You might have seen me on TV after the crash. The clip is
short and everything in it is sun-bleached and slightly
faded. It was pulled after the first two bulletins because it seemed
to be having an adverse impact on the morale of the country's
armed forces. You can't see it in the clip, but we are walking
towards Pak One, which is parked behind the cameraman's back,
in the middle of the runway. The aeroplane is still connected to
an auxiliary fuel pump, and surrounded by a group of alert commandos
in camouflaged uniforms. With its dull grey fuselage
barely off the ground, the plane looks like a beached whale contemplating
how to drag itself back to the sea, its snout drooping
with the enormity of the task ahead.
The runway is in the middle of the Bahawalpur desert, six
hundred miles away from the Arabian Sea. There is nothing
between the sun's white fury and the endless expanse of shimmering
sand except a dozen men in khaki uniforms walking
towards the plane.
For a brief moment you can see General Zia's face in the clip,
the last recorded memory of a much-photographed man. The
middle parting in his hair glints under the sun, his unnaturally
white teeth flash, his moustache does its customary little dance
for the camera, but as the camera pulls out, you can tell that he is
not smiling. If you watch closely, you can probably tell that he is
in some discomfort. He is walking the walk of a constipated
The man walking on his right is the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan,
Arnold Raphel, whose shiny bald head and carefully
groomed moustache give him the air of a respectable homosexual
businessman from small-town America. He can be seen flicking
an invisible speck of sand from the lapel of his navy blue
blazer. His smart-casual look hides a superior diplomatic mind;
he is a composer of sharp, incisive memos and has the ability to
remain polite during the most hostile exchanges. On General
Zia's left, his former spymaster and the head of Inter-Services
Intelligence, General Akhtar, seems weighed down by half a
dozen medals on his chest and drags his feet as if he is the only
man in the group who knows that they shouldn't be boarding
this plane. His lips are pinched and, even when the sun has
boiled everything into submission and drained all colour out of
the surroundings, you can see that his normally pale skin has
turned a wet yellow. His obituary in the next day's newspapers
will describe him as "the Silent Soldier" and "one of the ten men
standing between the Free World and the Red Army."
As they approach the red carpet that leads to the Pak One
stairway, you can see me step forward. You can tell immediately
that I am the only one in the frame smiling, but when I salute
and start walking towards the aeroplane, my smile vanishes. I
know I am saluting a bunch of dead men. But if you are in uniform,
you salute. That's all there is to it.
Later, forensic experts from Lockheed will put the pieces of
crashed plane together and simulate scenarios, trying to unlock
the mystery of how a superfit C-130 came tumbling down from
the skies only four minutes after takeoff. Astrologists will pull
out files, with their predictions for August 1988, and blame
Jupiter for the crash that killed Pakistan's top army brass as well
as the U.S. ambassador. Leftist intellectuals will toast the end of a
cruel dictatorship and evoke historic dialectics in such matters.
But this afternoon, history is taking a long siesta, as it usually
does between the end of one war and the beginning of another.
More than 100,000 Soviet soldiers are preparing to retreat from
Afghanistan after being reduced to eating toast smeared with
military-issue boot polish, and these men we see in the TV clip
are the undisputed victors. They are preparing for peace and,
being the cautious men they are, they have come to Bahawalpur
to shop for tanks while waiting for the end of the Cold War. They
have done their day's work and are taking the plane back home.
With their stomachs full, they are running out of small talk;
there is the impatience of polite people who do not want to
offend one another. It's only later that people will say, Look at
that clip. Look at their tired, reluctant walk. Anybody can tell that
they were being shepherded to that plane by the invisible hand of
The generals' families will get full compensation and receive
flag-draped coffins, with strict instructions not to open them.
