attrition, possibly by ack-ack. One PAF officer once sent the POWs a meat dish cooked at home. After the Simla talks with Bhutto, the POWs were given a TV set and the allowance for their rations was doubled.
Over to Harish.
Escape Attempt from Rawalpindi POW Camp
Wg Cdr Harish Sinhji
Sometime in the last week of August, 1972, in an obscure corner of Pakistan Times, was an insignificant news item. It said that three Indian POWs escaped from Rawalpindi camp but were promptly recaptured at Noashera. However, the facts were different. The POWs had almost reached the Khyber pass and their recapture was not the result of an efficient search attempt,
but merely an accident. We were 12 IAF pilots who were taken as POWs in the 1971 conflict: Wg Cdr B.A. Coelho, Sqn Ldr D.S. Jafa, Sqn Ldr Kamat, Flt Lt Tejwant Singh, Flt Lt Bhargava, Flt Lt Dilip Parulkar, Flt Lt M.S. Grewal, Flt Lt Aditya Vikram Pethia, Fg Offr Chati, Fg Offr K.C. Kuruvilla, Fg Offr H.N.D. Mulla Feroze and myself, a Flight Lieutenant in 1971. Of these two were returned to India on the sick and wounded list, i.e., Mulla Feroze in February 72 and Vikram in July 72. And then we were ten.
Each POW was kept in solitary confinement till Christmas Day when we met each other and felt good. Thereafter, every day for a short spell we would be allowed to meet in a Cell—Cell No.4 if I remember right. This was the largest of all, it was an ordinary room converted into a cell by installing bars on the windows and door. The POW camp was in fact the Provost & Security Flight, Rawalpindi, commanded by Sqn Ldr Usman Hamid. Usman was a very decent bloke and we got to like him quite a bit.
In those days there was talk of repatriation every now and then. Mostly it started with the PAF police corporals. One of them would whisper that talks are going on and repatriation would take place within a fortnight, and our hopes would rise. The fortnight would pass and hopes would crash—only to cling to the next such rumour. This tide-like activity of our hopes carried on throughout December 71, January, February and March 72. I think it was then that D.P. Dhar came to Muree for talks. When we found that we did not feature in those talks. We resigned ourselves to wait developments that would lead to our repatriation whenever it was destined. At this time the thought of escape was nowhere in our minds—save one.
From around the middle of January 72, we were allowed to spend some hours every day in the open in a walled area about 25 m by 40 m. Here we basked in the winter sun, played ‘seven tiles’ or gossipped. Once, before the end of January, while we were squatting in this courtyard, Flt Lt Dilip Parulkar whispered that there was some hope of escape as he had discovered that a bar in his cell (No.4) was a bit loose.
At that time, filled with the complete confidence of being repatriated within a few days, we found Dilip’s statement nothing more than a crude attempt at impressing us that he had at least thought of escape. We thought that by saying this he would, after repatriation, blow it into a heroic yarn and so win a lot of admirers. No one took him seriously, we merely felt a bit disgusted. What we did not know, however, was that Dilip had expressed, years ago, a wish to become a POW. This so that he would get a chance to escape…he had said that it bothered him that none of the escape stories he had read concerned Indian heroes!
Thereafter, we often heard Dilip talk of his windows till one day, during a routine check, it was discovered and repaired. Dilip, meanwhile, set about getting hold of a map. For this he got the Camp Commandant, Sqn Ldr Usman, to talk about his trips and experiences abroad. He mentioned that after repatriation he, too, was planning a trip. Would Usman help him plan the route? Could he get hold of an atlas…perheps a school atlas? He kept hounding Usman till one day Usman slipped him an atlas and said he would sit with him later and plan the ‘holiday’
At this stage, Providence made the first of its numerous appearances. Usman was posted out as ADC to the Chief of Air Staff—and in the excitement he left his atlas behind. The new Commandant was Sqn Ldr Wahid-ud-din, a tall ‘I’ specialist, originally of flying cadre but grounded some time ago. The Red Cross visits had commenced at the end of January, 72 and, by and by, we were able to get some sunshine for a few hours a day, some old books, and a volleyball and net. We even got a transistor radio around the end of February.
As the months passed, the guards— and locals relaxed and started taking things for granted. Security measures deteriorated. And Dilip capitalised on each opportunity. The first thing he did was to recruit Grewal. Garry was an old friend of Dilip’s and more important, he was also astoundingly strong. To get Garry into Dilip’s cell did not prove much of a problem mainly because of the neat way in which Jafa and Dilip handled the guards. They literally had them feeding out of their hands. Since Cell No. 4 was large enough for more, and had a fireplace, Chati, too, moved in. His reasons were medical, for he could warm his wounded arm there every night. Since Chati was now in the same cell, he, too, was in on the escape.
