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Pakistani pilot reaches out to daughter of Indian man he shot down

By Moni Basu, CNN
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Fighter pilot writes condolence letter
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Qais Hussain was ordered to shoot down an Indian civilian plane that drifted off course
  • This month he wrote an e-mail to the daughter of the Indian pilot
  • He wanted to set the record straight on what happened -- and send condolences
  • She wrote back to him, admiring his courage
RELATED TOPICS
  • India
  • Pakistan
  • Jammu and Kashmir

(CNN) -- Farida Singh had not checked her e-mail in a few days and had no idea a life-changing letter awaited her until news of it appeared in an Indian newspaper.

The man who had shot down her father's civilian plane at the height of the 1965 India-Pakistan war was writing to her, almost half a century later, to set the record straight. And to apologize.

The subject line said: "Condolence."

In his August 5 e-mail, Qais Hussain expressed regret that he had been responsible for the death of Singh's father, Jahangir Engineer, one of four brothers famed in the Indian air force.

"I did not play foul and went by the rules of business but the unfortunate loss of precious lives, no matter how it happens, hurts each human and I am no exception," he wrote.

"I feel sorry for you, your family and the other seven families who lost their dearest ones. If an opportunity ever arises that I could meet you face to face to condole the death of your father 46 years back I would grab it with both hands."

If there was ever a time when the clichéd word "closure" had true meaning, this might have been it.

Singh was a teenager when her father was killed. After all this time, she felt the weight of loss lift.

She admired Hussain's gesture, thought it was noble. She wrote back to him Thursday, reaching out to him with her father's memory.

"It took courage for you to write this. And for me, too, (I say this humbly) it takes the same to write back. But my father was courage and grace at their finest....

"Yes, this was the one incident which defined our lives henceforth. But in all the struggles that followed, we never, not for one moment, bore bitterness or hatred for the person who actually pulled the trigger and caused my father's death. The fact that this all happened in the confusion of a tragic war was never lost to us. We are all pawns in this terrible game of war and peace."

The exchange between the two set the Indian subcontinent abuzz. There have been cross-border romances and sporting teams. But this was an extraordinary tale of compassion between a former Pakistani pilot and the daughter of an Indian one. Two military families living in nations that have pointed guns at each other several times since their independence in 1947.

It was in the second of several wars the rival nations fought that Hussain, then a rookie aviation officer, was alerted by Pakistani radar controllers that an Indian aircraft had drifted off course by many miles over the western Indian state of Gujarat, not far from the Pakistani border.

"I caught sight of him at 3,000 feet and made a pass so close that I could read his markings and the number of the aircraft," Hussain wrote to Singh.

Engineer began climbing and dipping his wings to signal that it was a civilian aircraft. Also on that twin-engine, twin-tail Beechcraft were seven other Indians, one of them the chief minister of Gujarat.

"Instead of firing at him at first sight, I relayed to my controller that I had intercepted an eight-seat transport aircraft (guessing by the four side windows) and wanted further instructions to deal with it," Hussein wrote. "At the same time, I was hoping that I would be called back without firing a shot."

But after about four minutes, the orders to shoot down the Indian plane crackled on the radio.

Hussain said he felt a sense of accomplishment that he had completed his mission successfully. Later that night, he learned the names of the dead from an All India Radio report.

Months turned into years. India and Pakistan went to war again in 1971. In the 1980s, the conflict over the disputed region of Kashmir flared again with an insurgency that India believed was supported by Pakistan. Both nations developed nuclear bombs. Peace talks repeatedly fell apart.

India and Pakistan entered a new century with the deep-seated suspicions that mired the day of their birth.

Hussain might have never reached out over the volatile border had it not been for accounts of the 1965 incident published earlier this year in Indian newspapers that he said were simply wrong and based on hearsay.

"To my horror, I found out that they were 180 degrees out from what had actually happened," he said.

He wanted the families of those who paid the price to at least be able to learn the truth from the only other man who was there that day. Through contacts in India, he began a search for the families of all eight who perished. He found one, the daughter of the pilot.

"Mrs. Singh, I have chosen to go into this detail to tell you that it all happened in the line of duty and it was not governed by the concept that 'everything is fair in love and war,' the way it has been portrayed by the Indian media due to lack of information."

But he also felt compelled to say how sorry he was. The e-mail, he said, came from the heart.

The story of Hussain's gesture was first reported on the website of Aman ki Asha (Hope for Peace), a joint peace initiative between Pakistani and Indian journalists whose goal is to bridge differences through personal cross-border contacts.

Both Singh and Hussain said it took courage on each other's part to meet in cyberspace.

"If I took a step forward, she took two," Hussain said.

He had never sought publicity over his act, but now that his story is out there, he hopes his next goal will come easier than he thought. Perhaps he will be able to cross that border that has separated two peoples who were once one and meet face to face with the daughter of a man he killed.