The Warriors Who Hold the Fort

”After offering Tahajjud that night in Sept 2008, I went to sleep for a little bit and had a very bad dream. When I woke up in the morning, I wasn’t in good sorts and I decided not to send the kids to school or go myself; I used to teach back then. I went to see the principal and informed her that something didn’t sit right with me so I wanted to take the day off. She understood because she knew about my husband being away. As I left for home, I found out that Zahid had been injured. He called himself to tell me that he had had a really bad fall and that his leg was fractured and that he had been taken to CMH Peshawar; he wanted to talk to me himself because he knew what impact the news would have on me coming from someone else. Later on, as it all began to unfold, since the battalion had suffered a heavy loss, the battalion SM told me that “Col Sa’b” was the least injured and that the rest were in worse shape. Obviously I was worried sick. I remember my elder son packed my bag. My friends also came once they heard the news, but for me all that is a haze as is the journey from Kharian, where we were stationed at the time, to Peshawar. The thing that kept me sane was probably the fact that I had talked to Zahid, so it couldn’t be that bad, could it?”

Sending your loved ones away to face enemy fire is not for the fainthearted. The good fortune of our country is that courage and bravery is not just found in the hearts of the men who take the oath to offer their lives for the motherland but also define the families that send them to protect and serve. When a mother supports her son’s decision to join the Armed Forces of Pakistan, she is fully aware of the dangers he would have to face. When a wife sees her husband off to fight on the front, she is not oblivious to the fact that he might never return, and yet they send them with prayers, thinking only about how to hold the fort in their absence so they won’t find anything amiss when they return. How many times have we heard such brave women say that every time the phone rang when their husbands, sons or brothers were away serving in hard areas, their heart skipped a beat? But the sense of duty towards the country tempers down all their fears just as it motivates our valorous men to commit to even the supreme sacrifice if need be.
Mrs Uzma Zahid is one of the numerous women whose husbands went to serve their country in the War against Terror. She recalls that it was not the easiest of times when they found out that her husband would be moving to Bajaur with his Unit, 63FF. It was a time when the curse of terrorism had engulfed the whole country and everyday brought with it news of our brave men being martyred or maimed fighting this scourge. “The advance party of our Unit got attacked and there were many shahadats so naturally I was scared. In addition to that, I was very young and to look after the children and so to do everything on my own seemed like a daunting task. But obviously I knew that all this came with the territory. I handed him over to Allah. My brave husband also helped me through this time by talking to me about what I should expect, how to handle any situation, and also now that he was about to take command of his Unit, how to take the families of the whole Unit along. COs’ wives have a pivotal role on the home ground. It’s not just the officer who serves the country but you too,” she says. 
Needless to say, it was not easy despite all the responsibilities that she shouldered; there was always a constant anxiousness about her husband’s safety: “Sometimes I would be talking to him over the phone with the sound of exchange of fire in the background. But I endured through all this with Allah’s help and with my family’s support, in addition to the courage that Zahid displayed,” she added.

