PLANE TO PAKISTAN – IN THE LINE OF FIRE – BOOK
PLANE TO PAKISTAN
Sir, the pilot wants you in the cockpit,” my military secretary
Nadeem Taj said to me in a hushed tone.
I had been lost in my thoughts, but the urgency in his voice jolted me back. “Now what?” I wondered. He could hardly have sounded so insistent if the pilot had simply wanted me to see our landing from the cockpit. The not-sohidden finger of fate had intervened at regular intervals to write my des-tiny. I had the foreboding that the finger of fate was moving again.
Descending from 8,000 feet (2,400 meters), we were about to land in Karachi on a commercial flight from Colombo. The “fasten seatbelts” and “no smoking” signs had been switched on. I could see the lights of the city glittering below In Colombo, a huge storm and a torrential downpour had flooded the runway and delayed our departure. Our flight had taken off forty minutes late. Then, passengers lingering in the duty-free shops had delayed us again at a stopover in Male. These delays were to prove providential.
Otherwise, our flight had been uneventful. Little did I know how eventful it was to become. I had no inkling about events that were unfolding on the ground, events that would change not only my destiny but also the destiny of my country.
It was October 12, 1999. The time was six forty-five PM. The flight was PK 805. The plane was an Airbus. There were 198 passengers on board, many of them schoolchildren. We were due to land in ten minutes.
After takeoff and dinner some of the children had come up to my seat, right at the front of the aircraft, and had asked for my autograph and taken photographs. I always enjoy meeting children, for their ideas are often new, and their way of looking at things is refreshingly different. They have few hang-ups and little of the cynicism that many adults have. Soon after, the cabin lights were dimmed and things settled down. The soothing hum of the big bird lulled people into contemplation or sleep. Sehba, seated alongside me by the window, pulled down her eyeshades and drifted off. As I’ve said, I was lost in my thoughts. All seemed well in the passenger cabin. Itwas peaceful.
“Sir, the pilot wants you in the cockpit,” repeated my military secretary, his voice now even more insistent. There was definitely something strange going on. He motioned me to the front of the aircraft and told me the news: the pilot had informed him that our plane was not being allowed to land at any airfield in Pakistan and was being ordered to get out of Pakistan’s airspace immediately. Only one hour and ten minutes of fuel remained.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It seemed preposterous.
I immediately told the stewardess to close the cockpit door, draw the curtains, and not let anyone in, lest the passengers discover what was happening and panic.
My aide-de-camp and military secretary told me that they had tried calling the Karachi corps commander and his staff on three different mobile phones to find out what was going on. They couldn’t get through even though they kept changing their positions in the aircraft to try to catch the signal. They had also tried calling through the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) ground relay-patch system but hadn’t succeeded by this method either. Fifteen minutes’ worth of precious fuel had been consumed before they summoned me.
When I entered the cockpit and asked the captain what the problem was, he told me that air traffic control was not giving any reason for denying him permission to land in Karachi but was insistently ordering him to get out of Pakistan’s airspace immediately and land anywhere abroad. “Sir, I think that it has something to do with you,” he said, stating what now seemed fairly obvious. The pilot had in mind the history of tension between Pakistan’s civilian governments and the military. Nevertheless, the pilot’s statement came as a rude shock to me. I knew that he was right, but why would they not let a commercial flight land in Karachi or anywhere else in the country? I could only guess that Prime Minister Sharif was moving against me. Whoever it was, he was endangering a lot of innocent lives. I was not to know the full story until the drama in the air was over.
‘We have hardly an hour’s worth of fuel left,” the pilot told me with a trace of desperation in his voice. I told him to ask air traffic control again why it was not permitting us to land, considering how little fuel we had. He did, and after about four or five minutes, during which time we kept flying to Karachi, the reply came: “Climb to 21,000 feet and just get out of Pakistan and go anywhere.” Again, the air traffic controller refused to give any reason. They did not care where we went. They even suggested that our pilot should ask his company, PIA, for instructions. It was ridiculous. at could the management of PIA have told him? Air traffic control suggested that we head to Bombay, Oman in Muscat, Abu Dhabi, or Bandar Abbas in Iran just about any-where except (for some reason) Dubai. The controllers also informed our pilot that they had directed all airports not to let our plane land any-where in Pakistan.