The pilots' families will be picked up and thrown into cells with
blood-splattered ceilings for a few days and then let go. The U.S.
ambassador's body will be taken back to Arlington Cemetery and
his tombstone will be adorned with a half-elegant cliché. There
will be no autopsies, the leads will run dry, investigations will be
blocked, and there will be cover-ups to cover cover-ups. Third
World dictators are always blowing up in strange circumstances,
but if the brightest star in the U.S. diplomatic service (and that's
what will be said about Arnold Raphel at the funeral service in
Arlington Cemetery) goes down with eight Pakistani generals,
somebody will be expected to kick ass. Vanity Fair
an investigative piece, the New York Times
will write two editorials,
and sons of the deceased will file petitions to the court
and then settle for lucrative cabinet posts. It will be said that this
was the biggest cover-up in aviation history since the last biggest
The only witness to that televised walk, the only one to have
walked that walk, will be completely ignored.
Because if you missed that clip, you probably missed me. Like
history itself. I was the one who got away.
What they found in the wreckage of the plane were not bodies,
not serene-faced martyrs, as the army claimed, not the
slightly damaged, disfigured men not photogenic enough to be
shown to the TV cameras or to their families. Remains
. Bits of flesh splattered on the broken aeroplane
parts, charred bones sticking to mangled metal, severed limbs
and faces melted into blobs of pink meat. Nobody can ever say
that the coffin that was buried in Arlington Cemetery didn't
carry bits of General Zia's remains and that what lies buried in
Shah Faisal Mosque in Islamabad are not some of the remains of
the State Department's brightest star. The only thing that can be
said with certainty is that my remains weren't in either of those
Yes, sir, I was the one who got away.
The name Shigri didn't figure in the terms of reference, the
investigators from the FBI ignored me and I never had to sit
under a naked bulb and explain the circumstances that led to my
being present at the scene of the incident. I didn't even figure in
the stories concocted to cover up the truth. Even the conspiracy
theorists who saw an unidentified flying object colliding with the
presidential plane, or deranged eyewitnesses who saw a surface-to-
air missile being fired from a lone donkey's back, didn't
bother to spin any yarns about the boy in uniform, with one
hand on the scabbard of his sword, stepping forward, saluting,
then smiling and walking away. I was the only one who boarded
that plane and survived.
Even got a lift back home.
If you did see the clip, you might have wondered what this boy
with mountain features was doing in the desert, why he was surrounded
by four-star generals, why he was smiling. It's because I
had had my punishment. As Obaid would have said, there is
poetry in committing a crime after you have served your sentence.
I do not have much interest in poetry, but punishment
before a crime does have a certain singsong quality to it. The
guilty commit the crime; the innocent are punished. That's the
world we live in.
. . .
My punishment had started exactly two months and seventeen
days before the crash, when I woke up at reveille and, without
opening my eyes, reached out to pull back Obaid's blanket, a
habit picked up from four years of sharing the same room with
him. It was the only way to wake him up. My hand caressed an
empty bed. I rubbed my eyes. The bed was freshly made, a
starched white sheet tucked over a grey wool blanket, like a
Hindu widow in mourning. Obaid was gone and the buggers
would obviously suspect me.
You can blame our men in uniform for anything, but you can
never accuse them of being imaginative.
* * *
Form PD 4059
Record of Absentees Without Leave or Disappearances
Without Justifiable Causes
Statement by Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri,
Pak No. 898245
Subject: Investigation into the circumstances in
which Cadet Obaid-ul-llah went AWOL
Location where statement was recorded: Cell No. 2,
Main Guardroom, Cadets' Mess, PAF Academy
I, Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri, son of the
late Colonel Quli Shigri, do hereby solemnly affirm
and declare that, at the reveille on the morning
of 31 May 1988, I was the duty officer. I arrived at
0630 hours sharp to inspect Fury Squadron. As I
was inspecting the second row, I realised that the
sash on my sword belt was loose. I tried to tighten
it. The sash came off in my hand. I ran towards my
barracks to get a replacement and shouted at Cadet
Atiq to take charge. I ordered the squadron to
mark time. I could not find my spare sash in my own
cupboard; I noticed that Cadet Obaid's cupboard
was open. His sash was lying where it is supposed
to be, on the first shelf, right-hand corner,
behind his golden-braided peaked cap. Because I
was in a hurry, I didn't notice anything unlawful
in the cupboard. I did, however, notice that the
poem on the inside of the door of his cupboard was
missing. I do not have much interest in poetry,
but since Obaid was my dorm mate, I knew that every
month he liked to post a new poem in his cupboard
but always removed it before the weekly cupboard
inspection. Since the Academy's standard operating
procedures do not touch upon the subject of posting
poetry in dorm cupboards, I had not reported
this matter earlier. I arrived back at 0643, to
find that the entire squadron was in Indian position.