So while her husband fought on the battle ground, she fought the good fight back home, taking on the responsibility of her children and herself along with taking care of the families of the officers and troops of the Unit as the CO’s wife, staying strong for them; feeling weak just was not an option. That strength came to her aid when she heard the news of her husband’s injury.
Maj Gen Zahid Mahmood (Lt Col at the time) was nearly finished with his tenure in Bajaur when he was assigned the mission to link up Loesam. On August 7, 2008, as part of Operation Al-Mizan, a Company of 63 FF was moved to link up with the besieged Wing of Khyber Rifles at Loesam. After ferocious fighting and causalities imposed by the Company of 63 FF on militants, the Wing was finally able to break the siege but without link up. After having appreciated the fassadis’ designs and strength in Bajaur, 26 Brigade was tasked to flush out militants from the Agency and link up with Loesam. Having cleared Khar, 26 Brigade commenced the advance towards Loesam. After many attempts only a portion of Tang Khata could be cleared while a gap of about 1.5 km still existed. 63 FF less 2 Companies, under the command of Lt Col Zahid Mahmood, was tasked to carry out link up with forward troops at Rashakai and close the gap. On September 16, 2008, the Battalion arrived at Bajaur Sports Complex. After the initial reconnaissance on September 17 and 18, a deliberate plan was conceived. On September 19, this plan was put into action. The Battalion remained under heavy militant fire for the next two days despite which secure foothold was managed. Soon, however, the militants launched a physical attack supported by rocket and mortar fire from previously prepared dugouts. The encounter that ensued resulted in the shahadat of seven brave soldiers. Five officers, two JCOs and 38 soldiers were seriously injured during this operation. Also during this encounter a mortar shell landed near Lt Col Zahid Mahmood injuring his right leg. While he was being evacuated, six bullets pierced through the same leg leading to excessive bleeding. 
When he was brought to CMH Peshawar, he was not in a good shape. In fact, CO CMH Peshawar told his wife that his prospects were bleak because of excessive bleeding and swelling that could cause a cardiac arrest. The dauntless Mrs Uzma spent the night alternating between praying for him with absolute faith in the mercy of the Almighty, and gathering her wits about her, fending off the anxiety and panic attacks, never once losing hope. She says, “When I reached Peshawar, I immediately took charge of the situation; my whole family was there to support me. I knew that once Zahid was out of the woods, I would have to help in his recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration.”
She recalls that on his road to recovery, first his toe and then the foot till the ankle was amputated; it was psychologically very harrowing for them but they knew it was necessary. But it did not end there. The gangrene spread and the doctors decided that his lower leg would have to be amputated. The doctor told her that it was either her husband’s leg or his life, the decision was hers. “That was the time I realized how to handle oneself in a crisis. It wasn’t a small thing, to say the least, quite frankly it shook me. I went to a side, sat alone and put myself back together and thought everything through: his career, our life, everything. I didn’t let people around me cry and told everyone to be strong. It was a big decision but what needed to be done, needed to be done. All that mattered was his life,” she says.
Once the amputation was done, the next phase was that of rehabilitation. This strong woman took that task in her own fragile hands as well. “I knew that I had to look after all his physical and psychological needs. I read a lot of literature about what to expect and what would need to be dealt with. I also read about what psychological issues we might encounter; soldiers like my husband think negatively about trauma affecting them psychologically, considering it a sign of weakness. So careful not to ruffle his feathers, I convinced him to talk to a therapist. At the same time, I took a lot of help from the Qur’an, and made him realize that his injury had taken him closer to Allah. I would narrate to him stories from Islamic history about the importance and rewards of sabr and submitting to the will of Allah, which helped him a lot,” she says. 
When he finally left the hospital, new realities hit home; she recalls him feeling dependent and devastated. So now she thought of ways to tackle this. “I made sure that he knew that I would support him through it all; when you say you’re with him then you have to show it through consistent actions and behavior, and make them realize it every day,” she says. She said she invited people over and introduced him as a war hero, people were very gracious as well so that elevated his morale. When he finally got his prosthetic leg, she asked him to take her for a drive just so he knew that they could live their life pretty much in the same way as before. She also convinced him to go to AFIRM when he was in better spirits and counsel people suffering from similar injures. That made him feel better, the notion of helping people.
While she aced at looking after her husband’s needs, it is wrong to assume that it was her only duty. Her caregiving had other simultaneous recipients. She also had to explain and counsel her two sons through this difficult time. Having to talk about such grave realities of life with such young children is no easy feat but her sons understood and adapted to this new reality with a maturity that was beyond their years. She thanks Allah that this difficult episode of their lives made her sons more empathetic and responsible not only towards their parents but also anyone they deem in need of help. Moreover, this resolute lady took it upon herself to take care of her own and her husband’s families as well even though she found herself in her darkest hour. With her courage she tried to reassure everyone around her that it would all be just fine.
All this definitely took its toll on her. “I feel sometimes that maybe if someone would’ve told me it’s ok to cry, it would’ve done me good,” she says. She knew that her own mental health was important for the responsibility that she had to undertake so she took help from a psychiatrist. She also feels grateful to her brother who really helped her in this regard by making her talk to him about her issues. She feels that almost all the focus in such situations is on the injured while the family is often overlooked, they need psychological support as well, in fact lots of it. 

Mrs Uzma Zahid says that when she got married, she knew fully well that being an army wife is not an easy job. She appreciated the fact that she would have to always give her husband unflinching support and try 
not to burden him. She believes that our men who are defending the country away from home, have to put up with the stresses of service so it is unfair to bother them with the troubles at home as well. “I never bothered him with anything, even when my son went through a potentially fatal medical condition I decided to handle it myself. You have to be very strong and think of yourself as a soldier at home and fight the battle from there. You should be ready for these compromises and sacrifices if you happen to get married to an Army Officer,” she says.

You have to be very strong and think of yourself as a soldier at home and fight the battle from there. You should be ready for these compromises and sacrifices if you happen to get married to an Army Officer.

Mrs Uzma has a strong sense of duty to her husband, family, and country. One would think that as a family they would have thought that they had done their due for the country, but that is as far from the truth as can be. She believes that for Pakistan she and her family are willing to make any and all sacrifices. They are committed to Pakistan Army and never thought of leaving it. They feel that the Army is like a mother that takes care of you. For them serving in the Army has only brought them pride; Maj Gen Zahid Mahmood is not just pride of the nation but is an inspiration for the young men in his family who have joined the institution following his example. Now that their younger son, Muhammad Salham Zahid, has also decided to join the Army, they are very excited and Maj Gen Zahid has regular sessions with him to encourage and motivate him. Mrs Uzma says that she isn’t scared for her son and that if it were up to her, she would have sent both her sons to join the Army.
Mrs Uzma Zahid is an inspiring woman with sagacity that often comes when life gives you lemons. In her own words, that first night when her husband was fighting for his life was transformative for her. She was no longer the same woman. She found herself thrust into a role where she had to support the supporter (as per our society’s definition of the spousal relationship). She metamorphosed overnight from a precious wife and pampered only daughter of her parents to a woman of gumption and calm maturity who understood that life would forever be different from what it used to be in just a few short hours; she knew that from then on her dependence had to become dependability, no longer could she just stand aside and let her husband manage everything for her, she had to stand beside him and help him move forward in life. But to say that she became this person because of this event would be entirely incorrect; that person was always there, because Allah does not put you through a test that you are not capable of taking. Her untapped inner strength came to the fore that night as she feared for the life of her children’s father, her best friend, her husband.  
No doubt Allah chooses his bravest soldiers for the hardest battles and this is probably why Mrs Uzma Zahid was chosen ­— a woman who stood resolutely in the face of one of the worst crises that can befall a person and neither lost faith nor hope. She has no complaints only gratitude. She believes that in the end everything worked out for the best. As a family, the portentous event changed their perspective on life, they have become more aware of what actually matters in life and for that she couldn’t be more grateful to Allah. HH

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