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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”