Plans were based on a study of the Indo-Pak map. They planned to get out at night, walk westwards past a railway-road crossing about 8 to 10 km away, then head north and hit the hills. Thereafter they would be able to hide in the hills during daylight hours and walk by night. An east-north-easterly direction would be good and the Jhelum river would have to be crossed. From there, up the hills again to cross the border somewhere between Uri and Poonch. It involved walking in the hills for about 100 km. A compass, some clothing, food and water were essential. And a haversack would be a great help. The PAF jailers used to give us our pay in cash instead of coupons as did the Army jailers. So we collected a bit of money, particularly from the non-smokers. Incidently, the pay as authorised by the Geneva Convention was about Rs. 60 at that time. Later, due to the Pak Rupee being devalued, it went up.
By the time this stage was reached, D.P. Dhar had come and gone, and it was about April, 72. As for me, every time I looked up at the sky I felt like breaking free. But since I was quite skinny then, I wondered whether Dilip would permit me to join in. Since I could only know by asking, one day I said to him, “Dilip, if you think I will not be, a liability, please do consider letting me come along. Incidently, I did very well in the Jungle and Snow Survival course.” The next day, when Jafa was told of my request, he raised his eyebrows doubtfully at me. I bluffed that I had come first in the J&SS Course and that the report said that although I looked weak I coped up extremely well. Although only partially reassured, Jafa gave his OK. To get me into Cell No. 4, we requested the guards to let the four of us play bridge till late as we couldn’t sleep. They agreed. This was repeated for three or four nights and thereafter eveyone thought I had got official permission to shift to Cell No. 4.
The camp was a tiny one. A small road turned off the Rawalpindi-Peshawar road. This was known as the Mall. About 100 yds after leaving the highway the P&S Flight gate came on the left. Inside, on the left was the guards office where the Police Corporal on duty used to sit. Then there were about four proper cells and a bathroom.
The ‘gully’ between Cell No. 4 and the lavatory was a narrow gap between the two buildings. The southern end of the gully had barbed wire. Beyond the barbed wire was the compound of a Recruiting office and petrol pump. In other words, freedom lay beyond the barbed wire or behind Cell No. 4— and the security of this region was 1eft to the chowkidar of the petrol pump. But from within, the guards would frequently look into the gully during their rounds.
Around this time, while playing volley ball, Chati sprained his ankle rather badly. In addition, an old tooth injury turned septic and he started getting fever. Sqn Ldr Jafa gave this development a good thought and decided that Chati would not go. Instead, the unenviable but essential task of showing signs of life in the Cell after the escape fell upon him.
Luck seemed to favour us for one day Dilip received a parcel from his sister and in it were, quite providential1y, two shirts and a pair of trousers. Clothing in parcels is not permitted, but here it was! So before anyone could say ‘Jack Robinson’, these items were hidden under Dilip’s mattress. Apart from these, Dilip had quietly managed to get a light green kurta pyjama stitched from his monthly allowance. This was achieved with the assistance of a local lascar by giving him a line about the need for comfort and a tip. So our clothing was fixed. Dilip would wear the green kurta pyjama. Gary would get the light brown terylene shirt and blue woolen pants. I got the greenish blue shirt and would wear the same brown pants that all POWs were issued. For footwear there was no choice—we would wear canvas shoes.
We all decided to carry our POW Identity Cards, so that as a last resort we may seek protection under the Geneva Convention. We chose identites for ourselves. Dilip was LAC John Masih, Gary LAC Ali Ameer, both of PAF Station, Lahore. Since my Urdu was worse than my Hindi, I posed as Mr. Harold Jacob, an Anglo Pakistan drummer working with Flamingo Band, La Bella Hotel, Hyderabad. I was to have given a performance in Lahore where I made friends with these two airmen.
Our gear could not have been prepared but for the tremendous support and enthusiasm of Kamat. Kamy had fractured each leg in two places and both were in plaster. Had it not been so, he would surely have been with the gang. Stuck in this predicament, he rendered invaluable assistance. He improvised a compass by using transistor batteries, a bit of wire, some polythene, and magnetising a needle which he passed through a pressbutton from the issue shirt so as to provide a point for balancing it. When this pressbutton-needle was balanced at the head of a ball pen nib, the needle swung around to show north. The needle was carried within the pen itself. Wg Cdr Coehlo drew out a compass rose to go with this.
Then we got hold of Chati’s parachute on the pretext of repairing the volley ball net with the nylon cords in the chute. Using the silk of the parachute, Kamy stitched two neat haversacks and we got a piece of parachute which we could use to cover ourselves with. . . unfortunately this had some of Chati’s bloodstains on it. For water we removed the ‘G’ bags from a
French ‘G’ sult. After filling it with water we put it into a pillow case. For food we carried mainly dry fruits and condensed milk. The latter was from the Red Cross parcels.