I immediately told them to stand up and come
to attention and reminded Cadet Atiq that the
Indian position was unlawful as a punishment and
as an acting squadron commander he should have
known the rules. Later, I recommended Cadet Atiq
for a red strip, copy of which can be provided as
an appendix to this appendix.
I didn't have the time for a roll call at this
point, as we had only seventeen minutes left
before it was time to report to the parade ground.
Instead of marching Fury Squadron to the mess
hall, I ordered them to move on the double.
Although I was wearing my sword for that day's
silent drill practice and was not supposed to move
on the double, I ran with the last file, holding the
scabbard six inches from my body. The second officer
in command saw us from his Yamaha and slowed
down when passing us. I ordered the squadron to
salute, but the 2nd OIC did not return my salute
and made a joke about my sword and two legs. The
joke cannot be reproduced in this statement, but I
mention this fact because some doubts were raised
in the interrogation about whether I had accompanied
the squadron at all.
I gave Fury Squadron four minutes for breakfast
and I myself waited on the steps leading to the
dining hall. During this time I stood at ease and
in my head went through the commands for the day's
drill. This is an exercise that the drill instructor
on secondment, Lieutenant Bannon, has taught
me. Although there are no verbal commands in the
silent drill, the commander's inner voice must
remain at strength 5. It should obviously not be
audible to the person standing next to him. I was
still practising my silent cadence when the
squadron began to assemble outside the dining
hall. I carried out a quick inspection of the
squadron and caught one first-termer with a slice
of French toast in his uniform shirt pocket. I
stuffed the toast into his mouth and ordered him
to start front-rolling and keep pace with the
squadron as I marched them to the parade square.
I handed over command to the sergeant of the
day, who marched the boys to the armoury to get
their rifles. It was only after the Quran recitation
and the national anthem were over, and the
Silent Drill Squad was dividing into two formations,
that the sergeant of the day came to ask me
why Cadet Obaid had not reported for duty. He was
supposed to be the file leader for that day's drill
rehearsal. I was surprised because I had thought
all along that he was in the squadron that I had
just handed over to the sergeant.
"Is he on sick parade?" he asked me.
"No, Sergeant," I said. "Or if he is, I don't
know about it."
"And who is supposed to know?"
I shrugged my shoulders, and before the sergeant
could say anything, Lieutenant Bannon
announced that silent zone was in effect. I must
put it on record that most of our Academy drill
sergeants do not appreciate the efforts of Lieutenant Bannon in trying to establish our own
Silent Drill Squad. They resent his drill techniques.
They do not understand that there is nothing
that impresses civilians more than a silent
drill display, and we have much to learn from
Lieutenant Bannon's experience as the chief drill
instructor at Fort Bragg.
After the drill, I went to the sick bay to
check if Cadet Obaid had reported sick. I didn't
find him there. As I was coming out of the sick bay,
I saw the first-termer from my squadron sitting in
the waiting area with bits of vomited toast on his
uniform shirt's front. He stood up to salute me; I
told him to keep sitting and stop disgracing himself
As the Character Building lecture had already
started, instead of going to the classroom, I
returned to my dorm. I asked our washerman, Uncle
Starchy, to fix my belt, and I rested for a while on
my bed. I also searched Obaid's bed, his side
table, and his cupboard to find any clues as to
where he might be. I did not notice anything untoward
in these areas. Cadet Obaid has been winning
the Inter-Squadron Cupboard Competition since his
first term at the Academy, and everything was
arranged according to the dorm cupboard manual.
