Proud soldier of the soil Sajjad A Zahir, standing first from right, with his co-fighters at Borolekha battlefield of Moulvibazar in October 1971.
Courtesy: Inam Ahmed and Julfikar Ali Manik
Sajjad lay panting at the bed of the shallow gorge. Bullets were flying overhead. He knew he was safe in the dried-up gorge. But for how long?
He could hear his team leader Pakistani army Capt Munir's voice. "Shoot him! He is fleeing! Shoot!" And he could hear the eardrum-shattering rat-a-tat-tat of a submachine gun posted near the watchtower just 700 metres away. Then he heard the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) open fire. Second Lieutenant Q Sajjad A Zahir, later to become Lt Col, smiled. He knew the Indians would react with fire.It was a long struggle for Sajjad, a Bangalee teenager, to get into Pakistan Army in 1969. He was sent to Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul of Abbotabad in the North West Frontier of former West Pakistan for officers' training. While he was engrossed in training, the war broke out in East Pakistan.
He was safe at the bottom of the gorge as no-one would chase him when both sides had opened up. He started crawling fast. The rough surface of the gorge scraped his elbows and knees. But he did not stop. He took maximum advantage during the firing time and moved towards the Indian border as quickly as possible.
The firing had stopped now and he heard the excited voice of Capt Munir from a distance. "Find that bastard! We must find him!"
Sajjad felt the urgency to hide and found a place -- a long narrow channel. He squeezed himself in and lay calm. He could see the blue sky of the northeast frontier border turning grey with the approaching dusk. Sajjad waited for the night to come. He reflected upon the things that had happened in the past few months since March. It was now the end of August.
"But we did not know much about the war. We were somewhat in the dark," Sajjad recalls. "We had no idea what had happened in Dhaka on March 26 or of the enormity of the massacre. We just heard that the army had gone into action and a few people had died. That was all the Pakistan army shared with us.”
He only came to know about the extent of the atrocities when he visited his Punjabi friend's family in Rawalpindi in April. The friend, was the son of a retired senior civil servant, and he was in the army.
"A lot has happened in East Pakistan," the friend's father said. "The army has killed thousands of Bangalees. Tikka (martial law administrator in East Pakistan) should not have done it. This is wrong."
Sajjad shuddered in horror. He had no idea if his family were alive. He returned to the academy with a heavy heart, determined to desert the Pakistan Army and fight the monstrous killers. He started planning his escape. The first chance to do so came fast.
He graduated from the academy in August as a second lieutenant in the artillery corps and was posted to Shialkot under the 14 para brigade. On the way to his posting, Sajjad stopped at Rawalpindi to visit his uncle, who was also in the Pakistan Army. There he met some Bangalee army officers at the officers' mess.
Sajjad sought support from his seniors. "We have to fight the Pakistani forces. There are some Bangalee soldiers in Shialkot, where we can group together and fight the first battle on the Pakistan soil and retreat to India."
The response was disheartening. They eyed him with suspicion, because of his uncle's posting in the military intelligence department.
Only one officer came forward. "If you can organise the soldiers in Shialkot, we can come, fight the first battle and enter India."
He joined his unit in Shialkot and further discussed his plan with other Bangalee officers but they were too scared of his plan.
Sajjad kept up his spirits. One August evening, he rode a bicycle to the garrison cinema. A romantic movie 'Nail Laila, na Majnu' was showing. He bought a ticket and entered the hall at 9:00pm. But the love scenes on the screen failed to touch his heart. A bigger plot was brewing in his mind.
An hour and a half later, he quietly came out of the hall. The Indian border was about seven kilometres from Shialkot. He started pushing his bicycle through the dark towards the border following the village tracks. His plan was to get within two kilometres of the border, then abandon the cycle and make it across on foot.
Sajjad was a master in night navigation. He could find his way just by watching the positions of stars. So crossing the border would not be a problem.
He had travelled about five kilometres -- excited by the prospect of getting out of Pakistan. A dark bush loomed by the trackside. Suddenly, four dark figures appeared from behind it.
"Halt! Hands up!" the orders came.
In the starlight, the muzzles of their guns glinted at him. As Sajjad slowly raised his hands, he realised they were field intelligence personnel guarding the border. They talked into walkie-talkies and a jeep wheeled in.
Sajjad sat still in the vehicle, trying to cook up a defence for his overnight venture to the border. The jeep stopped at a camp around 12pm.
The interrogation started. Punches and kicks rained down on him.
"You were escaping -- you bloody Bangalee."
"No, I was not."
"Then why were you heading for the border, you Bangalee?" More blows and kicks. Blood streamed out of his nose.
"I am new here. I just lost my way."
The next morning he was taken to the brigade commander at the headquarters. Sajjad repeated his story and showed him the movie ticket. A plain land guy may get lost in this wild frontier, he argued.
The commander heard him through. "You are a damn good officer in the making," he said.
