"The Escape" by Zak Mir
Major Abu Taher, a young military officer, is under surveillance in Quetta cantonment, a strategic Pakistani military base on the border of Afghanistan and Iran. It is 1971. East Pakistan, fighting to become a free and independent Bangladesh, is at war with West Pakistan. Taher is one of the few Bengali officers working for the West Pakistan Army. Mysteriously, the military course he is taking ends and everyone in his group is instructed to report immediately to their unit. Taher suspects this rash decision is because of hostilities back home; Bangladesh is seething with terror and violence. All the other senior officers return to their lodging in Chiltan. The only one left behind is Taher. He has been relieved of his duties and given strict orders by his superior, the School Commandant, a Major General, not to leave the base.
Taher doesn’t have much to do. So whenever he is in his room, he tunes into All India Radio or BBC for any new developments back home. He is concerned about his family who still resides in Bangladesh. On March 25, 1971, Operation Searchlight, a covert military operation begins, led by the Pakistani Army to deter the Bengali National movement against Pakistan. The streets of Dhaka, the administrative capital of East Pakistan, are crawling with soldiers on a mission to wipe out young Bengali men of all ages, particularly students, teachers, journalists and intellectuals, anyone posing a threat to the military regime. President Yahya Khan orders his generals to show no mercy. “Kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hands.”
Taher’s mind is made up with a resolve to escape, a force that plays inside him like a constant drumbeat. He is also terrified, fearing the consequences of desertion. His escape could not only cause his death, it could also be a great danger to his family.
From his colleagues he learns that a couple of infantry divisions in Quetta that he closely works with have recently been dispatched to Dhaka. The situation is out of control. Over the next few days Taher waits patiently and contrives a plan to escape through India by way of Afghanistan.
A few days later, called to duty, Taher takes a plane to Kharian, a province in Punjab. This is one of the finest military bases in Pakistan that was funded by a foreign alliance. At the airport, security is tight and everyone is searched before boarding. When he gets on the plane Taher notices there are very few passengers on board, a tall and husky Punjabi woman struggling to get settled with an infant, an old bearded man with his wife covered in a veil seated a couple of rows behind, and a few other passengers scattered throughout the plane. From the corner of his eyes, Taher scans the area as he walks down the aisle to find his seat in the back.
As soon as the plane takes off, the notion of hijacking the plane crosses his mind. He must act swiftly. Taher is also aware that should his plan go awry, he will be court martialed and executed.
Undeterred he plans to turn the plane towards India and then somehow make his way into Bangladesh.
From a distance he spots the only flight attendant on board, a young male perhaps in his late twenties, tall and skinny, hair nicely combed to the side. Judging from his complexion Taher suspects the man is from Bangladesh. But he wants to confirm it, so every time the man passes down the aisle, Taher strains his neck for a closer look. He patiently waits to speak to him but the man keeps busy at the front of the cabin where the Punjabi woman monopolizes him, making him run back and forth with baby bottles in his hand.
Taher keeps looking at his watch, nervous and edgy, and stares at the flight attendant to get his attention. Finally, the man makes eye contact and walks up to him. The man apologizes for ignoring him. Mopping the sweat on his face, Taher asks for a glass of water. He is more nervous than when he was training as a para commando in preparation for the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War.
When the flight attendant returns with ice cold water, Taher drinks it with a big gulp. As the man collects the cup and turns around, Taher stops him, “Wait.”
The man looks back. “Yes Sir?”
Taher politely gestures him to come closer and asks in his native tongue.
“Are you Bengali?
The man looks at him with a wary glance, “Yes Sir, I am from Dhaka,” responding in English.
“Will there be anything else?”
Taher can’t quite figure out how to interpret the man’s response, whether it was purely professional or it was his way to play safe given the nation is polarized and a civil war is in the horizon. Taher shakes his head dismissively, crunching pieces of ice between his teeth.
“No, but I have something important to share, if you have a moment.”
The man looks at him curiously. Taher slides down and pulls down the shades. He turns on the overhead dim light. The flight attendant sits next to him. “You know what happened last night?”
