Finest-hour at Chagai: From obscurity to history

By Maimuna Ashraf

It was a bright sunny day, the sky was clear with no cloud sighted, suddenly the earth inside and around the Ras Koh Hills shook with tremors. The black rock turned into white, the dust from the mountain displaced and smoke covered the hills at the ‘push of button’. After multiple loud explosions, the mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke and debris raised towards sky from several points and air filled with amid slogans of ‘Naara e Takbeer’. This was the view at Chagai, district of Baluchistan, on May 28, 1998 when Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in response to India’s initiative of nuclear detonation on May 11 and 13 of same year. It was that historical moment when Pakistan joined the prestigious club of nuclear powers and became the 7th nuclear weapon state around the world and the 1st in the Muslim World. Notwithstanding the random criticism, sanctions of West and withdrawal of aid, Pakistanis heralded the decisive occasion of nuclear explosions as “Pakistan’s Finest Hour’. After the button was pushed, it took 3 seconds to nuclear explosions and these 3 seconds were longest of the lives of people involved in the mission, because their eyes were focused on the endeavours of more than two decades.  Pakistan celebrates 28th May as National Day with nationwide fervour and zeal every year as ‘Yoam e Takbeer’, which can be translated as ‘The day of Greatness’.

Beyond this contented account of Chagai there is also a controversial account prevailing, which may have been lately observed by many specifically on social media. There is ongoing debate that ‘why Chagai was chosen for nuclear tests and why not any other area?’. Few present a ‘debatable’ viewpoint that nuclear testing left negative effect on life at Chagai and Baluchistan was deliberately chosen for such adverse effects.  Being a Pakistani and regular observer of the nuclear issues I believe this is such an issue that must be dug out to clear out the ambiguities because Baluchistan is already encircled with multiple controversies. Before falling for any particular conclusion, it is imperative to understand the demography of Baluchistan. It is Pakistan’s largest province in size and smallest in population. Baluchistan covers almost 44% of Pakistan’s total land with a population of approximately 8 million (12-14 persons per square meter). About 80% of the area has been widely classified as inter-mountainous. It was a major requirement for desired nuclear site that area must be mountainous because the nuclear tests were to be conducted underground, preferably in a granite mountain.

The members and scientists of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) were assigned to conduct reconnaissance tours and search the most appropriate place to detonate the nuclear weapons. After careful search, Ras Koh Hills in Chagai District of Baluchistan were found matched the requisite specifications. Ras Koh hills, is a range of granite hills, with an average elevation of 700 meters however in few areas the hills can reach an elevation up to 3000 meters. According to the PAEC requirement, the area should be a rugged territory with a very low population density and the mountain should be bone dry able to withstand a nuclear detonation of 20-40 kilotonne from the inside, so that the nuclear radiations could not spread outside the mountain. Several tests were conducted to ensure the capability of mountain to withstand the nuclear explosions. Once it was confirmed that mountain can survive the nuclear tests, underground iron-steel tunnels and facilities had been constructed to prepare underground nuclear-test site in a way that can be used at short notice. The area was closed for the general public in 1979, not merely for the security reasons but also to protect general public from any potential radiation effect. In addition to the main tunnels, more than thirty underground accommodations for troops and monitoring facilities were also built. It took 2-3 years to ready the nuclear sites after in depth inquiries and surveys. All personnel, civil and military, except for members of the Diagnostics Group and the firing team were evacuated from ‘Ground Zero’ to avoid any possible radiation exposure. Later in an address to Pakistani nation and foreign reports, the then PM Sharif said “”Pakistan today successfully conducted five nuclear tests. The results were as expected. There was no release of radioactivity.”

Evidently, it seems illogical that life is still being affected with reportedly normal yield of ‘underground’ nuclear detonation in a ‘mountainous, barren, very low-density population area’, which had already been closed for general public years ago before nuclear tests were conducted. Conversely, testing of nuclear weapon was a moment of triumph against tribulations, as Indian initiative of nuclear detonation had heavily tilted balance of power towards India, and Pakistan was told to realize the ‘new realities in South Asia’. The security, peace and stability of the entire region, was sternly threatened. Pakistan decision to exercise the nuclear option had been taken in the interest of national self-defense, to deter aggression, whether nuclear or conventional. Thus, on 28thMay Pakistan completed a milestone journey at Chagai, which makes this place a historical place for all the years to come. Chagai was marked with ‘destiny’, then who is out to ‘distort’.

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Maimuna Ashraf

Maimuna Ashraf works as a Senior Research Associate for an Islamabad-based think tank Strategic Vision Institute. She works on issues related to nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and South Asian nuclear equation. She writes for South Asian Voices, international blogs and national dailies.

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