“Looking out the bus windows at devastated buildings followed by untouched villages where life went on as it had for thousands of years. Then more destruction. That’s when I realized that it was the Pakistani and Indian civilians who were really getting the worst of the war, not us Americans.”
When I think about it now, I realize how colonialist it was. At the time, though, the two Pakistanis who worked for us just seemed like a normal thing. Dean, the gardener without a big toe on his left foot, smoked hash and slept all afternoon. Sharif, a learned man who cleaned, cooked, and watched us kids, was another story. Neither man seemed to be very religious. I never saw either of them take out a prayer mat and turn their selves toward Mecca like so many of the other Pakistanis did. I do recall the name of Allah appearing in their conversations, though whether in praise or otherwise, I don’t know. After all, I knew less than one hundred words of Urdu. On hot days, my siblings and I joined the rest of the kids on base at the swimming pool. My dad and his buddies used the nine hole golf course. The entire base was surrounded by an eight-foot high brick wall with broken glass and barbed-wire on top of it. That was to keep the people who lived outside out, not to keep us in. When my dad played golf, there were always grown Pakistani men sitting on the wall trying to sell the Americans’ errant golf balls back to them.
It was after lunch one afternoon that Sharif enlightened me about religion. We were in the house listening to a Pakistani radio station while he vacuumed. The wail of the singer over a stringed instrument accompanying her was impossible to ignore. Even at the age of ten, I found the voice very seductive. Somewhere, somehow, I decided that this must be how the music Jesus listened to sounded. Maybe his mother sang like that. I mentioned my thoughts to Sharif.
He laughed and said, yes, maybe you are right. I was surprised he even knew who I was talking about. You know who Jesus is, I asked. Yes, replied Sharif, he is one of the prophets. I was astounded. All the stuff I’d been told in church and Sunday school about the one, true, religion no longer seemed true. Maybe all religions were one. My ten year old mind, steeped in the Baltimore catechism, had just been blown. It was a revelation of the first order. No longer was the kingdom of heaven for members only.
While we lived over there, a war broke out between India and Pakistan over a piece of territory known as Kashmir. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, but it was one of the bloodier outbreaks up to that time. For weeks prior to the escalation of the war into the region of Pakistan where we lived, American made warplanes flew constantly overhead. One of the games we children played was guessing what make the planes were. Being Air Force brats we were well-versed in the Pentagon’s airborne hardware. This identification game was rendered a little difficult due to the freshly painted camouflage the Pakistani Air Force had covered them with. While the Pakistanis were painting their planes, the GIs on base were painting all of the windows in our houses completely black. This was to prevent any light from escaping and providing any potential Indian bombers with a target. In addition, air raid drills were held daily. All of these preparations lent our end of summer play a surreal air.
On September 13, 1965, the war finally reached the Americans in Peshawar. The day before around noon, an air raid siren went off unannounced. I’ll never forget the wail that screamed forth from my six year old brother Steve as the siren pierced the afternoon stillness. The fear that he vocalized was present in all of us. As it turned out, the siren blast was a false alarm. At school the next day it was all anyone could talk about. The kids who lived off base and nearer the airport told us they had seen bombers from India before the sirens went off. After the sirens started, they said that some Pakistani airplanes took off and chased the Indian planes away. The base commander came around to each classroom and told us not to worry and to listen to our parents. That Monday happened to be my tenth birthday. After a small party and lots of cake and ice cream, we went to bed. My brothers and I held our usual evening conversation as, one by one, we drifted off to sleep.
A few hours later I was awakened by the sound of rattling windows. At first I thought one had opened by itself. After listening closer, though, I heard a series of sounds that sounded like a whistle and then an explosion. I figured the wisest thing to do would be to wake my parents. Running into their room, I found my mom already awake. She instructed me to wake my brothers and sisters and get them into the hallway. Once we were all settled in the hallway with blankets and pillows, Dad began praying. I started trying to count the bombs falling.
