Only a thin lifeline and a brave young man stood between them and death.
By: Muhammad Farooq
HUDDLED OVER a crackling fire, Muhammad Faqir sat silently in the shelter of a tent while the men around him sang songs. He paid no attention, for the wiry 39-year-old was worried. In his 22 years in the Pakistan Army, Faqir had risen to the level of junior commissioned officer and earned the trust of his men. But now he wondered how he would provide for the future of his six children on a soldier’s pay. His dream was to buy a piece of land that would belong to his descendants for generations.
Rain drumming on the tent canvas intruded on his thoughts. An incessant downpour had kept him and his 65 men trapped for days near Nekrun, high in the Himalayas. Every summer the muleteers under Muhammad Faqir’s command delivered supplies to troops dug in along Pakistan’s mountain top border with India and then camped in the narrow gorge of the Neelum River on a point of land shaded by tall pine and willow trees. There was a medical clinic and a militia unit permanently stationed a few hundred feet away. Now it was Tuesday, September 8, 1992, and Faqir’s men were already in a race against the snow that would soon blanket the higher peaks.
Why doesn’t the rain stop? Faqir wondered with exasperation. In the near by tent, 38-year-old Ghulam Hussain was playing Parcheesi. The rotund saddler was an “old-timer,” and the young men looked to him for advice.” Tell me, ‘Uncle,’ when do you think it will stop raining?” one asked nervously. “Don’t bother about it,” Hussain reassured him. “it has rained before, and it will rain again.”
What none of them could know was that high in the mountains upstream, a massive flood had begun. Torrential rains were turning streams into torrents. Even now raging water was rushing towards the encampment.
Predawn, Wednesday. A shivering young sentry peered through the rainy darkness. Muhammad Nazir could see that the river was starting to creep over the flat land that lay between the camp and the steep river bank where the clinic stood. He tried not to worry: the old timers all said this was nothing unusual. Besides, Nazir had other concerns. As his family’s eldest son, the quiet 26-years-old with solemn eyes was struggling to support nine younger brothers and a sister, as well as his mother. I seek refuge with the Lord, the ruler of mankind, Nazir began to pray silently.
At 5:30 a.m. the men were awakened by the startled cries of Nazir and the other sentries. “We’re cut off!” Muhammad Faqir exclaimed with a shock. Floodwater had descended upon the camp. Their point of land was now an island separated from the river bank by 40 yards of wildly rushing water. Logs weighing a ton or more, cut from mountain slopes up river, were being tossed like match sticks by four feet waves. Swimming through the torrent was out of question.
On the river bank, a group of local militiamen gathered. Among them was a slim 25-year-old with deepset eyes named Chaudhry Saddique. For the past six years, he had served here in the northern mountains, not far from the village where he was born. Saddique’s secret dream was to become a member of Pakistan’s elite commando force.
But there was little he or the other militiamen could do. Saddique’s commander, Major Azim Khan, was even then explaining to the muleteer commander over a field telephone that they had no sophisticated rescue equipment and that any rescue boat would be smashed by the logs.
When Faqir put the receiver down, he ordered the men to repitch their tents on a rise at the island’s center. Then he set some to piling logs around the trees to build makeshift break waters. He told others to lash strong ropes horizontally between the trees, and to leave other ropes dangling to the ground.
5:p.m. Like a terrifying omen, dead animals and the wreckage of houses and bridges came spinning down the mud-black Neelum. Steadily the river rose until shouts of panic rang out as soldiers climbed onto heaps of saddles and stones and overturned mule troughs.
Faqir saw that the situation had grown critical. “Men, it’s time to save ourselves!” he shouted.
Some raced to the arrow-straight pines that rose as high as 100 feet; others to the willows, whose dense branches were easier to climb. Faqir lashed himself with a rope to the trunk of the tallest pine. He would stay on the ground until all his men were safely in the trees, even though the water had begun rising up his legs.
