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The Rediff Special/Onkar Singh in Meerut
August 10, 2004
Kharkhoda Mundali, a nondescript village about 25 km away from Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, is celebrating the return of one of its residents, Sapper Mohammad Arif of 108 Engineers, to India.
Arif and Lance Naik Jasgir Singh were repatriated to India through the Wagah border in exchange for four Pakistani prisoners on Monday, August 9.
The two Indian Army soldiers spent almost five years in Pakistani prisons.
"The whole village was glued to television sets and was watching when the two walked over to the Indian side," Shakil Ahmed, a neighbour, told rediff.com
"There were cheers when we saw Arif embracing his brother and bhabhi (sister-in-law) and picking up their son in his arms," he said.
The villagers turned up at Arif's house in the evening in expectation of their hero's arrival.
Muslims offered namaz to thank the Almighty.
But as news trickled in that it would be a couple of days before Arif returned home -- he is being debriefed in Amritsar -- the villagers started leaving the house.
Satvir Tyagi, who unsuccessfully contested the state assembly seat from Kharkhoda, was among the crowd.
A Samajwadi Party member, Tyagi was quick to announce that his party would take care of Arif and suitably compensate him.
"I will speak to Netaji (Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav) and arrange necessary help," he promised Raisia Khatoon, Arif's aunt.
Khatoon, 55, did not watch Arif cross over to India.
"I want to see him when he comes home. I don't see television anyway," she said.
With no electricity in the village, a gaslight was quickly arranged to ensure that there was enough light as we spoke about Arif, his past as well as the future.
"He joined the NCC (National Cadet Corps) when he was in the school. He wanted to join the army like his grandfather Chaudhary Abdul Hafiz did during British rule," she recalled.
"He joined the army on December 18, 1995, when he was barely eighteen. He got married on February 24, 1999, to Gudiya and left to join his unit on April 9. That was the last time I saw him," she said.
Tears rolled down her cheeks as she recounted the days when the police and army besieged the family after Arif was declared a deserter.
"The whole village felt ashamed. I never believed because my son was not the kind who would show his back during war," she said, adding the family had problems when army officers came and asked about him.
"His mother Hazra Begum first lost her eyesight and then died waiting for her son. Our prayers were answered when Arif sent us a letter. On June 26 we got his first letter. He wrote that he was fine and was in Rawalpindi jail. We wrote back, telling him about the welfare of everyone in the family. In his next letter he asked us why we had not mentioned anything about Gudiya. Had she gone back to her parents and remarried? We did not tell him about the death of his mother or that his wife has left him," she said.
The family plans to get Arif, who is now 27, remarried. "We will discuss the matter with him, his elder brother Abdul Hamid and his sister-in-law Sanjida Khatoon. Of course, we are going to find him another bride. He deserves one after spending five long years in enemy jails. Whether he would like to continue in the army or look after his land along with his brother is up to him," a village elder, Mohammad Iqbal, chipped in.
But that can wait.
Right now the village is planning a grand reception for its son.
Image: Rahil Shaikh