The peace that we find in our land today has been hard fought. For us Pakistanis who are living our lives in freedom, there are those who embody the spirit of sacrifice to ensure that our safety and freedom is held intact. Our country is replete with countless unheard stories of exemplary bravery, courage and sacrifice imprisoned in time’s memory, which have kept our nation and its peoples secure. At one point in life they had everything and at another they lost their loved ones, yet they embody indom itable spirits as they overcome the challenges that are thrown their way. I had the chance to meet these brave families prior to the Investiture Ceremony where they had gathered to attend the event.
Part of love is to protect with everthing that you have, with your life and limb. This piece aims to shine a light on not just the soldiers who performed prodigies of valor and have laid down their lives for securing those of others, but also on the parents who lose their children that they raised with love, of siblings who would never again experience the easy love and companionship of their brothers, of wives who planned their whole lives with their husbands but would now have to shoulder all the responsibilities alone, of children who would never experience paternal love and the care/support of a father, and of friends and comrades who will forever feel the loss the empty space left by the departed, never to be filled again.
This story began on March 10, 1993, on a Wednesday in Village Dhara of Tehsil Khuiratta, one of the chief towns of Kotli District in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, when a little boy, Khawar Shahab was born. Khuiratta, a beautiful area, full of natural springs and waterfalls, lies at a distance of about 8 km from the Line of Control.
As soon as Shahab was eligible for ISSB, he qualified and was selected as a GC in Pakistan Military Academy (PMA), Kakul in 2014. He achieved the distinction of earning Gold Medal in PMA for being adjudged the best boxer among other awards. After passing out he joined 35 Punjab Regiment and was posted to Bannu, KP as a Lieutenant.
On March 2, 2017 Lt Khawar Shahab became a part of an intelligence based operation during which he was commanding his group in Jani Khel, as a part of Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad in Bannu. With a solemn resolve Lt Khawar Shahab was pursuing the terrorists who had started retreating upon confrontation. After pursuing them for about 1.5 km, when he reached what can be described as the hub of terrorists, cross firing had begun. His eyes gleamed as he got ready to surmount any barrier that fell in his way.
The evening was overcast and it was going to rain soon, as I sat listening to Lt Khawar Shahab Shaheed’s parents narrate the story. Despite the distinct chill in the air I felt comforted by the warmth emanating from the parents who longed for their son. Listening to the story – by the Shaheed’s father, Raja Adalat Khan, who works for the Police Department in Khuiratta – as it progressed, was like picturing a slow motion movie of an inevitable loss, an event that was waiting to happen, as that was but the shaheed’s deepest desire.
They had killed about 4 terrorists when his comrade Lance Naik Shehzad got injured (later embraced shahadat), and a bullet pierced through Lt Khawar Shahab’s head. He felt it pierce through and then came the white-hot stringing pain coupled with the flow of warm blood and dimming senses. The buzzing in his ears intensified into a roar, the sky disappeared as black splotches appeared. He inhaled only a shallow breath and then struggled for another. His dreams had found him as a light flooded him and the love for the motherland inundated his soul. He had found the path he was destined for. In some corner of his heart, he had always known that his plea for martyrdom would be heard.
Pakistan Army had to take cover of artillery fire and gunship helicopter shelling in order to defeat the terrorists and take custody of his body. Had it not been for his actions, the ammunition and explosive material that terrorists had accumulated there could take out a lot of people.
As his father received the news of his shahadat, his heart nearly leapt out of his chest, and he somehow fractured the bones in his hand. He didn’t realize that until months later upon an x-ray as his senses were benumbed. As the silence prevailed and he recovered his senses, he realized that the whole of universe was constantly moving and he was still a part of it.
His eyes shone with admiration for his son and pride could be sensed in his voice. “He was handsome, even beautiful, familiar and well-versed with the ways of life. Whenever I wore a suit he would tell me how to carry it. He used to comb his mother’s hair and would take care of me in every way he could. He was the light of our house.”
Grief comes in waves for his mother who still cannot fall asleep and takes medicine to numb the pain. At night when she sits listening to the silence, she feels aches of loneliness, the ache she hopes to suppress by falling asleep; sleep which has pooled on her eyelids but is yet perturbed. Insomnia has become a companion that won’t quit. While she as a mother has been blessed with the most tender of hearts; in many ways she is stronger than everyone else. Her red sorrowful eyes were telling her own tale while her husband narrated the story and then her sorrow and love conjoined, found words, “He was the sweetest boy. I miss him every single day. It is his love that we cannot forget.” She knew that her son couldn’t ignore his heart’s voice as it grew loud and louder; he knew what it was to fight the good fight.
Her face was showing signs that she was holding back. Her expressions were strained to stay composed. Her chest tightened with the surge of anger at the way these enemies of Islam are destroying our motherland. “How could they kill such handsome boys like my Khawar?” she exclaimed. There was a hole in her heart where memory upon memory of her son was engraved and stacked together. I could see the pain beneath her smile, the strength behind those loving eyes. I couldn’t cry her tears or mourn her loss; could only feel her heart shattered into pieces from afar.
