Ojhri Camp Disaster: Tragedy and Aftermath

Ojhri Camp was a disastrous incident in Pakistan where a weapons depot exploded, causing immense damage.

Ojhri Camp

On April 10, 1988, the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi agonized a terrible shock early in the morning. This day would go down in history as one of widespread sadness. A low-density explosion was followed by an enormous one, and then various missiles, rockets, and projectiles started to fall from the sky in all directions.

Mr. Khaqan Abbassi father of Mr. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi martyred in this disaster while a missile hit his car on Murree Road and his brother Mr. Zahid Khaqan Abbasi had gone in coma with head injuries after missile shrapnel had pierced his skull on April 10, 1988, Ojhri Camp disaster and died in 2005 after remaining on artificial respiration for 17 painful years. 

Residents of nearby rescued people but it was very difficult.  The situation was very bad.  Ojhari camp was a military storage center located in Rawalpindi. It was used as an ammunition depot for Afghan Mujahideen who were fighting against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan.  Its name was camp because was used to be a transit camp of the Pakistan Military.  The capacity of this camp to store the weapons was equivalent to the weapons carried by a regiment on the move.  But later it was used for the Afghan Jehad, therefore, its storage capacity had to be increased. It was established in populated area of the city on the instructions of Gen. Akhtar Abdul Rehman who was the main player of Afghan Jehan.   The new camp was under construction and it was hoped that the Ojhri Camp would be shifted to the new place. But incident took place before shifting. This was the reaction when these blasts took place and people ran in different directions. It was not like only one family or one are affected by it. The people of twin cities, Rawalpindi and Islamabad, were affected. 

This earthquake was comparable to the one that occurred in Lydia, Italy, more than 2,000 years ago. It caused a great deal of terror and fear, and the capital was engulfed in rumors of every description, from an Indian or Israeli attack to a catastrophe at the Kahuta nuclear station.

No one who could explain what had transpired could be located for several hours and even after couple of weeks some blasts also were heard.

The Ojhri camp was under the command of DG ISI, Lt. Gen. Akhtar Abdul Rehman. After this tragedy, the then prime minister Muhammad Khan Junejo made two committees to investigate the disaster. The parliamentary committee was headed by Mr. Aslam Khattak while military committee was headed by Lt. Gen. Imranullah.       

Gen. Zia ul Haq had to hurriedly return home because he was attending an Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting in Kuwait at the time. The officials reassured the populace that there was no cause for alarm and that the explosion at the guns and ammunition storage in Ojhri, which is halfway between Rawalpindi and Islamabad, was simply an accident.

No one, however, accepted the official explanation due to the countless mythological tales and untrue stories that had tortured the national mind.

But, no one accepted the official explanation since the public psyche had been tortured by numerous mythological myths and untrue tales.

Nearly a hundred individuals died, while many more suffered injuries. Zia wished to save his soldiers.

Brick barracks with thatched roofs made up the majority of Ojhri, an antiquated World War II location for the storage of weapons and ammunition. During the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan, the flow of guns expanded significantly, and in 1979 the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate selected the Ojhri Camp for temporary storage and disposal of weapons, as and when required. Formerly used as temporary army units.

While not being crowded, the Camp needed administration. In his book Working with Zia, Gen. Khalid Mahmud Arif recounts that an accident occurred on the fateful morning as some munitions was being moved about by an untrained squad.

At around 9:30 am, as the men were attempting to slide a box housing a 122mm rocket down, it slipped from the top of the stack. It landed with a thud and erupted upon impact, frightening the construction workers with a fire. It had a built-in percussion fuse that, according to the experts, could be set off by a powerful impact. This fuse had a point-detonating mechanism without an integrated safety system, to put it another way, he wrote.

When he heard about the catastrophe while on a quick trip to Sindh, the prime minister rushed to the capital. He issued special directives for the rescue and rehabilitation of victims after making preliminary inquiries.

The most crucial issue was to determine the disaster’s cause and launch an investigation. On April 12, Junejo created a five-member inquiry commission and a five-member ministerial committee to investigate the disaster. The commission is led by Gen. Imranullah, the corps commander of Rawalpindi.

