Twenty years ago, as war raged on between India and Pakistan across Kargil, Mohammed Hassan’s public call office (PCO) became an important communication link between soldiers and journalists on the frontlines and the rest of the country.
At a time when mobile phones were unheard of, Hassan’s PCO, the only one in the town, became crucial for soldiers to reach their families. For journalists, it was the only way to send in their reports.
Hassan, who was roughly 20 yeas old at the time, was among the handful civilians who stayed back in Kargil while the war went on.
Remembering the time Hassan says shells from the Pakistan side of border first started landing in the country in landed in 1997 and full-fledged war broke out in 1999. While he started the PCO in 1995, he had no idea then of the importance it would garner over the coming years.
“I met an officer from the BSNL in 1995 and he suggested that I fill a form as a new telephone facility was coming. So after some time I opened the PCO,” he says.
“Day and night, it (PCO) was then used by soldiers in Kargil to call their families. The journalists who were covering the war would send their work through my fax machine only,” says Hassan, now 40, and a father of two children.
Today, the PCO remains only in the memories of the soldiers and journalists, and Hassan himself. “Everything has changed now. Everyone has a mobile phone now,” he adds. He shut down the PCO in 2008.
The Indian Express visited the spot where it was then located. A big building now stands in its place and hardly anyone remembers the phone booth.
Initially, he ran only a phone service, but later bought a fax machine as well. “Since so many people asked about it, I purchased that machine for Rs 40,000 from Delhi in 1998,” he says.
What made Hassan stay back with a war overhead? “It was the only PCO then in the area. So there was an option for me to shut it and go back home, but I would always think if I close the PCO, then how will soldiers talk to their families and how would journalists send their work,” he says.
He recalls how his days and night were filled with fear. “Once the army launched an attack from Kargil and then Pakistan retaliated. That night there was intense shelling. For the first time during the period, I left town in the midnight. But, I returned to the shop the morning,” he says. “When the situation turned worse; I even put sandbags outside my PCO, after an army officer suggested that it can stop (shells).”
Today he works as an electrical contractor. “I earned a lot of money that time, but whenever we think today about those times, I think about the risks we were taking to earn money…but I am happy that I helped the journalists to do their jobs and army men to reach to their families,” he says.
At Hassan’s home, the fax machine has been wrapped up and stowed away. “I don’t know if it works now. It is the time of mobile phones now. There are so many shops in Kargil now which have fax machines,” he says.
Having lived through the war, he hopes for peace now. “I pray to god that it never happens again. I am witness to the last war and I know that it only brings destruction. People have suffered in the past and I don’t want to see such situation ever,” he says.