Tribute to Lt. Col Haroon ul Islam (Shaheed)

Maj Gen Amir Faisal Alavi (Retired)

The untimely and very unfortunate death of Lt Col Haroon ul Islam, a very fine and motivated Special Services Group officer, has driven me to write a little tribute to this young and energetic officer of the Special Service Group of the Pakistan Army who was loved by all and sundry. The day he embraced “shahadat” at the hands of these misguided and ignorant fanatics, I received a telephone call from my daughters in the USA at 4.00 am in the morning. Answering the call a little annoyingly being a little groggy as I was fast asleep, I asked them whether they realized what the time was in Pakistan. “Papa, haven’t you heard the news, Uncle Terra, (as they affectionately and be musingly used to call him) has been killed in the Lal Masjid operation!” They were visibly perturbed at the news. This made me jump up from my bed as I sought further details from them. They had been surfing the net in Maryland, USA, when they bumped into this news. It was daytime in the USA. I told them that I knew he was there as I had talked to him the first day that he had arrived in Islamabad and I had wished him the very best, having full confidence in his capabilities and boldness as he had served under me when I commanded the Special Services Group as Commander Special Services Group and later on when I came back again to the Special Services Group as the first GOC SSG, I did my best to get him back into the SSG as the Commanding Officer of Zarar Anti Terrorist Unit, whose command had now been upgraded to that of a Lieutenant Colonels’ from that of a Major and which he had commanded earlier during my first tenure as a Major. My efforts eventually bore fruit and he did come back but was posted back in a late time frame and by that time, I had been retired and we did not get to serve together again.

I felt his loss at his not being there when the SSG was tasked to move to Waziristan to rescue the two Chinese hostages who had been kidnapped from the Gomal Dam by Abdullah Mahsuds’ terrorist cronies. The previous company commander had been posted out and Zarar Company now having been re-designated as Zarar Anti – terrorist Unit awaited its first Lieutenant Colonel and, obviously, for me there was no better choice than Haroon ul Islam whose name I passed to the Military Secretary’s Branch, which, to my utter dismay, took its time in posting him back and hence, he was not available for this operation. The unit thus moved for the operation without a commander and to cater for that I sent Lieutenant Colonel Waseem Ayub, also a good officer the Headquarters Special Services to command the unit for this operation as all the young Captains in the unit were very new in it and lacked the requisite experience. Zarar did well as expected, killing all five kidnappers and rescuing one of the two Chinese, taken hostage. The other Chinese, very unfortunately, came in the crossfire and died of his wounds. It was my firm belief and it still is till today that had Lieutenant Colonel Haroon been around, we would have managed to rescue the second Chinese too. I reiterated this belief of mine to the Military Secretary when I saw him the next time, only to get in return, a sheepish smile.

Haroon Islam posing with relatives and staff member on the Siachen Glacier.

The other incident I remember about Haroon ul Islam very vividly is what transpired between him and me while we were aboard a C 130 aircraft, destination Lahore, where we had been rushed to, in light of a hijacked Indian aircraft that had just landed there. Here I would also like to pay tribute to the magnificent lot that serves in the Special Service Group. As the doors were about to close before the take off, I noticed two individuals in civvies running towards the C 130 aircraft whose engines had started. Telling the PAF crew chief to wait for a minute so that I could check out who these persons were, I waited with Haroon at the door of the aircraft. As they came closer Haroon told me that they were his Zarar company men who were on leave. Both these individuals reached us, running and hence breathless and said that they were on their way home on leave when they learnt that Zarar Company had been called for action. So instead of going home, they had turned around and rushed to Chaklala Airbase as they had learnt that Zarar Company was there. They surely made it well in time as, I, personally appreciating their spirit, welcomed them aboard. This was the kind of spirit that Haroon ul Islam had inculcated in his men by always leading from the front in the typical SSG style of leadership. This very spirit was finally to cost him his life and make him write his name gloriously by giving the ultimate sacrifice for his country. As we circled Lahore airport when we arrived there the pilot called me to his cockpit saying that the Indian aircraft had taken off just before our arrival and asked me whether we should land or not. I contacted the Director Military Operations who was also a fellow SSG officer and was told to fly back to Chaklala as the Indian aircraft was now reportedly heading for Afghanistan but could also land in Peshawar, so we were required to be ready to take on a hostage rescue mission at any time. I returned from the cockpit and gave Haroon ul Islam, who was cleaning his pistol, this news.... To my utter surprise he became visibly upset and came to the point of tears. “This isn’t fair with us!” he lamented, “Each time there is an opportunity for us to undertake a mission, the mission gets aborted. The same kind of thing happened the last time. Getting these hijackers would have been a piece of cake for us!” I found myself virtually consoling him the way an elder consoles a little kid whose chocolate had been stolen. Personally, I was very amused and at the same time very impressed at Haroon ul Islams’ commitment and dedication to his job as I saw the tears in his eyes. I consoled him by saying maybe there is something better lying in store for you. On our return to Chaklala, while we waited for the hijacking drama to end, I witnessed Haroon ul Islam carrying out countless rehearsals of undertaking the operation, if need be. He rehearsed the operations time and again, catering for all eventualities that could occur. On one occasion he even invited my daughters to act also as female hostages, a request to which they gladly complied, as they were also very amused at his crazy dedication and my younger one Aleena, would even make funny hijacking cartoons of him undertaking a anti hijacking mission, which in turn I used to present to him and that would get some good laughter out of him on his return from the rehearsals to the SSG rest house where we all were staying. Seeing his preparation, motivation and meticulousness as well as the hard standards of training he had imposed on his outfit, I was very sure that Zarar Company was very capable of successfully undertaking any anti hijacking mission. We waited in vain for that aircraft to return to Pakistan, but it did not and ultimately the hijacking came to an end in Afghanistan through a Taliban brokered deal. Thereafter I’d at times joke with him by saying, “I’ve gauged you to be the Nishan e Haider types, always willing to die for your country in an instance. He would always respond with a mischievous smile.

