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On board PNS Zulfiquar: Diary of an 'embedded' journalist

Updated Apr 20, 2016 05:30pm

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


Day 2

0700hrs: Today I made it on time. It was still dark and foggy outside.

The day’s plan was slightly different from yesterday’s — instead of an aircraft, there was a destroyer ship waiting for us at Karachi’s naval dockyard, armed, fuelled and ready to sail. But before that, Commander Pakistan Fleet (COMPAK) Vice Admiral Arifullah Hussaini briefed us at the Naval tactical training school about the maritime force’s ventures and adventures.

On our way to the naval dockyard, the discussion turned towards the infamous hijacking of a destroyer by an allegedly defecting naval officer.

The back and forth became amusing when senior journalists turned to the naval officers to verify the stories they had heard — the uneasiness on the officer’s face was obvious. He tried covering it up with a forced smile, until a second officer spoke up, saying they had little knowledge of the incident as it was a matter of national security.

Hearing this, the journalists laughed and continued hypothesising about what might have happened on that fateful night.

Good times.

A sailor mans a post on PNS Zulfiquar.
A sailor mans a post on PNS Zulfiquar.

0900hrs: At the tactical school, Vice Admiral Hussaini spoke of the Navy’s professional abilities to safeguard the country’s trade ventures at sea.

He said the Pakistan Navy’s "balanced fleet" was capable of guarding trade via sea routes and along the coastal belt.

"Convey my message to my people and the government. You strengthen the CPEC, we are here to protect you," he told us.

We boarded PNS Zulfiquar, a part of the Navy’s newly-acquired arsenal in its quest to maintain dominance and conduct sea surveillance. The frigate is armed with surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles and also has torpedoes to engage and destroy enemy submarines.

In short, it is a complete package of maneuverability and battle-readiness when it comes to guarding the country’s coastline. We are all quite impressed.

The Radar systems mounted on the F-22P frigate PNS Zulfiquar.
The Radar systems mounted on the F-22P frigate PNS Zulfiquar.

1100hrs: The Navy had arranged a set of exercises to demonstrate their alertness and skill in the face of external threats.

These included a mock attack on PNS Zulfiquar by boat which, according to the officers on deck, was successfully thwarted as the approaching "enemy vessel" was "splashed" — Navy lingo for sinking the boat.

The next demonstration featured a Sea King helicopter and a group of commandos from the Naval Special Services Group.

The commandos dropped from the hovering chopper on to the ship’s flight deck and moved rapidly to capture the "human traffickers" on the ship.

The officers on deck again lauded the successful operation, stating that all targets were "neutralised".

Sea King helicopter and Naval SSG boat make approach towards PNS Zulfiquar.
Sea King helicopter and Naval SSG boat make approach towards PNS Zulfiquar.

1300hrs: Lunch was arranged inside the ship’s hangar; a three-course meal which had been prepared on the ship.

But a small discussion with the officers on deck revealed that they are not served a meal of this standard even once during their usual three-month long stay on board.

"Usually we have rice and lentils for days," said the lieutenant who I am not naming — because I don’t want to deprive him of getting some good food on board.

A view of Helicopter Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (HVBSS) demonstration.
A view of Helicopter Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (HVBSS) demonstration.

Following lunch, more than half of the journalist troupe hit the wardroom. Some had been feeling sea sick since the excursion started, and now a full stomach was compounding their drowsiness.

Others were fatigued after climbing up and down the comfortless ladders, shuttling between the different decks of the frigate.

This gave me time to interact with the naval officers manning the decks, who had their own stories to tell — stories far removed from the general perception we have of our armed forces personnel.

SSG-Navy commandos drop down on the deck to perform a HVBSS demonstration.
SSG-Navy commandos drop down on the deck to perform a HVBSS demonstration.

They told me about not being able to see their families for months, being unable to take part in any events taking place back home. An officer said he wasn’t getting married despite family pressure because he thought it unjust for his would-be-wife to stay alone at home, while he was at sea for months at a time.

There were officers who had missed the births of their children.

But the most disturbing narratives were of those who missed their parents’ funerals and now carried that burden with them.

These men are brave, to say the least. They don’t complain about the rigours of their job, embracing their responsibilities with open arms and smiling faces.

All they ask is that people remember them not only for taking a lion’s share of the budget, but also for giving up their families and risking their lives for their people.

A Naval SSG commando.
A Naval SSG commando.

1600hrs: The ship was making its way back to the port.

Karachi was not too far and the Arabian Sea was slowly losing its intense blue colour. Seen from the sea, Karachi looks like a smudge of dark smoke on an otherwise clear horizon.

The tips of the gigantic cranes at Karachi port appeared slowly, followed by high-rise buildings stretching up out of the commercial hub.

As we entered the port, officers and sailors on board the ship saluted another ship, fuelled and ready to sail at the docks.

A female naval officer explained that as it was a commissioned ship, they saluted it.

I’m glad the Air Force and Army men didn’t "commission" their assets because it would have looked so odd — uniformed men saluting aircraft flying above or tanks marching on the highway.

Karachi looks like a smudge of dark smoke on an otherwise clear horizon.
Karachi looks like a smudge of dark smoke on an otherwise clear horizon.

With PNS Zulfiquar safely docked, the journalists who had gone into hibernation started to emerge.

As our day on board the naval frigate came to an end, and we were disembarking, we met an officer who accompanied us on the trip.

I asked, "Where have you been?", since the officer had boarded the ship but was nowhere to be seen after that.

The reply: "I was sleeping in the cabin since I get sea sick." A sea sick naval officer, I mused, just irony or an oxymoron?


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.