Around mid-July the work commenced. We started removing the filling between the bricks. This task done by Dilip and Gary by turn. Chati and I kept track of the guards. We gave ‘KV’ whispers to signal danger and ‘clear’ for go ahead. This work commenced at about 2200 hrs after a sham bridge session. First the bulb was removed, then the bed was shifted to make room for the digger to lie down. Around 0200 hrs the work generally stopped; the dust was collected into empty gift cartons and the bricks replaced. This scraping was done with various implements—a table knife, the barber’s scissors, a pointed piece of iron and, most successful of all, a screwdriver. Every second or third morning, the ‘dust boxes’ would be exchanged for gift boxes in the store cell.
The last brick was removed on 27 July 1972. It appeared that a thin layer of plaster was all that was left and that a knock would bring it down.
On Friday, 28 July 1972, Dilip wanted to go. Gary wanted to wait another two weeks because once again there were rumours, and hopes, of repatriation. This was when Dilip expressed his innermost feelings, “I do not want go back through repatriation. If the repatriation is tomorrow, I will attempt an escape today! We have wasted enough time already!” When he asked me for my opinion I said that tomorrow would be a better day as the next day would be a Sunday and the search attempts would have a slower start. But Dilip was determined, and so we all got ready to go. We removed the bulb, and filled the ‘G’ bag with water. We packed our rations and dressed up in our ‘Civvies’. We made dummies in our beds and covered them with our blankets and bid Chati farewell. We made some sketch maps showing that we were heading south to Sind, crumpled them up and threw them into a corner of the room to mislead the inevitable search party.
Gary got down to break the plaster layer. It seemed a bit hard. So he pushed with all his might. It would not budge! By then luckily, it began to rain. Gary kicked with his muscular heel. No joy. Then he got hold of a cricket bat lying in the Cell, and made a desperate attempt. He banged and banged. A small fist-sized hole appeared.
Just then I saw a guard running through the rain towards us. I gave the KV signal and everyone leapt into bed, alongside the dummies. Old Shamsuddin, the guard, came straight for the light switch which was located outside the cell door. “Click. Click. Click. Click.” We asked Shamsuddin very casually if anything was wrong, and why he was roaming about in the rain at this time of the night. He only muttered that the light was duff. Hearing all our voices, he seemed to be a bit puzzled. We added quickly that we had complained about the bulb just that evening. By and by he calmed down and went towards the guard room. We did a supersonic undressing and were ready for him if he came back with the keys. But he did not return. What we had thought to be a film of plaster had turned out to be a thick layer of cement.
Before going further, I’ll make a small clarification on the duffing operation itself. The southern wall of Cell 4 was selected. A rectangle was marked out close to the barbed wires near the floor. Except when work was in progress, a bed with blankets draped over the sides so that the rectangle was completely concealed was placed next to the wall. A row of shoes and slippers was neatly placed just under the bed to discourage the sweeper. We kept the cell clean and normally turned the sweeper back on this pretext.
Now we had a problem on our hands—a fist-sized hole was visible on the rear wall of Cell No. 4. We knew that the employees of the recruiting office parked their bicycles along this wall. It was now a question of luck—and lady luck was on ourside. For over two weeks the hole was not noticed: nobody suspected a thing.
The scraping operation was again done by Gary and Dilip. by turns, they scraped the periphery of the rectangle to get the borders thin enough so that the block could eventually be knocked out. As a precaution, we had stuffed a bit of parachute cloth into the hole. One, night, Dilip was on the job and after the preliminary bit of work of removing the bricks, we found he was very still for a longish time. After a while he whispered, “Somebody’s on the other side of the wall ! He’s pulling the cloth !” Dilip also had a grip on the cloth and an intermittent tug of war went on. All of us inside the cell were in a sweat. We anticipated that after playing cat and mouse with us for a while, the person would come around and the game would be over.
In the midst of this tenseness, the cloth was pulled so suddenly that Dilip could not hold on. He whispered, “He’s pulled the cloth off!” We wanted to jump into bed and pretend everything was normal, but Dilip stayed down and tried to peer though the hole. Again there was a tense pause until Dilip hissed, “It’s that damned Cat!” referring to the stray cat we used to frequently feed with powdered milk. With a tremendous sense of relief we resumed the work.
