Air Commodore Nazir Latif

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A forgotten hero

Dawn


Nazir Latif


Rina Saeed Khan narrates the daring feats of a war hero who, now in his twilight years, deserves better than what he is getting from life

For Air Commodore (retd) Nazir Latif, life had always been something of a party. A low-key, easygoing and gracious man who had served his country proudly in both wars as an ace bomber (earning a Sitara-i-Jurat along the way), he was not prepared for the cruel twist of fate in store for him just short of his eightieth birthday. Having moved to Islamabad from Bahrain (where he had been flying for a commercial liner well into his 70s!) Bill Latif (as his friends call him), was planning to settle down and enjoy a retired life in his hometown of Rawalpindi. Instead, he was struck by a stray bullet, hitting him in the face while he was out for a walk near the rest house he was staying at in Islamabad.

It was dusk — and there were other people on the walking track in F-8, but no one stopped to help him as he lay on the ground, bleeding in the face and not at all sure what had happened to him. For 45 minutes he lay there — until the fighter pilot in him realised that he would have to save himself. He walked up to the road and stopped a car, asking the driver to take him back to the rest house. There he told the security guard outside to bring him his mobile from his room and dial his friend Jamal’s number.

Air Marshal (retd) Jamal Khan immediately notified the CMH and asked them to send an ambulance. But before it could arrive, the guard, alarmed at the swelling of Latif’s face, took him to PIMS hospital in Islamabad. Of course, they would not treat him since it was a bullet wound which required a FIR, etc. In the meantime, the air force people located him and transferred him to CMH.

His friend, Air Commodore (retd) Sajad Haider (another Air force hero) had by now come looking for him. Bill Latif was actually supposed go to his friend’s house to edit a book that Haider was writing on his life. Bill Latif had originally planned to return to Bahrain to sell his flat and move back to Pakistan for good but had delayed the trip in order to help out his friend. Appalled at the condition of the room in which he was being kept, Sajad Haider got in touch with Air Marshals (retd) Asghar Khan and Nur Khan who had been Bill Latif’s contemporaries. Their influence got Bill Latif was moved to the VIP block, but they could not operate on him immediately since they had to wait for the considerable swelling to go down. An air force protocol officer was assigned to look after him. Bill Latif’s wife had passed away some years ago, and his only child, an adopted daughter, currently lives in the United States, so he really had no one to look after him aside from his air force buddies.

Amazingly, Bill Latif was conscious throughout his ordeal and apparently no damage was done to his brain, although he lost one eye. The bullet, however, was still lodged in his face. But not once did he complain.

“No one else could have survived this. He has a will power made of steel. He has always been an optimist,” says his friend, Sajad Haider, who visits him every week. Even today, a year later (the bullet was eventually removed, but he suffered a mild stroke), he sits uncomplaining in his little room that his friends have found for him at yet another guest house in Islamabad.

“What else could I do?” he says smiling quietly, as he sits in neat trousers and shirt, his hair combed carefully. The stroke has slowed his speech slightly and sometimes he forgets things, but he has not lost his charm and grace. When asked whether he ever tried to find out who did this to him, he replied “One has to accept these things… it would have been a wild goose chase anyhow.”

Bill Latif grew up in a Christian family living in Rawalpindi, where his father was a well-known professor of psychology and had done his doctorate at Princeton University. His father later taught at FC College in Lahore. Bill Latif had always wanted to be a pilot and joined the air force soon after the Partition. “The air force was excellent then. It was the life we wanted. There were no jealousies, no intrigues. The British were still instructing us back then,” he recalls in his soft voice, that stops every now and then to remember the past more clearly. The British officers eventually left in 1958 when Air Marshal Asghar Khan took over command of the air force. “Those were wonderful days of flying,” he recalls.

The Pakistan Air Force was, at the time, one of the best in the world and Bill Latif was an outstanding pilot from the start. He eventually ended up commanding an entire bomber squad and fought with valour in both the wars with India. He left the air force in the 1970s, and moved to Iran and then Jordan, where he was to spend 18 years. Up until 2004, he was the captain of an airline based in Bahrain and then flying a private jet for an Arab businessman. His wife had passed away in Jordan many years ago, and upon retiring, he decided to return to Pakistan in 2007. That was when he was shot in Islamabad. When asked whether he had any regrets, his reply: “One last romance would have been nice!”

After the operation at CMH, Bill Latif was moved to the Pakistan Air force hospital to recuperate. Unfortunately, the air force chief at the time purportedly decided that Latif should vacate the room (of a near empty hospital)! His shocked friends asked for reconsideration but were denied. This was certainly unfair, considering that Bill Latif’s stature and record in the Pakistan Air force is unmatched. It is interesting to note that out of a total of 70 Sitara-i-Jurat awarded to PAF officers in both the wars against India, seven were won by Christian officers. Bill Latif was one of them. His achievements were recently highlighted in the Pakistani Defence Journal:

“Just prior to the 1965 War, as a Wing Commander, Nazir Latif commanded a Bomber Wing. Wing Commander Nazir Latif led the most challenging raids including the successful attack on Ambala deep inside the Indian territory. On two occasions, his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft guns but he flew his aircraft back and landed safely after pressing home his attacks accurately. For his exceptional flying skill and valour, the Government of Pakistan conferred the Sitara-i-Jurat on him. In 1971 too, while commanding PAF Base at Masroor, he actively participated in the war and flew numerous daring bombing missions. During the course of his service, he commanded three different fighter and bomber wings and two bases. He also served as Director of Operations and Plans at the air headquarters. After a long and meritorious service, he retired in 1972.”

This is an exceptional history — the man’s record clearly speaks for itself. There is no denying his determination and courage — both in the cockpit and on the ground. And not only has he been a fine officer, but a gentleman too. “He’s been a damn good human being — very humble and extremely generous. He gave everything away to friends and family. He was always admired and well-respected,” say his friends.

Bill Latif is now 80-years-old and should not have to live out the rest of his life in dingy guest houses. This graceful war hero should be given a respectable place to live. It is the least the Pakistan air force can do for him.

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