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Scars that won’t go A nine-year-old’s diary of war-ravaged Khem Karan

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Submitted by admin on Sun, 20/09/2015 - 17:00
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Scars that won’t go
A nine-year-old’s diary of war-ravaged Khem Karan
I was nine and in my hometown Khem Karan when the 1965 war erupted. As Army vehicles passed through Khem Karan on their way to the border, people lined up along the road, offering roasted chana and gur to soldiers. Children were excited to see the convoys. Every time a military truck passed, they shouted: “Bharat Mata Di Jai”. Elders were anxious, fearful of an uncertain future.   After Partition, this was Khem Karan’s second tragedy-in-the-making. Many families feared displacement again. I remember once asking my grandfather why he had settled close to the border after getting uprooted from his village, Pathanke, in Kasur tehsil of Lahore district. “There was no choice,” was his cryptic answer. He avoided talking of Partition. A retired Headmaster of stern disposition, he was angry at the prospect of being helpless, being a refugee again.  
The war clouds deepened. The only source of news was the radio and one kept shuttling between Lahore and Jalandhar. But the radio aired lies from both sides. In peace time, Lahore radio had regaled us with Mehdi Hasan’s songs and Chacha Nazamddin’s rustic, witty observations on life around. As children, we were curious about Pakistanis — how they looked, dressed, talked, etc — till we saw them at a Muslim saint’s mazaar on the border where every Thursday farmers and farm workers from both sides of the divide gathered. They looked as weather-beaten and malnourished as people this side. The border being unfenced then, smuggling of gold and opium was rampant. An average youngster’s ambition was modest: to be a soldier, a policeman, a patwari, a bus conductor or a smuggler. Finally, people were asked on the beat of the drum to vacate Khem Karan. The question that stared everyone in the face was what to pack and what to leave behind. Now and then a low-flying plane’s thunderous sound would tear the peace of the place. Soon bullock-carts were seen carrying families and their little belongings. Where could you go with 10-15 head of cattle? Many elderly men stayed back to tend to cattle. Quite a few preferred death in their own house to a life in a refugee camp, especially those too old to walk. Schools, mandirs and gurdwaras were turned into refugee camps.  It was the last train that arrived as bombs exploded at a distance. It looked like the entire population of Khem Karan had waited for this train from Amritsar. We children were pushed inside through windows to grab whatever space we could. No one wanted to be left behind. By the time it moved amid sobs of women and cries of children, almost everyone had managed to cling to it. Children missed their grannies left behind to face the consequences of war alone.  A family in the neighbourhood forgot to take along important papers of their soldier son. His policeman brother went back to fetch the documents. When asked how he survived the bombing, he said: “I came by a military truck carrying soldiers’ bodies.” 
We went to stay at Fatehabad, near Tarn Taran, with an uncle’s friend who accommodated us in the cramped house. As days passed, my grandfather bought a two-storey house with a ‘haveli’ in Patti for Rs 5,500. Property prices were at rock bottom then. He had decided to have an alternative house away from the border.  

Khem Karan was occupied by Pakistanis for some days. Much of it was reduced to debris. Doors, windows and everything of any value was taken away by mobs. Barring pipal and bohar, trees were cut for wood. The war left a trail of death, destruction and dislocation. With crops lost, houses and streets damaged, and education disrupted, no one knew how and from where to start life afresh.Historically used to invasions and lootings, the shaken but determined residents of Khem Karan once again resumed efforts to rise from the ruins.   nirmalssandhu@tribunemail.com