I attended all the rest of the classes that
day. I was marked present in those classes. In
Regional Studies we were taught about Tajikistan
and the resurgence of Islam. In Islamic Studies we
were ordered to do self-study because our teacher,
Maulana Hidayatullah, was angry with us, since
when he entered the class, some cadets were
singing a dirty variation on a folk wedding song.
It was during the afternoon drill rehearsal
that I got my summons from the 2nd OIC's office. I
was asked to report on the double and I reported
there in uniform.
The 2nd OIC asked me why I had not marked Cadet
Obaid absent in the morning inspection when he
I told him that I had not taken the roll call.
He asked me if I knew where he was.
I said I didn't know.
He asked me where I had disappeared to between
the sick bay and the Character Building lecture.
I told him the truth.
He asked me to report to the guardroom.
When I arrived at the guardroom, the guardroom
duty cadet told me to wait in the cell.
When I asked him whether I was under detention,
he laughed and made a joke about the cell mattress
having too many holes. The joke cannot be reproduced
in this statement.
Half an hour later, the 2nd OIC arrived and
informed me that I was under close arrest and that
he wanted to ask me some questions about the disappearance
of Cadet Obaid. He told me that if I
didn't tell him the truth, he'd hand me over to
Inter-Services Intelligence and they would hang me
by my testicles.
I assured him of my full cooperation. The 2nd
OIC questioned me for one hour and forty minutes
about Obaid's activities, my friendship with him,
and whether I had noticed anything strange in his
behaviour in what he described as "the days leading
up to his disappearance."
I told him all I knew. He went out of the cell
at the end of the question-answer session and came
back five minutes later with some sheets of paper
and a pen and asked me to write everything that had
happened in the morning and describe in detail
where and when I had last seen Cadet Obaid.
Before leaving the cell, he asked me if I had
any questions. I asked him whether I'd be able to
attend the silent drill rehearsal, as we were
preparing for the president's annual inspection. I
requested the 2nd OIC to inform Lieutenant Bannon
that I could continue to work on my silent cadence
in the cell. The 2nd OIC made a joke about two
marines and a bar of soap in a Fort Bragg bathroom.
I didn't think I was supposed to laugh, and I
I hereby declare that I saw Cadet Obaid last
when he was lying in his bed reading a book of
poetry in English the night before his disappearance.
The book had a red cover and what looked like
a lengthened shadow of a man. I don't remember the
name of the book. After lights-out, I heard him
sing an old Indian song in a low voice. I asked him
to shut up. The last thing I remember before going
to sleep is that he was still humming the same
I did not see him in the morning, and I have
described my day's activities accurately in this
statement in the presence of the undersigned.
In closing I would like to state that in the
days leading up to Cadet Obaid absenting himself
without any plausible cause, I did not notice anything
unusual about his conduct. Only three days
before going AWOL he had received his fourth green
strip for taking active part in After-Dinner Lit-
erary Activities (ADLA). He had made plans to take
me out at the weekend for ice cream and to watch
Where Eagles Dare. If he had any plans about
absenting himself without any justifiable cause, he
never shared them with me or anyone else as far as
I also wish to humbly request that my close
arrest is uncalled for and that if I cannot be
allowed to return to my dorm, I should be allowed
to keep the command of my Silent Drill Squad,
because tomorrow's battles are won in today's
Statement signed and witnessed by:
Squadron Leader Karimullah,
2nd OIC, PAF Academy
* * *
Life is in Allah's hands but . . .
