Mass murder in Rawalpind and Islamabad
Remembering Ojhri by Tariq Mehmood
On April 10th 1988, some 19-years ago, Ojhri (ammunition) dump in Rawalpindi was blown up. This was a deliberate act of destruction. Hundreds upon hundreds of missiles rained down on Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Over 5000 people were killed. Many, many thousands more were injured.
I was working as a journalist for the Frontier Post and along with a colleague, Imran Munir, went into the camp, early the day after the explosion. Every now and again, a rocket or missile would take off, and land somewhere, causing yet more deaths and destruction.
All manner of rockets and shells were going off. People were sitting around shell shocked. The houses close to Ojhri were reduced to mere husks. I went into one house. A man in his late 20s was sitting amidst shattered glass and broken wood. He was rubbing his hands in the glass.
Blood from his shredded hands was spreading across the floor. He had a little child’s shoe. He turned to us. I looked into his bloodshot eyes. He said, ‘this is where my son was martyred.’
Imran was about to take a photograph of him, but he lowered the camera. We could not snap him in this position. We stood there for a while, we wanted to lift him up but the man wanted to stay with the memory of his child.
Out side his door I saw a dog. It stood in front of us. It was a healthy black and white mongrel. It must once have been a loved pet. I can still see the dogs eyes, filled with unspeakable terror, asking me why? Why? Why? I did not know what to say to the creature. I did not know what had happened. Had I known, I would have sat down and told the dog, that this is the way those that rule, hide one crime by committing another.
Some people I talked to said they saw a missile cut through a buffalo’s stomach. I have found some of my notes from that time. Many people said that the police just ran off, even from major traffic junctions and students took over the posts, directing traffic.
Era of Darkness
This was another dark period of military rule in Pakistan. A time when the military rulers danced to American tunes. This was not the era of ‘Enlightened Moderation’, but that of militant jihadism acceptable to the Americans. This was the era of General Zia’s Raj.
This was a time when Pakistan was once again a ‘Front Line state’ and the West, particularly America and its allies were supporting the Mujahidin groups, and when of course Osama Bin Laden America’s most favourite freedom fighter was leading the Western inspired Jihad against the Soviets.
Hundreds of millions of dollars were given to the Pakistani military to manage the Jihad in Afghanistan, and hundreds of millions of dollars was also spent on providing weapons and logistical support for the Mujahid groups through Pakistan. Who then were of course freedom fighters.
The weapons were sent mainly by American, but also, by other allies of the US, including Britain. These where shipped to Karachi and from there taken North. They were stored in dumps all over country. One of the biggest central dumps was Ojhri. This dump was directly controlled by the ISI. It was an open secret that the ISI was not even answerable to the GHQ in Rawalpindi, but directly to General Zia himself.
Some people at the time said they thought the day of judgement had arrived.
I have found three eye witness accounts from that time. I only have their names and do not remember much more of them.
‘I was going towards Faizabad when I heard the explosion. There was a huge fire. Many people were running towards it, while the police were running away from it. Missiles started flying in every direction. I saw about 12 young men sheltering under a tree. Then they were all dead. The road going towards the CDA (Capital Development Authority) colony was littered with hands and feet of little children. Such great injustice. The world seemed to have died. Whilst the police ran off, students started directing traffic.’
‘It was raining missiles and bombs. Everyone was running for their lives. The area was full of explosions and screaming. What the bombs did not destroy the police took.’ (Mohammad Ishaque).
‘Four thousand have died. It was like Qiamat (End of Times). Even when all hell was let loose, when bombs were spread around liked chopped pieces of wood, these people (pointing to policemen) were robbing – such injustice.’
What the people of Rawalpindi and Islamabad did not know was that the reason their world was because someone was trying to cover up a simple fact. American stinger missiles which had been given for fighting in Afghanistan, had found their way into the hands of the Iranians.
They were stored in Ojhri dump, and it was pretty obvious that those looking after the dump had sold them on to the Iranians, pocketing the money. A team of American navel investigators was in mid-flight, on its way to Ojhri to investigate. They had entered Pakistani airspace, when the dump was blown up.
Two days after the explosions at Ojhri, General Zia compared what happened to the disasters at Russia’s Chrenobyl and India’s Bhopal. He refused to admit that Ojhri was a transit dump where weapons were destined for Afghanistan. The deed was blamed on foreign agents. But General Zia and those close to him knew full well that this was a lie. This was an inside job.
The foreign Hand theory could not hold ground, as many Pakistani papers at the time questioned it. Stinger missiles do not just go off, they have to be primed. Army ammunition dumps, are built in such a manner an explosion should not affect the other. But here were truckloads of the stuff over ground, and much more underground, all going off.
By the time the Americans arrived, 5000 people were dead. What was incredible to believe at the time was that even General Zia would not let people know what sort of weapons were stored underground.
We went into the grounds of Ojhri and a senior Pakistan officer, whose rank and name I forget now, saw us. He was holding a small Quran in his hand. He was shaking with anger at what had happened. He explained that in the underground networks, there were so many unexploded munitions, and they had no idea how to defuse them.
They were learning by trial and error. Each error cost the life of an army Jawan. Over 1000 died in this process alone.
In the shadow of the horror there was much confusion. Some people thought at the time that India had attacked. Some thought, including some in the military, that this was a cloak under which the US was going to knock out the nuclear plant at Kahota. For those who lost loved ones, 10th April 1988 will for ever be a burning horror.
With the death of 17th February 2007 of two workers in Rawalpindi from unexploded munitions from Ojhri dump, the living are reminded about the callousness of the rulers who stored so much weapons inside a major city like Rawalpindi, and then those who colluded to blow it up.
One of the fallouts of Ojhri was that the military dictatorship of General Zia had lost all credibility in the eyes of peoples of Pakistan, in particular the residents of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. General Zia’s regime had become a liability; it could not long be trusted by its foreign masters.
The people of Rawalpindi and Islamabad deserve a full account of who did what in Ojhri. All internal reports should now be published. The citizens of Rawalpindi and especially those who lost their loved ones in the Ojhri disaster deserve a permanent memorial to this crime against humanity.
Let us hope the present General’s “Moderate Enlightenment” to acknowledge Ojhri as a crime against humanity and publish a full and frank account of the how and why it happened and promise a memorial to honour the dead.
I used to live with Feica in Peshawar, and he made a cartoon of General Zia’s wife, sitting on a donkey, laden with diamonds, on the way to London. General Saab was very upset and his office let us know of his displeasure. But perhaps General Zia should have listened to the whispers of his masters and the screaming of the streets, and left.
In true Pakistani style, General Zia Saab was deaf to the demands of the people to go and did not see how much his masters were also irked by him. As we know, he came and went with a bang.