A True Story (Ojari Camp Disaster April 10th 1988)
I still remember there was a feeling of listlessness and unease engulfing me. I got out of bed late because my school was closed for Spring break. My two younger brothers and a sister were also home with me. I was fourteen and was quite happy with myself because I had recently won a Federal Board Scholarship by securing 8th position in the scholarship examination conducted by the Federal Board. But that particular morning had sadness about it, which I felt very badly. We ate a late breakfast and my brothers got out for cycling. My mother had already gone to her job before we got up.
Since I had nothing else to do I went outside in our lawn to play with the new chicks that had been recently hatched by one of my mother's red hens. I carefully took out the chicks because their mother was not happy with my interference. I gave her some food and water so I can play with the chicks undisturbed. I still remember their soft feathers and tiny beaks with which they were picking the grain from my palm. They made me happy and I was lost playing with them when all of a sudden there was a big bang!!! It was so strong that it shook the ground under my feet and I stumbled. The chicks were scared and they became silent. I got up from the ground, still holding the chick in my hand without realizing that my grip had tightened on the little creature and it was going to die, if I did not release it soon. The bang jolted the big windows of our flat, which opened in the lawn and shattered their glass; I rushed out of the lawn so that I could avoid the shattered glass. The frightened chicks came to life and ran after me. They were making a lot of noise and their distressed mother was squeaking loudly inside the coop.
I quickly went inside and found my younger sister hiding under the bed and loudly crying calling "Ammi Jan! Ammi Jan!!!". Before I could go to her I was forced to look outside the broken windows, as there was a huge black and circular cloud of smoke almost touching the sky. The sunlight was dimmed and it looked like a cloudy day. The black cloud reminded me of the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that I had seen in the movies, when the atom bomb was dropped upon them by the US during the World War II. The confusion and tumult outside our flat brought me back to my senses and I could once again hear my sister. Then somebody knocked at our door and asked us to get out of our house quickly.
I had to go into all the three rooms of our flat and so that I could reach my frightened sister. I was scared too and worried about my brothers and mother who were outside and I had no idea about them. While I locked the house, holding my sobbing sister, I thought we had been finally attacked by India. In 1988 Pakistan was not a declared Nuclear power and the threat of an attack from India was something my generation was growing with ever since we were born. However, there were no aero planes and I thought India has fired a nuclear missile at Islamabad and we would be dead soon.
When we got out there were women and children everywhere and few men. As it was late morning and men had already gone to their work, only women and children were at home. All my neighbors aunts were standing on the pavement trying to determine what had actually happened. The general consensus was however that Islamabad had been attacked by India. Then somebody suggested that we should run towards the open space at the back of the blocks, where now Fatima Jinnah Park has been built. There was a panic when someone pointed to some flying objects coming towards our flats and the shout of "run" made everybody to run because if they hit our blacks they would have smashed the blocks and us along with the tall and huge blocks. These blocks were called as "C Type Flats" and each black comprises sixteen flats. The fear of death forced us to run to save our lives. I could not run because my brothers were still not back and I could not find them anywhere because of people all around. One of my neighbours dragged my younger sister and me with her. She told me not to worry about my brothers and that they would be safe. However, the idea of leaving them on their own in this emergency was something I could not entertain at any cost.
I hid myself in our lawn with my sister and waited for my brothers. After sometime they came and we threw their bicycle in the lawn and followed others towards that open space without realising that by going there we were exposing ourselves to the flying shells and missiles. Fatima Jinnah Park was an open vast plateau that was very green due to the spring season. After running there for a long time we jumped in a ditch and bent our heads on our knees. We were scared to death because death was very close and if we had picked our heads we would have definitely been hit by the flying death. We could hear their hissing sounds as they pass above our heads.
The ditch in which we sheltered ourselves was not a very spacious one and four of us were huddled almost upon each other. I could the white faces my siblings but I was so frightened myself that I could not utter a single word. Once I tried to peek so that I could look at other people but at the same time something passed my ear almost touching my head and I quickly turned my head down. I thought it was our last day and we were soon going to die without our mother in that ditch.
