Tuesday, April 25, 2006

War of 1971 - My Childhood Memoir

(I wrote this during the military buildup on Indo-Pak border in year 2001 after seeing images of border residents moving their belongings on bullock carts and tractor trolleys to safer places)

On that September evening of 1965 when jet planes roared overhead declaring the start of war, my mother along with the rest of the family was rushing towards a safer place, my nana’s (grandfather’s) home, 25 miles away. She was carrying all her valuables with her and I was also present in that family caravan - a few months old fetus in my mothers womb. So everything I have heard about the war of 1965 is hearsay but the war of 1971 left many images in my mind that never want to leave to this day. When I hear the military build up across the border between India and Pakistan, all of a sudden I feel like I am a 5 year old boy in December of 1971 and all those images play in my mind. I think about all those numerous 4 and 5 year old children who might be going through the emotions and imagery that I went through 30 years ago.

Punjab de jammeyan nu nitt mohinma - is an accepted truth of life by my elders. When Sir Radcliff sat down to draw the border of Pakistan and India between Lahore and Amritsar in late summer of 1947, my village - Naushehra Dhalla - became an injured casualty of his pen. It became part of India but its sister village - Bhadhaana (or Padhaana) about 1 mile on the other side became part of Pakistan. That divided many friendships, relations and end of an era of my family history in that region. My father lost his High School in Bhadaana where he had just started as a 7th grade student that year. With that school he lost many of his friends, teachers, dukaan walas, he used to buy his lunch of chhollays and amroods from, and long walks in the streets of Bhadhaana that he never got the chance to see again although he spent rest of his life only 20 minute walk from it. Accepting all that and much more in the future has become a habit for us. One of those habits is dealing with the war between the 2 countries. I have experienced only one these wars, the war of 1971 on the Western front.

(Picture of a Indian soldier in front of Police station of BurkiaN (Burkee/Barki) near Lahore after the 1965 War. This place is about 6/7 miles from our home.)

When the war became imminent in early winter of 1971 most of the villagers sent their children and other portable belongings to safer places. I along with my 2 sisters were sent to my grandfather (nana’s) home sometime in November while my dada ji, my parents and uncle and aunt stayed back. Every few days someone will come back from our home and give us the news about what is going on back home. I was not much interested in that probably because I hardly had any idea of India, Pakistan and war. I was happy being at my Naanke’s home and playing with my cousins. Then one day my dad brought the news that they have built a morcha in the front yard of our haveli. Although our village was close to the border, our land was on the Indian side of the village about 2 miles away from the border and we had just moved to the Haveli being built in the farm. Dad told that with the help of some army men they had built a very strong morcha (bunker) where about 15 to 20 people can sleep during the war. This idea got me interested and made me feel home sick for the first time in 3 weeks. I wanted to see our home and particularly see how our morcha looks like. Dad told me the location of the morcha in the haveli and I was using all my imagination to see how it looks like. Before that I had heard about fauji morchas being built around our area but having our own morcha in our haveli was fascinating. I wanted to go back and see my home and meet my dada ji whom I had not seen for weeks.

Hardly a few days passed that war started. Fighter planes started roaring during the night even over my nana’s home which was considered safe. My uncles had tinted all glass windows in the house with newspapers so that light does not pass through. When I asked why we have to close the glass windows my uncle told me - so that planes don’t see our house and bomb it. That scared the hell out of me. I started thinking our morcha back home might be safer than this place and I was kind of upset with my uncle’s aerial defense system of turning off the lights at night. I liked our morcha better. I remembered, dad had told us that fauji jawaans who built it said that this morcha won’t collapse even if a Pakistani plane crashes into it. Now I know it was all shoshaybaazi, but back then Fauji’s words were very assuring. We spent all night staring at the plane lights and flares of bombs dropping here and there in the far horizon towards the border. Next morning my dad and uncle also came from home. They were trapped in the morcha all through the first night of war but with the first ray of sunlight they left home towards where we were. My dada ji insisted on staying in the morcha. He had couple of cows for milk, plenty of chickens that we had at the farm and lot of rice and aaTa. He said he knows how to boil rice and fry a chicken. He insisted that with the stuff he had he can last 6 months of war - above all he did not want to leave his home in the safety of strangers. It was a matter of honor for him. He was not alone. Many other elders from the neighboring farms who were staying behind teamed up with him. They would cook their food during the day, water the wheat fields, milk the cows and as soon as golabaari started in the evening they will duck inside the morcha and listen to news on radio.

