Military & Aerospace

Escape Attempt from Rawalpindi POW Camp
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Book Excerpt: My Years with the I.A.F. | Date : 26 Oct , 2018

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:


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. .

Click to buy

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.

1 2 3
Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Chief Marshal P C Lal

Former Chief of the Air Staff.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left

3 thoughts on “Escape Attempt from Rawalpindi POW Camp

More Comments Loader Loading Comments