All this while, I had kept one thought unexpressed—I had just about been included in the escape, I did not want to voice my dread of drowning since the plan included a crossing of the Jhelum. When I couldn’t keep this to myself any longer I casually told Dilip that I did not know how to swim. Dilip said that I needn’t worry, for I could fill the ‘G’ suit bag with air and float on the Jhelum while Dilip and Gary would tow me across. I said fine but I didn’t like the idea at all. In addition, around this time there were plenty of reports of Mujahids and Pak army men being blown up by mines. We realised that the area was heavily mined but at this point our attitude was: “Our minds are up—don’t confuse us with facts !” We brushed this obstacle aside with a vague plan of tying a plank to a bamboo pole and beating the ground ahead before crawling or walking over it.
That was the state of things while we continued the scraping operations. By the end of the first week of August, when we were ready to go, Gary came down with fever and so we had to hold our horses.
The next lot of parcels included a batch of books. Having nothing better to do I picked up a book called, Murray’s book of Travel for India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon. Going through it I found several sketch maps one of which was Rawalpindi, Peshwar and beyond the Khyber pass. I happened to glance at the scale, and was rather astounded to find that the distance from Peshawar to the border was only about 24 miles—and, joy of joys, there were no rivers to cross! I remembered the guards mentioning that there were night buses on that route. It seemed too good to be true. Standing near the cell door, I showed Dilip the sketch map and volunteered: “I feel this is a better route. No Mujahids, mines or rivers. What do you feel?” Dilip paused, and and I could hardly believe it when he said, “That makes two of us, pal! So let’s go and tell Gary of the change.” We went to Gary who was lying down, and when we told him he too was most relieved. I think that with the Jhelum now out of the plan, I was the happiest of all!
The new plan was to get out around midnight, and walk to where we knew the buses were—Chati, on his way to the dentist, had been able to get this information. We planned to board a Peshwar-bound bus. Since Peshwar was only about 90 miles. away, we should be there before daybreak. From there, we should try and find out the Jamrud road and get there along the railway line. We would hide till nightfall and then walk along this railway line going from Peshawar to Jamrud and then into the hills of Landikotal and on to a place called Landi Khana. From Landi Khana, the border at Torkham was shown as being only a mile away. We had Rs. 180 with us for the bus ride and any other requirement. In general, the idea was to avoid contact with any other human after we left Peshawar. All we required to swing into action was Gary’s, recovery.
Saturday 12 August: it was the beginning of a long weekend, since 14th was Pak Independence Day. The Camp Commandant was on a trip to Murree, a hill station. The Warrant Officer in Charge, Rizvi, lived at the other end of town. The Camp was in the hands of a dim but lovable Corporal called Mehfooz Khan. Gary was well and the enemy security set-up ideal for escape. During the early evening stroll, Jafa spotted a flash of lightning and told Dilip that a storm was building up. “Go around midnight or earlier if the storm hits before that”, he advised. After quick last minute consultations, we moved off to our cells. To avoid unnecessary excitment, only Kamy and Kuru were told about it, as both lived in Cell No.7 and Kuru was required to ask to be taken to the toilet at midnight. Till he was locked up again, the guards would be farthest away from where we would be knocking out the cement block.
We went through the same routine— Bulb, Water, Rations, Civvies, Dummies, crumpled decoy maps and farewell to Chati. The storm built up around midnight and Kuru did his bit. Gary got down for the final bit of scraping. I could hear my heart thumping and vague questions within: “Must you go?” “Will it work out?” I drew solace from remembering a quatrain from Omar Khayyam:
The ball no question makes of Ayes and Noes,
But right or left, as strikes The Player, goes:
And He that toss’d thee down into this field,
He knows about it all; He knows— He KNOWS,
The last knock was given and we were ready. Gary was to go through the gap and wait against the wall till I, lying in the hole and having got a tap on my foot from Chati, the signal that no guard was looking down the gully, touched his foot. He was then to cross the gully. I would wait for a similar touch by Dilip. And Dilip would do the same on Chati’s touch. Chati would then replace the bricks and bed and generally make some sound to indicate signs of life within the cell. Early in the morning Chati was to ask to be taken to the toilet and then try and get into Jafa’s Cell—No. 3—next to the lavatory.
Gray crawled through and waited. I crawled through. Seeing the night sky, whatever apprehensions there were, completely vanished, leaving a sense of peace and elation in their place. As my eyes focused and while I waited for the go-ahead tap, I saw a man sitting on a charpoy barely 20 paces away. Wanting to get Gary to see him, I touched Gary’s foot—and Gary, taking it to be the signal, crossed over! The man had not moved. I too crawled out and stood. Then I saw that, because of the strong wind, this fellow had a blanket over his head. We all crossed over and went to the wall to jump down onto the Mall but it was full of people—perhaps some late show had just given over. The time: 0030 hrs on 13 August, 72. So we sat down between the rear walls of the main cells and the small hut, a pumphouse-like building, to wait it out.
