Camp Gwadar: Diary of an 'embedded' journalist

I feel it is a cardinal sin of the highest order to ask a journalist to report for duty at 7am.
Published April 4, 2016

This is the first installment of a three-part travelogue.


0630hrs: I feel it is a cardinal sin of the highest order to ask a journalist to report for duty at 7am.

Suffice it to say, I hadn’t woken this early in several months. After barely two hours of sleep following an intense shift at work, I was hoping to catch the winter sun but was instead greeted with pitch darkness.

The PNS Akram jetty near Gwadar port manned by Pak Marines and Naval SSG.
The PNS Akram jetty near Gwadar port manned by Pak Marines and Naval SSG.

I was asked to report at Naval Headquarters Karachi at day break. Running late, I didn’t reach the Naval HQ until a little after 8:00am. The journalist troupe had already left for the Naval airbase but luckily arrangements were hastily made to take me to PNS Mehran.

0830hrs: The Navy’s newly-commissioned ATR transport aircraft was fuelled and ready to take off. I was the last civilian to board the plane.

When the ATR was airborne, it afforded all of us passengers a misty aerial view of Karachi. The flying experience was luxurious compared to the Hercules C-130, a rough and rowdy beast belonging to the Air Force.

With comfortable seats and a spacious aisle, the ATR is nothing short of a commercial passenger jet. The Navy had purchased the ATRs two years ago, a crew member told us.

"They need certain modifications and upgrading after which they will be able to conduct sea surveillance."

The hour-long flight from Karachi to Pasni was punctuated with tea, announcements and intervals.

Pak Marines' battalion provides security to Gwadar port.
Pak Marines' battalion provides security to Gwadar port.

0930hrs: We had to land in Pasni because the Gwadar airport was closed for maintenance. It was like landing in absolute wilderness: Balochistan’s coastal belt is filled with sand dunes and dusty planes.

We were then transported to the Naval Officers’ Mess, also known as the wardroom, to "freshen up" before the two-hour bus ride to Gwadar.

Despite the dismal dunes of Pasni, the lavatory at our disposal was lavish.

At this point, Gwadar was still 45km away as suggested by a milestone along the coastal highway.

The Gwadar port.
The Gwadar port.

The single-lane highway is a marvel. An economic lifeline for local residents and businesses, it provides access to the coastal belt from other cities and has brightened prospects for tourism in the province — as is evident from the number of Karachiites who visit Balochistan’s beaches.

1200hrs: Landing in Gwadar was nothing short of a surprise, which is an underdeveloped, dusty coastal town.

Contrary to my expectations, Gwadar — which is the main block of the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project — is yet to benefit from the development propagated through paid media content.

The deep blue sea near Gwadar.
The deep blue sea near Gwadar.

The Gwadar port is far from operational. I noticed there is no adequate multi-lane road leading to the port. The best way to access it is through a narrow, crowded market where traffic jams are regular features.

As we navigated our way through the city, our liaison officer on the trip pointed towards a superstore (poorly-stocked by Karachi standards) and said, "This is the best shop we have in Gwadar."

The picture of Gwadar’s development was pretty much complete for me after this.

Unfortunately, I still had to attend a high-level briefing on this very subject later that day.

1230hrs: The Naval Mess in Gwadar, which sits atop a hill a few hundred feet above sea level, lives up to national military standards.

The Gwadar port and the beach make for breathtaking sights when viewed from the top of the cliff.

We were served Hi-Tea upon arrival and then asked to gulp it down because the briefing had started.

It was difficult to choose between a hard-earned cup of tea after a long road trip and a briefing on the already-evident "development" in Gwadar. I took my cup of tea to the briefing room.

A view of the Gwadar port from the sea.
A view of the Gwadar port from the sea.

The commanding officer of naval unit PNS Akram in Gwadar, Commander Atif, shared the development tasks taken up by the Navy in the area, including maintenance of law and order and provision of basic healthcare and education facilities to the locals.

"...And doing that free of cost, without any charges," Atif was quick to add.

The Navy also creates job opportunities for locals and actively engages them in the development of this area, Commander Atif said.

1330hrs: The Navy men took us on a bumpy speedboat ride to show us the posts they man and patrol to secure the Gwadar port from the sea side. For this purpose, they have deployed the 3rd Marine Battalion in Gwadar.

Certain units of the battalion have been specifically tasked to provide security to Chinese engineers.

1500hrs: A lavish three-course meal followed the choppy boat ride. It brought my metabolism back to normal.

So far, one thing was pretty obvious: The day wasn't planned keeping journalists in mind — a few of whom were past retirement age. It favoured the men in uniform who are accustomed to such scenarios and trained accordingly.

A naval ship docked at the Gwadar port.
A naval ship docked at the Gwadar port.

No one seemed to have calculated the small detail that if nearly 50 journalists were to "freshen up" at a stopover, it would take them an hour to use the lavatory if you allocated everyone 3-4 minutes each.

Granted that everyone won’t go every time but 30 minutes would still be needed to move on from the stop.

“We were getting late and needed to rush” was the call of the day.

To emphasise their point, the navy guys played an antic, saying the “airfield at Pasni didn’t have lights on its runway thus making it impossible for the aircraft to take off after sunset. So we needed to hurry.”

I feel sorry for those who bought this.

1600hrs: We were served evening tea at the marine unit next to the Bahria Model School, one of the initiatives taken by the Navy to provide education to local children.

1700hrs: We were finally taken to the much-touted, but currently non-operational, Gwadar port.

The trade activities at Gwadar port seemed to have stalled or at least that’s what I observed given the rusty wheels on cranes at the docks. My observation was later confirmed by officials present at the port.

It was touch-and-go for us at the port. The sun was setting and we had to say our goodbyes in haste.

1900hrs: The airfield in Pasni was well-lit. The take-off at the end of our tiring day was smooth.

I'll have you know that Karachi at night is mesmerising when seen through an airplane window.

A troupe of 50 journalists, courtesy of the Naval Directorate of Public Relations, were taken on a trip to visit the Navy installations along Balochistan’s coastal belt in Gwadar and Pasni.