The man nods, “Yes, it’s very bad. I have heard. They are killing everyone.”
Hearing the man now speaking in Bengali with him, Taher’s interpretation of him changes and he begins to feel safe to unveil his plan. As the droning of the large propellers outside muffles their conversation, Taher notices the man’s eyes are turning glassy with sorrow.
“My family is still there. And I don’t know if they are OK,” the man says.
“You must be terribly worried?”
The man does not answer but the sad eyes and the paleness on his face speak for itself.
“I wish I could do something,” says the flight attendant, making a fist in protest.
"Yes, you can," Taher says firmly, thinking he might be actually able to pull this off. Every now and then the flight attendant peeks down the aisle to keep an eye on the other passengers.
“They are pulling everyone out of their homes and shooting them,” Taher continues. “They have declared war on us and we must retaliate.” The flight attendant listens intently.
“We can’t waste any time. There may not be another chance,” Taher says.
“But what can we do?” The man begs to know.
“I have a plan, but I need your help.”
“What exactly do you mean?”
Taher decides to share the details. There is no other way he knows. Taher tells him, he is ready to turn the plane around and take it to India. If he can get it there he knows they will both be free and he can join in the fight against the enemy.
“I know it’s only two of us, but we can do this”
“But Sir, we have no weapons,” the flight attendant cries. “This is extremely dangerous.”
“Relax. I am a trained guerrilla fighter.” Taher says earnestly. “Why don’t you go get me a knife from the kitchen and meet me at the cockpit? I will take it from there.”
Taher waits for the man to spring on his feet, fetch the weapon so he can bolt to the cockpit, open the door, and make a perfect escape. But the man stalls in his seat, his eyes blinking cowardly.
Watching him frozen like a statue, Taher’s aspiration disappears and he wonders if he made a mistake as the engines hum away getting close to its destination. Seeing opportunity slipping away his despair turns into a blood boiling rage and he wants to turn around and shake the man vigorously and ask him, “Where is your patriotism?” In this war, it is young men like him that are turning into freedom fighters every day. But Taher decides to let it go as he sits there quietly with his arms folded on his lap, feeling the rush of blood on his face calming down.
Suddenly, the captain announces their approach to their destination over the speaker, Kharian; he asks the cabin crew to prepare for landing. Taher realizes it is over.
“I have to go, we are landing.” The man excuses himself and leans over him to open up the shade. “There are small children on board Sir. I’m sorry.”
Taher looks at him forgivingly, even though deep inside, he is wounded. And for a brief moment he is worried. What if the man opens his mouth and reports him. But Taher decides not to dwell on it.
He looks out of the window and stares at the clouds, wishing he could be free. But the truth of the matter is soon the clouds will dissolve and the dreamlike images of tiny little hills and valleys, miniature houses and villages, roads and highways will become larger and real, as real as the grim fact that the plane is landing in Kharian and not India.
As he is getting off the plane he sees the man standing by the cockpit door next to the pilot saying, ‘Thank you, please come again,” as the passengers deplane.
Taher shakes his hand and winks, “Stay out of trouble. All the best.”
As he walks down the stairs to the terminal bus, the pilot asks curiously, “What was that about?”
The flight attendant shakes his head, “Nothing.”
Taking account of what occurred in the last few hours Taher is disappointed, but thinks of the flight attendant as a better person than many people he knows. The Bengali officers who are still working for the Pakistani Army do not even flinch at the gruesome fact that their fellow countrymen are dying by the hands of the masters they serve. They think things are not as bad as the news reports say they are. But Taher knows better. If there is no retaliation soon, it will turn into genocide.