The wind was getting fierce now. It was howling amidst the telegraph wires and dust was flying about, stinging our faces. A few drops of rain started falling. About ten minutes later when we peeped over the wall, the Mall road was deserted. So we got down and walked towards the highway. Elated, I said, “Freedom!” More down to earth, Gary said, “Not yet !”
We’d barely gone a hundred yards and it began pouring heavily. At the highway we turned left. It was a double road with plenty of trees lining it. We got out on it’s right edge and walked on. Another hundred yards all the lights went outthere was a power failure. Hidden by the blackout conditions, drenched to the skin, carrying our loads, we walked on happily and subsequently turned left out onto a broad road parallel to the Mall. This road went downwards and then climbed up gradually. We had walked for about an hour, when we came across a bus at a junction of roads, it’s engine idling; the driver asked us:
“Peshawar jana hai, bhai ? Peshwar—Peshawar!”
We climbed in, hoping the bus would start off quickly. However, it held on till it was packed to capacity, and this took about an hour. What was uncomfortable was that the conductor asked us in broken English for the fare. Normally it is only Urdu, not pure Urdu but something similar to our Hindustani, that is spoken all over. Even PAF officers greet each other with “Salaam Ale Kum” and not “Good Morning”. So this attempt at English by the smiling conductor made us rather selfconscious, but all we could do was to sit tight and hope for the best.
Incidentally, Gary is a Sikh—the extra fair variety with brownish hair and light eyes. He had to shave his head because of an infection of the scalp and now the hair was an inch long and he looked a Pathan for all practical purposes. However, he wore a kada that would not come off so he tucked it under his sleeve for this adventure.
Around 0230 hrs, our bus set course. We slouched in our seats pretending to be asleep so as to conceal our faces. There was a halt at Attock. We had tea and found ourselves missing any sense of adventure. It almost felt like an Ambala—Chandigarh trip. If this were a scene from a movie there would have been music in the background to create a little excitment . . .
Around daybreak we reached Peshawar. Soon after entering the city we got off the bus and headed for a roadside stall and ordered tea. The tea was brought in an ancient pot held together with locking wire. While we waited for the tea to cool, it struck me that the radio might have an announcement about us. “Don’t you think we should move?” I said to Dilip. We didn’t wait any longer but got up. Now the idea was to get to the road to Jamrud as soon as possible.
We walked along the road and noticed that we were amongst Pathans. More than half the adults we saw were carrying arms. There was an autorickshaw driver with a gun resting against his windshield. All these people wore a kind of cross-belt or bandolier for ammunition or cartridges. We were on the fringes of the wild Northwest Frontier Province, an area where the only law was tribal law—tribal Jirga as they call it— and one which even the British could not tame. The present Government was helpless in this area. A little deeper, near Jamrud, we found that no adult was without his gun and cross-belt.
We learnt months later that no Pakistani, i.e., Sindhi or Punjabi, dares to walk like this in this area. They cross this region in vehicles and that too only during daylight hours.
We saw a tonga coming towards us. Gary, our ‘Pathan’, hailed him and asked him to take us to Jamrud road. The tongawala wanted to know where. Gary said that there was some newspaper office around there. The tongawala wanted more detail Gary said that we ourselves were not sure of the the exact location and that we only wanted to be taken to the general area. He thought for a while and then said that it would cost us four rupees. Gary said OK and went up front with the tongawala while Dilip and I got on at the back. It was barely a ten minute ride. Dilip and I admired the area and gardens. We felt a bit guilty about Chati and wondered what might be happening to him. The time was abut 0600 hrs on 13 August, 72. While Dilip and I were thus exchanging pleasantries, Gary was going through a gruelling interrogation by the tongawala. He wanted to know who we were, from where had we come, what time had we caught the bus at Lahore, what was on at this newspaper office, what newspaper office was this that was open on a Sunday, and so on. Gary parried these as best he could, and sighed with relief when he stopped. The tongawala pointed to a road saying that this was the Jamrud road, —but where was this office? We said that there was plenty of time for it to open, and that we would find it ourselves. We got off and I gave him a fiver. He looked at me and shocked us by saying in English “No change:” I smiled and forgetting that we were looking like job hunting paupers said, “Keep the change.” Considering our looks and the short ride, this was a mistake.
The tongawala stood up. There was a big question mark almost visible on his face. It was evident that he felt there was something fishy here. He asked us to put our gear back and climb in. He would take us wherever we wanted to go. We said that it wasn’t necessary, and in any case we had plenty of time. But he insisted. So we just walked away after thanking him while he stood there looking very puzzled.
The plan had gone through smoothly so far. Now we wanted to leave the road and hide, preferably after locating the railway line. But this was more easily said than done.
