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VIEWS FROM A COUP

Army men climb over the main gate of the PTV Center in Islamabad on October 12, 1999
Army men climb over the main gate of the PTV Center in Islamabad on October 12, 1999
A takeover of national media is one of the first priorities of any rebellion.
Updated October 13, 2019

On October 13, 1999 most dailies including Dawn prominently carried a photo of army soldiers climbing over the main gate of the PTV headquarters in Islamabad. A takeover of national media is one of the first priorities of any rebellion and that photograph became a defining image of the October 12 coup. The day prior, as the nation looked towards the state broadcaster for updates, PTV staffers, including Fahd Husain, the then editor of an under-development project at PTV, found themselves at the centre of the action. Eos asked Husain some questions about the historic incident that is still etched in his memory.

How well do you remember the scenes from that day?

Even though this was 20 years ago, I still remember the events from October 12 as clear as day. I was sitting at my ground floor office that overlooked the main gate of the PTV Centre. I first knew something was amiss when an anchor took to the airwaves to break the news about PM Nawaz Sharif replacing the Chief of the Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf with Lt Gen Ziauddin Butt. Even though this was a shocking development, it still felt like the calm before the storm.

I knew that history was unfolding before my eyes, but I could not have seen what came next.

When did you first encounter armed men in the building?

I was seeing the scenes on the television and pacing the length of my office. Suddenly I looked outside and saw about two dozen armed soldiers rushing into the driveway. They passed by my window and ran towards the main entrance. I raced to the corridor to see what was happening.

When I got to the lobby, I saw soldiers quickly marching up the stairs. Even though I could hear the commotion upstairs, I could not go up. Two guards with automatic weapons firmly stopped me from moving.

When did the channel go off-air?

I went back into the office because I couldn't go upstairs. On the television in the office, I saw that the PTV screen had gone black. Remember, this was before the advent of private channels - which ironically happened during the Musharraf era. Back then, blocking the state broadcaster truly meant blacking out all broadcast news.

And then there was a counter-move from civilians?

Yes. Everything moved so swiftly from here on. From my window, I saw 20 policemen jump out of jeeps. A dozen other men in plainclothes came out of another vehicle. One of the men was the prime minister's personal guard. Leading them was the military secretary of the prime minister, who was holding a pistol in his hand. The cops and bodyguards soon entered the building. I saw an opportunity and ran towards the lobby through the corridor, only to land straight in the middle of the action. The cops and bodyguards had surrounded the soldiers. The soldiers, who were outnumbered, were dragged to another room.

At this point did you rush back to your office?

No, I instead chose to walk to the end of the corridor and saw that the back staircase was unguarded. I got to the first floor and just followed the noise to where the action was. While I knew it would not be pleasant, I had no idea what I was walking into. I hope I never witness anything like this again.

As soon as I entered the 20-feet corridor on the first floor, I found that on my left were a dozen soldiers aiming their guns in my direction. One of them was lying on the floor with a tripod-mounted machine gun. On my right, the policemen and guards were aiming their weapons back at the soldiers. And there I was, right in the line of fire. I took a step back.

How long did the stand-off last?

I'm not quite sure how long it continued, but I remember feeling like time was standing still. Then suddenly, the deafening shouting between the two groups stopped. A major, who was leading the soldiers, lowered his gun and instructed his men to stand down.

The policemen and guards disarmed the soldiers and locked them in a room. Soon, the policemen and guards had taken back control of the building. PTV came back on-air. And I walked into a news manager's office where I was joined by some senior government officials.

At this stage did people outside know what was unfolding at the PTV Centre?

Some foreign channels had run news that something was happening inside the PTV Centre. They, of course, did not have the complete details yet. But crowds were gathering outside the building.

This, of course, was not the end of it. What happened later that day?

No, it wasn't, events took another turn as evening approached. A line of army trucks surrounded the building. The army men climbed the sealed main gate and entered the headquarters. More commotion followed as they ran towards the studio area. These soldiers had come prepared. They overwhelmed the policemen and guards with their force. After a brief stand-off, the policemen and guards laid down their weapons.

Everyone knew who was in charge. Soon Pervez Musharraf would make it official. At 2.45 am he gave his first address to the nation on PTV.



CLICK TO CONTINUE READING: It's been 20 years since Pakistan's last formal military coup on October 12, 1999. With many still enamoured of the supposed quick-fix of military rule, Eos looks back at how much Gen Musharraf actually managed to achieve from his initial seven-point reform agenda