Thousands of people belonging to families of martyrs, officers and civil society gathered at his hometown in AJK to attend his funeral and pay tribute to his ultimate sacrifice. Government of Pakistan has awarded him with Tamgha-e-Basalat. At the place of his Shahadat in Jani Khel, Bannu Chowk has been named after him, which was inaugurated in April. In his regiment, Yadgaar-e-Shuhada was inaugurated on March 17. The stadium where his funeral was held has also been associated with his name.
Since his death thousands of Khawar Shahabs have been born in Azad Jammu and Kashmir who want to join Pakistan Army and serve Pakistan. “One of my sons is a Gentleman Cadet under training at PMA Kakul. Another one is also preparing to join Army. This is the example of my faith; that I’ve given my two other sons to Pakistan Army so they could protect the country and nation just like their brother. Our strength is that we aren’t afraid of dying for this noble cause, rather we embrace it with happiness. After Khawar’s Shahadat the love for Pakistan Army has grown in our hometown. Different schools and colleges have paid tribute to him,” said his father. “The Kashmiris are struggling and believe that they will form a part of Pakistan one day. The slogan ‘Kashmir banay ga Pakistan’ is engraved in their hearts and minds.”
We’re all a part of that same miracle that was Lieutenant Khawar Shahab shaheed, only if we decide to keep the motherland and others’ safety before our own.
It was one of those days – soon after the martyrdom of Ma’az and Maira’s father, Sepoy Shaukat Ali Shaheed, Tamgha-e-Basalat – on which the night seemed to be falling fast. As the evening wore on, the sky grew darker and the moon rose higher. Just as the darkness threatened to submerge everything, Mubashra Amin, the widow of Sepoy Shaukat Ali Shaheed, who belonged to 70 Punjab Regiment, pointed to the stars and told her son Ma’az that the star that shone brightest was his father and her beloved husband. However, she hadn’t braced herself for the question that was coming next.
“But then where does papa go during the day?”
A moment later his small and warm tiny hands reached up to her face, wiping the tears that were now flowing in silence. She instantly felt rich about the gift that he had left behind, much like a moonbeam in her soul on a dark yet clear starry night.
Her mind wandered off to reminisce about the time Maira was born. She arrived a few years after Ma’az – all white, pink and delicate, beautiful with rosy cheeks – who now stood by her side, her bright eyes a clear indication that one day she’ll also be able to join the Pakistan Armed Forces. She felt overwhelmed and thankful for the sheer joy of having Ma’az and Maira by her side. These three hearts shall forever be sewn to her own and her husband will forever be the brightest star in the heavens for her. Her eyes glistened but shone brightly in the cold light, as her spirits leapt like a rekindled flame.
Sepoy Shaukat Ali was all set to return home on a leave on March 11, but he got his leave cancelled to take part in an operation against a group of people who had looted the tourists in Diamer District of Gilgit-Baltistan when a bullet pierced his arm and reached the chest on March 17, 2016. The adrenaline in his body stopped pumping and pain exploded like a bomb inside him. He felt the pulse in the gushing wound, every beat of his pulse felt like a hammer banging on the wound. He tried to move his chest, suck in air, but none came. His heart stopped and then came the light he had always dreamt of. He felt like floating; like becoming a part of the stars.
When his body was brought back home and he laid there wrapped in robes of martyrdom, she took his shoes off herself to be saved as an adornment for years to come. “Ma’az and Maira will join Army one day,” she said with determination, “Ma’az will wear his father’s shoes when they fit him and serve Pakistan just as his father did. I am proud of him as he was a good son, husband, father and a soldier. He was always brave.” She spoke the language of enthusiasm, of feats accomplished with determination and courage. I couldn’t help but marvel at her generosity, even though she no longer lived in a world of certainties.
As the days stretched ahead of her and she toiled through everyday life after her husband’s shahadat, teaching Urdu language at Fauji Foundation School, and studying for her M.Phil, she felt like she was alone, but when she met other women like her, realization dawned on her that she wasn’t the only one and decided to convert her weaknesses into strengths. “From an ordinary woman, I have become the wife of a martyr and it is a great honor for me. I carry gas cylinders on my own shoulders like men. Life cannot go on at a leisurely pace anymore. I know that Allah has chosen me because I have the strength. If you think life is difficult, it becomes difficult. There are times when the kids feel abandoned as there’s no one to take them out but I never let them feel like they’re alone. At times it gets tough to put them to sleep as they miss their father and ask questions about his absence. I am at a loss to explain how I feel at such times,” she smiled bravely through her tears.
It had been 4 months since he had come home on leave and they were in the process of getting the house renovated but she didn’t lose hope after his martyrdom and continued the renovation with Pakistan Army’s assistance.
During the last leave they went on a trip to Lahore. ‘You must buy things that you need,’ he said as they made a small trip to the local market.
She threw a glance at him and asked ‘What’s the hurry?’
Hours later, as he bade them goodbye to report back to duty, his daughter Maira moved her small delicate fingers across his uniform. He planted a quick yet affectionate kiss on her forehead and turned towards the door, afraid he wouldn’t be able to leave otherwise.