The moment we were on this highway, we found that all along there were either small shops, or dwellings, or there were people working on the road itself. All of these people looked the same, the clothing, the features and all. The three of us seemed quite incongruous and stood out like sore thumbs. What made things worse was that whatever they were doing, on spotting us they would stop their activity and stare intently at us. Several cyclists passed us, turned back, passed us again to turn back and then carry on.
Realising that a trio should not be seen, I trailed my friends by about 50 yards and on the opposite side of the road. One cyclist bolder than the others asked me where I was going. I said that we were going for a camp. He asked me what I was carrying. I said that it was water. He then asked if it was not wheat flour (Atta) that I was carrying. So I took out the ‘G’ suit tube and squirted a bit of water. Satisfied, he went on.
Due to this super conspicuousness of ours, we decided that leaving the road wouldn’t be right. After about 5 miles, there was another road branching off left, we took it and found ourselves at the railway line! However, there were intensely suspicious looks and a large crowd there, so we turned back and resumed our walk on the highway. We now knew that the railway line was on our left, parallel to the road.
About two miles further and after over two hours of walking we found a toll gate at which checking was going on. On the right of the road was the campus of an Islamic University which had a lot of hedges and trees. We got in amongst these and like thieves wondered what we should do next. I think it was Dilip who said that we should board a bus and hope for the best, walking didn’t seem safe enough. So we got back on the road and asked a local sitting on a culvert where we could catch a bus. He motioned us to sit down. Soon a bus came and our newfound friend stepped into the middle of the road and stopped it. He climbed on to the roof and we followed. We settled ourselves there with about a dozen locals and went through five or six check posts. Our bags were picked up at each post. Finding tins and dried fruit, they were put down again. The check post officials were looking for grain and nothing else.
A boy came and asked us for fares. We asked him how much and paid him what he asked, but there were no tickets. We didn’t know this but we must have been the only persons who paid any fare on that bus. . . in the NWFP the weekly train and buses are all on the house.
We reached Jamrud and got off. There was a gate on the highway with all kinds of signboards:
‘YOU ARE NOW ENTERING TRIBAL AREA’; ‘VISITORS ARE WARNED NOT TO LEAVE THE ROAD’; ‘VISITORS ARE WARNED NOT TO PHOTOGRAPH TRIBAL WOMEN’; ‘VISITORS MUST CROSS THIS REGION DURING DAYLIGHT HOURS’ AND ‘WELCOME TO KHYBER’.
We thought we should get beyond this little town, it was Jamrud Fort, and then leave the road. The township was one of minifortresses where perhaps a joint family lived. From one fortified dwelling to the next there was at least 100 yards of bare ground, we could see no trees at all. About 5 miles away the hilly terrain was visible but the flat, barren plains offered no concealment at all. The hills, too, were completely barren and covered with gravel. The locals were all dressed to kill— with guns and ammunition belts.
As we walked, the locals would cease all activity and stare at us; it was clear that we could not afford to leave the road. Suddenly a boy of about 7 or 8, rolling an old tyre, pulled out his toy pistol and shot at my back. Dilip jokingly said, “Harry, your water bag has been shot up.” So I playfully did a cowboy type draw at the kid. He smiled and tagged along with us, rolling his tyre.
He studied us a while and grinned, “Angrez Hai.” I replied, “Angrez nahin; Pakistani hai!” He studied us, stil1 rolling his tyre. After a while he said, almost gleefully, “Pakistani nahin, Hindustani hain !!” For a full ten seconds our minds were paralysed with disbelief. Then I thought of our Hindi movies and said, “Badtamees! Sharm nahin ati?” He laughed, opened throttle on his tyre and raced away.
Rather shaken, we walked on. It was clear that we had to get into a bus again. About a mile past Jamrud, we saw a youth. Dilip greeted him with a neat “Salaam Ale Kum”. He replied with an “Alekum Salaam” and called us to sit on the culvert and speak with him. He asked several questions. Dilip explained that we were Pakistanis but brought up in Africa, we had come back to see our native country completely. Pretty convinced, he said that he would stop a bus for us. And when the next one came he stopped it and we climbed onto the roof and waved at the youth as we moved off.
The bus was bound for Landi Kotal, five miles short of Afghanistan. While going through the hills, we realised that had we followed our original plan we would never have made it. The hills were barren, and there was a sort of lookout post on every other peak. These posts were manned. It was like radar coverage where anyone walking in the daytime would be spotted by one or another of these. Had we walked at night, we would certainly have gone into one of the numerous tribal dwellings we could see cut into the hill bases, their entrances covered with a cloth and the huge hounds would certainly have caught hold of us. Playing it by ear we seemed to have followed the best possible plan.