Next 12 days of war became a routine. I don’t remember much about it other than watching golabaari every evening and after some time getting bored and falling asleep. Home sickness and excitement to see the morcha increased every day. After few days my parents and uncles were worried too about dada ji’s health. A week or so later someone went there and brought the news that Indian army has crossed over to Pakistani territory and our village is safe. Then before the last day of war the word came that war is ending. That afternoon my parents could not stop their eagerness to go back home. They planned with my uncle to go back and stay there as war seem to have ended. When they were ready to leave I insisted to go with them. I started crying and kicking my legs creating a scene to blackmail them to take me with them. All through the journey mostly we saw army vehicles, checkpoints, army camps, etc. although civilians had gotten the courage to get their necks out at the rumor that war has ended. We reached our home couple of hours before sunset. I was so happy to see dada ji and morcha. I was going inside the morcha every few minutes and checking its strength by jumping over its roof. The morcha was really big like a room with only one small opening coming out next to one of the walls of haveli. I guess the idea was that wall was shielding any bomb shrapnel from going inside the morcha. Many other people in the neighborhood came to our place. Women cooked food and made roTis which dada ji and friends had not eaten for 2 weeks. They were complaining that they were living on rice, eggs, chicken and milk only like they were malnutritioned or something. Everyone has his own stories and mood was very festive. Finally the war was over and our homes and village was safe.

The festivities were very short lived. As the sun went down firing started again. Planes and bombs going all over the place. The cease fire was some kind of rumor that everyone believed to come home. About 25 men and women ducked inside the morcha. We had hay laid on the floor of morcha and bed sheets nailed on the sides. It was basically a big round hole in the front yard which was covered first with lot of heavy wood, mostly from the trees freshly cut, many layers of it and then covered with lot of dirt. Considering the bomb technology we had in 1971, this was probably not a bad morcha although nothing to brag about after seeing the caves of Tora Bora. I was the only child in that morcha. All night noise of planes, artillery bombs and firing went on. Dad was switching the radio back and forth between Jalandhar, Lahore and BBC. Every word was being heard by the elders in the morcha very carefully. Once in a while someone will ask for clarification. Every few minutes bomb noise will be so heavy that after it calms down one of the males will get out of the morcha and look over the wall and make a guess about the place where it might have hit. “eh te lagda ay bagh wich army de camp te digga ay gola”(looks like this one fell on army camp in the orchards) someone announced. When no cannon fired from the camp for few minutes everyone thought may be army camp about half mile away is really hit. But then noise of artillery blasting off bombs from near the camp was heard proving them wrong. In the middle of night amid a calm of about half hour when everyone was relaxed the biggest explosion came. It sounded so loud and close that it shook the morcha, some dirt pouring down through the woods fel on our clothes. It was certainly a close call, it dropped only few fields away from our home. My uncle got out of the morcha to look over the wall to see what has happened. As he got his head over the wall another loud one few fields away shook us again. He ducked back to the morcha quickly while everyone was shouting his name. At this moment many started doubting their own wisdom to come back to the war zone. Someone mentioned my name. I was listening everything ducked inside the rajai very quiet and almost pretending like I am sleeping. When everyone was talking loudly someone said “shhshhhhhh rolla na pao munda jaag jayega” (don't talk loudly, boy will wake up). Next morning when it was over everyone thought I was sleeping all through the night. I told them I knew everything. I told them I was not sleeping but they said but you looked like sleeping. “Do you remember when the big bomb hit?” someone asked. I said in my trembling voice “haan mainu pata jadon tusi kehnday si rolla na pao munda jaag joo’ga”(yes I know when you guys were talking about me that I might wake up). Hearing that everyone cracked in laughter at my innocent remark. That was the last day of war. It ended for us and everyone was happy. To this day everyone who was in the morcha that night reminds me it whenever we meet.

Within few days everyone came back to the village. Village is sandwiched between the border line and the defense canal built by India. One has to cross the bridge over the defense canal to go to the village. The bridge was broken and a narrow one was used by army. Many people whose land was on Indian side of the defense canal moved to their farms. Only few months ago ours was the only haveli in the farms but now half of the village started building theirs. It was convenient to be close to the farm where men worked all day. Exploded bomb shells were all over the place in our fields. Many of us kids will go to the fields and collect the metal pieces in spite of our parents restraining us from doing so in case one of them blows up. We would sell this scrap metal to the chhabriwala (bicycle hawker) and buy pateesa (a mithai) from him. Some of these pieces were really heavy and amount of pateesa we would get was good enough to make up for the war damage to our childhood. The army was cleaning up the area and although war was over they were there to stay for a while. They built some checkpoints on the roads, cleaned our school, and had a big open door projection screen set up near their main camp about a mile from our home. There they showed movies to the army men and civilians for free. That was also my first introduciton to cinema and movies.

Looking at the way many other wars in history have turned out to be, our wars of 1965 and 1971 on the Western front were nicer ones. Very few civilians died and damage to property was also minimum. In the whole incident only one girl from our village lost one of her finger hit by a flying shrapnel from a bomb blast near by. Wars are not always like that particularly in the modern days of heavy explosives and fast technology. May God bless our leaders' conscience. May saner thoughts prevail and no children of my land have to see another war. Let us use free time of our armies to build schools, roads and bridges for the 5 year olds to look forward to something.

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