In Kharian, Taher decides to put his escape plan on hold. Whenever he finds a Bengali Officer he talks to them quietly, in private, in the officer’s mess or in the recreation rooms trying to figure out what they are thinking, what is their stance. Are they contemplating escape too? He asks himself. In light of what is happening, he wants to know who is an ally and who is an enemy, so he can try to recruit and build a coalition. He knows he is not going to start a war on Pakistani soil or do anything foolish. Instead he will wait and put a better plan together to flee from Pakistan, taking with him all the Bengali Officers he can trust to fight for his country. But he realizes that people are greatly divided and even the officers whom he has known for many years only think of themselves. They wouldn’t dare do anything to risk their jobs let alone do anything that may risk their lives. From their petty comments from the sideline and inaction, it is clear that courage and valor are traits of patriots and not every soldier is one. But Taher is a different breed.
One night in Kharian, a Bengali captain named Delwar arrives. On the 25th of March, in the middle of the conflict, he was arrested in Dhaka, picked up and shipped back to West Pakistan. Taher goes to see him immediately, and they instantly connect. Delwar tells him about the horrific conditions in Dhaka.
“It’s insane, Taher Bhai, “ Delwar says in a brotherly tone. “What is happening over there is genocide.”
Taher listens attentively allowing him to open up and slowly he inches toward full disclosure of his plan, though keeping a close eye on him. If he tends to look away he will know it is time to stop. Taher tells him what he has been planning and what happened on the plane.
“I hope I can trust you, Captain,” Taher says looking straight into his eyes.
“We have no other choice but to get out of here. They have kept me under close surveillance.”
“So are most of the other Bangladeshi Officers," Delwar says, “I know some of them have no opinion but there are some who are genuinely torn. You can count me in. We must figure a way out of this miserable hell. Even it means, digging our way out of this.”
This is music to Taher's ears as he has not met anyone so passionate about leaving. Buoyant by the hope of a new alliance, Taher shakes his hand. “Where there is a will there is a way, we will figure it out.” Taher goes off to see some of the other officers. And after much persuasion, he is able to bring Patowari, another fellow officer on board who was on the fence for a while.
After two weeks Taher is transferred to Abottabad, Beluch Regiment. It is not a mere coincidence that he is being shuffled around, from place to place without a fixed assignment. Someone has spoken.
Taher takes this to be his final wake up call. As a young man and an officer he had always dreamed of a free Bangladesh and the time has come. He sits down with Patowari and Delwar. They decide that Delwar and Patowari will ask for leave while he will join them under the pretense of reporting to his new assignment in Abbottabad. They will head toward Azad Kashmir and then to India to cross the border and go to Bangladesh.
In the meantime, Taher informs his older brother Arif who is working as a Civil Servant for Planning Commission in West Pakistan about his plan . They will coordinate with him so that he is not left behind. Arif takes the bold initiative to buy 3 revolvers for their personal safety from a tall husky Pathan, who delivers the guns in person.
On the morning of April 29, Major Taher, Capt. Delwar, and Capt. Patowari begin their journey with a backpack, flashlight and a revolver. They hop on the first bus and arrive at a small town in Mirpur in Azad Kashmir. The plan was to arrive before noon so that they could spend the afternoon with a friend at a Bengali engineer’s house, and then at nightfall head towards the border, about 30 miles away, which they can do on foot.
By the time the bus drops them off near the friend’s house, they are exhausted from the bumpy ride in the heat. The bus was crowded and the windows were closed to keep out the heat and the dust. It was a suffocation chamber. The direct sunshine on the bus made it wretchedly hot and humid. So the chance to freshen up did not seem to be a bad idea.
When the three young officers arrive at the front door they are rudely shocked by what they see, a huge padlock on the door. Taher yanks out a note hanging on the padlock.
“Sorry, Gone to Pindi. Will be back in a few days.” Their friend has gone to Rawalpindi for vacation.
“He is supposed to be our guide.” Taher howls, tearing up the note furiously, and tossing it on the ground. “Bloody bastard.”
A frail, scruffy, old man with a big mustache and sagging shoulders, who lives behind the engineer, stops by. Earlier when he was closing his book shop, he saw them going toward the house.
“You men must have come a long way?” He asks.
“Yes, a long way indeed.” Taher replies bitterly.
