Gaining Passage to India: Escaping Pakistan’s Sirens

Gaining Passage to India: Escaping Pakistan's Sirens

The siren began its long, mournful wail that grew in intensity over the course of several seconds. It continued at a high pitch for half a minute, only to fade away and begin again. Hearing the call, my heart seized in panic as my eyes flew to the window in search of what might be coming. Planes? Helicopters?  I jumped off my seat and scrambled under the desk, hands clasped across the back of my neck as I faced the floor and silently prayed that no planes would appear, no bombs would drop, nothing would explode, nothing would hit me.

Some of my classmates were crying in fear. A few boys were laughing and lifting the skirts of girls crouched under the table in front of them, taking unfair advantage of the chaotic moment. We were growing up in the late 1950s when air raid drills were part of the school curriculum that we practiced each month. The drills were no less terrifying for the lack of planes and bombs, because images of destruction came through our war education in WW II movies like The Diary of Anne Frank, The Guns of Navarone, and The Longest Day.

As a traveler, I felt immune to the consequences of politics and economics in the world around me, a misconception that had just been brought to my attention.

My dad had taken part in the invasion of Normandy, and though he seldom spoke of his war experiences they nevertheless constituted something very real, something that could happen again. If I prayed for anything as a child, it was to be spared the experience of living through war. The idea of it haunted me because I doubted I had the heart to survive the loss and devastation witnessed on the movie screen. Air raid drills ended as a routine public school practice in New York City in the mid-1960s, so when I graduated high school I assumed I’d heard that terrifying wail for the last time.

Reality assaulted me as I lay sleeping on my cot in a flea-bag hotel in Lahore, Pakistan, when that old familiar sound awoke me, striking terror in my heart. This time however, the roar of airplane engines overhead was unmistakable, as was a succession of booms and thuds in the distance. It was now 1972 and halfway around the world from that New York classroom. Like other hippies of my era, I had left the United States out of disdain for the Nixon government, taking a cheap flight to London and vowing to my parents that I’d return in three weeks.

It was now two years later, and I’d traveled overland through Europe and the Middle East, having decided that this was a far more valuable education than attending college. Now I found myself on the edge of a bed, wondering if my building is about to be bombed, and ruing that my worst fears seemed to be coming true. Suddenly the rote lessons of childhood jolted me into action, and I dove under the cot.

I stayed under that cot for half an hour while the thump of my heart pounded the floor.

One of the joys of travel is getting caught up in the thrill of sensory experiences, so I hadn’t been paying attention to the news. Conflict between Pakistan and India had defined their relationship for so many centuries that this latest disagreement seemed like just another incident in a long, recurring string of episodes. As a traveler, I felt immune to the consequences of politics and economics in the world around me, a misconception that had just been brought to my attention. The seriousness of the current situation was quickly overwhelming my ignorance as I found myself an unwitting bystander in a country at war.

I stayed under that cot for half an hour while the thump of my heart pounded the floor. When the air raid faded for the last time, I reasoned by its absence that the attack was over, though no “all clear” was sounded. Crawling out from under the bed, my hands felt along the wall in the darkness, searching for the window. Electricity had been turned off, and I didn’t dare use a flashlight. Cracking the window, an acrid stench of sulfur choked my lungs, bringing tears to my eyes as I strained to see the street below, barely visible in the moonlight. The air was thick and smoky, full of dust and flying bits of things I couldn’t identify. I quickly shut the window again. In the distance there were different alarms now: police and rescue vehicles. I groped back along the wall to my cot and sat down on the edge to wait for morning in the eerie vacuum of quiet, while moaning sirens reverberated in my head.  Sleep was impossible until exhaustion overruled my nerves in the hour before dawn.

Waking to the sounds of life, I was astounded to see banks, restaurants and businesses bustling the next morning. Trucks and donkey-carts moved about as though nothing had happened. Life went on undisturbed in its customary chaos. My mind and nerves struggled to reconcile the frightening events of the night with the normalcy of the day.

