A daughter’s tribute to the father who never recovered from his war wounds
Sunniya Ahmad Pirzada*
*The author is a journalist at Al Jazeera English and can be reached on Twitter @SunniyaPirzada
“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.
And now, as I write it, I realise that the story I thought I had to tell wasn’t as I’d imagined it at all. For what started as an attempt to share the life story of my late father, Major Naeem Ahmad, became the beginning of my own journey to truly understand the man who continues to shape my life in so many ways, big and small.
But, for now, I’ll start at the beginning.
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.
At the prestigious Government College University Lahore he was a member of the rowing and swimming teams. So impressive were his sporting feats that, 30 years after graduating, he was able to secure my oldest brother’s admission there purely on the basis of that reputation. In welcoming my brother, the college principal told my father: “We have had millions walk through these college gates but very few leave a mark like you; your photos still hang in our main hall.”
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. After passing through the Pakistan Military Academy, he was sent to Karachi for further training. It was there he met Lieutenant Khalil-ur-Rehman, a man who would become one of his dearest friends and who now says of their relationship: “Destiny brought us together.”
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.
But as a non-combat soldier, my father saw little of that. He was responsible for transporting ammunition and would often drive the train that delivered it himself. Later on, he’d proudly tell his children that he had driven just about everything there was to drive and only regretted never having piloted a plane or a helicopter.
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.”
The Unknown Soldier
But my father had been severely wounded. A mortar shell had grazed his left shoulder; its splinters damaging his left thumb and index finger and several pieces entering his left cheek. A bullet was lodged in his left shin and he’d lost all vision in his left eye. But the most serious damage was that done to his brain. We’d only realise the extent of it many years later when a CT scan revealed hundreds of pieces of embedded shrapnel.
He was unconscious so an Indian soldier drove him to a military hospital in Dhaka, where his bloodied uniform had to be cut from his ravaged body. There he waited 24 hours for surgery, as even more serious cases were rushed through before him.
Unable to speak or open his eyes, and with his face swollen beyond recognition, his identity remained unknown. Thus, for a fortnight, until he was recognised by a colleague, then Captain Naeem Ahmad was listed as Missing in Action. Assuming the worst, his friends went to pay their condolences to his parents, who, in turn, refused to give up hope that their son would return alive.
Although stationed around 20km apart, Naeem and Rehman had been able to meet up regularly during much of their time in Bangladesh, exchanging clothes Rehman had purchased and eggs my father had haggled for, with no thought of owing each other a rupee for the goods. But in the chaos of the last days of war, they’d lost touch with one another.
Rehman had endured his own hardships. After spending seven days in a trench, he contracted Malaria and was sent to a military hospital. By pure chance, it happened to be the same place where my father was, his face still swollen beyond recognition by anybody but the closest of friends.
“It meant a great deal to me that I was there at that time, even if it was because I was suffering from Malaria,” Rehman says now. “Otherwise, I would only have met him again upon our return to Pakistan.”
Little did the two friends know then, but that day would come much later than they had imagined.
The prisoner of war
My father remained in hospital for eight months. And, upon being deemed well enough to leave, was sent to a prisoner of war camp in Bihar, India. He was transported there, along with other Pakistani soldiers, in a train boarded up with wooden planks intended to hide those inside from the angry mobs outside. But if the people who gathered along the railway track couldn’t see the men inside, it didn’t mean the POWs couldn’t hear the hate-filled slogans they shouted.
When my father disembarked at Camp 95 Ranchi he had nothing but the hospital clothes he wore. A fellow POW gave him some fabric from which he stitched his own trousers. It was a camp for officers, and for every four there was an orderly tasked with caring for them. But my father’s needs were greater than any orderly could cater to, so a campmate from the Army Medical Corp. kept a close eye on him over the months it took him to recuperate. As he grew stronger, my father, who was a deeply spiritual man with a strong belief in the power of prayer, began to teach the Quran to his fellow POWs.
Then, in February 1974, along with 93,000 other POWs who had been held by India, he was repatriated to Pakistan. But the country they returned to did not extend the welcome they had expected. The hostility was palpable. Pakistan had been shamed by its surrender and the reports of rape and mass murder attributed to some of its troops. Civilians would often question returning soldiers about their involvement in such atrocities. But those stories couldn’t have been further from my father’s experience of the war. Until the gun fight that caused his injuries, he hadn’t even had to use a weapon during that conflict.