We reached Landi Kotal around 0930 hrs, barely nine hours after leaving the camp. We now wanted to know which of the two roads we should take. So trying to behave like tourists, we went to a tea shop. While drinking tea we casually asked the locals where this place Landi Khana was. They did not seem to know, so they asked their neighbours in a sort of ‘Pass it on’ game. About the fifth or sixth chap seemed to have some idea and he pointed to one road saying that it was about four miles down that way. We asked if it was a picturesque (sundar) place like this. They didn’t seem to understand. We asked if there were any buses or taxis. One boy replied that there were no
buses but taxis would go for about thirty rupees. We raised our eyebrows and said, “Thirty rupees for four miles! Too much, we’ll walk.” We did not want to make the tongawalla mistake again.
Here we saw that all the locals had on a sort of white skull cap. Dilip suggested that we too buy these. I said that since I was an Anglo I shouldn’t wear one. So we walked out of the tea shop and about 50 yards away found a stairway leading to a market place below the street. While Gary and I waited on top, Dilip went down and came back with two caps, one for himself and one for Gary. Gary’s was too tight, so Dilip went down to exchange it. While Gary and I waited, the boy from the tea shop yelled at the top of his voice that the Landi Khana taxi would come for 25 rupees! We indicated that we were not interested. Then between Gary and I, we wondered whether we should take it—take care of the driver if required and dash across. We decided to wait for our leader, Dilip, to come. Dilip came up. We mentioned our thoughts to him. He agreed. We had barely started moving towards the taxi when someone addressed us from behind.
We turned and found a middle-aged bearded man with glasses, asking if we wanted to go to Landi Khana; we first thought that he was a rival taxi driver. We said “Yes”. He asked where we had come from. Then he wanted to know who we were. All this was done rather politely. We gave out our stories: Dilip and Gary were airmen from Lahore and I was a civilian friend of theirs. His tone hardened when he asked us how we knew of this place Landi Khana. We replied that it was on all maps. He shook his head and said very confidently that no map had Landi Khana, and that most of the locals were unaware of it. He added that Landi Khana ended with British rule!
Dilip tried to deflect this impasse by talking to someone in the crowd surrounding us. I asked this bearded man why he was stopping us, and why he was suspicious. He replied very plainly that he suspected us of being Bengalis trying to run away to Afghanistan. Gary and I laughed as heartily as we could and slapped each other on the back, asking him if he’d ever seen Bengalis… did we look like Bengalis? He didn’t find anything funny and told us why he suspected us. This
entire conversation was in Urdu and it turned out that he was not a Pathan but the Tehsildar’s clerk (arzi-navis). Being a Sunday, he was strolling about the market place when he heard a kid yelling something about Landi Khana. Then he saw that two non-locals were being addressed by a local kid. . . and a third non-local popping up with Peshawari topees ! His alarm clock rang. Almost every Bengali fleeing towards Afghanistan had been caught buying Peshawari topees at Landi Kotal. Coming from Peshawar they should have bought them there, but buying them here indicated at attempt at disguise. This was the thumb rule in this clerk’s mind.
He then searched our luggage. When he came across the blood stained chute, he looked worried, probably thinking that we had killed someone. He asked for identity cards or leave certificates. We gave excuses about local rules, etc., but they fell flat.
He took us under armed escort to the Tehsildar. The questioning by the Tehsildar was on the same lines. At the end of an hour in which we’d invented father’s name and home addresses, he said that although he could not put his finger on it, he knew that there was something very fishy. So fishy, he declared, that he was putting us in jail.
Seeing that that there was no way out, Dilip asked for permission to ring up Air HQ. After a great deal of reluctance the Tehsildar agreed. Dilip first asked for the Provost Marshal. Luckily he was not available— “gone for the Independence day preparations”.
This was when, in a flash of genius, Dilip asked for the ADC to the Chief of Air Staff. When our old friend Sqn Ldr Usman Hamid came on the line, Dilip gave his name in such a way that the Pushto speaking Tehsildar could not catch on.
Dilip said, “Sir, you must have heard the news. The three of us are at Landi Kotal and caught by the Tehsildar, can you please send your men.” Since Usman did not understand, Dilip repeated this. Then Usman spoke with the Tehsildar.
We believe that we own our lives to Usman. Usman told the Tehsildar that we were Pakistani airmen but were wanted, We should be put behind bars but should not be beaten up. A very satisfied Tehsildar put the phone down and told us what Usman had said. Then he told a gang of armed locals to put us in the jail.
The jail was some distance away, on the other side of town. Once there a local said it is their Kanoon to search us before locking us up. In this search our POW Identity Cards came out. However, they could only recognise our snaps and not read the English. But they took them, away.
