'The sky was his home': Bangladeshi pilot’s wife remembers the war hero and the man

Group Captain Saiful Azam wearing the Iraq medal "Nawt-Al-Shuja". (Supplied: family of Saiful Azam)
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Updated 17 June 2020

'The sky was his home': Bangladeshi pilot’s wife remembers the war hero and the man

  • Saiful Azam, 80, died last week and was the only officer to serve in four countries: Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jordan and Iraq
  • Most famous for downing four Israeli planes during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, his wife recalls a devoted family man and loyal friend

DHAKA: The story of famed Bangladeshi war veteran Saiful Azam downing four Israeli fighter jets in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war is well known, but very few know what drove the ace fighter pilot to the acts that would win him gallantry awards from multiple nations and recognition as a hero around the world.
In a wide-ranging interview with Arab News on Wednesday, Azam’s wife Nishat Ara told the stories behind Azam’s heroic dogfights and fondly recalled a long life spent with a man whose first love was always flying but who was also a devoted husband, father, and above all, friend.

Group Captain Saiful Azam (third from left) in Jordan as instructor. (Supplied: family of Saiful Azam)

Azam died at the age of 80 in Dhaka last Sunday and was laid to rest at the Bangladesh Air Force cemetery, bringing to a close a distinguished life that would see him win three wars and serve in four countries – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jordan and Iraq – the only fighter pilot to have done so.
Ara had grown up living a “cushioned life” in Bangladesh, she said, but three months into her arranged marriage to Azam, she moved to Jordan where her husband was stationed as a fighter pilot. It was the time of the Arab-Israeli War, a conflict in which Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem and more than two dozen Palestinian villages around it from Jordan, laying the foundations of a long-simmering dispute.

Photo of newly wedded couple Group Captain Saiful Azam and Nishat Ara. (Supplied: family of Saiful Azam)

“I was living in a trench at the Mafraq base in Jordan to escape the Israeli bombings,” Ara said. “One day, Azam came back to tell me that one of his closest friends, Major Feras, from the Jordanian Air Force, had died in the Israeli bombings. He was so upset.”
The next day, she recalled, Azam moved to an Iraqi air base and went on to down two Israeli jets.
“In 1967, as a Jordanian and Iraqi Air Force pilot, he [Azam] shot down four Israeli aircraft in sky warfare,” the Bangladesh Air Force said in a statement released after his death.

Group Captain Saiful Azam pictured at the Bangladesh Air Force Museum, Dhaka, Bangladesh on October 30, 2015. The fighter jet behind Azam is a F-86 Sabre, one of the aircrafts he had extensive training on. (Supplied: family of Saiful Azam)

The acts of valour that saw Azam set a world record and bag gallantry awards from Jordan and Iraq was really a tribute to his best friend, Ara said. A year after the war, when the couple had their first child, Azam named him Feras, “in the loving memory of his best friend.” The couple also went on to have two daughters, Anila and Anita.
Born in Bangladesh’s central district of Pabna in 1941, Azam spent a significant part of his childhood in the Indian city of Kolkata. He joined the Pakistan Air Force at the age of 19 and served it until 1971, when Bangladesh, which used to be part of Pakistan and was formerly known as East Pakistan, became an independent nation.
During his time in the Pakistani Air Force, Azam shot down an Indian jet during the 1965 war between India and Pakistan for which he was awarded Pakistan’s third-highest military award, the Sitara-e-Jurat, or Star of Courage.

Group Captain Saiful Azam pictured in uniform, with his medals, at the Bangladesh Air Force Museum, Dhaka, Bangladesh on October 30, 2015 in front of a Folland Gnat fighter jet, his first combat kill in Pakistan's 1965 war with India. (Supplied: family of Saiful Azam)

After 1971, Azam served the Bangladesh Air Force until his retirement in 1980, following which he was chairman of the Civil Aviation Authorities of Bangladesh and a member of parliament from 1991–96.
Around three years ago, Azam was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, his family said.
After his death on Sunday, tributes poured in from around the world, including a call from Jordon’s Prince Hassan bin Talal “to convey his condolences on behalf of all Jordanians.” The chief of the Pakistan Air Force chief, Mujahid Anwar Khan, paid glowing tributes to Azam in a statement. 
During his life, the United States had also conferred the Top Gun and The Living Eagle titles on Azam in 1960 and 2001, respectively.
“In the aviation world, he is an international hero who was recognized with high appreciation,” said Air Vice Marshal M. Mafidur Rahman, the current civil aviation chairman. “He is our national pride as a fighter in the sky.” 
Ara said there couldn’t be a more accurate description of her late husband.