Had I dreamed it?  What evidence was there of what I thought had happened?  No ruined or burning buildings were visible from my window. Had it not been for a lingering sour smell I would have doubted my sanity. Quickly I dressed and went downstairs to breakfast. The desk clerk, in the unhurried manner of someone doing a familiar task, was polishing brassware.

My mind and nerves struggled to reconcile the frightening events of the night with the normalcy of the day.

“What happened last night?” I asked, my eyes wide. He continued to focus on his work.

“India has committed yet another act of aggression against Pakistan,” he said without looking up, then turned to put the candlesticks away. I stood transfixed by his lack of concern.

The shriek of alarms began once more after midnight. Engine drones and booms rocked the distance as I shivered again in dread and anticipation that our quarter might be the next target. I knew better this time than to open the window.  Morning dawned as usual with relentless activity as life in the streets carried on with purpose. I jumped out of bed and ran to the Indian Consulate to apply for a visa, where I found myself with a lot of company. Every foreigner in Lahore wanted to get out of Pakistan, so the normally busy visa office was now swamped by international travelers, all seeking passage to India. Business moves at a slow pace in this part of the world, and government business moves slower still. A mass of applicants was poor inspiration for office personnel to work faster in processing requests. The long, hot wait in the sun seemed interminable, until the end of the day when a woman came out to shutter the windows. Turning to the crowd, she shouted from the steps.

“Go home! The Consulate is now closed!” I’d never even reached the door.

After a third night of sirens and sleeplessness, I was up early and at the visa office before dawn.  A crowd was already forming, but this time at least I had a chance of gaining entry to submit my application, and by late afternoon I’d obtained a visa. That night I waited for the now-familiar signal of an attack, but after three consecutive nights of bombing I was elated when nothing broke the silence and I was able to get some sleep. With papers in hand, I checked out of the hotel the following morning and headed to the border. What I didn’t know was that due to the increased hostilities India decided to limit travel, allowing passage only on Thursdays, a small detail they neglected to mention at the visa office!  Today was Wednesday. I returned to the hotel and checked back in.

“Go home! The Consulate is now closed!” I’d never even reached the door.

Thursday morning I again left the hotel and went to the border, where I encountered the throng of internationals who had previously accompanied me at the Consulate, only now we were joined by hundreds of Indian nationals trying to return home. The line looked a mile long, and progress was slow while officials carefully checked documents before allowing people to shuffle through, one by one. At this rate I won’t get past the guards until next year! I thought. I tried walking to the end of the line but couldn’t find it, or even see it. Dejected, I returned to the hotel, checking in for a third time.

A long and lonely week passed, and despite my fear that bombing might begin again as I waited in the dark each night, the week was more notable for its absence. The following Wednesday, I gathered my belongings and walked to the border before daybreak. Though the gates wouldn’t open until Thursday, a queue of travelers was already waiting, but this time I was able to reach the end and establish my place in line. Like everyone else, I threw down a blanket and prepared to camp overnight on the filthy ground, contracting a skin parasite which took weeks to get rid of, almost as long as it took to clear the echo of sirens still ringing in my head.

Slowly, slowly, I advanced to the gate, reaching it around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. After waiting on line for close to 36 hours, I finally gained passage to India. I had travelled 7000 miles and 10 years from those childhood classrooms in New York, and hoped once again that I had heard the wail of an air raid siren for the last time.

 

Gaining Passage to India: Escaping Pakistan’s Sirens

About Surabela Fabian

Surabela FabianS. B. Fabian is a former hippie who spent most of the 70’s traveling around the world trying to figure out who she was. She then spent most of the 80’s as an anthropologist trying to figure out who others were. The 90’s were spent trying to figure out who her children were, or at least, what to do about them. Recently she realized that she still doesn’t know the answer to any of these questions, but is having fun writing about the journey. She lives in the U.S. with her husband who, even after 30 years, still shakes his head at her in wonder.

2 thoughts on “Gaining Passage to India: Escaping Pakistan’s Sirens

  1. Avatar
    November 7, 2014
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    You were so brave! Whether it’s hindsight or you were actually this calm in the moment, I can tell you my own story of experiencing this would have involved a lot more screaming, crying, swearing, and possibly soiled pants. I sincerely hope you never hear another siren like that again.

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