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Remembering Partition: An Australian recalls stories of horror and humanity from 1947

Sukhwant Kaur Pannu, an 85-year-old retired nurse based in Perth, unearthed her journey through the ‘Zero Line,’ recalling incidents of horror and humanity- of a father who left his daughter for dead, a brother who stayed behind to protect the family’s assets and a mother who locked-up her daughter to protect her “honour and integrity.”

When one nation became two in 1947, a paradise was lost and regained, recalls Sukhwant Kaur Pannu, a survivor of Partition and an embodiment of the shared love of grief that transcends across the border.

Speaking to SBS Punjabi, the 85-year-old retired nurse based in Perth, unearthed pages of her journey through the ‘Zero Line,’ recalling incidents of horror and humanity- of a father who left his daughter for dead, a brother who stayed behind to protect the family’s assets and a mother who locked-up her daughter to "protect her dignity.”

All of twelve at the time, Ms Pannu looked back on how she was on a vacation with her elder brother, when life as she knew it, erupted into a holocaust of violence and bloodshed.

“We were born in Gujranwala district of the-then undivided Punjab, which now falls in Pakistan. A relative suggested that it would be best for us to return to my maternal household so that we could be with our mother and the rest of the family," recalled Ms Pannu.

“In the middle of the night, we climbed a 7-foot wall, jumped rooftops and somehow managed to reach the Gujranwala station. We sat there for hours waiting for the train, which when it finally arrived, was awash with blood and full of corpses."  

   

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Sukhwant Kaur Pannu (L) with her mother and cousin in 1956.
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Ms Pannu stopped, a pregnant silence followed and she picked up the thread in a voice laden with emotion, “It would be an understatement to say that human beings had turned into devils. Everyone was slaughtering everyone with sticks, knives and guns and whatever else they could find.

“After hours of wait, when we finally got onto the train, it would stop after every few minutes. A group of people would enter, some looking for refuge, others just waiting to kill.

“There came a point when as expected, our train was attacked too. I clearly remember how my flustered mother got on to her feet, gathered all the young girls around and locked us into the train’s cramped washroom. And a bevy of people gathered outside to guard us. It was that bad.

“I remember how my dad's elder brother and his wife, who had already left one of their sons to travel with a kafila (caravan) were, on the other hand, struggling to keep their newborn daughter alive. She eventually fell sick and died during the train journey. We had to leave her behind…

“Somehow we managed to reach a camp near Amritsar. All around, I could see canopies and people who looked lost, battered and dejected. By the end of it all, we all had lost quite a lot -our homes, our family members and a sense of belongingness.”

                            

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A photo of Sukhwant Kaur Pannu taken for her nursing registration in Australia in 1972.
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But as time progressed, so did her life and Ms Pannu studied to become a qualified nurse.

In 1964, she married into a “well-respected” family in Punjab, to a “gentleman” who was training to become a doctor.

But as luck would have it, “my husband died, six years into our marriage. We had no children from the wedlock. I just continued to study.”

And then her life took yet another turn, this time for the good.

Ms Pannu was working at a public school in Patiala in the Indian part of Punjab when she came across an English couple, who eventually took her into their care and became a reason for her migration to Australia in 1972.

“My foster father, Hughie Devenport was a senior superintendent of police in Patiala. He later moved to Perth and after a few years, wrote to the Australian High Commission and arranged my visa.”

   

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Ms Pannu (R) with her foster mother in 1978.
Supplied

Ms Pannu has since worked and travelled across different parts of Australia, and beyond in the capacity of a medical practitioner and dedicated her life as a volunteer for a slew of health organisations and the Punjabi community, post her retirement.

Having largely endured all her battles alone, the octogenarian now dreams of reality more “unruffled and unwarlike.”

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