Memoirs of a Fighter

A review by Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain

Memoirs of a Fighter
We are dealing here with a delightful small volume of memories by a highly decorated Pakistani military officer. Ashur Khan is a 1968 graduate of Khyber Medical College, Peshawar. The trajectory of his life from Surgul, a dusty little impoverished village near Kohat, to the highest echelons of the Pakistani military makes a fascinating story. The author recounts this story with pride as well as humility.

Surgul is located on Kohat-Bannu Road just southwest of Kohat city. The author was born there in 1943 in a poor family that eked out a meagre living by tilling a small patch of land that totally depended on seasonal rains for any yield. However the lessons learnt during the formidable years of his childhood stayed with him all his life.

The path from village primary school to high school and college in Kohat and then on to Khyber Medical College in Peshawar was rather straightforward. Hard work and striving for a good position in examinations was a trait that was not part of the rural life in the village. It was his motivation and a sense of purpose that guided him through his education journey. As he recounts, the standard of education in primary school and later in college left a lot to be desired. His teacher in high school, Azmat Ali Shah, mentored him and persuaded him to enter college even though the family could not afford to send him to college. Dr. Ashur pays rich tributes to that teacher.

An artist's depiction of a guard tower in a POW camp

After graduating from Khyber Medical College, he joined the Pakistan Army as a second lieutenant. His induction into the army was celebrated by his village. As he puts it, his graduation from the medical college was not significant for the villagers, because there were many doctors around. But to be an army officer was special.

The author was posted in East Pakistan during the uprising that led to the creation of Bangladesh. In what was then East Pakistan, he landed into a “Cauldron of Anarchy.” He is somewhat partial to the actions of the Pakistani military in the former eastern wing of the country. Even though he allows that some Pakistani soldiers were involved in war crimes, he lays the blame for the bloody conflict squarely on the shoulders of the Bengali people. In this regard his narrative is at variance with the Hamood-ur-Rahman Commission Report. The Commission was set up by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government in the aftermath of the fall of Dhaka.

Being a former career army officer, he may be forgiven for negotiating an extremely delicate and perilous line between the mainstream Pakistani narrative and Western narratives about the events leading to the fall of Dhaka and the emergence of the independent country of Bangladesh.

The author spent two years in an Indian POW camp after the surrender of Pakistani forces in what was then East Pakistan. This is one of the more interesting chapters of the book. Here the author is rather brief, almost tight-lipped, about his time as a prisoner of war. He does mention the physical and emotional difficulties: the poor food, lack of adequate sanitation and lack of medical facilities to treat the sick POWs. Skipped in the narrative was the most important drama unfolding outside the camp where Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the new leader of Pakistan, and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, were negotiating a peace deal under which 200,000 Pakistani POWs would eventually be repatriated to Pakistan. One supposes that the POWs did not have access to newspapers in Indian camps.

To be a POW is a unique personal experience and here the author could have been more forthcoming about the attitude of the captors, the tensions between the captors and their prisoners and tensions amongst the prisoners themselves. He does not mention that a few POWs had managed to escape from the camps and made their way to Pakistan through circuitous routes. At least one of them was a graduate of Khyber Medical College. This would have been fascinating side-story!

Despite some flaws – albeit minor and inconsequential flaws of grammar and diction – it is a highly readable book. General Ashur knows how to tell a story and he does it effectively. He is at ease at quoting the Quran, and he does that frequently. And he is quite comfortable quoting famous Western writers, scientists and even a rapper! The famous writer Truman Capote, physicist Albert Einstein and rapper LL Cool J are quoted. So are the convicted killer Teresa Lewis and jazz musician Eddie Harris. These quotes add texture and richness to the narrative.

Dr. Ashur Khan’s story is a reminder that with determination and hard work, a child born in poverty in rural areas of Pakistan can overcome the financial and class hurdles to become a doctor and then rise to one of the highest ranks in the military.

Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain holds Emeritus professorships in Humanities and cardiovascular surgery at the University of Toledo, USA. He is also an op-ed columnist for Toledo Blade and daily Aaj of Peshawar.


Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Surgery and an Emeritus Professor of Humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. He is the author more recently of A Tapestry of Medicine and Life, a book of essays, and Hasde Wasde Log, a book of profiles in Urdu. He may be reached at: