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Flashback: From behind the barbed wire


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A POW being repatriated borne on a stretcher, wave his hand to express his happiness.

The Fall of Dhaka, as this moment in history is also known, resulted in the surrender of almost 93,000 Pakistani army men stationed there to the Indian armed forces. Retired major Mohammad Iqbal Mirza was one of them.

He was in his forties back then. Now at the age of 88, retired major Mirza is a tall lean man who believes in going on water fasts and fruit diets. They must be working because he is an incredibly active man and appears quite healthy. He seems unaffected by any of the frailties of old age. He was a prisoner of war in India for almost three years.

He was commissioned to go to East Pakistan right before the war broke out. He was stationed in the Martial Law Headquarters in East Pakistan. “I was a part of the administration focused inside the cities,” he related, “although I believe our soldiers who were on the frontlines fought very bravely.”

What was it like living as a West Pakistani army man in East Pakistan at that time? “I was afraid of going to sleep. I would spend my nights sitting in a chair with a grenade in my hand.” Why? “Because of the Mukti Bahini of course!” he exclaimed, talking about the guerrilla group in Bangladesh that fought the Pakistani army stationed there. “We had nothing to be afraid of during the day as they never dared to attack in broad daylight,” he said emphatically, “They usually attacked at night, under the cover of darkness.”

Following the fall of Dhaka, he was one of the 93,000 army troops who surrendered as POWs to the Indian army. They were held in camps with barbed wire boundary walls. The Indian troops would patrol the boundaries at night with watchdogs.

Despite all these measures there were quite a few successful escapes.

What was the worst that could happen? “That you could either be shot or your nails could be pulled out,” he said gesturing with his hands to depict the latter consequence, “but that usually happened only if you tried to escape from the camp.”

Did a lot of prisoners of war attempt to escape? “Oh yes. Not officers who were as old as I was.” You were in your forties, that is not old? “It is by army standards. It was mostly younger officers who would attempt to escape. You tend to take more risks when you’re young. We knew there were several people who were trying to dig a secret tunnel. They would cover the opening up whenever they weren’t digging or when they felt it would be discovered.”

Did it work? “No. Unfortunately, the tunnel they were digging caved in. But we had heard that in the camp beside ours, several people had managed to successfully build a tunnel and they escaped.

“Two men managed to escape from our camp. They were a little crazy if you ask me. They were young men who broke through and climbed over the barbed wire walls around our camp. Their hands were badly injured and they had cuts all over their bodies. Unfortunately, when they got out, they ran into a check post run by Indian soldiers and were caught. The soldiers shot one of them and returned the other alive to tell the story.”

But there were exceptions to the ‘good’ manner in which the Indian army treated the POWs. “Indian senior army officers used to come to our camp once a month and give us a talk on discipline and matters of their interest,” he said, and went on to relate an episode where, during one such session, a Pakistani army man lost his temper and spoke rudely to the Indian officers. He was later taken away, beaten up and put in a small cell where they stored hand grenades; there was only enough room for one man to stand. The Pakistani prisoner had to stand perfectly still the entire night or risk being blown up. “The officer on his return couldn’t walk or move properly for almost ten days,” Mirza remembers.

Overall, however, the prisoners were treated well; they were kept in accordance with Geneva conventions and everything was fine as long as they behaved themselves and did not try to escape. “There was a section where women and children prisoners of war were kept and we asked that one of our meals (we were given a sepoy’s ration of pulses, vegetables and mutton) that included meat be distributed to them — as army personnel we had greater privileges than they did. The war was costing the Indian government heavily in monetary terms!”

The Simla Agreement signed between India and Pakistan on July 2, 1972 laid down the rules that the two countries would follow when governing their future conduct with each other. The original agreement, however, did not mention any POWs.

In 1973, a supplementary Simla agreement on repatriation was signed upon which India released almost 90,000 POWs and allowed them to return to Pakistan.

When retired major Mirza returned, Lahore was his first stop. Everyone who returned had to submit an account of their experience and observations about their colleagues at camp. Anybody under the slightest suspicion of being ‘turned’ by the Indian army was essentially fired from service.

“Yes, some might have used this opportunity to settle a personal vendetta. Someone, who had an issue with me at camp, once complained that I frequented the offices of the Indian soldiers regularly. I was fond of reading and the Pakistani officer I would register my requests to would direct me to the relevant department to select the books I wanted. I was questioned about it, I responded honestly. I always followed protocol and there were people who could vouch for me, so I didn’t get into any trouble.

