It was the morning of 10 April 1988 and it was Sunday when Sunday didn’t use to be a holiday in Pakistan. Rather it was a usual day in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. At 9:45, a sudden blast happened which resulted in the trembling of the walls of these twin cities. And then a series of blasts occurred back to back. Missiles and rockets were everywhere. This was the Ojhri Camp disaster which was the ammunition depot near Faizabad in Rawalpindi. Why did this happen? Was it the result of terrorism? What were the causes of this disaster? And, what could be the causes of this? We will discuss this below.
Dreadful Scenes and Casualties
These explosions in the Ojhri camp were so unexpected and intense that people thought that an enemy country had attacked. In a panic, women came out of their houses barefoot, children were in schools. This series of explosions continued for about half an hour, then there was some decrease in it. But, the destruction could not end and this series continued intermittently for the next whole week. This incident is remembered in history as the Ojhri camp disaster.
There were various reports regarding the number of people who died in this accident. According to the official data, 103 people died and more than 1300 were injured. Moreover, according to unofficial estimates, the number of people who died could be several thousand.
In this incident, Khaqan Abbasi, the father of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, was also hit by a missile. He was a close associate of General Ziaul Haq and a retired Air Commodore. He defeated PML-N chairman Raja Muhammad Zafarul Haq in the 1985 non-party elections. Khaqan Abbasi was in the post of Federal Minister of Production at that time.
At the time of the Ojhri camp disaster, he was traveling in a car with his son Zahid Khaqan Abbasi on Murree Road. Suddenly, a missile hit his car, which killed him on the spot. While Zahid Khaqan Abbasi went into unconsciousness and then after seventeen years of living in unconsciousness, in 2005, he also died.
Quick Action Plan for Ojhri Camp Disaster
In March 1985, Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo had taken the oath of Prime Ministership through non-partisan elections. It was almost three years before. He was present in Sindh at the time of the tragedy. While the then President of Pakistan, General Ziaul Haq, was on a visit to Kuwait. From Kuwait, he was scheduled to visit Iran.
As soon as the news of this tragedy reached, both the President of Pakistan and the Prime Minister left all their engagements and reached Islamabad. After returning from Karachi, Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo immediately appointed an investigation team. He appointed this team under the leadership of Rawalpindi Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Imranullah. He was to submit a report on the tragedy.
At the same time, he formed a committee consisting of five ministers. He had to review the report within ten days and submit it to the Prime Minister. On the other hand, President General Ziaul Haq made a statement from Kuwait about this incident. He said that “our hearts are broken and our eyes are welled up”. Besides, he released a Press after returning to Pakistan.
Causes of the Ojhri Camp Disaster
At 12 o’clock on the day of the tragedy, Radio Pakistan reported that a fire had broken out in an arms depot. And, it had been brought under control. Moreover, it appealed to the public for patience. The common impression among people about this tragedy was that the weapons lying there caught fire and started exploding. Only a few people know that there was very little capacity to store weapons in this depot.
According to an estimate, the arms of one regiment could be kept in this depot, but there were more arms than the capacity. The second reason was that there were three armories in this depot and there was also a basement. The fire spread through the first and second depots to the basement. Depot contained not only rockets, projectiles, and missiles, but also a stockpile of white sulfur. So, it would have been more dangerous to pour water on it.
Determination of Responsible Persons
This was the time when Pakistan was helping America in Afghan Jihad and America was sending all its weapons to Afghanistan through Pakistan. According to some foreign newspapers, this depot of the Ojhri camp was also being used to store American weapons. It was being so that the Afghan Mujahideen would not lack weapons.
In these circumstances, General Imranullah had two missions, one was to present the report of this tragedy before the committee and the other was to control the fire at Ojhri. He carried out both tasks with full responsibility and submitted his report on 22 April 1988.
After that, a ministerial committee consisting of 5 members was formed whose task was to review the report and implement it. The chairman of this committee was Minister of Communications and Railways Aslam Khattak while other members included Minister of State for Defense Rana Naeem Mehmood, Qazi Abdul Majeed Abid, Mir Ibrahim Baloch, and Interior Minister Malik Naseem Ahmed Aheer.
There was a discussion on the report of General Imranullah and it was decided that his final report should contain questions from those officers from whom General Imranullah had obtained information. After all this investigation, when it came to writing the report, Aslam Khattak himself took this responsibility and after a few days this report was presented before the committee, but this report could never be made public.
Assumptions about the Ojhri Camp Disaster
No report of this tragedy has come out to date. But many assumptions about this tragedy remained in circulation.
Among them, one hypothesis was that dangerous weapons for Afghan Mujahideen were kept in the Ojhri camp. When the new shipment of arms arrived, due to carelessness while unloading from the truck, there was a mess and a fire broke out in the depot. That is, it was completely an accident.
Apart from this, there was another assumption that Pakistan used to keep some of the missiles as a commission in the arms that America used to send. When the American authorities were coming to account for this weapon, some insiders blew up the camp so that they would not have to account. In this regard, there is also a statement of former federal minister Begum Kulsoom Saifullah in which she held some army officers and General Zia-ul-Haq responsible for this tragedy. He wrote that his aim was to destroy the record of missiles given by the US.
A third assumption was that on the night of April 9, an American plane had arrived in Pakistan with weapons without a schedule. This plane, the United States deliberately placed some material there, the explosion of which caused an explosion in the camp the next day.
Apart from this, there is also the hypothesis that since Pakistan had helped the Afghan Mujahideen to drive Russia out of Afghanistan, the Russian agency KGB gifted the Ojhri camp tragedy to Pakistan.
All these assumptions are still in people’s tongues today. An American journalist, Bruce Riedel, also made some new revelations. He wrote in his book that in 2012, he was told by two Indian ex-soldiers that the sabotage in Pakistan was carried out by Indian agencies, but these soldiers did not provide any proof of this claim. Hence it is also considered a hypothesis.
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Recommendations and Differences on the Report of the Committee
With regard to the report presented by Aslam Khattak, some unofficial sources had revealed that he had recommended not to take any strict action against those responsible for this tragedy. Apart from this, it was also heard that Prime Minister Junejo wants to take action against former ISI DG General Akhtar Abdul Rahman and the then-current ISI DG General Hameed Gul on the pretext of investigating the Ojhri camp. General Akhtar Abdul Rehman was also in the same aircraft when President Zia-ul-Haq died. He also died in that plane crash.
Due to the same reasons, a lot of differences also arose between Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo and President Zia-ul-Haq. And these differences also led to the dismissal of Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo about a month later on May 29, 1988.
A commission was formed and a committee was also formed on the Ojhri camp disaster, but even today, three decades after the tragedy, the question remains as to what happened in the Ojhri camp. In these last three decades, no institution in Pakistan informed the public about the Ojhri camp tragedy and this mystery remains the same even today. Neither the culprits could be identified and the final report of Aslam Khattak was not published to date.