The crisp morning air in Quetta crackled with excitement. For several days, rumours had been circulating among the army children that their fathers would soon be deployed on board a mammoth C-130 cargo plane.
Their mothers, however, did not seem to share their enthusiasm.
In fact, the children noted that they were all behaving rather oddly, and many of them had hidden their faces behind large, dark sunglasses to keep their husbands from seeing their tears.
One of them, a 30-year-old woman, battled conflicting emotions as she put on a brave face for her husband despite knowing his chances of returning were slim. This woman was my dadi.
Among the children gathered were my father, then six years old, and my two aunts who were five and seven. The year was 1965 and, unbeknownst to most kids at the airport, their country was on the brink of a major war.
Most of the smartly suited men they had come to see off would return in coffins.
At that point, my father and his siblings were used to my grandfather’s routine deployments. Any prospects of missing their father’s company were diminished by regular communication through written letters.
It was only later that they discovered my grandfather had written one letter for each day he thought he would be away, well in advance, to give the impression that he was still alive and well.
Otherwise, their lives carried on as usual; the only difference was that schools closed early. Their boredom was often alleviated by racing each other to the trenches when the air raid sirens rang. Childhood bliss meant they were ignorant of the fact that the sirens signalled the looming threat of being bombed.
On the other hand, army wives found themselves struggling, as previously their daily routines had revolved around their husbands. Nights that were previously spent dolled up on the arms of their husbands at gala dinners in the mess hall were now spent huddled around the radio with other army wives. They waited with bated breath to hear news from the frontlines.
During this time, the battle-hardened wives of senior officers became a pillar of strength for the younger women. Duas were prescribed by them like medicine and passed around like contraband.
‘Shaheed’ was a word my father often heard in hushed whispers during those days, but he did not fully comprehend the weight that title carried. One night, the 9pm radio broadcast mentioned the name of someone familiar: his neighbour Major Ziauddin Abbasi (after whom Karachi’s Abbasi Shaheed Hospital is named).
The transmission was interrupted by a wail that arose from their neighbouring bungalow. His young wife had become a widow not even a year into her marriage.
At the tender age of six, my father realised that there was a very real possibility that his father might not return and, as custom dictated, he would become responsible for the wellbeing of his mother and sisters.
From then onwards, the evening radio announcements were regularly punctuated with screams of anguish from nearby.
The mood in the usually lively cantonment became sombre and morose. The letters filled with childish drawings and fairytales stopped coming.
To add to my grandmother’s woes, my youngest aunt developed a bout of persistent high-grade fever. A nearby military hospital diagnosed her with tuberculous meningitis.
Treatment at the time was an antibiotic injection given every six hours for two months. The war had sucked most of the cantonment’s resources, and going to the hospital meant walking there on foot.
Undeterred, my grandmother made the journey daily until the soles of her only pair of shoes were worn out.
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Emotionally and mentally exhausted by my aunt’s illness, and by the prospect of her husband not returning anytime soon, my grandmother contacted her brother, a colonel, for support. He travelled to Quetta to take his sister and her family with him to his residence in Wah Cantonment.
As fate would have it, upon reaching Wah my grandmother’s brother was also summoned to the border.
Fortunately, her cousin also happened to live in Wah and he opened his doors for both families. However, the war was at its peak and resources were slim. Tensions flared between the three families living in close quarters, and the children were often told off for eating more than their portions.
Eventually, a ceasefire was declared and my grandfather sent a telegram from the border informing his family that he had been awarded the third-highest military award, the Sitara-i-Jurat (Star of Courage)
My grandfather was given the award by General Ayub Khan on March 23, 1966. This was the first military parade since the war had ended, and patriotism was at an all-time high. My father and his sisters sang and cheered until their voices were hoarse, and the army wives beamed with pride as medals were bestowed upon their husbands.
However, the mood soon turned bittersweet as the names of the martyrs were announced. Their widows and families, all dressed in white, sat separately in a big white tent.
Patriotic songs and cheers were masked by the sounds of burly soldiers sobbing for their lost comrades-in-arms, widows for their brave husbands and orphans for their fathers, as their posthumous honours were announced.
Often, the valour and bravery of our soldiers overshadows the experiences and difficulties their families go through while they are away.
The psychological pain and trauma inflicted on their loved ones can last a lifetime. In fact, my grandmother suffered a back-to-back nervous breakdown after the war. Even at the age of 85, she finds it difficult to talk about those conflict-ridden years.
My father and aunts frequently lament that they did not get to spend sufficient time with their father as children. To this day, my father carries the burden of the war years on his shoulders.
Nowadays, we tend to have a romanticised view of the war which is often magnified by blockbuster movies and nationalistic war anthems.
But as someone who has seen some of the consequences, war is not something that should be glorified and soldiers and their families should not be used as pawns for political gain.
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