Monday, March 10, 2014

"The sole survivor"

The shadow wars waged between Pakistan and India in Afghanistan as recounted by William Dalrymple.

As I have noted before, the wars will end when the elites decide that enough is enough. Let us hope that they have the wisdom to step up to the plate (together) sooner rather than later.

At six o’clock in the morning of February 26, 2010, Major Mitali Madhumita was awakened by the ringing of her mobile phone. Mitali, a 35-year-old Indian army officer from Orissa, had been in Kabul less than a year. Fluent in Dari, the most widely spoken language in Afghanistan, she was there to teach English to the first women officer cadets to be recruited to the Afghan National Army.

It was a sensitive posting, not so much because of gender issues as political ones: India’s regional rival, Pakistan, was extremely touchy about India providing military assistance to the government in Afghanistan and had made it very clear that it regarded the presence of any Indian troops or military trainers there as an unacceptable provocation. For this reason everyone on the small Indian army English Language Training Team, including Mitali, and all the Indian army doctors and nurses staffing the new Indira Gandhi Kabul Children’s Hospital, had been sent to Afghanistan unarmed, and in civilian dress. They were being put up not in an army barracks, or at the Indian Embassy, but in a series of small, discreet guest houses dotted around the city’s diplomatic quarter.  

The phone call was from a girlfriend of Mitali’s who worked for Air India at Kabul airport. Breathless, she said she had just heard that two of the Indian guest houses, the Park and the Hamid, were under attack by militants. 

As the only woman on her team, Mitali had been staying in separate lodgings about two miles away from the rest of her colleagues, who were all in the Hamid. Within seconds, Mitali was pulling on her clothes, along with the hijab she was required to wear, and running, alone and unarmed, through the empty morning streets of Kabul toward the Hamid. 

“I just thought they might need my help,” she told me recently in New Delhi. 

As she dashed past the Indian Embassy, Mitali was recognized by one of the guards from diplomatic security who shouted to her to stop. The area around the guest houses was mayhem, he told her. She should not go on alone. She must return immediately to her lodgings and stay there.

“I don’t require your permission to rescue my colleagues,” Mitali shouted back, and kept on running. When she passed the presidential compound, she was stopped again, this time at gunpoint, by an Afghan army security check post. Five minutes later she had charmed one of the guards into giving her a lift in his jeep. Soon they could hear bursts of automatic weapons, single shots from rifles and loud grenade blasts. 

 “As we neared the area under attack I jumped out of the jeep and ran straight into the ruins of what had been the Hamid guesthouse. It was first light, but because of all the dust and smoke, visibility was very low and it was difficult to see anything. The front portion of the guesthouse was completely destroyed—there was just a huge crater. Everything had been reduced to rubble. A car bomb had rammed the front gate and leveled the front of the compound. Three militants then appeared and began firing at anyone still alive. I just said, ‘Oh my God,’ and ran inside. 

“I found my way in the smoke to the area at the back where my colleagues had been staying. Here the walls were standing but it was open to the sky—the blast had completely removed the roof, which was lying in chunks all over the floor. There was cross-firing going on all around me, and the militants were throwing Chinese incendiary grenades. Afghan troops had taken up positions at the top of the Park Residence across the road and were firing back. I couldn’t see the militants, but they were hiding somewhere around me.

“As quietly as I could, I called for my colleagues and went to where their rooms had been, but I couldn’t find them anywhere. I searched through the debris and before long started pulling out bodies. A man loomed out of the gloom and I shouted to him to identify himself. But he wasn’t a terrorist—he was the information officer from our embassy and he began helping me. Together we managed to get several injured people out of the rubble and into safety. 

“Then we heard a terrible blast. We later learned that Major Jyotin Singh had tackled a suicide bomber, and by holding him from behind had prevented him entering the Park Residence. The bomber was forced to blow himself up outside. Jyotin had saved the lives of all the medical team inside.

“But the only one of my colleagues who hadn’t been killed on the spot, Major Nitesh Roy, died of his 40% burns in hospital three days later. I was the only one of my team who came back alive.”


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