The following morning at school, some of the kids were talking about going back to the states with their moms until the war was over. I wondered if that would happen to us since mom was pregnant. Others said they’d heard that Red China had been invaded and were threatening to drop the bomb. At the time, China was an ally of Pakistan. The teachers didn’t talk about it. Instead, they made us sing songs in the round and cancelled all homework. When we arrived home from school that afternoon, every couple of houses on base had a bomb shelter between them. The GIs on base had to dig deep wide trenches in the yard of every other house on base. The holes were about seven feet deep and four feet wide. After digging the trench, each one was covered with sheets of nine by twelve foot plywood across the top. The plywood was then covered with a pile of dirt and sandbags to soften any explosive concussions. In each of the entrances stood ladders made of two by fours.
That night, the siren went off again. We all ran outdoors and climbed into the shelter. Our neighbors were already there. My older sister had a crush on the boy next door and traded places so they could sit together. I sat next to the entrance just in case I could see anything. Every once in a while I did see some anti-aircraft fire. Kathy and her boyfriend held each other’s hands whenever the parents weren’t looking. The all-clear siren didn’t sound until dawn the next morning. The next night the planes came again. While we waited out the bombing going on a couple miles away, my dad and the man next door talked about the possibility of evacuating the women and children. This was the first any of us kids had heard anything about such a plan and we peppered the two men with questions. They told us what little they knew or were willing to let on that they knew and told us to try and sleep. Once again, the all-clear siren didn’t sound until the following dawn. By this time, school was a joke. The teachers and the students were too tired to teach or learn and the disruption of daily life had reached a point where most everyone found it impossible to continue. The planes continued to come every night. From what I could understand from the newspaper, the Indians had the upper hand. It also seemed to me that the superpowers were desperate to end the fighting before it expanded. How they planned to do this was not clear.
Finally, on September 19, six days after the first air raid and also mom’s birthday, we left the air base. The remaining women and children gathered with fathers and husbands at the athletic fields where only weeks ago we’d finished our little league season to board buses which would take us overland to Kabul, Afghanistan. It was quite a trip. Looking out the bus windows at devastated buildings here and there that were followed by untouched villages where life went on as it had for thousands of years. Then more destruction. That’s when I realized that it was the Pakistani and Indian civilians who were really getting the worst of the war, not us Americans. Going over the Hindu Kush and through the Khyber Pass is an experience no matter when one goes, but with the Pakistani government at war, it was even more of one. In Kabul we boarded C-130 cargo planes outfitted for troop transport and flew to Teheran where we were greeted by Red Cross workers with sandwiches and tons of comic books. From Teheran we flew to Istanbul and boarded another group of buses. The buses were ferried across the Straits of Marmara to Karamursel Air Station. In Karamursel we moved into barracks vacated by soldiers, ate at the mess hall, went to school in quonset huts, and waited out the resolution of the war we’d left. Our mothers’ hopes were dependent on telegrams via the military teletype network and letters distributed at mail call while the children were in school.
After three months, we flew back to Pakistan. The war had ended in a stalemate after the Soviets and the US agreed to stop supplying either side with weapons and ammunition, and the base was still there. Many Pakistanis and Indians lost their lives and many more their livelihoods. It was great to see dad again. The trenches from the bomb shelters were still there. My brother, Jeff, and I were playing freeze tag one afternoon when I fell across one of the ditches and twisted my ankle. After a week or so, I noticed the pain had moved lower into my foot. My dad told me to stop whining so I did. Still, it was hard to play baseball. My mom finally took me to the clinic for x-rays. It turned out my foot was broken and needed a cast. When Sharif came back to work, he laughed that I was the only American injured in the war.
A couple years ago (not long after the US and Britain invaded Iraq), I asked my dad why the Pentagon decided to have all of the women and children evacuated from the base. Was it because they were afraid the Indian Air Force might accidentally bomb the US military station? After all, the airport wasn’t that far away and this was well before the era of the so-called smart bombs. No, he told me, it was because radical Muslims and their nationalist allies were upset that the US was not supporting them in the manner they felt was appropriate. Furthermore, he said, there had always been an element of the Pakistani populace that hated the US presence in their country from the get go. The fundamental Muslim element considered us infidels and the leftists considered us imperialists. It seems that they were both right.
Ron Jacobs is an anti-imperialist and the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (Verso 1997). His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, was released in 2007 from Mainstay Press. His most recent novel is The Co-Conspirator's Tale (Fomite Press 2011). He currently lives in North Carolina, USA.