Written by Sunniya Ahmad Pirzada, Al Jazeera
[A daughter's tribute to the father who never recovered from his war wounds]
“Doctors filled his file with words like Dementia, Alzheimer's and Schizophrenia. Our lives were measured out in what, for want of a clearer diagnosis, we would just call his 'episodes'.”
This is a story I've wanted to tell for a long time. I've carried it with me my whole life, in fact. And yet I'd never found the words or the time, or perhaps the courage, to commit it to paper. Doing so now has required me to chip away at notions of privacy and pride – the ones that tell you family hardships ought to be kept quiet lest your neighbours hear of them – that I never even knew I held.
Naeem was born to a middle class Pakistani family in what was then the walled city of Lahore on January 26, 1946. He was the second of three siblings, and the only boy. During his school and college days, he developed a reputation as an avid sportsman and a daredevil with a sometimes unnerving love for speed.
After graduating, my father was commissioned into the Pakistani army. It was June 1968. He joined a non-fighting arm that was tasked with supplying ammunition to those in combat. When a war of liberation began in what was then known as East Pakistan and now as Bangladesh in 1971, my father was deployed to an ordnance depot there. The conflict was brutal, with atrocities committed by each side. "Basically, the Bengalis killed us and we killed them," Rehman, now a retired brigadier, tells me, although the stories he shares suggest horrors that simple sentence cannot convey. Then on December 3, 1971, India entered the conflict on the side of the Bangladeshi nationalist forces. The ensuing Indo-Pak War lasted just 13 days.
On December 16, 1971, the Pakistan Armed Forces Eastern Command surrendered.
But for my father, the war was just beginning. He was asked to transport a convoy of ammunition to Dhaka, about 50km to the south of his base. But his Officer in Command had little grasp of the geography of the region and sent my father and his convoy in the wrong direction. By the time Naeem realised they were heading north instead of south, the convoy had already entered dense forest. It was there that they were ambushed by Indian paratroopers, an elite group of soldiers, led by Major Raj Pal.
A gun battle ensued, and much to the surprise of the Indian soldiers, the 150 non-combat troops my father led put up a fierce fight. By the time the shooting came to an end, three hours after it had begun, 64 Pakistanis and 26 Indians had been killed. Impressed by his bravery, the Indian troops had been ordered to capture my father alive. Major Raj Pal was later reported to have said: "We were informed that these were ordnance troops, but the way they fought was on par with trained infantry personnel."