There is a Prisoner Of War (POW) story of my course mate Joe I would like to tell.
He passed away in 2011 in Pune of brain haemorrhage.
My story below is what I recollect of it from what he told me about it in 1973-74. Afterwards he never talked about it despite my repeated urging him to write an auto biography because his life’s story from beginning to his end was one of tenacity and resilience against incredible odds which would have made you cry on every page. I have never known life to f*** any one with such zest on daily basis as it did to Joe.
I first met AGJ Swittens (Joe) when I was returning home during term break after my first term in NDA in Jun/Jul 1967. While haunching and front rolling in the corridor of the first class special compartment, simply to entertain a few bored seniors, I discovered that Joe and I came from the same place in Kerala. He from the coastal town of Alleppey and I from a village called Ambalapuzha, about 13 km further south. During the front rolling and haunching in confined space, around three feet of the compartment’s corridor, we bumped into each other many times and as a result we fused into a lifelong friendship that surpassed the ordinary feeling of brotherhood.
Because neither of us had any meaningful friends at home, during the holidays in that term break, as well as all the other term breaks that followed, Joe and I travelled the 13 km coastal strip to and fro to meet practically on daily basis. We did many interesting things together including joining a typing school because a large number of pretty girls were found going to the typing school. As a result of this very innovative idea we not only learnt to type but also the use of ‘Brail’ for man-woman communications after the sun set on Alleppey beach.
Sometimes we managed to get hold of a ‘Pauwwa’ Rum (smaller bottle with just 6 pegs) and learnt to drink it neat because the sea water did not taste good with Rum. It was difficult to climb a Coconut tree for coconut water and Coke was too expensive on our meagre pocket money. Hence, it was cheaper and more stimulating to sip neat rum, passing the bottle from one to the other, swearing everlasting friendship between each sip. Licking lime pickle in between helped tone down the euphoria. The packet of lime pickle came free with the ‘Pauwwa’.
Joe and I were just 16-19 yrs old when we were in NDA. Joe was the eldest son of the keeper of the lighthouse at Alleppy beach and had more than a dozen siblings of all shapes and sizes, mostly girls who giggled loudly from behind closed doors when I visited their house.
His younger brother Johnny (now an AF officer) was just a tiny toddler then. It was only natural that both our parents soon began to treat us like twins because of the NDA induced behavioural pattern that made us indistinguishable one from the other. While my father thought of me as someone incapable of earning a livelihood, Joe’s father was counting the days when Joe would get a commission and add something to the family pot.
In our 4th term, ‘Rangila’ the terrible, in the equitation lines kicked Joe in the face and he lost four of his front teeth and had to get dentures when he was 17 yrs old, a compulsive reason he had to use Brail to communicate with our GFs from the typing class. I think it was a blessing in disguise, probably the only time God was kind to Joe and I.
His troubles were just beginning. We passed out of NDA in Dec 1969, he from J Sqn and I from F Sqn. The war clouds were beginning to rise in East Pak (now Bangladesh) border, but we had no idea of such things then and were single-mindedly interested only in the tactical manoeuvres of typing and Brail at Alleppey without misfiring our guns in the cockpits, a condom was unheard of those days.
The tactical manoeuvre we had to master ourselves at our young age was ‘Coitus Interruptus’, a failsafe military tactic, not taught in NDA, but which we believed was perfected by the Roman army of Julius Caesar on their visit to Alexandria (Cleopatra).
While I went to the flying school in Bidar, Joe went to the Military Academy in Dehra Dun. He was commissioned into the Gorkha Rifles on 20 Dec 1970. After a short break he joined his Battalion (I think 1/4 GR).
His unit at that time (I think) was deployed right on the Indo Pak border in Chhamb sector somewhere near Mole and Phagla ahead of the Munawar Tawi river with Sikhs on their northern flank and Assam Rifles (5 AR?) on their southern flank facing Koel and Bakan Paur, a few km ahead of them, probably held by the 111 Brigade of the Paki army.
Joe went through the usual initiation ceremonies in his battalion and by end of Nov 1971, he was already a hardened soldier and had endeared himself to his company commander. His company was deployed some 2 km away from the Unit HQ – rear administrative location with his CO and the 2 i/c. For tactical advantages Joe’s Company Commander had established an observation post (OP) about 400 mtrs ahead of the company deployment area ahead or almost on the Cease Fire Line (CFL) of 65 war which was at that time the border.
