Down the Exxon Lane — 5

His long-held wish to travel abroad was fulfilled but not in a way he had ever dreamed.

PIA Boeing 720

He had one regret. That he had never traveled outside of Pakistan.

I’m talking about Zaki, officially known as S. M. Zaki. He was one of the early employees of Esso Pakistan Fertilizer Co. (EPFCL). A graduate of Tando Jam, he joined the company as an agronomist, sometime in 1965–66.

I got to know him closely when the company extended its marketing operations to parts of the then Frontier Province and created a separate division reporting to the head office. We both were posted there, he in Abbottabad and I in Peshawar.

Zaki was a soft-spoken, slow-paced, and amiable person. He had a dusky complexion, wore thick glasses, and had prematurely graying hair.

Zigzagging through the course of our respective careers, we both ended up in the head office, Zaki in Marketing and I, after taking an unusual detour via the Pakistan Foreign Office, in Human Resources. The company had by then shifted its office to the National Shipping building.

Meanwhile, Esso Chemical Asia Pacific (later renamed Exxon Chemical Asia Pacific or ECAP) set up its regional office in Hongkong. They also started using Esso Training Center in Singapore, which operated from Shangrila Hotel and later moved to Mandarin Hotel, on Orchard Road.

This is when EPFCL employees from Karachi and Dharki started traveling to Singapore, and sometimes to Hongkong, to attend training courses and conferences. They would return, via Bangkok, carrying chocolates, cheese, and other goodies for their families and friends. (Surprising as it may sound today, chocolate and cheese were a rare commodity in Pakistan those days — and so was travel abroad a rare event.)

They brought back exciting stories, a little embellished though, about the places they visited, the hotels they stayed at, the people they met, and the fun they had.

But no such opportunity came Zaki’s way. He hankered for a chance to go abroad. His hankering turned into a complaint, which he often brought up when we met. He even contemplated quitting Exxon but did not.

Participants from the region attending a training course at Singapore

Zaki’s long-held wish to travel abroad was, finally, fulfilled, but not in a way he had ever dreamed, and not to places he wished to visit.

It was March 2, 1981, a balmy spring day in Karachi. Zaki took a domestic flight, PK 326, from Karachi to Peshawar on a personal trip planning to return the same day or the next. It was a Boeing 720 aircraft carrying 144 passengers, including 9 crew.

Halfway through the flight, three of the passengers sprang up from their seats. They were all armed. Two of them barged into the cockpit and the third stood in the cabin keeping an eye on the passengers. They forced the pilot to divert the plane to Kabul, and then from there, after a few days, to Damascus.

While the hijackers negotiated with the government of Pakistan for the release of some political prisoners, the passengers remained hostage in the plane. Finally, after 13 days, the government of Ziaul Haq relented, and released dozens of prisoners held in Pakistani jails and flew them out to Damascus airport where they were exchanged with the hostages.

Flight PK 326 carrying all the hostages — minus one passenger who, tragically, was shot dead at Kabul airport — finally landed at Peshawar, its original destination, to a jubilant reception by families and friends.

Zaki’s travel abroad was confined to just watching the tarmac at Kabul and Damascus airports from the plane window, and he returned home without any chocolates or cheese, but a story that trumped all other travel tales his colleagues would tell.

The company’s newsletter published Zaki’s experience of being a hostage in an aircraft for 13 days.

I lost touch with Zaki after 1982, but I believe he remained in the company until the early 90s when he died of a heart attack at an early age. RIP

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