Found this interesting story of Pakistani POWs of the 1971 Indo-Pak war who were kept at the Agra Central Jail’s camp 44. Unfortunately, not many Pakistanis know what hardships our military-men underwent during the imprisonment in India. Many even don’t know that Pakistani soldiers were killed cold-bloodedly, India violated blatantly Geneva conventions while our governments (both civil and military) failed to pursue these cases. The story was written by Brigadier (R) Mehboob Qadir and appeared in the Daily Times in December 2011.
Mehboob Qadir: By January 1972, our plan to escape from the Agra Central Jail that was refitted as PoW (prisoner of war) Camp 44 had been finalised. To escape from the PoW camp is the duty of every captured soldier and to stop him the right of the captor. What happens in that little battle of wits and guts is a given accepted by both parties to the conflict, which includes blood and gore. By April we were quite advanced in digging a tunnel that was to pass under the huge inner and outer walls, surfacing a few yards beyond but for a catastrophic accident. Just after the first wall, water began to slowly dribble into the tunnel from its ceiling and before we knew it the tunnel on the other side of the wall collapsed as the soil was unfortunately terribly sandy. We were later told that there was a small used water pond overground on the other side that seeped down and killed the plan. It took them very little time and a lot of anxiety to single out our barrack that conceived and executed the escape plot.
We became kind of instant celebrities and objects of curiosity simultaneously. Here was a real life escape attempt by the prisoners of war; therefore, officers, families and children began to visit and chatted excitedly about the adventure. Although we may have been despised a bit at that time, there quietly walked in a soothing whiff of sanity and a lurking longing about our own folks. Except a stealthy, hesitant waving of hands here and there to an irresistibly lovely child, we were careful not to spoil their fun. We were locked up in any case. Misery is not always physical; it can be infinitely more painful when emotional. Hatred like any other ecstasy does not normally last long, its scars do.
Shortly, the entire barrack — about 30 of us — were marched out to death row cells in a different compound and sentenced to solitary confinement for three months. This was a unique experience: ugly, terribly oppressive, and extremely taxing. The incubators were a regulation eight feet long, about as much high and four feet wide. The door was a block of heavy iron plate with a small sliding window, both bolted from outside. A hole with metal grill near the ceiling was, I guess, a ventilator. A water pitcher and an open native bed pan at the end of the cemented bed served as a toilet. Summers were at their peak in Agra, temperatures raging anything up to 110 to120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sizzling heat, incessant sweating and huge swarms of mosquitoes soon turned us into walking dummies full of all kinds of sores, bites and scars. I had never seen prickly heat the size of a pea before. Our responses to smell, pain, hunger and sleep withered away beyond a certain point some weeks into the confinement. We were let out for 10 minutes each in the morning and evening to go to the community toilets where all pretensions of privacy got effectively dismantled.
In those dreadful dungeons, the only ray of kindness was a Hindu Duty Havaldar who would throw in a toffee, a candy or some such thing through the window and mutter softly a few words of sympathy and solace. May that noble man’s goodness be rewarded and his bliss increased manifold.
We kept steaming in that swelter in filth and privation and knew it was part of the package, therefore no complaints were made. Then one day it was announced that we had been declared the ‘Most Dangerous PoWs’ and were to be shifted by rail to Camp 95 Ranchi in Bihar. Ranchi was a British-era Cantonment located among lush green tea gardens. The journey was to take three days and three nights. Major Naseebullah was from the seniors barrack; he made a great effort and succeeded in getting himself included in the transfer list. A Kashmiri and Special Services Group (SSG) officer, he just had a handbag and a small pocketbook with a photograph of his wife and lovely children. He was very fond of them and talked about them with deep affection. Basically, he was a very cheerful and restless man. Shortly before departure he had started to offer prayers regularly as it seemed to make him at peace with himself in an imperceptible way. Sadly, he was not to reach Ranchi alive.
The day we were to leave for Ranchi, a row erupted. We refused to be handcuffed and shackled before departure to the railway station. Finally, we agreed to be handcuffed two together and that could be hidden easily while walking out of trucks to the railway compartment. We hid our prized possession: a broken steel cutting file carelessly discarded by some workman while the jail was being refitted for the PoWs. Captain Shujaat Latif and I were handcuffed together; we were also course mates. This man Shujaat was made of pure mercury, fearless, eruptive and utterly restless but awfully accident-prone. During the insurgency he surprised a Mukti position across a small river when he suddenly charged with his LMG blazing over the bridge and straight into their strong point that was holding up his unit’s advance. The moment we stepped into the train, we began to figure out an escape plan and soon finalised it. It was simple but workable.