The OP was around 50 feet higher than the surroundings and hence had a commanding view. The company itself was deployed in well prepared bunkers and trenches. The OP was simply a fox hole behind a low bush about four feet by three and around three feet deep, very painstakingly and surreptitiously dug over a period of time, at night, using helmets and Khukris so that it’s existence would not be noticed by the enemy. Every night the Company Commander would send someone or the other crawling forward towards the OP and they would replace the OP crew who had been there for the previous 24 hrs. The OP crew generally consisted of a junior officer (or an NCO) with two Jawans simply for company and for time pass, usually playing cards while staying hidden and surreptitiously observing enemy movements and deployments across the LOC. The enemy was deployed in depth and hence there was not much that one could see from the OP foxhole. So the OP duty was considered a boring and unproductive job, though it gave 2nd Lt AGJ Swittens some respite and relaxation from the daily rigours of infantry life.
On the evening of 3rd Dec 1971, a Friday, it was Joe’s turn to do the OP duty.
So after sunset, after an early dinner, he collected his two Shakarpara packets (next day’s breakfast and lunch), filled his water bottle, and along with a Naik and two soldiers crawled to the OP to replace those who had spent the previous night and day there.
Everything looked peaceful, there was no noise or activity or any lights from across the border and so Joe called up the Company Commander and reported, ’All quiet on the western front.’
He could not have been more mistaken, it was the lull before the storm. To his horror, Joe also discovered that the battery discharged and soon afterwards the ANPRC radio set went completely dead. But Joe was not too concerned, his entire Company was deployed just 400 mtrs behind him and that gave him a tremendous sense of security, adequate to fall asleep in the fox hole, a habit inculcated in NDA, to sleep instantly, anytime, anywhere, in any position.
Unknown to Joe, around 1800 hrs while he was on his way to the fox hole, the Paki AF crossed the border and launched a massive pre-emptive strike on various Indian airfields in the western sector. But all was quiet around the fox hole and Joe slept and dreamt, the kind of dreams that a healthy happy 20 yr old would have, I presume the Brail kind.
At around 2020 hrs Joe was rudely woken by incredible explosions of heavy calibre artillery shells. There was nothing that fell on him, but when he looked back he could see that his Company position was being obliterated systematically, inch by inch by a creeping barrage.
He could not see from where the guns were firing, they were located beyond comprehensible distance in the west. However, he could see the entire sky filled with artillery shells streaking like meteors, each going overhead with shrieking banshee wail. Some were aimed at his Company position, but most of them were going deeper eastwards towards the other deployments of Indian infantry and armour.
There were more than 150 enemy guns, probably 105 mm variety firing at them with deadly accuracy. Soon a similar number of Indian guns, probably of bigger calibre, began to return the fire. Heavy calibre artillery shells were firing to and fro, hundreds of them every minute over Joe’s head, but none fell on him. Joe and the three soldiers with him lay flat in the foxhole, one on top of the other for lack of space, cringing and shivering, covering their ears from the unbearable and most frightening sounds.
After about 30 minutes, they felt the ground begin to tremble like a mild earthquake. They heard clanking and grinding noises. When Joe peeped out of the fox hole he saw a Paki Sherman tank about fifty meters ahead, heading straight for him. Joe ducked back into the fox hole and the tank rolled right over them almost crushing the fox hole and burying them into the ground. Soon there were other tanks going over them or around them and after a while he lost track which way they were coming or going, there were shouts and battle cry, soon he could hear soldiers running about, but he had no idea whether they were friends or foe. This went on all night.
In the twilight hours that arrived after an eternity (4th Dec 71), Joe poked his head out. He found himself surrounded by Paki soldiers and two Sherman tanks. When he looked backwards, he could not find any trace of his company. Unknown to Joe, when the shelling started, the Company along with the entire Indian Brigade had been ordered to withdraw, leaving poor Joe and his companions in the foxhole.
In the Foxhole the Naik took out his Khukri.
he advised Joe,
‘Kafar Hunu Bhanda Marnu Ramro (Better to die than live like a coward)’.
The three soldiers took out their Khukri and Joe took his revolver.
‘Ayo Gorkhali’, they screamed at the top of their voice, jumped out of the fox hole and charged out.
They caught the Pakis completely by surprise, they were brewing or sipping tea with their weapons at ease. One of the tank crew jumped up, climbed his tank and let fly a burst of MMG fire at them. Joe tripped and fell down. The burst of bullets miraculously went by Joe, but cut up the other three Jawans into pieces. By then the Paki soldiers had grabbed their 303 rifles and formed a ring around Joe, twenty to one.