He need not have been there when his troops were laying that breaching charge against the Lal Masjid walls but true to his nature of always leading from then front, he was there. As the SSG had been doing this with stealth for the last few days, it appeared that the terrorists inside were alert this time and as they withdrew after laying the charges and to explode them, a burst of fire erupted in the dark out of which two bullets hit the gallant Haroon, one in the leg and the other below the neck. The one below the neck proved fatal. Major Tariq who was also hit in the pelvis and the other few men picked up Haroon and withdrew his body to safety by returning fire in the dark in the direction from where the fire had come. This warriors’ time was ended as per destined. He had already done a lot since his arrival at the spot just a few days back. He had personally sited all his snipers who took in one volley a heavy toll of the terrorists. The terrorists never showed their heads again knowing that they were now dealing with some real professionals. His men if they move in now to clear the terrorists will move in with a vengeance. The terrorists will stand no chance against his highly trained commandoes. It will take them only a few minutes if the approval is accorded.

During another sensitive operation when he was to reach a certain establishment with his company, due to some wrong coordination, the word had not been passed to the guardians at that gate, about his arrival. I got a call from a very charged up Major Haroon ul Islam who told me, “Sir, they are not letting me, despite your instructions. I have given them five minutes to open the gate; otherwise I’m blasting my way through”. Knowing how capable he was of doing what he was saying, I emphatically told him no way was he going to do so I would ensure the gates are opened for him to move in the same time.

People carry coffin of Lt. Col Haroon Islam for burial in Lahore. 10 July 2007

One day he came to me and requested that he wanted to do the High Altitude High/Low Opening freefall parachutist course at the Parachute Training School in Peshawar. This was a course which was both dangerous initially and equally thrilling and I knew that every SSG officer wanted to do this course for the challenge. However, the vacancies for this course though were much more than they were during our days as Captains and Majors, were still not enough to allow all officers to undertake the course. By now, I had developed a thorough liking for Haroon ul Islam and I also took pleasure in teasing him a little. “No way,” I said, “your outfit has nothing to do with sky diving. You ought to concentrate on your primary job which is hostage rescue and anti terrorist duties.” I enjoyed the way he kept pestering me for the course and also sent his good friend the Officer Commanding the Parachute School to recommend him for the course. Finally, I submitted to his request and he delightfully went for the course. The Officer Commanding the Parachute School kept me informed about the course and it was news for me to learn that Haroon had topped the course and had completed his jumps but wanted to jump again the next day as there were some officers and men who still needed to complete his jumps. I accorded the permission on being impressed at his standing out so well in the course. The next day I was in Tarbela witnessing some exercise when it was conveyed to me that there had been a parachuting accident at the Durrani drop zone in Peshawar and two officers had been seriously injured and one of them was Haroon ul Islam. I left for Peshawar immediately and went straight to the CMH. There I met the OC Parachute School who explained that during the last jump Haroons’ and another officers’ parachutes had collided in midair and Haroons’ leg had got entangled with the lines of the other parachute once they were at 800 feet above ground level. This had made the canopies of both the parachutes collapse into cigarette rolls and also gets into a spin, which in turn increased the descent speed of the parachutes over five times. Resultantly, both of them had come hurdling towards the ground and had hit it at a speed which virtually made dust rise which could be seen at a distance. “Will they survive?” I asked worryingly. The Officer Commanding Parachute Training School replied in the affirmative but told me they had bad injuries. Haroon had broken his pelvis badly and the fall had badly rattled his bones. I saw him as he was brought back from the X-ray department. Meanwhile, my wife who also lived in Peshawar had also reached the hospital and was with me as he emerged in the Officers ward on a stretcher. Happy at seeing him alive, “I knew you’d do something on this course and you’ve done it”. I joked with him in a mean manner. He managed a smile till my wife asked him how he was feeling. “I am in great pain, Bhabi, “he whispered to my wife”. Okay, but don’t show it to anyone here, you are a brave commando and are known as such, my wife whispered back to him and then went straight to the doctor to tell him to administer him a pain killer. The next day Haroons wife was also there and then we saw his entire pelvis and leg plastered with his leg hauled up and a weight dangling on the other side.

