A soldier’s Eid: Away from family and in the face of death

Published: October 27, 2012
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It was then that I felt a sudden impulse to call my family; I wanted to listen to my little angle’s voice once before I left her. PHOTO: REUTERS

I am Gunner Fazal Mehmood, currently serving in a medium regiment artillery located at a peaceful location. It is 0400 hours, the first day of Eidul Azha and while lying on my charpoy I am thinking about the last night – it is the third consecutive Eid that I will be spending away from my family.

I don’t know why, but I am constantly reminded of a similar chaand raat which I had spent along with my family back in Bahawalpur a few years ago. All the luminosity, crowd and chanting at the Meena bazaar near our house constantly reminded me of my baby girl‘s face which was so cheerful because she was to wear her new cloths on Eid which I had bought her. I also remember going to the bazaar with my family to get my wife’s palms henna-stained and fetch the last minute make-up items.

I have always been annoyed by these last minute touch ups our ladies have gotten so used to. Apparently when they have already bought everything they are to adorn on Eid, I fail to understand why there still is a persistent moaning. They say things like:

“Hey, I forgot to get a new hairband for Aisha.”

“Oho, mujhy tu abhi yaad aya hai, dupatay ki peeko tu karwaye he nahi.”

(Oh, I just recalled, I had to get my dupatta stitched.)

“Sirf 10 minute lagay gain, bus matching chooriyan laini hain.”

(Just ten more minutes, I need to get matching bangles.)

All I end up saying is:

“Okay, I’ll take you, but what exactly were you doing for last seven days when I have been taking you out on my motorcycle?”

Now I guess it probably had to something with the sheer joy of spending time together, rather than actually purchasing the items.

I think it is this feeling that haunts me right now.

The army has done a good job at letting our families feel the same way by arranging Meena bazaars and chand raat shows inside the cantonments. I believe fauji chand raats are better than the others.

You get most of the edibles for free (though officers have to pay for them). Bangles, henna, and other related stuff is cheaper – thanks to the General Officer Commanding (GOC) and the Commanding Officer (CO) sahib for subsidising them. Just yesterday a retired colonel of my unit donated Rs50,000 as eidi to my unit.

Most important of all, there are no oglers at loose.

I didn’t get to enjoy chaand raat this time, since I was busy guarding the venue and other military installations (only family members are normally allowed). Anyways, as I yet have to shave, change, and reach the regiment fall-in due at 0500 hours, I must hurry.

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At the fall-in, those ─ including myself ─ who were relieved from duty at 0200 hours the previous night, and thus according to Army’s calculations had received their night’s rest, replaced those who were on duty since 0400 hours (these guys might just be able to join Eid prayers). I was ordered to the guard the mosque when Eid prayers were  to be held. After a quick breakfast, I reached my new place of duty, the outer cordon, and I found myself with this police chap whom, I know, also has a similar story to tell.

After we had discussed our area of responsibility and took our posts, we were left with a gap of approximately 10 metres between us, which, of course didn’t deter us from developing a conversation. He told me how he was patrolling along with his DSP till four in the morning, and yet he is here guarding the mosque. Upon this I had nothing to say but praise the military’s system of man-management.

Anyway, Eid was up and running when after the prayers everybody greeted each other. I did the same to the policeman with those 10 meters still between us, and then I was ordered straight to the ammunition bunkers. At the ammunition storage, I was scanning the horizon with my binoculars when I saw a military vehicle speeding towards me.

“Aye tey CO saab da tota lagda aye!”, the other sentry announced.

(It looks like CO’s Toyota RMR)

“Look sharp, look sharp!” roared the NCO, as he sprung off his camp stool.

Before I could settle my beret, the Jeep was on me.

Out came my CO, carrying a colourful packet in his hands. Handing over the packet to the Non-commissioned Officer (NCO), he greeted Eid to all, gave us a small motivational lecture and passed some instructions to the NCO. While he was leaving for the next post, I was thinking about the sweets in the packet and feeling alive from the hug that I had just received from my commander – though for a short while, I was no more bothered by the thoughts of my family.

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It was 1200 hours and I was finally back in my barrack preparing to attend the bara khaana (special lunch for occasions like Eid). This time I was off-duty and those who attended the Eid prayers stood sentry. I had adorned the white shalwar kameez my wife had sent me.

These days you don’t get to watch TV that often since the army’s employment has increased manifold. Consequentially, while sitting inside the ante-room we were arguing over the channel to be viewed when someone announced that the Brigade Commander would be joining us at lunch – our unit was the farthest from his command and thus he had decided to spend his Eid with us.

