Pakistan venture, Part I: 1980

Residents of hospital for leprosy patients in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, 1980.

(Photo by JERRY FINK)

Editor’s Note: Jerry Fink’s journalism career began in 1974 when he became news editor at the Sequoyah County Times in Sallisaw for Jim Mayo. Fink says Mayo taught him most of what he knows about journalism, and about being productive, accurate and fair.

After going to work for the Tulsa World, Fink had an opportunity to go to Pakistan when that part of the world was becoming a war zone after the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. His goal was to enter Afghanistan and report on the war, but he only made it as far as Pakistan, the neighboring country.

Currently he is managing editor of the Eufaula Indian Journal, in Eufaula, and the McIntosh County Democrat in Checotah.

Recently, he had the opportunity to return to Pakistan, 37 years later.

Fink has written a lengthy, two-part story about his Pakistan experiences. Hopefully you will find them interesting and enlightening.

By Jerry Fink
Managing Editor Indian Journal

On April 20, 1980, my 35th birthday, I began my first journey to Pakistan, four months after the Soviet Union invaded neighboring Afghanistan and President Jimmy Carter warned of a possible war if the Communists expanded their Afghan campaign.

The president, in protest of the invasion, boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics and placed an embargo against shipment of commodities to the Soviet Union.

The world seemed to be descending into chaos.

At the time I was a young reporter working for the Tulsa World and curious about a part of the globe I knew nothing about and wondered why World War III might start there.

And so with the approval of the late Executive Editor Sid Steen I took leave from work, packed my bags and camera and flew to the other side of the world to satisfy my journalistic curiosity and perhaps gain experience as a war correspondent.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, May 1, 1980 – A bearded man wearing peach-colored shirt and pants, brown vest and white turban stepped through the gate and into the courtyard of a residential compound on a farm just outside of this town near the Afghanistan border.

Under each arm was a holstered pistol.

It was sunset, but in the twilight one could see his haggard, war-weary face typical of the thousands of freedom fighters who battled Russian troops in the Afghan mountains for weeks on end and then slipped back into Pakistan to rest and reload.

I had been waiting for him.

“Do you want to go into Afghanistan?” he asked

Yes. That was my main mission in coming to Pakistan, a jumping off point for many international journalists who joined various groups of rebels and went with them into the mountains to report on the war.

He said I would have to dress like him, “become one of us.”

They would protect me, he said.

“There will be 200 men on your left, 200 on your right. No danger to you,” he said, and then made a plea for anti-helicopter guns and other weapons to be used against the Soviets, apparently mistaking me for someone of importance who could get word to the right people to arm the rag-tag army of so-called “Mujahideen.”

The evening was warm but I was burning with anticipation. My plans seemed to be coming to fruition.

The stranger assured me it would only be a matter of time before he contacted me again, and then he left as quietly as he arrived.

The Plan, January, 1980

In Tulsa, I had been watching the news about Afghanistan and Iran and the growth of ultra-conservative Muslim sects for weeks. 

On Nov. 4, 1979, a group of radical students took 51 American diplomats and citizens hostage in Tehran, Iran.

On Nov. 21, 1979, Pakistani students burned the American Embassy in Islamabad. On the same day the students attacked the International School of Islamabad, but were repelled by teachers and parents.

The Soviet Union, still under the rule of Leonid Brezhnev, invaded Afghanistan on Dec. 24, 1979 to combat the growing tide of anti-communist sentiment among Muslim rebels in that country.
When I decided to take a plunge into the war zone I contacted Pakistani students studying at the University of Tulsa and they gave me names and phone numbers of friends and relatives who might help me.

I contacted numerous federal and international agencies and organizations to arrange interviews while in Pakistan. 

Though my main goal was to cross over from Pakistan into Afghanistan and report on the war, I was cautious. I thought since it would be my only trip to that part of the world, I would talk to as many people as possible, find as many news stories and features as possible, learn as much about the country as possible.

The Trip, April 20, 1980

Flying over New York City as the airplane ascended, in my diary I noted looking down and seeing the World Trade Center, an eye-catching structure that opened in 1973. It would be destroyed more than 20 years later on Sept. 11, 2001 by a group called Al-Qaeda whose roots extend back to the war in Afghanistan that I was on my way to witness.

In London, where I spent almost four days, I met a couple from Australia who were en route to Jerusalem but suddenly had a premonition that something dreadful was about to happen in the world and so decided to return home.

Later, while flying on a shaky Pakistan International Airline plane to Islamabad I met a number of Christian missionaries who invited me to visit them upon my arrival.

I sat next to a 28-year-old Pakistani medical student studying in London to become a neurosurgeon. The student, who was going home to visit his family, was a former Shiite, one of the most conservative sects of the Muslim religion. He showed me knife scars on his chest, self-inflicted wounds created in a religious frenzy in his youth. This was my first introduction to the radical side of Islam.

Emergency Landing, April 25

On April 25, at 8:50 a.m., the Pakistan-bound plane made an emergency landing in Tehran, Iran. As it descended I observed the snow-capped mountains that were a backdrop to the city, and an oil refinery with its tall stacks emitting flames of burning waste gas and I watched military vehicles swarming the landing strip.

I wondered if it would be possible to get off the plane and go into Tehran to try to interview someone about the hostages, an idea that was quickly crushed.

When the PIA came to a stop the vehicles surrounded the plane and made sure no one attempted to exit while a fuel leak was being repaired.

I didn’t understand the extreme security measures until the next day, when, at my hotel, I read a newspaper article and learned that just hours before the emergency landing American servicemen had made an attempt to rescue the 51 hostages who had been captured in November, five months before my flight.

Two helicopters carrying the would-be rescuers crashed in the desert, killing eight of the servicemen and one Iranian civilian.

To see the rest of part 1 pick up a copy of today's paper.

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