Group captain Saiful Azam and his wife Nishat Ara with their three children in 1999. (Supplied: family of Saiful Azam)

“The sky was his home; he was the happiest when he was flying,” she said. But while the world knew him as an ace pilot, Ara said, much more would be revealed about the man in an upcoming biography.
“Azam was many things to many people, but through this book, the best part of his personality will shine through,” she said, “that he was always a friend first.”

Filipino parents, teachers urge U-turn over govt’s back-to-school plans

Updated 21 September 2021

Filipino parents, teachers urge U-turn over govt’s back-to-school plans

  • Classroom return ‘experiment’ in low-risk COVID-19 areas draws mixed reactions

MANILA: Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s thumbs-up for a limited return to classrooms for students in areas with low numbers of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases has been criticized by worried parents and teachers.

The leader’s approval for the resumption of in-person classes in “low risk” parts of the Philippines on Tuesday drew mixed reactions with some objectors urging the government to reconsider its decision.

The government said on Monday that for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak it would reopen nearly 120 schools as part of a “pilot” project.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque pointed out that the move was necessary because otherwise, “we might lose a generation if we don’t have face-to-face (classes).”

According to a report by the UN children’s agency UNICEF, the Philippines was among 17 countries globally where schools had remained completely shut throughout the pandemic, highlighting what it described as “18 months of lost learning.”

Benjo Basas, national chairperson of the Teachers’ Dignity Coalition, an umbrella organization of public-school teachers’ associations, told Arab News that the Philippines’ decision was “untimely and dangerous” given the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the country, and would only put further pressure on an overwhelmed healthcare system.

He said: “Our government has yet to fix its COVID-19 response, and the more than 20,000 new cases posted almost every day over the past week can attest to that. If in-person classes will push through, it’s like putting people at risk, especially the children.”

On Tuesday, Filipino health authorities reported 16,361 new COVID-19 cases, raising the total number of infections in the country to 2,401,916. Of those, 2,193,700 (91.3 percent) people had recovered, while 37,074 (1.54 percent) had died.

Basas pointed out that any resumption of face-to-face classes should be carefully planned, and the Department of Education must guarantee the safety of all participants before questioning who would be held accountable if someone gets infected at school.

“While we agree that there is no better alternative to face-to-face learning, the current pandemic situation does not allow for this. Education can be delayed. What is more important at the moment, is the lives and health of everyone,” he added.

During a press conference, Education Secretary Leonor Briones said the pilot scheme would cover 100 public schools and 20 private institutions, limiting class sizes to 12 learners in kindergarten, 16 in grades one to three, and 20 at senior high school level.

Meanwhile, the classes would be limited to three- to four-hour sessions based on “consent from parents and guardians. If there are changes in the risk assessment, then we will stop it,” she added.

As per guidelines released on Monday, public schools would need to pass a “readiness assessment” before reopening while private schools would be subject to a joint validation by the departments of education and health.

The guidance said: “We reiterate our demand for a science-based and evidence-based risk assessment for all participating schools. These shall help determine their present condition and urgent needs for the safe conduct of in-classroom learning, which the government shall immediately address.”

Some parents, however, have said they would refuse to allow their children to become part of an “experiment.”

Lee Reyes, 36, who has three children in grade school, told Arab News she would never risk the health and safety of her sons and daughter.

“For what reason? (To protect them from) COVID-19? If some adults, despite being vaccinated, still get infected, what about unvaccinated children? Also, kids are kids. Grown-ups tend to forget social distancing, and some even take off their masks. So, no. I would rather spend time helping my children learn their lessons from home,” she said.

Another mother, Lei, 50, also voiced concerns over the safety of her children, one at college and vaccinated, and the other in junior high school and unjabbed.

She said: “If my eldest child has to commute every day, there is a risk. Or even if I let her stay at the dorm. Although I know I need to teach her to be independent, now is not the best time during a pandemic and the flu season.”

In a Facebook post, parent Bella Mel, said: “Better safe than sorry. Because if our children get sick, it will only be them who will suffer. And there’s no Department of Education to help shoulder the hospital bills. So why push for it? Let’s just accept this is the new normal.”