Man, this was my lucky day!

Back at home we were in conflict with this guy and his sons over a small piece of land that belonged to us. When his threats failed to have the desired effects, he did what Pakistani villagers do ─ indicted my brother in a false FIR. The police had been bothering us since then.

I had already posted my application to the Brigade Commander, but now I would be able to explain my case and hand him over the application in person. Rehearsing what I would be telling the commander, I was forced to think how many other institutions allow such easy access to senior when it comes to welfare.

At the bara khaana most of the unit, including the officers, was present. The food was good and the casual chit chat with the officers reminded me once again that it was Eid. The Commander also gave eidi to the youngest soldier, which didn’t amuse me as I was still thinking about my family.

After the lunch, I was back in uniform and ready to move out for firing practice, when we were told that it has been cancelled – after all it was Eid day! So I sank into my charpoy with my boots still on and drifted into thoughts.

Staring at the wooden ceiling, I was arguing with myself about this Eid being better than the one when I was deployed at the border. There, things were not different than what I had done today, except that right after the morning fall-in, the observer reported about tank movement in our sector and I had to spend the rest of the Eid day manning my gun and preparing ammunition.

It was not until the next morning that I was reminded that the day I had spent relaying my gun and cleaning grease over the rounds was Eid. Better still, at least this time around I was inside a cantonment where I saw real people enjoying the colours of Eid. Right about then I was reminded of my days in Special Services Group (SSG). Life was tougher and more unpredictable back then. I remembered the day General Headquarters (GHQ) was attacked.

We were having tea break in the soldiers’ mess made, feasting on pakoras and namak paras when we were told of the attack.

“You’ve got five minutes to get your gear and find me at the em-busing (the point were you get on the bus) point. Operation type will be room clearance (hostage rescue). Detailed orders en route!” announced our squad leader, as he sputtered out the piece of pakora that was bothering him during the phone call which informed him of the attack.

Soon I was sitting behind that five-tonne Hino truck adjusting the sites of my modified SMG Chinese. I was aware that by the time this operation ends, some of us may not live to see the next day. Cognizant of the fact that the moment you kick that door and enter the terrorist stronghold, you will draw enemy fire in a fight that will only last for a split second, the enemy will have a room to displace itself, I on the other hand will be standing inside a 3-feet-wide door frame.

It was then that I felt a sudden impulse to call my family; I wanted to listen to my little angel’s voice once before I left her.

Nah!

You know you can’t do that.

Instead, you think of your family and try to gather courage from the thought that you are doing it for them and many others like them.

Next, you totally forget them and simply reject every other thought expect those involving your entry into the stronghold and the uncertainty and fog that shall follow it.

That day, when the operation ended, two of my friends who were having pakoras with me a few hours ago, were resting in body bags; a few others were clinging to their lives at CMH Rawalpindi.

But hey, we did rescue the hostages!

Just about then came the rude awakening; I was to stand guard once this short lull is over and with this I snapped out of my reverie, my jaws clenched and fists tightened. We succeeded on October 10, 2009, but will I prevail again if I stand guard engrossed in my thoughts feeling dejected because my family is away on this Eid?

What if I am yet again in a situation where I might not survive to see tomorrow?

What if these thoughts instead of giving me strength became my weakness?

Would I be able to play my part effectively before I breathe my last?

What if I couldn’t do what I was trained for; am I burdening this nation so that I can whine over an Eid day?

These questions gave me shivers.

“No!” screamed my brain as I stood up with a pounding heart.

This will never happen on my watch! I shall stand sentry with all the vigil I can gather with a unified aim in my mind that no chump can get past me without Gunner Fazal seriously interfering with his designs!

For every possibility and any contingency that the enemy may throw at me, I must remain steadfast and should give my undivided attention to the task at hand.

The thought that my family and yours enjoyed their Eid, is an Eid in itself for soldiers like me. This Eid and the others that soldiers like myself had spent away from their families is very small a price that we pay in return of the love and respect that we receive from you people, and the comfort we get in the thought that as we stand guard, other Pakistanis can treasure moments with their families.

With this, I picked up my G-3 as the dusk marked the end of 1432nd Eidul Azha.

While I checked my magazine for bullets I hear someone asking “Who are you?”

As I walk towards my post, I murmured:

“I am a proud son of the soil; I am a proud soldier of Pakistan Army!”

Read more by Asad here.

Asad K

Asad K

A federal government employee who blogs at xerics.blogspot.com/ and is part of the think-tank force at defence.pk

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.