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‘Dear forces, call us again if you ever need us'

Author: Kulsum Yusuf
Publication: Ahmedabad Mirror
Date: February 28, 2019
URL:      https://ahmedabadmirror.indiatimes.com/ahmedabad/cover-story/dear-forces-call-us-again-if-you-ever-need-us/articleshow/68192237.cms

I am only 74 and I can serve my soldiers and my country again if they need me. Pakistan should know that we are not born to be defeated,” says Valbai Seghani with a raised fist and a heart swelling with pride. Memories of the 1971 India-Pakistan war come back rushing to her. She was among the 300 women tasked with reconstructing the Indian Air Force air strip in Bhuj, which was destroyed by Pakistani bombers. She feels no less than a soldier; these women have a war memorial – Virangana Smarak -- too in their name at Madhapar village of Bhuj.

It is without a second thought that she got into the army vehicle and started from Madhapar village along with others to repair the air strip on December 9, 1971. “We were 300 women who left our homes to help the Air Force, determined to ensure the pilots fly again from here.

If we were to die, it would have been an honourable death,” she said. It is due to these gutsy women that four days after the airstrip was destroyed by napalm bombs, the combat aircraft were able to take off from here and make retaliatory strikes. Last year, the Central government dedicated the Virangana Smarak to these women.

On December 8, 1971, Pakistan dropped 14 napalm bombs on Bhuj, sending shivers down the spines of the locals. “The sound of fighter jets scared us. We were not able to sleep. We came to know about the bombing and destruction only the next morning,” she said.

Air Force records state that due to the bombing, the airstrip was completely destroyed and it had become difficult for our combat aircraft to take off. There was shortage of manpower to repair the airstrip. The defence personnel used to fetch water from a village near Madhapar and when the villagers learnt about the difficulty they were facing in repairing the airstrip, they offered to help.

Village sarpanch Jadhavjibhai Hirani was the one who asked them to join her in helping the armed forces. “We began work and were guided by the officers. A long siren would go off when there was any indication of Pakistani bombers approaching us.

We would immediately run and hide in the bushes. We were asked to wear pale green sarees to camouflage. A short siren was indication that we could resume work. We toiled from dawn to dusk to make optimum use of the daylight,” she recollects.

On the first day, they had nothing to eat. On the second, a local temple provided them with fruits and sweets. They worked tirelessly for three days and on the fourth, around 4 pm, the aircrafts took off from the airstrip. “It was a proud moment for us,” she beams.

“We also camouflaged all the bridges by smearing them with cow dung so the army was able to get continuous supplies,” she says. Her son was then 18-months-old and in the care of her neighbour while she was away for three days. “The neighbour used to ask me who will take care of my son if something happened to me. I had no answer. I only knew this was the time my brothers needed me the most. I still remember how the pilots took care of us,” says Valbai.

Hiruben Bhudia, who had accompanied Valbai, shares the same experience. “The airstrip needed to be reconstructed on a war footing.

However, due to labour shortage they counted on us. In 72 hours, we ensured they were back to the skies,” she says, adding, “We still have the same energy and if the armed forces need us, we will work for them again.”

“Three years after the war, PM Indira Gandhi had offered us gifts but we refused it saying what we did was for our country. A cash reward of Rs 50,000 was donated for a community hall at Madhapar,” she said.

Many of these bravehearts are now in the UK and the US with their children.
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