It was August 1965. My family lived in the army cantonment of Ferozepur, Punjab, in northern India. I was 10 years old when the war between India and Pakistan began. The 2nd Mountain Brigade based in Ferozepur was deployed to the Khem Karan sector, north east of Ferozepur. My father, an army major, was serving as a company commander in the Corps of Signals. He was ordered to move to the front with his regiment while my mother, my younger brother and I with the rest of the families, stayed on in the cantonment. We saw the army convoys moving and infantry marching out. We could hear boots crunching on the road outside our house as soldiers marched late into the night.
The school that my brother and I attended had to be shut down when a bomb fell in its compound, dug a big hole but did not explode. I remember getting a quick glance of the bomb site.
The army cantonment was just 5 miles from the border and the front lines were perilously close. Artillery fire and anti-aircraft guns were heard continuously and well into the night. Always used to sleeping separately, my brother and I now huddled up to my mother in her bed. The pounding of the shells nearby and the fighter jets criss-crossing in the skies above were very scary. The cantonment had turned very quiet with almost all men gone to the front. My father’s new home was a front-line trench. We were allotted a stay-in home guard. He was a slight man and did not do much to assuage our fears but he was around and did his best.
As the artillery fire and the pounding of shells intensified, my mother and other ladies, fearing for our safety began contemplating evacuation to a safer place. One morning, a gun-mounted Jeep arrived at our gate. We could see it had come from the war front. The driver handed a letter that my father sent to my mother. While he did that, my brother and I out of curiosity, went to the other side of vehicle and found an officer half lying in the front seat with his eyes closed. To our horror we recognised him as our family friend Lieutenant Hunt, our favourite Hunt uncle as we called him. He was a tall handsome man and served under my father as the platoon commander. He had taken a few bullets and was being rushed in my father’s Jeep to the hospital. The driver had stopped on the way to give the letter. We were shocked and numbed with fright. It was our first hand experience of war!
Early one morning around 5 a.m., we woke up to loud banging and screaming at our front door. It was our next door neighbour with her baby held close. She was hysterical and had come running in her night clothes. She could not stand the pounding of the shells any more. My mother decided instantly that it was time to move. We had friends working at the Nestle factory in Moga, a town which was a further 30 miles away from the border. Although it was still in the vulnerable zone, it was further from the border and safer. The officials of Nestle had offered to help with the evacuation. My mother called them and two days later a pick up truck arrived. Five families put their immediate belongings into it and arrangements were made to form a convoy and leave.
My mother was driving very nervously as the roads were very dangerous. There were three other cars with wives and children and so our convoy of four cars and the small truck with some belongings set off for Moga. The road was very narrow and the surface extremely bumpy. We were given instructions about what to do if we encountered army trucks or saw fighter planes overhead. We had barely driven 5 miles, when we heard two enemy bomber jets approaching from behind. My mother immediately swerved the car off the road. A little faster and it would have overturned. We jumped out of the cars and lay down flat on the ground to avoid shrapnel if a bomb was dropped. What was an hour’s trip took us almost three hours as we had to stop and dive several more times.
The bombers, US made F-104 Sabre jets that the Pakistani Air Force used, circled above us in a dog fight before being driven back by the Indian Air Force Gnat fighters. The danger was that Pakistani pilots often dropped bombs wherever they could, ignoring civilian areas, to complete their sortie. Full precautions, therefore, had to be taken.
|My father in front of a captured tank
We were housed first in the Nestle factory guest house in Moga. It was quite nice and for us kids (six of us about the same age), it was time of great excitement. After two days we were moved into a large mansion that had been lying vacant further inside the town. The factory was a bombing target so it was unsafe to stay there. Pakistani infiltrators pointed their powerful flash lights on the targets during night bombing raids. Almost every night we saw these lights flashed on the factory.
The kids were put to work to dig a deep trench in the house compound. It took us almost three days to get it ready. Air raid sirens would go off night and day and we would have to run into the trench and cover our heads. Some of the ladies could not reach the trench before the planes arrived and had to fall flat wherever they were. We saw fire flashes in the distance where bombs fell or planes were brought down. Some times, at breakfast which we had in the garden we ignored the sirens and watched the planes circling above while eating bread and condensed milk. At night, there was curfew and blackout all around. Candles were allowed but only for short periods. Every evening, the ladies would sing bhajans (Indian hymns) for the safety of their husbands.
We did get intermittent visits from our dads from the front. Once, my father had come for a few hours on a big gun-mounted jeep. He had a scratch on his forehead. When asked what that was, he said a bullet had grazed past. As we worried, the chants of scriptures and singing of hymns grew louder in the evening candlelight, despite the curfew!
Animesh Basu lives in Cambourne, Cambridge, UK