Pakistani Airman Apologies to Family of Indian Pilot

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Lisa Mullins: It's not unusual for the events of war to be seared into the memory of a warrior. It IS unusual for a combatant to reach out across enemy lines years after the war has ended. Our next story is a case-in-point: The year is 1965. India and Pakistan are at war. A Pakistani fighter pilot named Qais Hussain spots an Indian eight-seater plane. Turns out to be a civilian aircraft that has apparently drifted off course, but journalist Beena Sarwar says in Karachi, Pakistan, that Hussain doesn't know that.

Beena Sarwar: He can't see who's in the plane, but he can see it's an eight-seater and he can see that the pilot is tipping his wings sideways in a gesture that says "I'm a civilian aircraft, don't shoot me. I'm not armed." So the Pakistani Air Force pilot relays this information to the ground, and he says it's the longest 3-4 minutes. But when the orders come, he's given very clear directives to shoot, and as an armed forces person, he shoots. And he gets back to the ground and he feels a sense of accomplishment. He's met by his superiors and his leader and everybody and everybody congratulates him on this thing.

Lisa Mullins: Now, the reason we know the details of what happened, almost 50 years ago on this flight, is that just in the past week, this Pakistani pilot has written an e-mail to the daughter of the Indian pilot, the man who was pilot in the plane he shot down.

Beena Sarwar: So, he has two reasons for writing this e-mail. One is that he wants to condole with her, and with her family, and to convey his condolences to the others through her, of the families who lost their loved ones in that aircraft. And the second reason, he says in his e-mail, is to set the record straight. He says, I followed the rules of combat. I played fair. I followed orders. And it wasn't like I knew it was a civilian aircraft. We really thought in Pakistan that this was an aircraft on a recce mission. You know, even though they had made the gesture, saying that they were unarmed civilians, how could we believe them? And he basically says, I'm sorry that I did this, but I followed orders and I just wanted you to know that it wasn't anything else.

Lisa Mullins: What was the response that the Pakistani pilot got from the daughter of the deceased Indian pilot?

Beena Sarwar: Her response was amazingly graceful and humane, and she acknowledged his courage. And she says that it took an act of courage for you to write that, and it's taking an act of courage for me to respond. And this is something that I learned from my father, to be humane and courageous and not be bitter and hostile. And at the end of this e-mail, this very, very gracious, humane and courageous e-mail, she says, I hope that something good comes out of this, and then thank you for reaching out. So it's really an extraordinary story, I think, of two people from across a very hostile border, who almost half a century later, are willing to accept each other's words and move on. And she said so. And later on that evening, she actually encountered him for the first time os television. They were on a live TV show together. He was on it from Islamabad, she was on it from New Delhi. It was really quite an extraordinary show.

Lisa Mullins: So this is a personal story, but there is a bigger picture here. What is it?

Beena Sarwar: What this incident shows, I think, to me is the very high level of distrust and hostility between India and Pakistan, that existed, and perhaps, in a way still does. That was war. In 1965 it was actually a war situation. But, there have been plenty of incidents since then and before then where we arrest each other's citizens if they transgress the border inadvertently, or if they go to a city which they don't have a visa for. And the governments, armies of two countries are hostile towards each other, but you don't see the signs of such hostility at the level of the ordinary person. When Indians and Pakistanis meet, anywhere abroad, they become best friends. It's the common South Asian culture that binds them.

Lisa Mullins: Pakistani journalist Beena Sarwar speaking to us from Karachi. Beena Sarwar has posted a blog that includes an old picture of Pakistani pilot Qais Hussain. You can read the blog and check out the photo at theworld.org.