“Throughout the time I was away as a prisoner of war, the Pakistani army paid my monthly salary to my family and took care of them. After returning to Pakistan, I got to go home for a month as a ‘vacation’ and was then commissioned the Karakoram highway near the China border. Life went back to normal once we came back to Pakistan.”

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Comments (67) Closed

sohail Dec 17, 2012 09:57am
I agree with you,my father is also a prisoner of war and he rarely if ever talks about his experience and that too very brief.
Jehanzeb Idrees Dec 17, 2012 05:59pm
Incorrect Nafees sahab, aapne tau a'adaado shumaar ka pura 'murabba' hi bana daala. Mushtaq's figures are more realistic. A Division has 10,000 - 15,000 soldiers, however in East Pakistan, the Pakistani Divisions were on the lower end in personnel strength. 14 Division (led by Major General Qazi Abdul Majid) was permanently stationed in East Pakistan, but after suffering thousands of defections (Bengal Regiment and BR) and causalities in the civil-war, West Pakistan sent 2 additional Divisions 9th (led by Major General M.H. Ansari) and 16th (led by Major General Nazar Hussain Shah) in May 1971, which brought about the total regular Army strength from 32,000 to 35,000. Furthermore, two "ad hoc" Divisions 36th (led by Major General Jamshed) and 39th (led by Major General Rahim Khan) were raised, which were mostly comprised of para-military outfits. The two ad hoc Divisions didn't increase the number strength as you mistakenly put it. There was only one Pakistani Corps which was both under-manned and under-equipped (given the months of naval blockade and air superiority of Indian armed forces). And what were they up against? Three Indian Corps (II, IV and XXXIII) in addition to around 150,000 Mukti Bahini. Just look at the odds they were up against, with no supply lines and hollow-promises by allies despite being a member of SEATO and CENTO. No wonder, the end was inevitable. This is for Maheen Syed as well, I hope next time she won't solely rely on Wikipedia, where any tom, dick and harry can put up an article with his/her favourite references.
Edwardian Dec 16, 2012 05:59pm
@AayKay. The line you have questioned "He was commissioned to go to East Pakistan right before the war broke out". Your comprehension is flawed. You are confusing the the word Commissioned. The word used here doesn't mean that he got his commission as an officer in the Army at the age of forty. The writer clearly says that the officer was a Major (not a 2nd Lieutenant) and was in his forties. The word commission means The act of granting certain powers or the authority to carry out a particular task or duty. employ this word here accordingly as per the correct meaning.
Irfan Baloch Dec 17, 2012 12:44pm
I am sorry but your story doesnt make sense a regiment CO is a Lt Colonel not a Brigadier & they dont go around with their officers telling them to shoot people I would find out more about 1st FF and its actual deployment area in 1971
Ahmed j Dec 17, 2012 09:53am
A good initiative of recording this account. There were many other brave officers and soldiers who could not come to terms with their captivity. They managed to escape. Many were captured but few had the opportunity to come back to West Pakistan. History has forgotten those brave men who risked their lives and travelled through the rigours of hostile land back to safety. The author and others like her need to pen down the personal history of every soldier. The Army and its Heritage and Museum department needs to identify those brave soldiers. Every moment of their personal feeling has to be preserved. The family members of these soldiers also have the national duty to write and record such incidents and if possible publish it. Lets not forget the past and the sacrifices made by our brave men. It was not their mistake.
shrirang, Navi Mumbai Dec 17, 2012 03:27pm
Jehanzeb Idrees Dec 17, 2012 06:45pm
The LESSON is 'Well Remebered!' --- mark my words! :)
Young Dec 17, 2012 02:13pm
Dear Mr. Mirza, nice to see that you are open in saying the truth that by far the POW in India were treated as per Geneva conventions, but just what your establishment did to a younger officer of Indian army Brave Capt. Saurabh Kalia........ur establishment did this kind of inhumane stuff and still go ga-ga around about allah.....I am PROUD to a INDIAN!!
Aaykay Dec 16, 2012 10:34am
I have serious reservations about this Article as it states the Major was in his early Forties then...and also mentions that "He was commissioned to go to East Pakistan right before the war broke out" this is a contradiction in itself as nobody gets Commissioned in Pakistan Army (or anyother Armed Forces in the World) in his Forties ! I will not read the rest for sure