Surely, though, if the general population was less than welcoming, the army would embrace its returning soldiers?
Not so, says Rehman. “An army whose top officials are all sent home on the same day is automatically shaken to its core …. There was a lack of leadership. They neither realised nor acknowledged what the POWs had been through in their two to three years of captivity.”
“We were all declared ‘black’ – meaning that we should be sent home and deemed not fit for service. It’s a global procedure that upon return you have to be questioned in order to eliminate any doubts about your possible loyalty towards the enemy. After further enquiry, your status might be changed to ‘white’ or ‘grey’.”
But their professional troubles ran deeper than this. “The support extended by the army and the government was almost non-existent,” Rehman says. “We should have been offered some monetary compensation that could have facilitated our rehabilitation. The army hadn’t drawn up a plan, [despite] knowing full well that all of these POWs would be returning and in need of practical help with housing and so on.”
Instead, the returning soldiers found that, while they’d been away, peers who hadn’t been captured had advanced their careers, usurping them in new skills, confidence and position. Many felt that there was little place left for them in an army that had – literally and otherwise – left them behind.
But for my father, his injuries added another layer of doubt and uncertainty. After he was debriefed, he was posted to Lahore on compassionate grounds so that he might be close to his family. It was during his medical assessment there that the bullet that had remained lodged in his shin for more than two years was removed.
A few months later, his condition was re-evaluated and he was declared 50 percent disabled due to the loss of vision in his left eye. It was a decision he challenged, with some success.
“Nobody realised how seriously he had been wounded, his medical history wasn’t sent with him,” explains Rehman, who remains angry about the situation his friend found himself in.
“The fact that this [the ambush and gun fight] happened after the Pakistan army had surrendered shows the brutal nature of that conflict,” he says, attributing blame to both the Pakistani army and the Indian one.
“It was a command failure; the command of the Pakistan army had been completely paralysed at that stage. The command was just ‘extricate yourself’. It was the last signal that was transferred from the Eastern Command. It was very clear that from then on we were on our own. There was no indication that the command was going to support us in terms of guiding troops towards a safe route [home].”
“A reasonable evacuation plan for our troops would have been planned and approved well in advance,” Rehman says, puzzled by why it was never implemented.
But, he adds, “I believe the Indians could have done more …. They should not have held him. What threat did a seriously wounded, completely unarmed, physically incapacitated soldier pose to the Indian army?”
“Had he been sent back to receive the medical care and attention he required, it may have reduced the amount of suffering he had to bear in the last 15 years of his life. Perhaps he could have been saved had he been sent to Pakistan and then abroad for the complex surgery he required.”
My father would most likely have had a more positive perspective on it all, such was his nature. He believed firmly in finding the joy in everything. And one of the things he threw himself into with his characteristic energy and enthusiasm upon his return was marriage.
Many of the returning men were quick to marry, Rehman explains. Perhaps it was a natural desire to build a future in the form of a family, to establish a new sense of normalcy, to find a place to belong.
Talks between my mother’s family and my father’s began in September 1975. They were married that December. My mother was just 19 and studying for her BA. My father was 29.
Rehman’s marriage followed soon after. In fact, the friends were married within two months of each other.
“I remember that when my marriage was being arranged, it was Naeem who resolved issues that arose during the talks between the two families. In fact, Naeem was at the forefront, while my own family took a backseat,” Rehman recalls.
And once the deal had been done and the marriage confirmed, it was my father who took Rehman to the tailors to get him fitted for his wedding suit.
Within two years of their wedding, my mother gave birth to their first child, and to my big brother, Zeeshan. I came along two years after that.
The early years of mine and Zeeshan’s childhood were filled with laughter and adventure. Our father would take us on long drives, boat trips and hikes. Our home was filled with the sound of him singing. He kept a notebook filled with the lyrics of his favourite songs from the time he was a POW and tried to infuse me with the same musical spirit, urging me to “sing it with passion, sing it like you can feel it, sing it from your heart”. It may have been a lost cause but my father didn’t believe in those. So we sang and we sang and we sang. And life was good.