We hid there for a very long time and then the flying death stopped. We got out of the ditch holding each other and saw the whole area was full of people who were returning to their houses speculating about what was happening. Since it was not the cell phone period like today nobody knew what had happened. The missiles, which came flying towards us, fortunately did not burst as they landed in wet ground. We could see many of them from a distance. They were of different sizes half submerged in the mud.
When we slowly reached our block our mother was standing there with her colleague, Aunty Sajida. My mother could not believe her eyes when she saw us safe. We ran towards her and hugged her tightly. I could not hold my tears any longer and started to cry. Aunty Sajida pulled me gently towards her and assured me everything was all right. But everything was not all right as the news start pouring in about the badly affected areas of the twin cities. Then we came to know that the incident had taken place at an underground army ammunition depot, called Ojri Camp. We were not familiar with the place as an ammunition camp rather we knew the place because my mother was used to buy her favourite breeds of hens from there. (The hen that I have talked about in the beginning was also bought from there.)
Anyhow the day seemed to come to a stand still as nothing else happened except more of flying death, which penetrated the thick walls of the concrete and killed people. Sumera was one of those unfortunate girl who was killed in the sector I-8. She might have lived but in order to avoid the danger of the missile penetrated through their house, she and her mother ran outside, where she was hit by a shell that blasted and injured not only her mother but many other people as well. Sumera was taken to the PIMS hospital where she died around seven in the evening. Her abnormal sister who was left inside the house was safe. When I heard the news I could not believe my ears because I thought it would have been the abnormal girl who would not have been able to safe her life. I was shocked to know that it was Sumera who had died. She was a year or two younger than me and we were friends.
I could not eat or sleep because of the fright. We had only Aunty Sajida and our mother with us. Aunty could not return to her home that day because of the sad incident as she lived in Pindi. The feeling of insecurity was so intense that nobody wanted to sleep lest more of the missiles might come and killed us during sleep. We could neither go outside, as the memories of the frightening morning were still fresh. It was the longest night of our lives.
My mother was very distraught, as she could not contact any of her relative. The telephone lines were not working. I could understand my mother's anxiety because she was the only one to handle the disturbed situation. My father had died three years ago and it was a great challenge for her to look after us on her own. Now, when I am my self a mother, I can realise her situation. We were a huge responsibility as we were totally dependent upon her, whereas she was still trying to cope with the loss of our father and her husband. However, she did not show her fright and supported us emotionally and psychologically. She made us to talk over the how she was helped by an old man, who brought her back to her work place. That morning she had to go to my brothers' school for the submission of the fee for the new term. The bank was near the school and after she got the challan forms from the office, she was going to the bank when this incident happened. She could not get any taxi, as there was no transport. When we were hiding in the ditch, she was desperately trying to get to us. At that time an old man with a white beard came to her and asked her to stand in some shelter, he waited with her and when the flying death stopped, he got her a taxi and she came home. She thought he was help from God because no one would have done that for her or for anyone else in that distressed time when everybody was trying to save himself.
She praised me because I not only helped my siblings but also her chicks. Before we ran towards the open space, my younger brother and I managed to put the frightened chicks back with their mother.
Written by : Memoona Saqlain.
Vivid memories for me too! I was 13 year old and at school at that time. Actualy, it was the first day of the new school year. After the first one or two blasts most of us thought that it was yet another blast in one of the nearby markets, Jinnah Super, or Super Market. But this impression lasted only a few seconds, soon other explosions followed and we stopped counting.
They evacuated the building and made us stand in the ground behind the school building, away from where the smoke plume now appeared clearly. I remember a lot of children from the primary sections crying, teachers taking care of them, but so worried themselves. I don’t know how much time we stood there. It is strange, I vividly remember the first few explosions. But I don’t remember the sound of the explosions afterwards. Probably, because it was there constantly. II remember clearly the sound of shells flying not far away from where we were. Later my mother came and took us home.
When we saw the news later, we understood how lucky we had been; so many had lost so much.