Ghulam Hussain grabbed a blanket and ran for the trees. He feared that he would not be able to haul himself up onto a limb, “Come on!” men shouted from above. But he couldn’t reach their proffered hands. Finally Hussain managed to clamber up to one of the ropes strung between the trees, about six feet off the ground. Exhausted, he stood balanced on the rope. He looped the blanket around the tree and tied it around his back. God, he whispered, I want to live!
The surging river had reached Faqir’s waist. Certain that all of his men were now above the advancing tide, he slung the field telephone around his shoulder and climbed up into the branches.
“The water level is still rising,” Faqir reported to Major Khan. “It is difficult for me to hold onto the phone and tree at the same time. Please take care of my wife and children if I die.” Below, huge logs swept through the flooded camp, carrying away tents, crates of supplies and the men’s mules.
9:30 p.m. By now the island was completely submerged. The water temperature was barely above freezing, while the rain-soaked night air was little more than 4 degrees Celsius. Perched on a slender willow branch three feet above the torrent, Muhammad Nazir, the young sentry, was filled with despair. I have no hope of living, he thought. What will happen to my family?
Balancing precariously on a rope between two trees, Ghulam Hussain felt the water reach his ankles, then his knees. Logs hammered against the pine trees to which he clung, until it was loosening at its roots. Finally, when a colossal log slammed into the pine, Hussain felt it give way and collapse slowly toward the water. The men above him screamed.
As he sank into the icy raging water, Hussain tried to steel himself. We’re done, he thought. Astonishingly, the tree stopped moving. The rope that bound the pine to the willow had held firm, leaving the tree horizontal to the surface of the water. Hugging its trunk, Hussain was submerged. With a burst of desperate energy, he pulled himself out of the water and sat astride the tree. He could hear others in the dark, struggling for the foothold. “I can’t hold any longer,” wailed one. Then there was a terrible silence. It seemed Hussain could see his own death hovering next to him.
Just before dawn, the huge pine tree where Muhammad Faqir, the commander, had taken refuge began to sway crazily as logs careened into it. Suddenly it fell. Awful cries rose on the night air – and then faded into the river’s deafening roar. In an instant up to 20 lives were snuffed out.
6 a.m. Thursday. A hellish sight greeted Chaudhry Saddique as the landscape fully emerged in the rainy dawn. Some trees had disappeared. In others that still stood, some bodies of soldiers who had secured themselves to the trees now hung limply where they had drowned. Meanwhile the flood water continued to rage past, unabated. Saddique knew he had to help. A lot of my brothers have been washed away, he despaired.
Around mid-morning the militiamen on shore watched as two young muleteers gave into despair and slid into the waters to their deaths. Hopes arose briefly when four militiamen launched a makeshift raft to take them to the survivors. But almost instantly it dipped beneath the battering waves, forcing them to turn back.
Finally Major Khan telephoned Brigadier Qadir, the regional commander in Kel, 29 miles away. “It seems hopeless,” the major said. “There is nothing more we can do.”
The brigadier replied, “There is only one man in Pakistan who can save us now.”
COLONEL ZAKAULLAH BHANGOO had looked forward to spending his day off with his two sons, so when the telephone rang at his home in Rawalpindi, he picked it up with a sigh. On the line was Brigadier Qadir with news of the trapped muleteers. “They’ve been without food or water for 36 hours, and the river is still rising,” Qadir said.
“No one can save them but you.”
The mustachioed, 47-year-old Bhangoo was one of the most experienced helicopter pilots in the Pakistan Army. He had flown the remote northern valleys and knew the region’s peaks by sight. “Have a rope ladder waiting for us,” the colonel replied.
Within 30 minutes he and his copilot, 38-year-old Major Shahid Rana, were settled into the Puma helicopter, shooting northward along the forested slopes, dodging dark storm clouds. At Kel, Bhangoo landed, picked up the rope ladder and lifted off immediately. Once night fell, it would be impossible to see the trapped men.
4 p.m. Rana guided the Puma to the muddy riverbank where the militiamen were gathered. Bhangoo climbed out. “We need weight on the rope to hold it steady!” he shouted over the roar of the rotors. “Someone’s going to have to hang on the end of the rope ladder. I need a volunteer.”