At work, his popularity crossed barriers of rank and class. He’d offer words of advice, his prayers, friendship and what little money he had to anybody who needed it. Instead of eating in the area reserved for officers, he’d often eat with the men. He said he wanted to make sure that their food was of a suitable quality. In reality, he enjoyed their company and liked to immerse himself in their daily lives, doing all he could to ensure that they were happy.
But, gradually things began to change. It started in 1984, when my father was posted to Quetta. It was just small things at first; slight changes in his behaviour that even he didn’t notice. He’d remember numbers and dates, but other things would just slip away from him, obscured by an inexplicable fog. Then, the following year, he was posted to Karachi and the changes became more extreme, more noticeable, less easy to deny.
On March 23, 1986, he was admitted to a navy medical facility, where he was kept in a ‘lock-up’ with drug addicts and the mentally ill. A psychiatrist diagnosed him with Paranoid traits.
By then, a third child, Hasnain, had arrived. My mother diligently kept the details of his diagnosis from us all, resiliently carrying on with as little disruption to our lives as possible. It was only then that she learnt that my father had no vision in his left eye, a detail revealed to her by a doctor who first checked whether she would leave her husband if she were to discover such a thing. I cannot be sure why my father hadn’t revealed this himself, but I suspect he didn’t want to burden her and feared anything that might make him appear less able in the eyes of his family. But my mother wasn’t – isn’t – the sort to be put off by something like that, which was fortunate, I guess, as much worse was to come.
Her visits to the ‘lock-up’ were difficult. Guards would examine everything she took with her, as though she were entering a jail rather than a hospital, which was apt, she says, as punishment, rather than treatment, seemed to be the order of the day there. My father remained there for six long months. It was a time that took a heavy toll on him, making him wary of hospitals ever after.
In 1987, we returned to Lahore, where my father was admitted to another military hospital. For a year, he wasn’t permitted to wear his uniform. It came as a huge personal and professional blow – and, a couple of months later, fearing that he might be invalided out of the army and unable to face such a prospect, he applied for early retirement. His application was rejected on the grounds that his mental illness made him incapable of making such a decision.
Later that year, my youngest brother, Mustafa, was born.
In January 1989, my father began private treatment with a young psychiatrist who, unlike many of his peers, favoured behavioural therapy to medication. He was treated for Schizophrenia and hallucinations. And while there were slight signs of improvement, they were, ultimately, insubstantial.
Later that year, he finally retired from the army. But with no place of work to head to each day, he’d accompany friends to theirs or go to his brother-in-law’s textile unit – anything to keep himself occupied. After a couple of years spent shadowing the work lives of others, he was offered a job in the real estate department of the Army Welfare Trust, an organisation that employs former officers. His colleagues were accepting of his limitations, making him feel valued and of use, even when he couldn’t really perform his duties.
My mother believes the seven-and-a-half years he spent there added years to his life. But that period wasn’t without its difficulties.
When he was three-and-a-half, Mustafa was admitted to hospital with meningitis. The doctors had little hope that he’d recover and warned my parents that even if he were to survive, he would most probably be left with some form of physical or mental disability; quite possibly both. As my mother kept vigil at Mustafa’s bedside, my father became the primary carer for the rest of us. Even as our family was shrouded in sadness, he made sure that when we weren’t in the hospital, our time was filled with his songs, stories and sense of fun. One day, he took us to see an air show. As we drove home from it, he turned to speak to us in the back of the car. But the words just wouldn’t come. As hard as he tried to find them, the only sound he could make was a kind of groan. Without warning, he’d lost the ability to speak – and, with it, any way to reassure his worried children. Somehow finding my own voice, I told him: “Abbu [dad], it is okay, we understand. We’ll get home and you’ll be fine.” But I didn’t really believe that.
What I was certain of, however, was that my mother would know how to handle it – just as she handled everything: my father’s illness, his stubborn refusal to take his medication and attend his medical appointments, her youngest son’s battle to survive. And, sure enough, she did, with a quiet stoicism I still marvel at today.
My father eventually got his voice back, and Mustafa turned out to be just as much of a fighter. He pulled through with no long-term side effects.