Saleem Dec 19, 2012 02:59am
when? where?
aabdul Dec 19, 2012 02:01am
That is what they said, but they were all scared to death. They slept with a grenade in their hands which trembled all night. The reality is they surrendered in mass.
nafees Dec 17, 2012 05:06am
It is commonly believed that some 93,000 troops surrendered at Dacca in Dec 1971. The correct figures are: Army 54,154 Navy 1,381 Air Force 833 Paramilitary including police 22,000 Civilian personnel 12,000 Total: 90,368
Virkaul Dec 17, 2012 05:06am
The column seems to lack direction and objectivity. It could have focussed on political, military aspects of the episode or on POW treatment or their experiences during captivity. The end was abrupt without conclusion.
Dr. Qazi Dec 17, 2012 04:33pm
Agreed. Pak government and Army should open the archives of the de-briefs from the POW officers and jawans. Although as a nation, we don't have much appetite for "documented" introspection. Our trends are for the gup-shup style tea-shop discussion that revolves more on emotions than substance. Having said that, no one can ever take away the immense sacrifices of our brave soldiers and officers. Without these men, we would be a bigger version of Afghanistan. Pak army zindabaad Pakistan Paindabaad
Imran Dec 16, 2012 10:11am
Interesting read. There are surprisingly little published accounts of the 1971 POWs even though there were so many of them. My father was an army officer in Dacca who was posted out in Oct 1971 back to West Pakistan. His replacement became a POW as were hundreds of his colleagues. But I remember they were never willing to talk much about the subject later on. So unlike the German and Allied ex-servicemen who freely discuss their experiences.
Hassan Dec 17, 2012 10:27am
Army personnel in the total of 90,000 were 50,000, the rest were either paramalitary, police but mostly Bihari and West Pakistani civilians who fought alongside the army
anand k singh M3 Dec 17, 2012 10:38am
God Bless the Brave Man. He stood by his own conscience .
Syed Ahmed Dec 16, 2012 04:28pm
Another confussion, "After returning to Pakistan, I got to go home for a month as a
Anand K Singh Dec 17, 2012 09:22am
At no stage have I read that all the 93000 POWs were combatants. All people mentioned in your comment above were POWs - these included all categories of personnel
Muhammad Ahmed Mufti Dec 17, 2012 05:35pm
The only objective account on the war is "Dead Reckoning" by Sharmila Bose. She visited the places of the alleged war crimes and analyzed the claims based on the locations , interviews of witnesses including from the Pakistan army personal. Obviously the book is not inline with the Indian and Bangladeshi accounts and hence remains banned in Bangladesh, As for an apology: Pakistan , India and Bangladesh must apologize to each other as excesses were committed by all sides.
Anony Dec 17, 2012 06:38pm
Thank u fellow indian
Anony Dec 17, 2012 06:39pm
I totally agree.
anand Singh Dec 17, 2012 02:45pm
Being judgemental about others without looking into our own 'gireban' comes naturally to S Asians.
Anony Dec 17, 2012 06:38pm
Well said
Asim Dec 17, 2012 11:21pm
That's quite ignorant a statement Sana. We, the Pakistani's started the unrest in Bangladesh. We needed to give the Bangladeshi people their rights to government based on democratic beliefs. It was unfair to enforce personal agenda's on the entire nation. Bhutto was a major cause of the issues. I hope everyone here looks deeper into the history than what our families told us. Its important to share the truth with our kids and learn lessons for a better tomorrow.
Faisal Dec 17, 2012 05:19am
After 71 War, along with 93,000 soldiers, 2000 civilians including women and children were detained as POWs for 2 years. They were supposed to be transported from Dhaka to Pakistan through India by train under an agreement with the Red Cross, but they were sent to a POW camp in Meerut instead. Indian govt. has never acknowledged this. US govt. and Red Cross were aware of this. I know this because my father was one of the civilians held there.
Iftikhar Habib Khan Dec 17, 2012 04:17am
In 1948 My Uncle was commissioned in the Pakistan Army at the age of 42, he was a doctor and was given (if I remember correctly Kashmir Emergency Commission). During the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, Mr. Sulehri (a newspapaer man) was commisioned in the Pakistan army as a Full Colonel and he was 53 years old. When Col. Sulehri (May his soul rest in peace Aameen)visited the war front with Late Field Marshal Ayub Khan (May his soul rest in peace Aameen) troops were shocked to see a Colonel in uniform with shoulder length hair. Remember there was "Pakistan Naval Volunteer Reserve" like we now have Police Qaumi Razakar.