As he lay in bed in hospital recuperating, he received the news that he had been selected for the Command and Staff College at Quetta and has also been selected for doing an MBA programme at a good university. When I visited him subsequently, I found him and his spouse debating whether he should do his MBA or staff college. Haroon was of the opinion that he would never be physically fit for the SSG again and serving in the Army otherwise was not a real attraction for him. His very nice and dedicated wife didn’t want him to be close to danger as Haroon always loved to be and using this accident as a relevant proposition, wanted him to do his MBA and not his staff college. Thereafter, she hoped he would quit the Army and enter the corporate world. Like every loving wife, she wanted to keep him away from danger, knowing his love for action but this was not to be, finally, as can be seen! Haroon went from the bed onto crutches for quite a while and then onto the walking sick. It was while he was on crutches that General Parvez Musharraf was appointed as the Colonel in Chief of the SSG and dinner at Cherat of all SSG serving and retired officers was followed by a musical evening and once the musical group, the Jupiters started playing the Bhangra song, the entire SSG as well as General Parvez Musharraf watched as they saw a person on crutches coming upfront in front of the stage to do the Bhangra. And then the entire SSG jumped in to do the Bhangra! That very evening, he rattled out in Punjabi, a poem dedicated to his city, Lahore. He was a very proud Lahori and this poem of this exalted the virtues of the city of Lahore.

Finally, one day Haroon told me that he had finally decided to go for the staff course, much to his wifes’ disappointment. He did well and was posted as a Grade 2 Operations staff officer at the Headquarters Punjab Rangers. Unfortunately for him, his anti terrorist skills reputation reached the plump Director General Rangers there who ensured he could get maximum benefit out of him by making him train the Punjab Rangers in acquiring anti terrorist skills. I doubt whether he was ever employed on staff there, despite his physical handicaps. I guess this also helped him in recovering fast and a couple of years down the line, when he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, he informed me on my being posted back to the SSG as the first General Officer Commanding that he was fit to come back and wanted to come back. I was just as keen to have him back and sent his name to the Military Secretary to be posted as the first Commanding Officer of the newly reorganized Zarar Anti Terrorist Unit.

Most of his sisters live abroad in Canada; I hear they are on the way to their family home to attend their brave and courageous brothers’ last rites. His elder brothers loved him too. He was their little brother that they were so proud of a professional commando officer, their kid brother! I think about the agony his wife and two little daughters would be in at this stage. The elder one was very attached to him. The younger one may be too young to ever remember her father, later.

His family has lost him at the hand of those terrorists who profess to be better Muslims then the others, with their perverted intolerantly indoctrinated minds. What about his loving mother who doled over him, so much as he was her youngest son! Is it gratifying for her to learn that her courageous son, having survived Kargil, having survived such a dangerous parachute accident, having survived so many ordeals of commando life, finally met his end at the hands of so called Muslims or as they proclaim to be, better Muslims. We remember his mother shouting angrily at the SSG officers to put her son down as he could get injured when they were tossing him in the air on his wedding day, as per SSG tradition. Jolly good fellow as they call it in the Army and making one airborne as they call it in the SSG. For his mother, this was no tradition. She was simply shocked to see him being tossed real high in the air as he as well as his friends laughed. “Put my son down,” she ordered “You will hurt my Bubloo”, she said to the now startled SSG officers. That was the day his friends discovered his innocent pet name “Bubloo”, a pet name all his family called him by, a name which he had never mentioned and had done his innocent best to hide, in order to maintain his macho image in the SSG.

The children in the SSG loved him. He was their hero! Their Rambo! They called him Uncle Terra lovingly which actually meant Uncle Terror who strikes terror into the hearts of the terrorists. His men simply loved him for his being straight forwardness, professional,honesty and leadership qualities as the SSG calls for much higher leadership qualities as officers in the SSG have to lead from the front to be respected by their troops. To be really respected by the troops in the SSG is an acid test of leadership qualities.

The SSG will remain proud of him, forever, I am sure! He leaves behind an army of friends as he was so humble and so loveably friendly. When I saw his body, tears overwhelmed me as past memories of his association with me flowed through my mind. I thought it my duty to let the nation know the mettle that Haroon was made of! As a nation, we need to support his wife and children for the future. It pains me to feel that his daughters will grow up without having such a courageous Dad to take care of them. A proud nation should never forget its Shaheeds and should take it upon themselves to look after their children as their own.