Chaudhry Saddique had never been on a helicopter. But for nearly 36 hours he had endured the agony of watching the men in the trees grow weaker and weaker. Saddique’s slender physique behind a toughness bred by a lifetime of scrambling up and down the treacherous peaks of Kashmir. Nature has given me strength, he thought to himself. I will save these men if I can.
Stepping forward, he snapped to attention. “Hurry up,” barked Bhangoo. “There’s no time to waste.”
Saddique slipped his legs onto one of the rope’s rungs and was suddenly airborne. Minutes later Ghulam Hussain watched as the ladder carrying Saddique dropped alongside the men straddling the log. As much as he wanted to grab hold of the ladder, he knew it was his duty to see that the younger men left first. “Don’t hurry, you could still fall off,” Hussain shouted as Saddique dangled even nearer.
Saddique knew if he lost his balance he would be gone in an instant. Bracing his knees on the quivering rung, he extended his arms through the ladder. “Take my hands!” he bellowed. One by one, Saddique plucked out the men, who slipped their feet into the ladder rungs. Then the helicopter lifted off, transporting one, two, three at a time across the raging current.
At last it was Hussain’s turn. When the ladder drooped in front of him, he struggled to raise a cramped arm. His hand at last touched the rope. Only half-conscious, Hussain was aware of his body lifting into the air. He soon found himself lying on a stretcher. “Just hold on,” a voice told him. “You’re almost home.”
Bhangoo motioned to Saddique. “You must be tired,” he shouted above the roar. “We’ll get a fresh man.”
“No,” retorted the young militiaman. “I’m going to finish the job.”
Bhangoo sized up the young soldier. Determination like Saddique couldn’t be bought for any price. “Okay,” the Colonel said. “Let’s go then.”
Far below the craft, Saddique worked tirelessly. Many of the remaining men were deep inside the trees. Sometimes it took a dozen attempts to reach one, for many were scared to let go of the frail branches.
5:30 p.m. In the failing light, Bhangoo peered grimly down from the Puma. Five men remained trapped below in a willow, but other trees near by left little room for maneuver. The Puma dropped downward. Bhangoo’s blood suddenly went cold as he felt the impact of the helicopter slamming into the treetops.
Hanging nearly upside dpwn outside the cockpit, Bhangoo coaxed his co-pilot into position. With icy nerves, Rana settled the Puma into the top of the tallest tree, pressing into the branches until the rope ladder reached the level of the men below. “Don’t be scared,” Saddique shouted as he reached for them.
One by one, he helped the men onto the ladder. Muhammad Nazir remained. He was nearly invisible where he clung to the trunk far inside the branches. “Don’t be scared,” Saddique repeated. “I’ll get you.”
Using his weight like a pendulum, the militiaman swung back and forth until he had enough momentum to sweep deep into the branches. Time and again, just as Nazir seemed about to catch the ladder, it caught in the branches and slipped away.
By now Saddique was hanging on only by sheer willpower. His limbs were painfully cramped from fatigue and cold. Yet he was determined to keep going.
Finally, as Saddique swung into the tree, he grabbed the branches and pulled himself toward Nazir’s outstretched arm. Nazir managed to work an aching arm into the ladder, which then swung back out over the water with the two men hanging on tightly. “God, you have saved me!” the terrified Nazir cried.
When he had rescued his last man, Saddique’s comrades lifted him from the ladder. His bloodshot eyes seemed to pop from his deathly white face, while his teeth chattered uncontrollably. “I’m fine,” Saddique groaned as he struggled to stand, then immediately collapsed. He was quickly carried away and wrapped in a blanket.
In all, the helicopter team had saved 34 men. Not one, said the military doctor, would have survived another frigid night.
Muhammad Nazir and Ghulam Hussain still climb the mountains of Kashmir with the Animal Transport Regiment. Muhammad Faqir’s army pension will enable his widow to buy the piece of land that was her husband’s dream. Pilot Zakaullah Bhangoo won promotion to brigadier. And Chaudhry Saddique has achieved his dream of an appointment to the Pakistan Army Commandos.
“Bhangoo” Story of Captain (Later Brig) Bhangoo as Prisoner of War in India.
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