The jail was extremely filthy and we wondered what would happen next. We didn’t have long to wait though. The Tehsildar (his name was Shah Tehan) arrived with a, posse of tall grim looking locals. He asked us our names again. This time we gave our real identities for we saw him holding our Identity Cards. He was livid and went red in the face as he shot the questions: “Why did you lie? Hindus! POW! How many escaped? From where?”
The adventure which we had found lacking now became too much. For the first time our-future seemed uncertain; it looked like a firing squad for us in a few minutes. While he was in the midst of this tirade someone came and whispered something in his ear. He gave some orders. Some keys and handcuffs were brought. “Here we go”, we thought.
Handicuffed and chained to each other, we were marched back— back through the town and past the Tehsildar’s office. “The political agent wants to see you,” the Tehsildar said haughtily.
As we approached his office, the smart young political agent came out. He ordered our handcuffs to be removed and had the VIP room opened for us. He gave instructions that we were to be treated like visiting Pakistani officers. .
While the Tehsildar stood gaping, he shook hands with us and congratulated us on a fine attempt. He even sympathised that had it not been for that clerk happening to be around, we might have been free by now. He told us that Usman had called him and asked him to save us from the locals as a personnal favour.
Then there was grand spread laid out for us. At four in the evening an angry batch of PAF police came and took us roughly back to Peshawar.
Chati told us later what happened his end. At about 0400 hrs, he again asked to go to the toilet. While the guard waited in the courtyard, Chati stopped by Jafa’s cell and told him that all had gone off well. The plan was for Chati to move into Jafa’s cell, by giving the excuse of unbearable pain, so that the two could together face the aftermath of the discovery. But Jafa asked Chati to return to his own cell and continue to give the semblance of normalcy in order to allow the three of us the maximum possible time to get away. Jafa was aware of the enormous risk that Chati now faced and Chati himself accepted that risk willingly.
At about 1100 hrs all hell broke loose. Chati heared the loud ringing of the telephone in the guard’s cabin, some one answered it, then the sound of running footsteps and the person hissing to someone else: “CAS… CAS”. Obviously this was from the office of the Chief of Air Staff since by then we had been captured and had already spoken to Usman.
Chati said two policemen then came to the cell and discovered the dummies. They ran back to the main block and were joined by others. A hurried conference in urgent whispers began. The gist of it was whether they should throw someone into the escape hole and shoot him in the back to show that they had not been totally negligent. However, saner counsel prevailed, they must have figured that if the Chief already knew what difference would one more dead body make. Fortunately, they did not even subject Chati to any ‘special’ treatment.
In Peshawar Jail the recaptured POWs were humiliated and ill-treated. In the heat of August, they were given rooms with no fans. So next morning Parulkar demanded to see the Police Chief. An hour later, an officer came. Parulkar said that they were going on a hunger-strike because the Pakistanis were not observing the Geneva Convention. As a result, table fans were provided but kept outside the door. On the 15th, the Pathans amongst the captors furtively brought them a delicious chicken dish and some grapes. The Pathan JCOs said; “If we had officers like you, our soldiers could do much better.”
Back to Pindi. Naturally Sqn Ldr Wahid-ud-din was not exactly pleased with them! He ordered a Court Martial: the award was thirty days solitary confinement, no books, papers or pencils. They were later transferred to the Lyallpur camp. They travelled by train. They were hand-cuffed and secured with long chains, but were allowed to travel air-conditioned first class. After eighteen days in the Lyallpur Camp, all the POWs, about five hundred of them, were allowed to celebrate Janmashtmi — Lord, Krishna’s birthday. And there was no more solitary confinement after that. The joke among the local prisoners was that Lahore and Kasur were named after Lav and Kush, the two sons of Rama. .
Perhaps what the POWs should have done was offer some money to some Pathans, about Rs. 2000, and asked to be taken by them, by some trails, to Kabul and of course honour that promise at the Indian embassy at Kabul.
Lyallpur camp was in a huge fortress; it was flood-lit and surrounded by electrified wires. At night, each prisoner was locked up singly. There was a volley ball court, a temple and a gurudwara. The Pakistanis were really surprised to see the amity between the Hindu and Muslim POWs. There, by pooling their money, they could eat a little better. Parulkar started thinking about another attempt at escaping. They were allowed to write letters but those letters didn’t get far — they were discovered later crumpled up and thrown in a corner of the compound.
Bhutto visited the camp. A shamiana was put up and a platform erected. He came and spoke eloquently. He said he was not interested in making war. Soon after that, on 1 December, 1972, the prisoners were repatriated. They were brought to the border at Wagah by train and given a tea party there. Then they marched across the border to board buses waiting to take them to Amritsar. There was another big tea party for them there and presents— a suit piece and a watch for each— and much embracing and hugging. It was a home coming to remember.