This committee was tasked with conducting an investigation and submitting a report to the prime minister, who would review the information and then draught a report for the National Assembly. The committee’s members were Malik Naeem Ahmad Khan, Mir Ibrahim Baloch, and Qazi Abdul Majid Abid, with Mohammad Aslam Khattak serving as chairman.

As Junejo took all of these actions without informing Gen Zia, animosity arose between the two, which resulted in the ouster of the Junejo administration and the dissolution of the assemblies.

Gen. Zia wanted an investigation conducted by soldiers of his choosing since, apparently, if “his men” were at fault, they would have to be spared.

Junejo was aware of it, which is possibly why he established the committees before to Gen Zia’s arrival. According to reports, Gen. Imranullah held the director general (DG) ISI accountable for the incident and recommended necessary action.

It was intended to harm Gen. Zia. According to Aslam Khattak’s report, accidents can happen when a country is in warlike conditions and should be viewed as a sign of martyrdom in the service of a just cause. As a result, the four junior employees should be punished in accordance with the law and the others should be pardoned to put an end to the crisis.

The National Assembly asked that the parliamentary committee report be made immediately public and that anyone found accountable be held accountable as the inquiry dispute continued.

Rana Naeem Ahmed, the defence minister, wanted the report to be revised so that it would be more widely agreed upon and accepted. After a heated argument, Aslam Khattak reiterated that the report could not be changed under any circumstances.

The defense minister got to work on a fresh study. When Gen. Imranullah was questioned, he pointed the finger upon the ISI’s director general. Rana Naeem wrote the paper after conducting additional research, in which he unequivocally blamed the ISI.

He suggested taking action against the former DG ISI Gen Akhtar Abdur Rahman and the current DG ISI Gen Hamid Gul because the Camp was under the control of the DG ISI. The report underwent frantic scrutiny once more, and in early May 1988, prime minister Junejo gave Gen. Zia these reports with the signatures of the other members. Junejo told him he would talk about it after he got back from the Philippines and South Korea.

The presidential residence was quite disorganized when the reports were given, and the general tried to find a solution that would protect his close friends. Gen Akhtar Abdu Rahman was the person in whom Gen Zia had the most cause for concern.

There are many ambiguities and rumors regarding this disaster and tragedy:

  • In 2012, two former Indian officer told me that it was their services that sabotaged the facility to punish Pakistan for helping the Kashmiri and Sikh rebels (Avoiding Armageddon by Bruce Riedel)
  • In those days it was also thought that Russians are responsible for Ojhri camp so that the supply of weapons and ammunition might not be provided at the appropriately and within the stipulated period of time.
  • It was also thought that US intended to get audit the weapon and ammunition that was being given to Pakistan against Russian invasion in Afghanistan and this audit may be avoided: “In Afghanistan the US cash flow exceeds those for all others covert actions.  Since 1979 commencing before the Soviet invasion at the end of the year, a billion dollars were already imparted to the rebels secretly.  Informed observers say that 30 or more percent of the assistance were stolen on the transportation routes which run through Pakistan.” (US News & World Report, 16 June 1986)
  • General Akhtar Abdul Rehman who was the Joint Chief of Army staff at that time and also Chairman of All Armed Forces, visited the Ojhri camp on 10th of April 1988 in the evening when fire was overcome and said the army personnel their weapons and ammunition were durable and apparently it’s a Sabotage and nothing such incident had happened for the last six or seven years. (Afghan War & The STINGER SAGA by Lt. Col. ( R) Mahmood Ahmad Ghazi)
  • It was Gen. Akhtar Abdul Rehman’s idea to construct the camp within the inhabited area and the army personnel requested to the Gen. more than once to shift the camp from here to any appropriate place who used to shift and supply ammunition, but in vain.
  • According to Col. Ghazi, some army officers declared this disaster an accident while others declared it Sabotage.
  • Another rumor or conspiracy tale is that Aghanis have sold out a great number of weapons and ammunition to Iran.

Apparently, Ojhri camp disaster i.e. April 10, 1988 is a black day in the history of Pakistan when the mishandling of lethal weapons during transportation caused a major loss in which more than 100 innocent people passed away and numberless wounded.  It is still a mystery and whether it was an accident or Sabotage nor report from both committees was publicized even after more than three decades.

Written by Muhammad Ishaq