It was a beautiful September Morning as I pedaled my way to school. Seated at my desk waiting for the arrival of Miss Harris our Class Teacher and the pre assembly roll call, good old Masih Sabihuddin leaned across and whispered that something was afoot, as he and his family had been awakened in the predawn hours by the unending noise of army vehicles passing by their home in Lahore Cantonment, headed towards Batapur. He mentioned that he had also heard, what sounded like distant thunder coming from that direction, as he left his home.
The information was soon forgotten as our daily routine gathered pace, to be interrupted by two deafening explosions, which appeared to come from the sky right above us. Minutes later we were told that war had broken out between Pakistan and India and the school was closing for an indefinite period.
Crossing Maula Bukhsh’s Pan Shop on Lawrence Road, I saw a throng of people listening to the radio and heard the historic speech by the President of Pakistan Field Marshal Ayub Khan, who informed the nation that “the cowardly enemy had attacked across the International Boundary, little realizing that it had challenged a Nation and its Armed Forces, whose hearts were brimming with courage and faith”.
This moment of truth saw Lahoris divided into two categories. There were those that packed up their valuables and headed for the Ravi Bridge turning their backs on the city of their birth. The second category dug air raid trenches in their homes, volunteered for civil defense or nursing duties and many amongst them mounted whatever transport they could find and headed towards the border to fight beside their soldiers.
I remember riding my bicycle in a flood of people moving towards Harbanspura (now called Mehfoozpura) to be stopped by a barrier manned by military police, who shook our hands, thanked us with the words that our presence there was enough to make our fighting men invincible. The crowds did not disperse, but hung around as our heavy artillery began firing from somewhere close by and the military policemen firmly told us to go home since they expected enemy shelling in the area.
That night, a blacked out Lahore sat glued to its radios and the few black and white television sets to hear the reassuring voice of Shakeel Ahmed as he updated us with reassuring news. There was no private electronic media then, but the state run radio and TV took up the challenge and so was born the legendary collection of national songs rendered passionately by the likes of Noor Jehan, Naseem Begum, Mehdi Hassan and Sohail Rana.
I and my group of friends from the neighborhood joined the Civil Defense Organization on the second day of the war and were put through a three day crash training course in Bomb Disposal, Fire Fighting, Rescue and First Aid. We would attend this training from eight in the morning to six in the evening and report for night duty at the Control Room established in a school at Regal Chowk.
We spent the nights ensuring that our volunteers followed patrolling schedules, enforced blackout regulations and manned air raid sirens. One of my favorite spots, when not out on the streets was the air raid siren post on the roof of Fatima Jinnah Medical College opposite Ganga Ram Hospital. From here one could see the distant horizon lit up by artillery fire. We sat there armed with tea and sandwiches supplied continuously by the residents of the area staying in communication with the Control Room through existing telephone network and when this broke down, through couriers on bicycles.
We were not bothered by lack of sleep or rest, in the knowledge that our situation was nowhere near the risks and conditions being faced by the officers and men fighting the real ‘shooting war’. It was somewhere around 11 September that while on telephone duty in the Control Room, I saw a mud splattered army jeep enter the compound. Minutes later, the driver entered the room seeking permission to park the vehicle for just thirty minutes. It took minutes for a crowd to gather around the jeep, which was soon laden with snacks, biscuits, candy and scores of other items. A folding bed was produced for the ‘ghazi’, who laid his head upon the pillow and was instantly asleep. We woke him up at the appointed time, gave him a cup of tea and saw him off, turning a deaf ear to protests that we should unload the foodstuff from his jeep.
As for the Lahoris, who fled the city, a sizeable number returned before the seventeen day war was over for they realised that perhaps the safest place for them was the City of Lahore itself.