Taliban names Afghan UN envoy, asks to speak to world leaders

Updated 21 September 2021

Taliban names Afghan UN envoy, asks to speak to world leaders

  • Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi made the request in a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday
  • The move sets up a showdown with Ghulam Isaczai, the UN ambassador in New York representing Afghanistan’s government ousted last month by the Taliban

UNITED NATIONS: The Taliban have asked to address world leaders at the United Nations in New York this week and nominated their Doha-based spokesman Suhail Shaheen as Afghanistan’s UN ambassador, according to a letter seen by Reuters on Tuesday.
Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi made the request in a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday. Muttaqi asked to speak during the annual high-level meeting of the General Assembly, which finishes on Monday.
Guterres’ spokesperson, Farhan Haq, confirmed Muttaqi’s letter. The move sets up a showdown with Ghulam Isaczai, the UN ambassador in New York representing Afghanistan’s government ousted last month by the Taliban.
Haq said the rival requests for Afghanistan’s UN seat had been sent to a nine-member credentials committee, whose members include the United States, China and Russia. The committee is unlikely to meet on the issue before Monday, so it is doubtful that the Taliban foreign minister will address the world body.
Eventual UN acceptance of the ambassador of the Taliban would be an important step in the hard-line Islamist group’s bid for international recognition, which could help unlock badly needed funds for the cash-strapped Afghan economy.
Guterres has said that the Taliban’s desire for international recognition is the only leverage other countries have to press for inclusive government and respect for rights, particularly for women, in Afghanistan.
The Taliban letter said Isaczai’s mission “is considered over and that he no longer represents Afghanistan,” said Haq.
Until a decision is made by the credentials committee Isaczai will remain in the seat, according to the General Assembly rules. He is currently scheduled to address the final day of the meeting on Sept. 27, but it was not immediately clear if any countries might object in the wake of the Taliban letter.
The committee traditionally meets in October or November to assess the credentials of all UN members before submitting a report for General Assembly approval before the end of the year. The committee and General Assembly usually operate by consensus on credentials, diplomats said.
Others members of the committee are the Bahamas, Bhutan, Chile, Namibia, Sierra Leone and Sweden.
When the Taliban last ruled between 1996 and 2001 the ambassador of the Afghan government they toppled remained the UN representative after the credentials committee deferred its decision on rival claims to the seat.
The decision was postponed “on the understanding that the current representatives of Afghanistan accredited to the United Nations would continue to participate in the work of the General Assembly,” according to the committee report.

Rare campus massacre shakes Russian city

Updated 21 September 2021

Rare campus massacre shakes Russian city

  • The attack , one of the worst in recent Russian history, has left Urals city of around one million people reeling from shock
  • School shootings are relatively unusual in Russia due to tight security at education facilities

PERM, Russia: Yuri Aydarov was about to start an algorithms class at his university in the central Russian city of Perm when he heard people running in the corridor.
Then he saw a gunman.
Aydarov, a lecturer at Perm State University, was one of the witnesses of a shooting spree in which an 18-year-old student killed six people and wounded nearly 30 on campus on Monday morning.
The attack — one of the worst in recent Russian history — has left the Urals city of around one million people reeling from shock.
Aydarov was able to protect his students by telling them to stay away from windows and forcing the auditorium doors shut with the help of a colleague.
He saw the black-clad shooter — identified as Timur Bekmansurov — walk by his auditorium through a window, saying he was wearing a “sort of helmet.”
“We stayed quiet,” Aydarov told AFP.
All 17 students and staff members who locked themselves in Aydarov’s auditorium survived.
Most of Bekmansurov’s victims — mostly aged between 18 and 25 — died in the corridor just outside.
After a day marred by chaos, staff and students at the university struggled to make sense of the violence.
Aydarov said that teachers from “around the world” who have survived similar ordeals have been reaching out to him on social media and it really “helps” him.
School shootings are relatively unusual in Russia due to tight security at education facilities and because it is difficult to buy firearms.
But the country has seen an increase in school attacks in recent years.
With lectures at the university canceled on Tuesday, students slowly emerged late from their dorms, traumatized by the mass shooting.
Holding back tears, they laid red carnations at a makeshift memorial at the gates of the university that they walk through every day.
Some recalled finding out there was an attacker in the building from social media, and not believing it before hearing shots.
Others were anxiously awaiting news from wounded classmates, with several of the most seriously injured airlifted some 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) west for further treatment in Moscow.
The deans of all of the city’s universities also laid flowers at the gates of the campus in a show of solidarity.
“We feel support from the whole of Russia and that really helps,” said politics lecturer Ksenia Punina.
The attacker lay in a hospital across town, heavily injured during his detention. He was reportedly on a ventilator and had his leg amputated.
In May, another teenage gunman killed nine people in a school in Kazan, which lies between Perm and Moscow.
“When this happened in Kazan, I thought this could never happen here in Perm, it’s always calm here,” said medicine student Maria Denisova.
In recent years, similar attacks also took place in Moscow-annexed Crimea and the far eastern city of Blagoveshchensk.
On the day of the Kazan attack, President Vladimir Putin called for a review of gun control laws.
But some in Perm said more should be done to prevent gun violence.
“If it’s so easy for a boy to get hold of (a gun), I think it should be stricter,” said 20-year-old Denisova.
The head of the chemistry department, Irina Moshevskaya, said violence was a “systemic problem in our society,” blaming it on popular online culture.
Just opposite the heavily guarded campus is a shop selling hunting guns. It was closed on the day after the attack.
Moshevskaya said that staff were able to lock students inside science labs, avoiding more deaths.
One chemistry lecturer “used her laptop bag to make sure her auditorium’s doors were tightly shut,” she said.
Some students complained that one lecturer had continued his class despite being told an active gunman was in the building.
On the other side of the city, dozens queued at a blood donation center, responding to calls on social media to help the victims.
Most people in Perm praised the quick response of everyone on the campus.
“From first-aid nurses to senior university staff, everyone rose to the occasion,” said engineering lecturer and former policeman Aleksei Repyakh.

