If stories like these don’t force us to rethink the cynicism we seem to have adopted as a nation, then nothing will
He did not return.
The nurse had found him
crying at night
not because of the pain
or because he was dying
He felt he had let his country down.
At home, I could only think of
his blood shot eyes.
Who would tell his family?
I wrote another letter
and posted it in the same letter box.— Shafaq Husain
My mother is no poet. But volunteering to work in an army hospital after the 1965 war, she was so moved by what she saw that she found her voice. She still talks about the lines of volunteers outside the hospitals, the blood donors who gave so much blood that the hospitals ran out of bottles.
And she still talks about this young soldier, lying on a metal bed with a hole in his abdomen, crying because he could not go back and fight.
If stories like these don’t force us to rethink the cynicism we seem to have adopted as a nation — the world-weary “no one deserves our compassion” attitude that continues to plague us — then nothing will.
Yes, many institutions in our country have earned the reputations they carry today. But projecting the scorn onto the young men laying down their lives for us is not just misdirected cynicism, it is treason. Ask anyone who has ever had a loved one serve in the army.
A friend of mine has been an army wife for more than twenty years. Her husband is often posted in such remote areas that he comes home for three days after every four months. She describes the scene as he prepares to leave.
“Your heart is in your throat,” she says, “but you can’t show it. He needs to know that we are all fine. When he sits in that jeep, he can’t look back. Looking back can cost him his life. So I watch him quietly as he puts on his uniform, his belt. Sometimes there is a gun attached. I pray extra hard those days.”
“The house is extra quiet that morning,” she continues. “Even the girls are quiet. I know they are thinking, ‘Is this the last time we will ever see our Baba smile again?’ The youngest one always finds a reason to cry that night.”
A soldier who served in the army for 14 years wrote to me after my last article (“Where is our yellow ribbon?”, May 5). He described the toll army life had taken on his family and him: he suffered from Chronic Mountain Sickness, high blood pressure and loss of memory for years after being stationed at high altitudes. His daughter’s studies suffered from having to move so often. And his wife lost a child because she was unable to get the little girl to the hospital in time.
These are the stories of our soldiers, men who have picked this path not because they have to but because they choose to. Some of these accounts leave images in our minds that are often difficult to get rid of, like the soldier who recovered the dead body of his friend, killed in winter, after the snow had melted. The corpse was lifeless, but the watch on the wrist was still ticking.
nother army wife describes how her husband returned after months from a hard area posting. He was quieter than usual. At night, he would twitch in his sleep. He would jump at the slightest sound. She learned later that he had discovered the body of one of his closest comrades, skinned by the Taliban and left at the barracks.
Last month, a 23-year-old soldier in Swat was shot through the head by the Taliban. He survived but is permanently paralysed. He has a young wife and an 18-month-old daughter. He says that he would give his life for his country. But when he turns on his television set at night and sees the negative, cynical coverage, he wonders whether his sacrifice was worth it.
I ask my friend whether giving her life to the army — she was 18 when she got married — has been worth it. She is quiet. “Yes,” she says softly. “I would do it all over again.”
“But there are some things that get to you,” she says. “Like the sound of the army boots, the sound of them thumping on the cement floor. It is difficult to describe it to someone who has never heard it but the boots, they have a certain heartbeat in them.”
When you are stationed in remote places, alone for so long, she explains, you become aware of every sound around you. And at the end it are these sounds that have the power to break you. She describes the loud, metallic thud of the gates as her husband leaves. “I can’t explain the ghabrahat I feel when I hear this sound,” she says.
And yet the slamming shut of the gates has been a part of her life for 22 years. It is always followed by a long period of waiting.
I think of the soldier my mother nursed more than forty years ago. Did his family ever receive the letter she posted? Who was waiting for him? These are the stories that we never hear.
Ayeda Naqvi is a journalist who lives and works in Lahore. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org