Joe kept pointing his revolver from one to another, he turned round, fired one round and because his hands were shaking, the round went over the enemy’s head. The circle of enemy soldiers got closer and closer. Finally Joe gave up. He unhooked the revolver from his lanyard and put it on the ground. He raised his hands in surrender.
A Paki JCO gestured to him to kneel. They ripped out the lanyard and bound his hands behind his back. For next half an hour they played ‘Russian Roulette’ with his own revolver. They would insert one round, twirl the drum and empty the gun on Joe’s head. Each time the gun clicked but did not fire, the Paki soldiers would laugh aloud, pass lurid comments and poke him with a bayonet several times. This went on and on and Joe died a thousand deaths.
After about half an hour, a Paki officer, probably a Colonel came by in a jeep. First he was unmoved by the fun that the Paki soldiers were having. Then better sense seemed to have prevailed.
‘Put him behind my jeep.’
Joe was then taken to what he perceived as 111 Brigade HQ, large number of tents under camouflage netting, for interrogation. He was also given field dressing by a Paki MO who stitched up 64 bayonet wounds without the use of any morphine. Joe realised the futility of resistance, he was far too gone, he was just 20 yrs old, and he probably was the first helpless Indian POW of 1971 war.
About an hour later, there was a flurry of activity and the Pakis began dismantling the tent. Their HQ was being moved elsewhere. He was handed over to two villagers who put him into a bullock cart and took him westwards, he had no idea where they were taking him. His hands were put around his legs and tied tightly with his lanyard so that he was in a very uncomfortable yoga posture, completely immobile.
En-route, along the villages where they stopped, children pelted him with mud and stones, while their parents watched with disdain. He was not given any water or food. After a long ride, he was taken to a police station and locked up, probably at Kakian Wala.
The Military Police visited twice. They stripped him naked, hung him on a hook and beat him with a thin Malacca cane. All the bayonet wounds which had been stitched up, tore open once again and he started to bleed profusely. Joe gave them his life history, that he was just twenty years old, that his father was a light house keeper, about how Rangila kicked him and how he lost his teeth, how much he yearned his typing class in Alleppey and probably about a stupid friend called Unni in the AF, but he stuck to his story that he had joined his unit just two days earlier and that he did not even know the name of his company commander leave alone deployment locations or strength of the Indian army in Chhamb. They beat him some more, just for the heck of it, but they fed him tea and rusk twice a day and two chapatis with dal at night.
A local civilian compounder was called and he applied raw Iodine on his wounds, just as bad and painful as the beating. After a day he was put into a local bus handcuffed to a policeman and taken by road to Rawalpindi jail. He was incarcerated there along with common criminals. He was issued prison clothing. However Joe did not throw away his OG jersey, a memento of his Indian army uniform.
Around the 7th or 8th Dec 1971, because Joe’s name was not announced on Paki radio as a POW, or the names of the three soldiers in the OP with him, his unit presumed that he was ‘missing believed killed’.
Soon afterwards, the Army HQ sent a terse telegram to his father. ‘Your son/ward missing/ believed killed in action’.
For several nights, though the lighthouse continued to go round and round beaming high power lights to the ships at sea, there was gloom and darkness in the household below the lighthouse. The war had extinguished their aspirations and livelihood.
Seven months later, on 2 Jul 72 the Shimla accord was signed by Indira Gandhi and Mr Bhutto. The two armies, both Indian and Pakis, went back to business as usual with their guns pointed at each other. A new Line of Control (LOC) was defined, doing away with the earlier CFL of 65.
All captured territories by both sides were returned, except that in Chhamb where Bhutto managed to convince Indira Gandhi that it was to be gifted to them. Sacrifices, blood sweat and tears, in Chhamb and at Hajipir Pass were soon forgotten and in the diplomatic circle at Chanakyapuri both the Indian and Paki envoys began to once again have Mushairas and Mujras, excuses to hug and kiss each other as well as each other’s wives.
Everyone went home happy and there was large acclaim internationally about how well India had handled the handing back of 98,000 Paki POWs. No one asked how many Indian POWs were still in Paki jails. Who cared, everyone was celebrating, writing their own citations and congratulating each other in Delhi.
Joe managed to make friends with his ‘Ward Supervisor’ in Rawalpindi jail, a convict with a life sentence for murder. He was very tall and well built sympathetic Pathan who was ‘desperately seeking Susan’. In Joe he found his Susan, a life’s companion. As Joe told me later with a sad smile,
‘What did it matter, what difference did it make, I was just 21. What choice was there, it was either being public property or exclusive private property. God probably decided that it was payback time for what we did to the typing girls on Alleppey beach’.