There is something about these bloody squadron leaders that
makes them think that if they lock you up in a cell, put their
stinking mouth to your ear, and shout something about your
mother, they can find all the answers. They are generally a sad
lot, these leaders without any squadrons to lead. It's their own
lack of leadership qualities that stops them mid-career, nowhere
for them to go except from one training institute to another, permanent
seconds in command to one commander or the other.
You can tell them from their belts, loose and low, straining under
the weight of their paunches. Or from their berets, so carefully
positioned to hide that shiny bald patch. Schemes for part-time
M.B.A.'s and a new life are trying hard to keep pace with missed
promotions and pension plans.
Look at the arrangement of fruit salad on my tormentor's
chest, above the left pocket of his uniform shirt, and you can
read his whole biography. A faded paratrooper's badge is the
only thing that he had to leave his barracks to earn. The medals
in the first row just came and pinned themselves to his chest. He
got them because he was there. The Fortieth Independence Day
medal. The Squadron Anniversary medal. Today-I-did-not-jerkoff
medal. Then the second row, fruits of his own hard labour
and leadership. One for organising a squash tournament,
another for the great battle that was tree-plantation week. The
leader with his mouth to my ear and my mother on his mind has
had a freebie to Mecca and is wearing a haj medal, too.
As Obaid used to say, "God's glory. God's glory. For every
monkey there is a houri."
The 2nd OIC is wasting more of his already-wasted life trying
to break me down with his bad breath and his incessant shouting.
Doesn't he know that I actually invented some of the bullshit
that he is pouring into my ear? Hasn't he heard about the Shigri
treatment? Doesn't he know that I used to get invited to other
squadrons in the middle of the night to make the new arrivals
cry with my three-minute routine about their mothers? Does he
really think that "fuck your fucking mother," even when delivered
at strength 5, still has any meaning when you are weeks
away from the president's annual inspection and becoming a
The theory used to be damn simple: Any good soldier learns
to shut out the noise and delink such expressions from their
apparent meaning. I mean, when they say that thing about your
mother, they have absolutely no intention-and I am certain no
desire, either-to do what they say they want to do with your
mother. They say it because it comes out rapid-fire and sounds
cool and requires absolutely no imagination. The last syllable of
mother reverberates in your head for a while as it is delivered
with their lips glued to your ear. And that is just about that. They
have not even seen your poor mother.
Anybody who breaks down at the sheer volume of this should
stay in his little village and tend his father's goats or should study
biology and become a doctor, and then they can have all the
bloody peace and quiet they want. Because as a soldier, noise is
the first thing you learn to defend yourself against, and as an officer,
noise is the first weapon of attack you learn to use.
Unless you are in the Silent Drill Squad.
Look at the parade square during the morning drill and see
who commands it. Who rules? There are more than a thousand
of us, picked from a population of 130 million, put through psychological
and physical tests so strenuous that only one in a hundred
applicants makes it, and when this cream of our nation, as
we are constantly reminded we are, arrives here, who leads them?
The one with the loudest voice, the one with the clearest throat,
the one whose chest can expand to produce a command that
stuns the morning crows and makes the most stubborn of cadets
raise their knees to waist level and bring the world to a standstill
as their heels land on the concrete.
Or at least that is what I believed before Lieutenant Bannon
arrived with his theories about inner cadence, silent commands,
and subsonic drill techniques. "A drill with commands is just
that-a drill," Bannon is fond of saying. "A drill without commands
is an art. When you deliver a command at the top of your
voice, only the boys in your squadron listen. But when your inner
cadence whispers, the gods take notice."
Not that Bannon believes in any god.
I wonder whether he'll visit me here. I wonder whether they
will let him into this cell.
The 2nd OIC is exhausted from his business with my mother
and I can see an appeal to my better sense on its way. I clench my
stomach muscles against the impending "cream of the nation"
speech. I don't want to throw up. The cell is small and I have no
idea how long I am going to be here.
"You are the cream of our nation," he says, shaking his head.