Fate has cornered him again and his luck has failed him twice. But he still believes he needs to carry on. Seeing the three men in despair the old man graciously invites them for lunch at his house, a small apartment on top of his used-book shop. Taher politely refuses and tells him they will be heading back. But seeing the old man’s insistence, Taher decides to pause for a bite.
“It's very kind of you, Sir,” Taher says humbly. "Thank you." The man brings them lunch on the verandah where they settle. A white furry dog follows them to the table.
“Don’t eat too much,” Taher warns his companions, snatching the bowl of rice and giving it to the dog. “It will slow us down.” The two men stare at him without uttering a word. Then they rinse off their hands.
When they finish, the old man asks if they needed a place to stay for the night.
“No Sir, we have to go back,” Taher replies.
And as soon as the man goes inside to say his prayer, Taher and his colleagues pick up their belongings and disappear. On the way, Taher tells them they are still going to try to make it across the border which makes his companions trudge with heavy feet. Taher asks them to pick up their pace to catch up.
Fear starts to percolate in the minds of the two captains as they sluggishly continue their journey without the fourth man. They take the main road. A part of them wants to continue, but another part wants to go back to their bunkers before getting caught. The patience and faith with which they embarked on this journey is beginning to thin. Even though Taher is sorely disappointed about the friend, he doesn’t slow down. He keeps moving forward taking advantage of the fading daylight.
Thoughts of the consequences keep them alert and awake as they warily trek through the winding roads. They know they will have to go through many villages and might even run into people. What if people are curious? What if they question where they are headed? What happens if someone reports them? Then what? It is too late to retreat and they stay on course.
As it turns out no one asks them anything as they quietly pass through the villages, the slums, and the markets. As night falls they leave the main road behind and start walking through the mountains guided by a few evening stars and small flashlights. After a while, the smallest trace of light disappears and it becomes ominously dark. But they keep moving on the rocky paths, which they had no idea would be so painfully treacherous. Rocks and pebbles pierce holes in their boots. There is no way they can carry on this track for another twenty miles. They decide to try the main road again.
But as soon as they get back on the main road they see a sign, a giant billboard with scribbles both in Urdu and English pointing toward a warehouse. From a distance the sign was illegible but as they get closer they realize they were within a few yards of danger. This is a warehouse that provides food and supplies to the border patrol. The three men stop immediately without taking another step.
“I can’t believe this.” Taher whispers, his hope languishing.
Delwar rests on a big boulder and takes out his revolver. “We are surely going to die, if we get any closer.”
Taher agrees with a nod but he also tells them that they should cross the border before daylight.
“What do we do?”
“I don’t know but this is completely insane, Delwar says, “I am going back,” grabbing his canvas backpack off the floor. “I knew this was not a good idea. Now we will all get killed.”
“You cowards, how dare you talk like that?” Taher barks. “At the first sign of trouble, you fold. And you guys call yourselves soldiers. Why did you even come?” The two men look at each other, theirheads lower with shame.
“You guys do whatever you want. I am not going back.” He threatens to keep going but then he returns.
“Look,” Taher says, lowering his tone, “I know we are beat, but why don’t we try the first route again? Maybe luck will be on our side this time."
”We need more than luck, Taher Bhai,” Patowari says. “I can’t carry on another 20 miles, even if I wanted to.” He takes off his punctured boots to show his blisters.
“We are dead either way.” Delwar says wryly, his voice totally flat.
Taher reaches inside his bag for a bandage gauze and hands it to Patowari.
“We are not dead.” Taher says defiantly. “We have a mission and until that is complete nothing can stop us. This is just a setback. Why don’t you rest, I will go check out the area.”
Even though the two men are agitated and irked by Taher’s tenacity, they are also deeply touched by his courage, strength and conviction. As Taher goes to go check out the situation, Patowari says, “It may not be today, but he is the man who will take us to the other side.”
## The End ##
Zak Mir is a Healthcare IT Professional with a deep passion for English and Bengali Literature. Based on the life of a true war hero, Colonel Abu Taher, “The Escape” is an excerpt of a Novel he is currently working on.