Despite his going around wearing his OG Jersy with two pips on either shoulders with 4 GR written on the epaulets, no one asked who he was, what crime he had committed and whether he had ever been tried for any crime in any court of law.
He had no access to any news papers, magazines or a radio. In the Pathan’s cell, which Joe shared, he had a Paki calendar in Urdu on which he kept ticking the days and months as they flew by. Several times he wrote to the jail authorities, advising them that he was a POW, an Indian being kept in a civil jail with convicts without any trial and that he should be moved with other Indian POWs if there were any in Pak.
But because the application had to be routed through the Pathan ward supervisor, who knew no English and who did not want to lose his Susan, none of his appeals were ever given to any one in authority. Two years went by. Everyone including me forgot about Joe Swittens. Joe had no idea that the war was over, that there was a Shimla accord and that 98,000 Paki POWs had been returned to Pak and in reciprocity all known or publicly acknowledged Indian POWs had been sent back to India.
Then one day, in Feb 1973, the Pathan told Joe that there was a team from ‘Amnesty International’ who was to visit Rawalpindi jail, to check for human rights violations. He wanted Joe to act as the interpreter. Joe really had no choice, he had to do whatever the warder told him to do.
So he went and had a haircut, shaved, got his prison clothes pressed, rubbed toothpaste on his 2nd Lt’s cloth pips on his OG jersey so that it looked bright, rubbed shoe polish on 4GR to get it to lose the faded look, polished his torn and tattered shoes and was ready for the Amnesty team when they arrived.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, follow me, I shall take you on a conducted tour of the prison’,
he announced like Dev Anand in the movie Guide, smartly saluting the ladies and shaking hands with the gentleman. The Pathan had briefed him that he was to make all efforts to show off and to make belief that there was no human rights violation in Rawalpindi jail.
‘Of course not, everyone is treated well here’
Joe kept saying with a sad smile whenever someone questioned him.
There was an elderly Swiss woman from the Red Cross in the team who was more curious and inquisitive. She took Joe aside.
‘Who are you and why are you wearing an army jersey with a pip on each shoulder, were you in the Paki army?’
replied Joe vehemently.
‘I am a POW. I am 2nd Lt AGJ Swittens of the Indian Army.’
‘Arme de terre l’Indianne? Incredible’,
the lady exclaimed.
‘Don’t you know that the war finished two years ago and that all POWs went back home last year?.
The Pathan did not like Joe having a private conversation in a language which he did not understand; he sensed that something was going wrong. He quickly herded the lady away. But before they left the jail, the lady asked the Pathan,
‘May I take your photo and one of this young man for my personal album?
The Pathan had no choice because there were Paki jailors present at that time who desperately wanted to please the foreigners.
The lady took several photographs of the Pathan and one of Joe too.
‘Please send one photo to my father, he is at Alleppey light house in India,’
Joe whispered to the Swiss lady from Red Cross.
So it was that one fine morning in Jun or Jul 1973, a Photo card came by ordinary post, addressed simply to ‘Mr Swittens, Light House Alleppey, India’, on which there was an address and tel number of the person who sent it from Switzerland. And the photo at the back was a black and white close up of a smiling Joe Swittens with no teeth, in a torn OG jersy, but with shining pips and 4GR on his shoulder.
Below the photo was inscribed ‘Rawalpindi Prison’. There was much consternation as well as incredulity at the light house. Mr Swittens, Joe’s father immediately sent a telegram to Army HQ and MoD describing the event. It took MoD almost four weeks to send a reply by normal post.
‘Your son/ward missing/believed killed in action’
the Under Secretary simply said. They had not even bothered to type it – it was a cyclostyled unsigned letter and left it to the recipient to cross out what was not applicable.
Mr Swittens went to see the local MLA in Alleppey who then had an agenda of his own. He raised the issue in Kerala assembly and soon there were questions asked by MPs in Delhi. It became a starred question in the question hour.
The defence minister Jagjivan Ram sought time to reply. The R&AW were told to go and investigate in Rawalpindi Jail. They embarrassed the Pak Govt, the system in Pak did not want to accept that they had made a mistake by sending POWs to ordinary jails. They did not wish to proclaim that that POW camps were set up only after 15 Dec 71 and that there could be others who had suffered the same fate as Joe.
‘There is no 2nd Lt AGJ Swittens in Rawalpindi Jail’
was their reply.
‘There is no 2nd Lt AGJ Swittens in Rawalpindi Jail’,
Jagjivan Ram announced in parliament with a sense of finality.
Mr Swittens, Joe’s father, did not give up.