Ours was a third class compartment with barred windows normally meant for female passengers in the subcontinent, and had a washroom at one end, with passenger doors opening on either side of the passage. The guards had planted themselves in that passage. It looked like a Sikh Para Battalion Guard and their compartment was right next door. We had decided to file our handcuff chains, turn by turn, with the broken iron saw and in the next step to saw off an end each of the two lower bars of the window farthest from the guard so that one could slide through the gap easily. We had found out the first night that the guard would do the last head count by about 10 pm and then huddle in the passage for the night till the morning roll call. That meant we could have six to seven hours of darkness available for the escape. Everyone wanted to leave first, therefore, lists had to be drawn. Shujaat turned out to be the first to go and I had to be the next to jump. Major Naseebullah was handcuffed alone and his turn was somewhere in the middle. We decided that the escape attempt would be made the third night as most of the handcuff chains would be sheered by then and we would be somewhere in Bihar where one could possibly merge in the mixed population reasonably, we guessed.
By the third night we were still short of Banaras (Varanasi). Just as the nightly headcount ended the train began to slow down as if on cue. Quickly we flexed the weakened link and pulled the window bars inwards. Shujaat slid out and soon was gone into the night. As I prepared to slide out, the train began to pick up speed and for the next two hours or so made it at a fast pace. Suddenly the Guard Commander appeared in the passageway walking up towards us, possibly on a hunch. We sank into our seats feigning sleep. Major Naseebullah moved closer to me to show that we were handcuffed together. It turned out to be a snap count as he switched on the bogey lights. He counted once, then again and the third time by touching each head physically. There was one less, he could not believe. Quickly he went to the guard passage. The guard stood to, their weapons pointed at us. Recount began; again there was one missing. The train was stopped at the next station. The Train Adjutant and the Subedar Major came in to count for themselves. By then they were sure that a prisoner of war (PoW) had escaped but the question was how? They thought that the one handcuffed alone must have been the one who got away. Every place under the seats, in the toilet, along the walls of the compartment and its floor was checked looking for the escape hatch but in vain.
It was full daylight and the train was parked at a deserted platform when a Sikh Para Soldier walked up to our window and said, “You people do not let an opportunity go, now why do you not tell us how he escaped?” We kept quiet and prayed hard as he had placed his hand on a bar just above the ones that we had sheered and pushed back in place. Disappointed he turned to go when his hand brushed over the loosened bar. Instantly he turned and pulled the suspect bar, which gave way easily. Soon an officer arrived. Myself and Major Naseebullah were asked to stand up. My sheered handcuff and the dangling chain was enough evidence to show my complicity. I was promptly handcuffed afresh to the iron leg of the seat, hunched up like a pet on the floor. We could see a sort of Para Guard War Council in session at the other end of the platform but could not make out what was being discussed so heatedly.
By the evening the train began to chug out of the platform on its way to Ranchi. This time the sentries were not taking any chances. A few hours into the night a sentry walked up to me and asked if I wanted to go to the washroom. I did want to, more for the very uncomfortable position that I was chained in. Major Naseebullah intervened and insisted to go first. After an unusual haggling the guard agreed. As Major Naseeb turned right in the far end of the passage towards the toilet, we heard a distinct weapon cocking sound followed by Major Naseeb shouting: “What are you doing?” The guard fired a burst from his automatic weapon. Whistles were blown, the train slowly came to a halt and then began to reverse. After some time Major Naseebullah’s dead body was brought in. He had received nine bullets in his chest from a very close range and the impact must have thrown him out of the door, possibly, kept open for just such a thing. That is perhaps what the Council of War was about.
By morning the next day we reached Ranchi Camp. After a few days Shujaat joined us in a terribly bashed up shape but unbroken in spirit. His nose fractured, a few front teeth gone, a foot in plaster and awful bruises all over the body. As he jumped out, his big toe tangled in the low running signal cable, his head hit the rail track and he passed out. Locals found him and handed him over to the police. The story in the newspapers said two Pakistani PoWs attempted to escape from the train, one was captured and the other got killed. Quite understandable. Since the start of the war this was the fourth time I survived purely by chance. I carried his bag and pocketbook to Pakistan.