A Winter by the River

It was the winter of 1989. 
Pakistan Army had planned one of the largest field exercises in its history i.e., Zarb-e-Momin. My Supply Platoon located at Kharian Cantonment received warning orders to mobilize and move to the exercise area. I was to independently command troops for the next couple of months in the field. As a young captain, I was thrilled with my newly found role.
It had all begun with the operational reconnaissance under the stewardship of a mercurial Lieutenant Colonel, from the erstwhile Headquarters Kharian Logistics Area. With a reckless driver, who drove at cosmic speed, we travelled hundreds of miles from dawn to dusk. The convoy would stop only for short prayer breaks. One day we found a site “near but clear off the main axis”, in suburbs of Jauharabad, a town located on the bank of River Jhelum.
Sometimes in early part of October 1989, we arrived at Jauharabad. Captain Sajjad Baqir, one of my coursemates and the officer in-charge of fleet of Mechanical Transport Battalion joined us. Living tents were still not pitched, so together we proceeded to the local railway station for coordination with the station master as we were to work closely with him in the days to come. At the railway station, we spotted a small room adjoining the station master’s office and asked him if we could spend the night there. Receiving his consent we left content with plans to return at night. On our return, however, much to our dismay, we found that the room was already taken by Officer Commanding of the erstwhile Ordnance Maintenance Park (OMP). The following morning, to avenge the “usurper”, we spread word around that a stranded coach parked at railway station was mistakenly shunted at night, taking along a fast asleep OC OMP, only to be retrieved later by his unit from some far-flung station. To our delight, fake news spread like wild jungle fire! As days passed and I interacted more with the OC OMP, I found him one gem of a person. 
Soon we got busy in establishment of Replenishment Point (RP) Complex. My men would remain busy in clearing wild growth and preparing the broken ground for stacking of stores, paved routes for internal traffic circuit, so on and so forth. In a couple of days, RP Complex had begun to take shape. Within the administrative area, my tent was dug deep down and I had my own Japanese oil stove to keep my tent cozy and comfortable at night. I also had my personal TV set which was considered a luxury in those days. During the remaining part of my stay there, OC OMP would invariably come to my tent after sunset. We would eat dinner together near the glowing heat of the oil heater. He would leave after watching headlines of PTV news bulletin at nine. Despite considerable gap in our seniorities, we became friends. The fake news of his “displacement” in a railway coach nevertheless remained a secret between us. I often wonder if he knew about the fake story!  
As the main event inched closer, formations, units, officers and men from all over started to pour in. Stocks arrived in tons and were gradually souring beyond the carrying capacity of Logistics Area Mechanical Transport Battalion. To make up for the deficiency in transport, Civil GT Companies was raised. Most of us saw the process of hounding of civil trucks for the first time, besides witnessing a fully stocked RP spread on ground, presenting a majestic view, which had taken hundreds of man and machine hours. Senior officers from GHQ, formations and training institutions would visit RP Complex every now and then. Over time, I had almost parroted the briefing points and the stereotyped answers to the frequently asked questions! I fondly remember Lt Col Hameed-ul-Din (later DG S&T) staying overnight in my tent on his way to joining his unit deployed nearby failing to locate it during the day. I was pleased to receive Lt Col Masood-ul-Hasan, who happened to be my first commanding officer at Quetta. Major Tauqeer Hussain (later DG Budget) came to film the RP, to be used as training aid in ASC School. Small military aeroplanes, presumably with senior officers aboard, circled over the complex and helicopters hovered above! 
As the quantum of troops in the area multiplied, workload at RP also increased. Trucks came in large numbers to deliver and collect stocks of rations and POL. Perishable and livestock were being supplied in exercise area at lavish ‘Line of March’ rates. Lots of material and money were therefore changing hands. One morning, as I sat basking in the sun in front of my tent, a JCO attached with my RP for duration of the exercise approached me accompanied by a famous contractor of fresh supplies. As we shook hands, the JCO saluted me and left, leaving me and the bulky man behind. After exchange of pleasantries the contractor asked me in a meaningful tone if he could be of any service to me. I spontaneously asked him if any of his supply vehicles coming in daily from Sargodha could fetch me fresh copy of the newspaper. The man nodded, got up and left without a word. I never got the morning paper nor the contractor returned to see me again!
As the supply platoon had been stretched to the full in field, many organizational and capacity related issues began to surface. The platoon had no capacity to defend itself and remained deprived of the means for internal as well as external communication. As the training activities intensified, the RP was put to real test. In order to provide sustained logistics support to advancing offensive formations, part of my RP was to dislocate ahead, with stocks loaded in civil GT vehicles. A novel idea in those days! During the move, lack of communication took its toll. Being vulnerable to enemy, however, did not bother me much as there was no ‘enemy factor’ at play! Moving ahead, we occupied a new site at a desolate place, located on the fringe of Thal Desert. This was as far forward as the sandy barren land permitted us. As my men occupied an empty local school building which consisted of only a large single room, I got settled in a narrow mudroom, adjoining a nearby deserted little mosque that stood isolated on a mound. The room barely had space for a charpoy and a chair. This was to later serve as the ‘Command Post’ of the ‘Mobile RP Complex’. For the next few days, we remained busy in stacking of stores, neatly spread over a small but relatively hard sandy patch, devoid of any natural cover. As mechanized formations advanced, collection parties of marching units thronged all over for drawing rations and POL reserves, besides refueling enroute. The space began to cramp as the number of men and vehicles swelled. Enforcement of discipline and safety precautions at the complex became virtually impossible. During one dark rainy night I stood soaked and from a distance watched in utter helplessness as crazy headlights of grinding vehicles flickered all over with the men yelling at each other in frenzy. Those not involved in collection loitered around, smoking at leisure and throwing burning butts all over. The formation mercifully cleared by wee hours leaving behind a badly ruffled RP. As the day broke, my staff took a quick stock of the ruins, only to find 160 petrol filled jerricans missing from the RP! We had been routed by a friendly formation on the march!
Over the next couple of days, sanity gradually returned and routine maintenance of formations commenced. On one such calm afternoon, a somber looking Zaman approached me with an equally grim-faced JCO from a stock drawing unit. Both disagreed on accuracy of the hanging scale used by the RP staff for weighing livestock. Zaman insisted on accuracy of the hanging scale which he vowed to have tested by hooking his batman in presence of the arguing JCO.  Though he did promise to re-check, if his “Master Scale” had lost some weight during the move!
As the exercise culminated, offensive formations dispersed in situ, whereas we were also told to move back to Jauharabad, where part of my RP was sitting dormant. I was happy to be back to the old place. The old camp, however, now looked done. Heavy rains had taken a toll on it. Where my neatly dug and properly laid out tent once stood lay nothing but a deep ditch filled with stagnant rain water. I spent the night in a hurriedly erected tent. The following morning, I walked around and found the place once frequented by the dignitaries from all over wearing a complaining look.
For the next few days, we remained busy in shifting of unconsumed commodities back to the railway station. There was somber calm all over. OC OMP was busy in back loading of his own unit, so we saw less of each other. However, he rescued me for old time’s sake by making up for 160 jerricans lost at the Mobile RP.
All packed and done, as the wheels began to roll, I felt a sudden tinge of sadness – something to do with the ‘Bird Cage Syndrome’. I had spent five wintry months here, without any leave or respite. It was time to say ‘adios’ to the river side!

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