Mahek Dec 18, 2012 01:36am
I heard that all 93000 were civilians...all and paramilitary guys managed to scap from east pakistan.Is it true?
Mahek Dec 18, 2012 01:38am
feel pity on your dad...
Rao Dec 18, 2012 05:03am
Do you have any "niyat" at all.....good or bad
Yatan Dec 18, 2012 09:30am
How do you know about Indians, Your mind set is not because you had bad experience with Indians, its simply because this is what you have learned from childhood.
Mj Dec 19, 2012 02:50pm
Pakistani atrocities are not mentioned !! Why ?
shahdeeldar Dec 17, 2012 06:26pm
Most of them were regular army men! No need to feel ashamed.
Dr satpal Jabbal Dec 17, 2012 01:03pm
Not Really.
himidik Dec 17, 2012 01:03pm
Shah Deeldar Dec 17, 2012 06:23pm
Just ask your military people how many innocent Bengalees they had butchered during the nine moths' genocide. It is already in the history books.
saad Dec 18, 2012 03:19am
baba, never talked about the army. This is an incident he told my mother. My mother also said that he used to get up at night of nightmares hearing the screams of the grandmothers and mothers of the village teachers that were shot. I did not join the armed forces so I don't know the exact regiment numbers. He was in the Frontier Force Regiment because every 23rd March, he would make us sit down in front of the TV and watch the parade and when the Frontier Regiment would pass by, he would proudly tell us that was his regiment. He also told my mother that he took down the dead bodies of Pakistan Army officers shot by Mukhti Bahni and hung from trees. There were atrocities on both sides.
Sandip Dec 17, 2012 12:47pm
This comments does tell me something deep. Not sure if anyone reads it that way?
hamid Shafiq Dec 17, 2012 12:53pm
your dad is great. after all 41 years my dad accepts that shiekh mujib u rehman right for prime minister becuase he has more votes and seats compare with bhutto.
Assad Dec 17, 2012 09:24pm
Reminds me of 62!!
saadzaheer Dec 18, 2012 03:28am
I also remember my mother telling me that Gen Rao Farman, with whom Baba was close, once told my mother that "Your husband became a "Bagi", he refused to shoot civilians on order". I am very proud of my father.
aa Dec 17, 2012 07:43pm
wow! Compare that to the atrocities committed by Pakistani troops on few Indian soliders they managed to get hold of!
nooffence7 Dec 17, 2012 07:09pm
Nevertheless, that does not overturn the episode of a lost battle. Let us be real.
nooffence7 Dec 17, 2012 07:12pm
Had had a human heart. Lucky you man, he was your dad.
sana Dec 17, 2012 12:32pm
so now this indian nawaz media want an Apology from Pakistan to bangladesh. By God i hv never seen such bad niyyat people like indians and bangladeshis in the world
Ahmed j Dec 17, 2012 08:36pm
Sana, you gave a very harsh statement. A nation is known and remembered by its history. Allama Iqbal, in his poetry wrote about Mir Jaffar and Mir Sadiq
capitalist Dec 18, 2012 04:53pm
Actually, she ignored Bangladeshi victims and only interviewed the perpetrators. There is enough academic work rubbishing her methodology, and enough third party evidence as to the war crimes committed.
Sameer bhagvat Dec 17, 2012 05:40pm
"Enemies of Islam" ! Of course Sandip, the comments tells what you read. The majority of readers of Dawn are different people - tolerant, secular, world-open. But they are a minuscule minority. Look where Pakistan has reached - thanks to corrupt, extremist, ignorant, intolerant Mullah regime; thanks to Zia!
Mark Dec 17, 2012 08:51pm
the reason is they had some silly superiority complex against bangladeshis. so they couldnot accept that they lost them.
Saleem Dec 19, 2012 03:00am
What was Indian army doing in East Pakistan?
Khan Dec 18, 2012 10:21am
90,000 surrendered not becuase they couldnt fight , but becuase it was decided that more lives would be wasted if the fight goes on. and i am happy Bangladesh is seprerated ;)
shahdeeldar Dec 17, 2012 06:35pm
I was there in Bangladesh to witness your brave soldiers. My unarmed uncle was gunned down by Pak soldiers right in front of my old grand mother. They were everything except brave, period!
asad Dec 17, 2012 01:58am
Well I think there are serious flaws in this article. Atleast syntax mistakes should not have been there.
ZAK Dec 17, 2012 01:23pm
Why reopen a Pandora box ? 90 thousands plus surrendered, a shameful defeat.Only Japanese in WW2 had a different code of honour- fight to the last bullet, Pak army had no such code.
Rao Dec 18, 2012 03:16pm
Has any Pakistani heard of Hamadoor Rehman report on the 1971 debacle?