There was a demonstration outside the Pak embassy in Chanakyapuri. The press picked up the news.
Someone, (I think the ‘Hindu’ paper) managed to get a sworn statement from the Swiss lady that she had indeed met a person in Rawalpindi jail who claimed that he was Joe and corroborated it with several photographs that she had taken.
MEA asked the US Ambassador to intervene. Finally Pakis bowed to international pressure. They admitted that they did indeed have a person in Rawalpindi jail named ‘Wasim Khan Akram’ or such a name arrested for murder in general area of Kakian Wala and if the Indians think he is one of their army officers, Indians were welcome to have him.
2nd Lt AGJ Swittens walked through the Wagah border into the waiting arms of Indian military police (MP) sometime Sep Oct 1973.
He was the last POW to be exchanged after 71 war.
Promptly, as soon as he set foot in India, he was arrested and incarcerated in Red Fort in Delhi. He was accused of being a spy, that he voluntarily stayed back in Pak and that he was brain washed.
Joe told me afterwards,
’I did not mind what they did to me in Pak, after all they were the enemy. But what the MPs did to me afterwards in Red Fort was completely unjust’.
He said all that with a smile. A man who had been to hell and back had much resilience and tenacity.
There were more protests in front of the Red Fort and after a month of ill-treatment by our own MPs, Joe was asked to go and join his unit in Arunachal, at a post called Gelling which took about 22 days to back pack (walk) from the Unit rear.
I think that is where I met him in 1973 or 74, and where he told me his POW story. Gelling was another POW camp of sorts, at least for a 23 yr old.
The last time I met Joe was in his flat in Hinjewadi in Pune, around two years ago (2010). He only smiled, and said very happy things about our life and times while we passed the same Pauwwa back and forth.
After 1973 Joe Swittens lived to fight again and again, with tenacity and resilience, and with the same chant ‘Ayo Gorkhali’, the last time in Kargil war in Jul 99 after which he retired and settled in Pune. Col Swittens spoke perfect Gorkhali besides several other languages. The last time I spoke to Joe was around three days before he died.
Joe died of a brain haemorrhage last year in the middle of the night with just his Alsatian dog for company. He died a lonely man. I can say this with certainty that his last words may have been the same, ‘Kafar Hunu Bhanda Marnu Ramro’.
I went to the lighthouse in Alleppey, With half bottle of rum looking for the youth that I miss. They looked at me with suspicion, ‘Are you a terrorist?’, they asked. I went out into the setting sun and to the beach where we learnt to Brail, The Typing Girls are all grand moms in Dubai, The sea water tasted just the same. So I passed the bottle from left hand to right hand And took sips from each hand, one for Joe and one for me. Joe my friend, I am glad you are gone, A prisoner of life no more. Set a table for me, where ever you are, And keep the chair tilted for me; I am bound to come after this life. I walked back in the dark, the sun had set. The band began to play Sare Jahan Se Acha, Hindustan Hamara, The band began to play………….. With an apology to Rudyard Kipling as well as Joe. I stole the story from both of you. Please forgive me. Cyclic
The chair is tilted forward.
This is a special table, set in the honour of those missing in war, those believed to be still Prisoners of War (POW) somewhere amongst the enemies.
The wars are forgotten quickly and missing persons forgotten even faster by all except the soldiers and comrades who fought alongside them. They cannot and will not forget, the soldiers hang on to their undying hope and confidence that the missing persons will return one day. The table shall await them too if such a fate was to befall them.
The Placard on the table reflects the sentiments of a soldier for his fallen comrade, it has the following written on it –
‘The table set is small, for one, symbolizing the frailty of one prisoner against his oppressors. The single rose displayed is to remind us of the families and loved ones of our comrades-in-arms who keep their faith awaiting their return. The Red Ribbon on the vase is reminiscent of the red ribbon worn upon the lapel and breasts of thousands who bear witness to their unyielding determination to demand a proper accounting of those missing in action. The candle is unlit, symbolizing the upward reach of their unconquerable spirit. The slice of Lemon is on the bread plate, to remind us of the bitter fate. There is salt upon the bread plate – symbolic of the families’ tears as they wait. The Glass is inverted, they cannot toast with us this night.
The chair – it is empty. They are not here.
Remember ! All of you who served with them and called them comrades, who depended upon their might and aid, and relied upon them, for surely, they have not forsaken you. Remember them until the day they come back home……
The table was installed on instructions of Air Mshl Randhawa (38th) when he was the Commandant NDA around 2007-08. Personally I think it is a most touching, emotional and motivating tradition that he started.
Reminds me of Joe Swittens.