The whole thing seemed diabolical. Since India was the country closest to us, we would have no option but to go there, given our dangerously low fuel. This would put us in the hands of our most dangerous enemy, against whom we had fought three full-blown wars. It was unbelievable-an order of this kind coming from the Pakistani authorities to an aircraft of Pakistan’s own national airline with Pakistan’s army chief and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee on board. Air traffic control wouldn’t dare do something so bizarre and treacherous without instructions from the highest level. I knew my army, and there was no question in my mind of a mutiny. Whatever else may have been going on, the army could never countenance sending its chief into Indian hands.
It could only be the civilian side of the government. No one below the prime minister could give such a drastic order. Sacking an army chief is one thing; but hijacking his plane and sending it to India is, as I have said, diabolical. Amazingly, it had not occurred to Nawaz Sharif that his coup against the army would also be a great victory for India. I am still flabbergasted that it didn’t cross his mind how repulsive and embarrassing it would be to deliver the chief of the Pakistan Army, his army, into enemy hands. The people of Pakistan would have considered it high treason. I now understood that we were on a collision course not only with the ground below, but also with the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Shard.
“Where can we go?” I asked the pilot. He said that he could go to either Ahmadabad, in India, or Oman, but we had to decide immediately because we were fast running out of fuel. “Over my dead body will you go to India,” I declared angrily.
Tension in the cockpit was mounting, but I kept cool. After my tough training as a commando and years of military service, I have deliberately trained myself never to panic in a crisis. My attitude about death is that if it has to happen, it will happen. Not that I am a fatalist, but I can control my emotions. If you can’t think rationally in an emergency, any slim chance of getting out of it is lost.
“I want to know the reason why they are not letting us land,” I said. “This is a commercial flight. How can it be diverted?” The pilot passed my question on to air traffic control. Another agonizing wait of four or five minutes followed. It took so long because of a ludicrous chain, as I was told later. Our pilot’s query to air traffic control was communicated to the chief of staff of the director general of the Civil Aviation Authority. He then took the message to his boss, who in turn phoned the prime minister’s military secretary in Islamabad. The military secretary then took the message to the prime minister and sought his reply. There were six people from our pilot to the prime minister-seven, if you started with me. Given Nawaz Shard’s slow reaction time, he must have mulled over each answer and discussed it with those around him. It was a charade, but a most dangerous charade that carried the unmistakable stamp of the prime minister. Such an excruciatingly slow process of communication wasted precious time and fuel. It was a first in history; an aircraft hijacked in the air by someone on the ground, and not just someone but a prime minister sworn to protect the lives of his country’s citizens.
While waiting for the reply we climbed to 21,000 feet (6,400 meters). It came just as we got there: “You cannot land anywhere in Pakistan. You have to leave Pakistan airspace at once.” We couldn’t believe it. Were they really trying to kill us all just to be rid of me? Now the pilot had more news for me-climbing to 21,000 feet had consumed so much fuel that we didn’t have enough left to take us anywhere out of Pakistan. “Physically, this is not possible now,” he announced. The tension ratcheted still higher.
Soon the only course left for us would be to try to ditch the plane somewhere. “Tell air traffic control that we are running out of fuel and don’t have enough to leave Pakistan,” I said to the pilot as a last resort. “No, forget the damn chap,” I said as an immediate afterthought. “You just land in Karachi. There are over 200 people on board, and we are going to land in Karachi whether they like it or not.” Incredibly, air traffic control refused to budge. Without so much as a tremor in his voice the controller told our pilot that no airfield in Pakistan had lights on and there were three fire trucks blocking the run-way in Karachi. “Landing in Karachi is out of the question because we will crash,” the captain said to me plaintively. Now the tension in the cockpit was becoming extremely high-but quietly. I was an, but I knew that I had to show calm determination and absolute self-control in my voice and actions. We could not afford to have the pilot or the rest of the cockpit crew lose focus. To their credit, they all remained composed and professional throughout the ordeal.
I told the pilot to tell the controllers again that we could not leave Pakistan’s airspace, because we didn’t have enough fuel. ‘We cannot get to any other country. You must allow us to land in Karachi,” I told him to say.
Then, just minutes before our fate was sealed, we were told we could divert to Nawabshah, a semiurban town some 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Karachi in the desert province of Sindh. “Do you have the fuel to take us there?” I asked the pilot.
“I can just make it, sir,” he replied.
“OK, then, let’s go to Nawabshah.”
It was seven-thirty in the evening, forty-five minutes since I had been summoned, and we were about halfway to Nawabshah when the aircraft’s radio crackled and a voice suddenly told our pilot to return to Karachi and land there. Our pilot was not sure if he could make it back to Karachi with the fuel remaining. He started calculating his fuel, and worrying about whether he was doing the sums correctly. None of us was totally comfortable about this sudden change of mind.