Edwardian Dec 17, 2012 11:37am
@saadzaheer..There is no such regiment as FF1 in the Pakistan Army. At the time of 1971 war, If your indication of FF1 is towards 1FF Regiment then that regiment was part of 1 Armoured Division which was deployed in Punjab, West Pakistan and has never ever served in East Pakistan. Your statement is vague without mentioning the name of your baba, his CO or the brigadier's name. The only given name of his regiment is also wrong. The locality of the killed teachers is also unknown. Disobeying a command is punishable by a court-martial or removal from duty and not by postponement of a transfer. Why would he be kept at the same place or duty, if he was considered unfit to do his job?
Dr. Qazi Dec 17, 2012 04:37pm
You Mr. Sheikh, have no idea about modern warfare. What you say is Taliban style anarchy where people kill each other without any regards of the government, international rules of war, and modern army structure. peace
anand singh Dec 17, 2012 11:26am
Enemies of Islam ? Wonder if it was noticed but the root cause of the war was sons of Islam killing their Bengali brethren and denying them their rights.
saadzaheer Dec 16, 2012 08:05pm
My deceased dad was a Major in FF1 regiment in East Pakistan. His CO, some Brigadier, once ordered him to shoot teachers in a village in east pakistan. My father refused and although he was scheduled to be transferred back to West Pakistan, as a punishment, he was kept in East Pakistan. The Brigadier took the pistol in his own hands and shot the teachers himself. My father sat down with the grandmothers of those village teachers, cried with them and also said sorry. He left the army as soon as he was released from the POW jail in Agra. Baba, rest in peace. I am very proud of you.
Dr. Qazi Dec 17, 2012 04:51pm
Let's picture 2013 elections in Pakistan. OK? What if a party wins all the seats in punjab with no seat in the other provinces. Can that party claim to be the sole representative of all Pakistanis, and thus be allowed to rule Pakistan? Please note that I am using Punjab as an example of a large provinces, and in no way trying to stir up ethnic debate. FYI. In democracies, a party has to win from all major areas of the country before laying claim to the power. Otherwise it will be fascist force subjugating a country.
imran Dec 16, 2012 07:31pm
The war is over. Lets get over it. Lets do justice with what is now Pakistan. Whats done is done.
JAY RAMAN Dec 16, 2012 07:36pm
probably he was from the ranks. A JCO getting his commission later in life
Mushtaq Ahmad Dec 16, 2012 03:17pm
I would like to correct a figure that has been intentionally exaggerated since 1971. The total number of West Pakistanis present in East Pakistan was 95000. It included civil servants of Railways,Post Office, Police and T&T Departments along with many civilians and their families. There was a very large presence of para Military troops also from West Pakistan. The actual fighting strength was one Division of Infantry already stationed in Dacca and two Divisions airlifted from West Pakistan after Mar 1971 less their heavy compliment like Artillery and Armour. The strength was of three divisions of infantry can never ever be 95000. The actual strength of all troops and para military was less than 40000, including some Air force and Navy persons..
Abdul j Sheikh Dec 16, 2012 06:58pm
Why did not he go martyr by killing enemy of Islam in that part of world. A soldier of Islam with Huge frame could not fire a single shot at his enemy
manoj Dec 19, 2012 02:01pm
1) as a young child of 6 yrs in Allahabad , i remember seeing POW's come to Military Hospital for dental treatment. they had kind of striped shirts with POW written on them It was source of great amusement for us children whose dads were military officers to see these guys. As children we taunted them but were told to shut up by our dads or sometimes the guards escorting the POW's and shooed away 2) pakistanis of today must introspect on why 1971 happened else there could be another one with all kinds of nutcases present in large numbers inside Pakistan 3) my dad went to east pakistan ( bangladesh) and visited the Pak Army, Air force facilities. My dad told me on return, the mess etc were like 5 star hotels. compared to pak army facilities, indian army mess are like a poor mans hut. Such was the oppulence of Pak army facilties ! and how Pak army hogs all the resources of the country it is supposed to serve.
Khan Dec 18, 2012 01:37pm
Well said it applies on 1962 also India war with china
A Common Man Dec 22, 2012 12:51pm
Country is what the people resides there "Paindabaad" to the country u live.....Nice Gesture!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!