Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Crossfire, the story, was inspired by a video report I saw on CNN: Pakistani truckers face deadly drive

Time was running out for Zafar Iqbal. As the owner of a fleet of trucks, contracted to carry fuel from the port city of Karachi to the US/NATO forces in Afghanistan, he was short of one driver. Earlier in the morning, several of his regular drivers had simply refused to turn up for work and he had been forced to round up men, who were desparate for work even though they had little experience in driving a two wheeler or a car, let alone a truck.

The decision had to be made, he would fill in for the missing driver. The NATO contractor had been on his case since several days and more so today. There was a reason why his drivers were not turning up. Over the past several years, militants had attacked anyone that supported the NATO forces, no matter what the form of support and regardless of nationality or religion of the people that provided it.

But Zafar had no choice. He had gotten into this contract because the money was better. Like a good Muslim, he used the income to look after the well being of his extended famlily including those of his married brothers and sisters. Nephew Aamir was in the US thanks to him and the rest that stayed in Karachi led a good life, comparatively that is. Besides, there were loans to be paid on the new trucks that he had added to the fleet in order to meet the contract terms. There was no turning back.

As they turned the ignition of their respective trucks, the men uttered silent prayers and then they were underway on a gruelling journey that would take them several days to reach the destination.

In far away Philadelphia, Aamir was celebrating a new job along with his fellow Pakistani and some Indian friends at the apartment that he shared with some of them. In an hour or two, he would call or Skype his mother and the rest of the family in Karachi and let them know the good news. Most of all he wanted Uncle Zafar to know - he would be most proud and vindicated. Zafar had always wanted Aamir's being educated in the US and had financed all of it even at the detriment of his own children.

As the trucks made their way to the highway, Zafar called up Khaleeda his wife to let her know that he would not be coming home as he was on his way to Afghanistan. Despite all her protestations and some by other elders in the household, Zafar held firm. He had to go...

The Asian boys had decided to make Biryani and Dum Gosht for dinner and were making a mess of it. Beer cans changed hands frequently and the music grew louder everytime a raunchy Bollywood song started to play. Aamir excused himself so he could call his family and locked the bedroom door behind him. Damm, they were not online! Another of those power cuts in Karachi? In their consternation, the family had forgotten to go online and would not do so for several hours. The boys continued to party through the night, amazingly, the food had turned out to be good and there was still a lot of beer to be had. Aamir intermittently checked to see if anyone had come online, he wanted to do this over Skype as he most definitely wanted to see the reactions on the faces of his mother and others in the family.

Several hours later, Zafar's convoy had entered the province of Balochistan. At a distance, he noticed an American Humvee approaching the highway. "Ya Khuda, Taliban, Taliban", he began to shout. What was he to do? Drive as fast as he could and hope to go past the Humvee? Or stop, abandon the trucks and save his life and that of the other drivers? Or use his negotiating skills to work out a deal to have their lives spared?

His young assistant opened the door of the truck and leaned outside so he could warn the drivers following them. Zafar heard a rapid burst of gun fire. The assistant was dead in an instant, his face bloodied, his body slumped on to the seat. Zafar slammed on the brakes, bringing the heavy truck to a screeching halt. Soon the defenseless trucks were torched and bombed, the drivers, including Zafar looted and then some shot and some let free but crippled for life.

Some time in the early hours, long before dawn, Aamir's Skype ringtone came alive on his laptop. The party was over and they had all gone to sleep. It took him several seconds to realize the ringing and answer the call. On the other side, he could hear his mother screeching out his name and that of his Uncle. As she recounted the incident, the euphoria of just a few hours ago was now replaced by rage, gloom and utter helplessness. Aamir began to cry and scream in anger at the same time. His friends, now awake tried to console him and his family on the other side of the call.

Khaleeda Begum's world lay shattered. If only, she had persuaded her husband not to go on that journey. If only, she had resisted him from expanding the business a few years ago, he might have been alive. Over the next few days, as the family began to pick the pieces, they could never reconcile to the senselessness of it all. Why were innocent civilians, being made unwitting soldiers of a war that they had no interest in fighting?

And also the hypocrisy - only a few weeks ago, a drone attack had killed a few civilians and that had led to a national outcry. Were her husband and his employees not citizens of the same nation? Were their lives any less important?

Zafar never returned home. No one is quite sure what happened. Was he shot dead, did he die in the fire or succumb to his injuries? Yet another honest, man of God had died, for no fault of his. A bread winner, forced to leave his family with crippling debt and destitution. But then there was Aamir...

A week after the incident, Aamir disappeared. His friends undertook a massive hunt to locate him, but he was gone. Just like that - no trace at all.

Ever since, friends and family tune in to every small terrorist incident around the world hoping he does not surface - dead or alive.

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