"They tortured you a lot, but you did not let out a single scream. Well, we can't prove anything against you. You were caught three kilometres inside the border on a cycle. And we don't believe that you would attempt to cross the border without a weapon. Be a good Pakistani. You are a damn good chap and have very good records. You have a bright future in army. Don't ever disclose this incident to anyone."
Sajjad heaved a sigh of relief. “My first attempt failed. Next time I will be more careful and make it,” he thought.
"Have I made it this time?" Sajjad thought lying in the narrow channel. "I must make it because this time there will be no excuse. They know I tied up a Pakistani army officer to a tree and ran away. They know I dashed for the border. They will put a bullet in my head if they find me."
Sajjad knew the Pakistani soldiers very close. The firing had stopped. The Indians also held back. It was getting dark and the Pakistani soldiers knew they must find him before dark. Sajjad knew he must stay holed in until the dusk fell.
It was going to be a game of patience. He thought about his two other failed attempts to escape.
A team from Sajjad's regiment was supposed to go on a border familarisation patrol near an enclave called Sakkar Gar on the north of Shialkot. Capt Munir was leading the team. Lt Fashahad Beg was there too. He was a kind friend to Sajjad. They had nine soldiers with them.
They came and put up with the Jhelam Rangers who were the border security forces stationed in Sakkar Gar area.
Sajjad was given a Sten gun and two magazines. From the moment of taking up the weapon, he knew it was a big opportunity he must not blow. He had already chalked out the plan and gone over it for the umpteenth time in his brain. They would walk in a single file on patrol and he would have to be at the end of it. The plan was simple: he would just draw his carbine and mow them down, and then take off to the border.
But luck was against Sajjad. Capt Munir took the lead and ordered Sajjad behind him. The rest of the bunch followed.
Sajjad was racking his brain to find a way of tackling the situation. Somehow he had to be at the end of the file or this chance would go in vain again.
An idea popped in his mind. "I wanna pee," he uttered loudly. He stepped out and went behind a small hill.
He urinated for real and went over his plan for the last time. Then suddenly on impulse he quickly disassembled the Sten gun. His heart froze. The weapon did not have the firing pin, and without the firing pin it would not fire.
It took him a few seconds to realise why his gun had no firing pin. It was a deliberate trap laid out for him. Had he tried to implement his plan, he would be dead without doubt.
Sajjad reassembled his Sten gun as quickly as possible and joined the advancing patrol team as if nothing had happened. His heart was burning all the time as the second chance was wasted. He broke out in a cold sweat.
That night Sajjad went to sleep early in his tent. Around midnight, he woke up. He must take this chance. He lifted the flap of his tent and stepped out. It was not too dark. He could make out the other tents.
Sajjad took a deep breath and was ready to head for the border.
A voice sounded in from the watchtower in front.
"Sir, are you okay?" A soldier was on guard.
"Yup. Just wanted to take a leak." Sajjad walked toward the toilet, his heart heavy with frustration.
The deep channel felt stuffy to Sajjad. It was already a hot evening and the narrow hole was making it even hotter. He reflected on what had happened only the night before and where he was now. If last night was a failure, tonight must be a success. "There is no other way," he spoke to himself. "I must succeed." Then he remembered how he had planned today's escape attempt, and laughed.
Sajjad stepped out of the tent to a bright Sunday morning. Last night's soldier was still there on the watchtower.
He had a new plan and must execute it cautiously. He spent the lazy Sunday in light conversation with the platoon commander of the Jhelam Rangers, a Pathan, and waited for noon to come. He knew Capt Munir loved to take an afternoon siesta and other soldiers would also rest on Sunday. That was the time he chose. He drew a small map of the area and calculated the time and space to reach the border. He knew how to make an accurate field sketching.
After lunch, Sajjad offered a special prayer seeking success. He put on khaki trousers and a T-shirt and quietly stepped out of his tent. Capt Munir was sleeping as usual in the next tent.
He approached the tent of his friend Lt Fashahad Beg.
"What's up?" Fashahad asked as Sajjad stepped in.
"Nothing. It's too boring here."
"True my friend. I am bored to death!"
Sajjad looked around the tent and saw pictures of a film actress. Fashahad's love for women was well known and Sajjad wanted to exploit that.
"Well," Sajjad said. "I know a place where you can watch beautiful women bathing."
"Really?" Fashahad's eyes lit up. "Where?"
"There is a stream over there, where village girls come to bathe."
"Have you seen them?"
"Oh yes. I have seen the place during patrol and we can go there."
"Let's go my friend." Fashahad quickly put on his trousers and shirt. Through the gap in the tent, Sajjad saw Fashahad tucking a pistol in his waist. It meant that the Pakistani was not trusting Sajjad much.
Together they left the tent. The guards did not say a word as Fashahad was with him. Sajjad knew, without Fashahad, the guards would not allow him to go out alone.