French court lengthens jihadist’s sentence on appeal

Updated 21 September 2021

French court lengthens jihadist’s sentence on appeal

PARIS: A French appeal court on Tuesday increased an extremist’s sentence for his senior role with Daesh group in Syria from 30 years to life in prison.
Frenchman Tyler Vilus had already been convicted for his work with the Daesh group there between 2013 and 2015.
On appeal, the court also ordered that the 31-year-old serve a minimum of 22 years in jail.
He was deemed a “major risk” to re-offend and still denied some of the charges.
Vilus led the “Al-MuHajjireen” (the immigrants) brigade, a squadron that tortured and carried out summary executions.
He was deported to France after being arrested at an Istanbul airport with a Swiss passport in July 2015 en route to Europe to carry out an attack.
His mother, dubbed “Mama Jihad” in the French press, traveled three times to Syria in support of her son and was sentenced to 10 years in prison in June 2017 for her “unfailing commitment” to jihad.
Among the charges, Vilus was found guilty of taking part in the public execution of two blindfolded prisoners, which was filmed for a propaganda video.
Vilus stood, head bowed, behind a glass screen to hear the verdict after an eight-day hearing under tight security in central Paris.

Wray: Afghanistan unrest could inspire extremism inside US

Updated 21 September 2021

Wray: Afghanistan unrest could inspire extremism inside US

  • FBI is confronting increasing threats from individuals motivated by racial and political grievances
  • The danger posed in Afghanistan by groups like al-Qaida and the Daesh is at the moment primarily a regional threat

WASHINGTON: The possibility of a 9/11-type attack has diminished over the last 20 years, but the Taliban victory in Afghanistan could embolden US-based extremists.
At the same time that the FBI is confronting increasing threats from individuals motivated by racial and political grievances, top national security officials warned Tuesday.
Christine Abizaid, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee that the terrorism threat to the country is less “acute” than it was two decades ago, and that the danger posed in Afghanistan by groups like Al-Qaeda and the Daesh is at the moment primarily a regional threat. And FBI Director Christopher Wray said that though extremist groups have never stopped plotting attacks against the US, the FBI is better positioned to stop them.
Even so, the officials said, the collapse of the Afghanistan government and the potential ascendancy of foreign terror groups there could inspire Westerners to commit acts of violence. That’s on top of a domestic terrorism caseload that Wray said has “exploded” since the spring of 2020 from about 1,000 investigations to around 2,700.
“We are concerned that, with developments in Afghanistan — among other things — that there will be more inspiration to the first bucket,” Wray said of the international terrorism threat. “So I think we anticipate, unfortunately, growth in both categories as we look ahead over the next couple of years.”
US officials say they’re monitoring the situation in Afghanistan following the speedy Taliban blitz, particularly with an eye on how Al-Qaeda or IS could rebuild to the point of being able to conduct an attack targeting the US
“I think it is fair to assess that the development of those groups’ external operations capability, we’ve got to monitor and assess whether that’s going to happen faster than we had predicted otherwise,” Abizaid said. “Afghanistan is a very dynamic environment right now.”
Officials also defended the vetting process they have in place to screen the backgrounds of Afghanistan refugees seeking entry into the US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the number of refugees denied entry has been minimal because “we have not found many people with derogatory information relative to those who qualify for admission to the United States by reason of their status.”
“The (screening) architecture that has been built over 20 years since 9/11 remains in place and has only strengthened,” he said. “We have a screening and vetting architecture. We have greater cooperation among the federal agencies in the counterterrorism, intelligence and law enforcement communities. We remain ever vigilant in that regard.”