Who had given the order to allow us to land in Karachi so unexpectedly? at had caused this last-minute change of heart? Danger was on the ground-but where? While we were still guessing what the motives might be and the pilot was feverishly doing his calculations, Major General Malik Iftikhar Ali an, the commander of an army division in Karachi, made radio contact with the aircraft. “Tell the chief to come, back and land in Karachi,” he told the pilot. “Everything is all right now” I was still suspicious, so I spoke to Iftikhar myself I had to make certain that it really was he, and not someone impersonating him. I also wanted to make certain that he was not being forced to call us back. This was the first time that I spoke on the aircraft’s radio to anyone.
“Where is the corps commander?” I asked.
“Sir, the corps commander is in the VIP lounge. He is waiting for you at the gate. I am here at air traffic control.”
at is the problem?”
“Sir, I am sure you don’t know, but about two hours back your retirement was announced and Lieutenant General Ziauddin Butt was made chief of the army staff. They were trying to divert your plane so that it does not land here. But the army has taken over now, and we have control of the airport. You turn back now. We will give you the details later.”
I still wanted to make doubly certain.
“Can you tell me the names of my dogs?” I asked, because I knew that he knew them. If it was someone impersonating him or if he was under duress, he could or would not have given the correct names.
“Dot and Buddy, sir,” he replied without hesitation. Even amid the tension, I could hear a smile in his voice.
“Thank you, Iftikhar,” I said. “Tell Mahmood and Aziz that no one is to leave the country.” Mahmood Ahmed was the commander of the Tenth Corps in Rawalpindi and Mohammad Aziz an was the chief of general staff; both were lieutenant generals.
I turned to the pilot and asked him about the fuel situation. “Can you take us back to Karachi?”
‘We are midway and can just make it. But, sir, you have to make the decision fast. If there is turbulence along the way we might crash.” “Let’s go back to Karachi, then,” I said.
The next few minutes were agonizing, as you can imagine. A slight diversion, a wind sheer, or any turbulence would have meant the end of our fuel and a crash. Everything depended on a smooth landing. I returned to my seat and found Sehba in a state of quiet anxiety. She had seen an ashen-faced stewardess pass her by- “. . . as if she had seen a ghost,” she told me. When my aide-de-camp offered me a cigarette and I took it, Sehba knew that something was definitely amiss, because I don’t normally smoke cigarettes-contrary to the impression conveyed by a film clip that was later aired by television stations all over the world showing me with a cigarette dangling from my lips and a pistol in my hand. I knew that we were not supposed to smoke, so I asked the lady sitting across the aisle whether she minded. She turned out to be the principal of the Karachi Grammar School, and she was kind and tolerant. I was handed a cup of tea, which I literally gulped down, again something I don’t normally do. Now Sehba was convinced that what-ever it was must be very, very serious. She turned to me and asked what had happened. I told her that we were not being allowed to land and were running out of fuel, all because I had been dismissed and Ziauddin had been made the chief Obviously, Nawaz Sharif did not want me around to counter his illegal action. “More than that I do not yet know,” I told her. “But now we are landing.” Sehba was horrified. I heard her utter a sound somewhere between a gasp and a scream. She later told me that when she saw that I was not in my seat and the aircraft was behaving in such a peculiar manner-first descending, then climbing, and then turning around twice-she thought we were going to crash.
We just made it, with only seven minutes of fuel to spare. The corps commander, Lieutenant General Usmani; the division commander, Iftikhar; and others must still have harbored suspicions, because after landing our plane was directed to the old airport terminal. The commandos traveling with me who were responsible for my security wouldn’t let me near the door, for fear of a sniper. They went to the front themselves, forming a protective wall. But when I saw the corps commander on the stairs, I relaxed. He was the first person to enter the aircraft. He congratulated me on my safe landing. Then the soldiers came and surrounded me. I felt very proud of them.
When my feet touched the tarmac I still had no idea of any of the
details of what had happened. I was just relieved to be alive and more than relieved that Sehba and all the other passengers, particularly the children, were safe. Throughout this harrowing drama a memory had kept nagging at the back of my mind. Now it came to the fore, Omar Khayyam’s famous quatrain:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor lit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
As I walked to the car waiting for me on the tarmac, I wondered, “God, what have I landed into?”