They walked about 700 metres from the camp towards the stream. Sajjad tried to recall the map of the area that he had studied in the morning when he was talking to the Jhelam Rangers platoon commander.
They were now close to a large tree near the stream. In the meantime, a routine patrol from Bhura Chak was going toward Nihala Chak side across the tree and Fashahad waved to the patrol indicating everything was okay.
The girls were there in the stream, frolicking in the water.
"Fashahad, let's climb a tree. We can have a clear view from up there," Sajjad suggested.
Fashahad's eyes glittered. "But I don't know how to climb a tree."
"I will help you." Sajjad quickly climbed up the tree. Being a Bangalee it was not a difficult task. He then pulled Fashahad up. Slowly they made their way up the branches until they found a suitable place with a clear view of the stream. From there, the Indian border was visible -- about 1,300 metres away.
About 700 metres away from the tree, a deep gorge ran through the border into India. This area from the map was studied by Sajjad. He knew he must cross this stretch in about three minutes, giving minimum reaction time to Pakistani soldiers. An additional setback was the patrol that just crossed the area. Sajjad decided to go slow, letting the patrol leave the area.
"We should tie ourselves to the branch, or we might fall," Sajjad said. Both were carrying coils of long ropes at their waists.
First, he tied himself with the tree and, then Fashahad, so that he would not doubt the move.
But Sajjad tied himself with a special knot that would allow him to untie himself and slide down quickly. Fashahad's was a different knot, difficult to untie.
"You turn this way to have a better look," he said and turned Fashahad with a jerk. In an instant, he brushed his hand against the pistol. The pistol dislodged from Fashahad's waist and dropped to the ground.
"My pistol! My pistol! It's gone. Mera pistol gir gia."
"Don't worry. I will get it for you." Sajjad swung down his rope in a jiffy. He picked up the pistol and waited for a moment. “Should I shoot Fashahad and run?” The thought burned in him. But he turned around and started running.
"Stop! Stop! Guards! The Bengali gaddar is fleeing. Catch him! Fire koro usko vag gia," he heard Fashahad shouting from the treetop.
Sajjad stopped for a second and waved the pistol toward Fashahad before tossing it near a bush so that Fashahad could locate it.
"Thank you my friend!" he yelled back. He could not shoot his friend in cold blood. That was not the rule of the game. That was the human aspect of the war. He knew that if the pistol was lost, Fashahad would face court martial and might lose his job.
But the friend in Fashahad did not have the same feeling. He kept on shouting to open fire on Sajjad.
Just then he heard the first shot. Bullets were pinging around him. The Pakistani guards were running toward him.
Sajjad started running hard. The gorge was just a hundred feet away now, but could he make it? Just as he had calculated, the BSF opened fire. That was both a blessing and a clear danger for him as he was now running through a hail of bullets.
He did not know how he reached the gorge, but he jumped into it, rolling about 15 feet down the slope. Now he was safe. The Pakistani soldiers could not come looking for him because of the BSF firing. Now was the time for him to cover as much distance as possible.
He crouched and ran. The firing stopped and he heard excited voices -- the Pakistani soldiers were searching for him. He heard Capt Munir's voice, "Find that bastard! We must find him!"
Sajjad looked for a place to hide and saw the deep channel running alongside of the gorge. He moved into it and waited until the dark descended.
The disappointed Pakistan army had returned to their camp. Sajjad came out of his hiding and started walking along the gorge. He knew he was now on the Indian side and so climbed up the gorge. There was a high ground, which he had to climb to get the direction to the nearest bus stop in the Jammu-Kashmir highway called Samba.
As darkness fell, Sajjad headed to Samba town with the help of his accurate night navigation.
Unfortunately for Sajjad, before he could reach Samba he was caught by Indian Central Reserve Police and taken into custody.
His defection as an officer of Pakistan Army was aired by Jammu Radio, and hearing that Humayun Rashid Chowdhury, who was the acting high commissioner of the new Bangladesh government there, tried to contact him. But Rashid was denied access and he passed the information to General Osmany. Osmany called Indian army chief General Sam Manekshaw, asking for Sajjad's release.
Sajjad was then put on a train with a Gorkha guard, brought to Kolkata and handed over to Osmany at 8 Theatre Road, the makeshift office of the Bangladesh government.
"You've done a fascinating job. You are only 19 years old and you did it all by yourself. I am now confident that Bangladesh will be independent with the efforts of young people like you," Osmany said. "When do you want to join the war?"
General Osmany quickly connected himself with Acting President Syed Nazrul Islam and Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed.
“I am sending a young man from Sakkar Gar to you. You will surely enjoy talking to him,” he said into the phone.
He was put on a civilian plane to Agartala where he met Khaled Mosharraf, one of the sector commanders of Bangladesh Mukti Bahini.
He took a truck to Masimpur in Assam, about 150 kilometres away. Sajjad joined Sector 4 and later Z-force and raised 2 Field Artillery Battery and continued to fight against the Pakistan army.
Source: The Daily Star