"You have been the pride of our Academy. I have just recommended
you for the sword of honour. You are going to receive it
from the president of Pakistan. You have two choices: graduate
with honour in four weeks or go out front-rolling to the sound
of drums. Tomorrow. Clap. Clap. Tony Singhstyle." He brings
his hands together twice, like those Indian film extras in a
They did that to Tony Singh. Drummed the poor bugger out. I
never figured out what the hell Tony Singh was doing in the air
force of the Islamic Republic anyway. Before meeting Tony Singh
(or Sir Tony, as we had to call him, since he was six courses senior
to us), the only Tony I knew was our neighbour's dog and the
only Singh I had seen was in my history textbook, a one-eyed
maharaja who ruled Punjab a couple of centuries ago. I thought
the partition took care of all the Tonys and the Singhs, but apparently
some didn't get the message.
Tony Singh didn't get the message even when they found a
transistor radio in his dorm and charged him with spying. "Top
of the Pops" was Sir Tony's defence. They reduced the charge to
unofficerlike behaviour and drummed him out anyway.
A lone drummer-a corporal who, after carrying the biggest
drum in the Academy band all his life, had begun to look like
one-led the way, keeping a thud, thud, thud-a-dud marching
beat. More than one thousand of us lined both sides of Eagles
Avenue, which leads from the guardroom to the main gate.
"At ease," came the command.
Tony Singh emerged from the guardroom, having spent a
couple of nights in this very cell. His head was shaved, but he still
wore his uniform. He stood tall and refused to look down or
"Clap," came the command.
We started slowly. The 2nd OIC removed Sir Tony's belt and
the ranks from his shoulder flaps and then he took a step forward
and whispered something into Sir Tony's ear. Sir Tony went
down on his knees, put both his hands on the road, and did a
front roll without touching his shaved head on the ground.
The bugger was trying to be cocky even when his ass was
raised to the skies.
His journey was painfully slow. The drumbeat became
unbearable after awhile. Some cadets clapped more enthusiastically
I glanced sideways and saw Obaid trying hard to control his
"Sir, I swear to God I have no knowledge of Cadet Obaid's
whereabouts," I say, trying to tread the elusive line between grovelling
and spitting in his face.
The 2nd OIC wants to get home. An evening of domestic cruelty
beckons him. He waves my statement in front of
me. "You have one night to think this through. Tomorrow it goes
to the commandant, and the only thing he hates more than his
men disappearing is their clever-dick collaborators. He is looking
forward to the president's visit.We are all looking forward to
the visit. Don't fuck it up."
He turns to go. My upper body slumps. He puts one hand on
the door handle and turns; my upper body comes back to attention.
"I saw your father once, and he was a soldier's bloody soldier.
Look at yourself." A leery grin appears on his lips. "You
mountain boys get lucky because you have no hair on your face."
I salute him, using all my silent drill practise to contain the
inner cadence, which is saying, Fuck your mother, too.
I wonder for a moment what Obaid would do in this cell. The
first thing that would have bothered him is the smell the 2nd
OIC has left behind. This burnt onions, homemade yogurt gone
bad smell. The smell of suspicion, the smell of things not quite
having gone according to plan. Because our Obaid, our Baby O,
believes that there is nothing in the world that a splash of Poison
on your wrist and an old melody can't take care of.
He is innocent in a way that lonesome canaries are innocent,
flitting from one branch to another, the tender flutter of their
wings and a few millilitres of blood keeping them airborne
against the gravity of this world that wants to pull everyone
down to its rotting surface.
What chance would Obaid have with this 2nd OIC? Baby O,
the whisperer of ancient couplets, the singer of golden oldies.
How did he make it through the selection process? How did he
manage to pass the Officerlike Qualities Test? How did he lead
his fellow candidates through the mock jungle-survival scenarios?
How did he bluff his way through the psychological profiles?
All they needed to do was pull down his pants and see his silk
briefs with the little embroidered hearts on the waistband.
Where are you, Baby O?