“Stay safe!” Mrs. Mubashra called over her shoulder. It was in that moment that she felt the first stirrings of worry.
It later turned out to be the last holiday they spent together. Visions of his wife, son and daughter flashed before him as he recited Kalma-e-Shahadat and closed his eyes.
One fine morning, Azra Batool, the wife of Sepoy Amir Intzar, who belonged to 651 Mujahid Battalion, was waiting for a call from her husband in their hometown Chakwal, as morning birds sang past her window. He was away from home on duty in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. She was not even slightly prepared for her dreams to be broken as the time came and she raced to pick up the call, her heart dancing with joy to finally listen to him talk about his journey and his routine at the new posting. Once she let out the first tear, a torrent of tears followed in an unbroken stream. Her lungs rummaged for oxygen with each gasp tearing down her throat and her mind raced even as she lost herself in the storm.
Amir can’t be gone. This cannot be happening. Everything turned into fog after that.
Her husband had been hit by enemy mortar fire while he was deployed at a rear post along the border area of Kashmir on November 23, 2016. She couldn’t hear the rest as dark clouds started gathering around her eyes. It had been too painful to contemplate at that moment.
The ending didn’t feel too odd – despite the grief she was engulfed in, her senses completely benumbed – as it was the one her husband had always envisioned and wished for. The same day that he left home he embraced martyrdom with open arms. His irrevocable determination couldn’t wait. When they received his body wrapped in flag the next day, silently screaming and suffocating with each breath, she felt lost in the crowd that had now gathered around her. The storm in her mind raged for hours and it felt as if it threw everything out of nature’s arsenal at her at once.
When I saw her solitary figure engulfed in total despair, I couldn’t help but ache for all that she had lost. It has now been 1.5 years since her husband passed away. While happiness once emanated from their house, there is nothing but stillness, yet she is filled with gratitude that her husband was chosen to give his life for the noblest of causes. “He was a great husband. He called me one day prior and asked me if I needed anything and said I must take care of myself and my 5-year-old son. Army is taking good care of us and we have faith in the institution. Knowing that we are not alone has helped me cope with the challenges and difficulties.”
Her tears carry the quality of sacredness as they mean overwhelming grief yet unspeakable love. The whole world feels depopulated as she searches the crowd for one particular face.
What are we after all, without our memories, without our loved ones?
It was sometime in the afternoon on July 12, 2016 when the phone of Sepoy Wazir Ahmed’s brother rang in 25 Division Malir Cantt, Karachi. He had just performed ablution for prayers when he got the news. He gripped the table that laid beside him and took deep breaths. He was in complete disbelief about what he had just heard. His limbs felt as if they were chained to iron shackles. He just stood there unable to muster an ounce of courage.
Loss. The word never made more sense to him than it was making at this moment.
A few days ago when the phone rang, his brother Sepoy Wazir Ahmed who belonged to 14 FF Regiment had announced, “I’ll be visiting home soon. I cannot wait to see everyone.”
The 28-year-old was inducted in the Army in 2010 and was posted to Pannu Aqil. After a few years he was posted to Gujranwala, but then his unit moved for a counter-terrorism operation in South Waziristan Agency.
On a fine afternoon, 2 men from his unit along with him went to get water from the stream in the area Kundi Ghar of South Waziristan Agency. The sun shone brightly overhead on a clear blue sky. As they filled their containers with water, amid laughter and jokes, climbing uphill from the stream to return to 14FF, at about a 100 m distance from their unit, they were hit by the Taliban who were hiding in the mountains at a height. In that difficult treacherous terrain, fighting from a disadvantageous position needed a special feat of bravery. Brave he was, but then glory of martyrdom was awaiting him.
At his funeral the ground filled with people, leaving no room for more people to stand or even enter. Everyone had memories of him being very cheerful and friendly and as they recalled the memories, tears were becoming increasingly difficult to hold back.
His wife was trying to hold her breath, fearing the sounds that were escalating from deep within her throat, her misty eyes clouding the vision, as she attempted to hold the sobs that carried the potential to turn into screams. As she saw his body with his face destroyed, she let out a million screams that had been pent up inside her for far too long. She could taste the salt from the tears streaming down her cheeks which she thought had dried up from constant sobbing hours ago.
Although his parents have suffered from this loss, his father is old and feeble but every time he is in the state of sujood (prostration), all he does is utter prayers for his son Sepoy Wazir Ahmed Shaheed. His old, weakened body gets stronger with the memories of his brave son who fought and died for his country.
This story is another classic example of unconditional love and how family bonds help revive families. His family back in Ghotki is looking after his widow Husna and their son, Altaf.
‘Everything I have is for my son. He’ll be a proud custodian of the nation when he joins the ranks,” his widow told us in Sindhi.
They are losing him in pieces, when the calls and mail stopped arriving, when his scent faded away from his clothes that they’ve kept in the closet, and yet when the feeling that he’s gone forever becomes overwhelming, there comes another significant missing part, memories that come in waves, forever ebbing and flowing.
As life goes on, we ultimately find strength to endure without the ones we have lost with their memories forever seared into our souls, knowing that they were martyred in the line of duty while defending our freedom.
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