In December 1993, my father suffered his first epileptic fit. That it took place at work must have pained him greatly. That it meant he was no longer allowed to drive and had to relinquish control of the wheel to his wife and oldest son, must have demoralised him further still. But, of course, he didn’t show any of this.
In March 1994, his doctor suggested a full medical evaluation, including a CT scan of his brain. As it was conducted, at Lahore’s general hospital, the doctors present wondered at how he was even alive. It revealed that hundreds of foreign bodies were lodged in his brain.
A medical board, featuring a psychiatrist and a neurosurgeon, concluded that he had Alzheimer’s disease. The neurosurgeon predicted that he’d be in a vegetative state within six months.
Alarmed by the prognosis, my mother decided to stop private treatment and return to Lahore’s military hospital. In a psychiatric unit there, the doctors set about filling his file with words like Dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. They concluded that it was impossible to remove the shrapnel without causing further damage to his brain, and warned us that his was a progressive illness: it would only get worse. We lost count of the number of times he was admitted to hospital after that. There were seizures and comas; he’d lose his ability to speak and to walk.
Our lives were measured out in what, for want of a better word or a clearer diagnosis, we’d call ‘episodes’. There was one just before I was due to sit my matric examinations in February 1994. Then another, in November of that year, when he suffered a 36-hour long epileptic fit and remained comatose for weeks. Doctors told us then to prepare for the worst. But the man we knew was a fighter. He’d infused us with his own positivity and we weren’t going to give up believing in it now. Sure enough, he made a near complete recovery and began walking and talking again.
Then, one day in 1995, as all of us sat in the front room of our house, my dad humming, me trying to sing along, my younger brothers chasing each other around a coffee table, he suddenly slumped in the sofa and then fell to the floor. His body contorted, his mouth twitched as white foam gathered at its corners, his eyes rolled back in his head. My mother called for the family doctor, who lived across the street and had become a close family friend, helping my father handle his illness from home as much as was possible. She came immediately and tried to administer an injection that would end the seizure. But my father’s body shook so violently that she just couldn’t do it. Another family friend who was an anaesthetist was called in. As all of this went on, my mother noticed Mustafa, who was now seven, sitting alone, his head in his hands, clearly disturbed by what he’d witnessed. She comforted him as best she could but his was a kind of sadness that couldn’t be easily eased; his worries the sort that couldn’t be wished away.
We didn’t speak of what went on to our friends – not because we consciously sought to conceal it, but because as the only reality we knew, we never realised that it warranted being mentioned. In fact, my friends’ parents only came to learn of it when they happened to discuss my alarmingly poor mock exam results with a friend of my father’s. “But you know what she’s going through, right?” his friend had said to them. They didn’t. They’d never asked why my father looked so much older than his years – so old, in fact, that he was sometimes mistaken for a veteran of World War II. If they asked why the man who answered the phone sounded drunk, we didn’t explain the cause of our father’s slurred speech. We just carried on. Because, for us, normal meant living every day on the edge of a precipice, waiting for the time we’d inevitably fall off.
And then that time came. In the summer of 2000, I was misdiagnosed, as it turned out, with Tuberculosis. My father did what he did in any time of trouble: he prayed. On August 25, 2000, as he was deep in prayer for me, he had a seizure. He was rushed to the military hospital, where he remained in a coma for 10 weeks. A neuro physician suggested he may, in fact, have been suffering from Cerebral Atrophy, a shrinkage of the brain that had caused his Alzheimer’s and Dementia. It was the first time that a medical professional had questioned how somebody of such relative youth could have been inflicted with so many illnesses.
On October 30, I visited him in hospital, as I did every day. As I waited outside while the nurses checked on him, I heard the evening call to pray. For the first time, instead of asking God to make him better, as I always did, I simply asked that whatever was best for him should come to be. When the nurses had finished, I returned to his bedside and held his hand. I felt him squeeze mine and stir. For a second he woke up and lifted his head from the pillow. Then he took his last breath.
He was pronounced dead at 6:36pm, and buried the following afternoon in a funeral attended by people from across the country. At a time when few used email, news of his death spread by word of mouth. We had never even met many of those in attendance, but they had each been touched in some way by my father. And, while it wasn’t an official military funeral, members of the Ordnance Corp. insisted upon arranging it – with full military honours.
This article was first published on Al Jazeera English.