Bangladesh rejoices 44 years of independence as a country. And why not? People have shed blood to gain recognition for their rights. Much of the warv was fought by women even from within the confinement of their homes, prison camps and in various other ways.We bring to you stories from three women who have witnessed the nine month long war.
By Aumia Khundkar
The 25th of March, 1971 was a horrifying night for the residents of Dhaka. Men were pulled out of their homes and shot down right in front of their loved ones. One family that managed to survive this terrifying ordeal was that of Mumtaz Khaliq’s, a mother of four and guardian of many.
“Me, my husband Abdul Khaliq, my brother-in-law Prof. Abdur Razzaq and my four children, used to reside in a flat situated near Jagannath Hall, opposite the Shahid Minar. On the eve of 25th March, our family was in Shantinagar making funeral arrangements for my father-in-law. ‘Mejhobhai,’ as I used to call my brother-in-law, warned us of the edgy political situation and rushed us, including my other in-laws and their children, back to our house.
“The evening of the 25th was tense. Our flat had two entrances; one at the front and the other towards the back. My son Litu barricaded the front door from the outside while all of us, about ten people, crowded inside one room and waited quietly. Everything was still outside. Suddenly, around eleven PM, the silence was broken by deafening sound of shooting. The Pakistani army began to storm the surrounding buildings, aiming pecific targets. Prof. Moniruzzaman and Guhu Tagore used to live in flats below ours. From our room we heard as they gathered Prof. Moniruzzaman, his nephew and some other relatives who were visiting, along with Guhu Tagore and executed them right there in the building. We could hear everything. The army came to our flat too and pounded the door, asking for Prof. Abdur Razzaq. He had wanted to open the door but I stood in his way, warning him that they would not stop with him – they’d also kill all the men there along with him. Our flat was locked from outside as was the flat next to ours where Prof Anisuzzaman used to live. Fortunately for them and us, they were not at home. As a result the army assumed that our flat was vacant as well, especially as we maintained pin-drop silence. When they left, we heard Guhu Tagore crying out for help; he was still hanging on to his life. Litu, Mejhobhai and Raja, a relative who was with us, quickly went outside and dragged Guhu Tagore’s blood soaked body into his house, to his wife.
“For two nights and one day we sat like stones in one room, without any food, in complete silence. The army came back three times, looking for Mejhobhai. On the night of the 26th everyone was so hungry that my husband crawled to the kitchen and somehow managed to cook some rice and lentils to make khichuri. We all finally ate a little on the morning of the 27th. It was then that the army declared a curfew break. It was the only time for us to flee and we did with just the clothes on our backs. We left everything behind – our clothes, belongings, even our money. Eleven Rupees was all my husband had in his pocket as we escaped.
“We ran for our lives, splashing through the ankle-deep pool of blood that had gathered from the executions. There was a broken wall next to our house through which we climbed out and sneaked into Dhaka Medical College, taking shelter in their Eye Department. Our cook kept a lookout for people who might be looking for us so that he could direct them to where we hid. When the cook spotted my eldest brother-in-law came he brought him to us. Borobhai immediately took us to his house in Lalbagh where his wife gave us some Kachi fish curry, daal and rice to eat. To us it tasted like the best food we had ever eaten. Mejhobhai kept hurrying us for the fear that the curfew break would end and we wouldn’t be able to escape to the countryside. Eventually we reached Shoyari-ghat, right as the break ended. There were boats lined along the banks waiting to take people to the other side. We all climbed aboard whichever boat we could and just as we did, the curfew ended again. Immediately the army approached and started firing from the bank of the river, killing the passengers on the last boats to set sail.
“When we reached the other side, we walked for eight miles. On each side, all the habitats of the surrounding villages lined up along the road with various sorts of foods and water. Oceans of people moved forward, like millions of ants trudging along the road, all escaping from the horrors they had just witnessed.”
On the Run
By Rubab Nayeem Khan
Taking the month of Independence into account, we speak to someone who witnessed the Liberation War at a very early age. Artist Zebun Naher Nayeem speaks of her childhood and the terror-stricken days of 1971 when she and her family fled the country in order to survive.
“The Liberation War was an integral part of my childhood memories. In March 1971, I was nine years old. Our father used to live in Feni; he would come visit us twice a week. Sometimes our mother would take me and my siblings to our grandmother’s house in Comilla. My brother was sent to Pakistan at a very early age to become a fighter pilot. On the 25th of March, my eldest sister and I went to visit our grandmother. We heard awful noises that night; it sounded like someone was beating on a blanket in front of a mic. Gripped with fear, I began crying. We spent the night lying on the ground. My sister and I had to escape from that house next morning. I couldn’t bear the fact that I was away from my mother. Back then, I had learnt two very difficult words; one was ‘searchlight’ and the other was ‘statement.’ These two words are particularly etched in my memory because I clearly remembered the time when the Pakistani soldiers were looking for us using their searchlights. Because my mother was carrying information about my brother’s whereabouts, they had wanted her statement. Luckily, we were reunited after twenty days. Our brother returned for some time, but he left shortly as the Pakistani militants were looking for him. Our return to Comilla was cut short. One day, a freedom fighter disguised as a vegetable-vendor delivered a note which read ‘ESCAPE.’ This time we set out for Nangalkot. Upon settling in, we learnt that markets there were being burnt – we were being tailed by the Pakistani Army. My siblings and I, along with my mother were on the run, yet again. This time we crossed the Indian Borders and entered Tripura. My mother sold some of her jewellery to make ends meet. Survival became challenging as people were suffering and eventually dying from cholera.
The escapes were inevitable and the shelters were temporary and I still couldn’t forget how scared I was. Despite being brought to safety, reunited with my family I still remember how we ran, how we fought against all odds and how we survived.”
By Wasef Mustafa
In 1971 there were a number of Bangladeshis who were stuck on the West and weren’t able to make it back to the East. These Bangladeshis were mostly officers of the Pakistan Military Academy along with their families, who were rounded up and put into ‘prisoner of war’ camps because they had pledged allegiance to the East. Among the many prisoners incarcerated there at the time was Syeda Hosne Ara Husain, wife of Late Major A.B.M Akhtar Husain of the 14th PMA, who recounts her experience of the three years she served with her four children and husband in the POW camps of West Pakistan during 1971.
According to her recollection, all the Bengali officers of the PMA were gathered from their respective stations into POW camps and allotted homes according to the number of their family members; small spaces for smaller families (one room) and bigger spaces for bigger families (two rooms). They weren’t allowed to go beyond the barbed wire fence surrounding the camp compound which was always guarded by the sentry. Food and provisions were available at a CSD canteen, bearing items according to the needs specified by the families, and medical facilities all within the compound. These were to be managed on a sustenance allowance of only Tk 400 per month.
“At first we were kept at a camp in Campbellpur, Peshawar, and later moved to Mari, Northwest Frontier Province. Life inside the camp was quite difficult, as the prisoners and guards did not trust each other, and the prisoners were always in constant fear as they didn’t know how this would turn out. They seized any sharp objects and had very little or no possessions, just bare necessities; a few clothes, a bed, etc. Since we were never allowed to venture outside the camp, we had formed a community of sorts, with some of our more learned members providing education for the children since education was stopped. We would abide by the guards’ strict rules to the letter so that things wouldn’t escalate, because breaking rules or trying to escape meant serious consequences and even punishment.
All means of communication from Bangladesh to Pakistan were cut off on account of the war, so we didn’t know of anything happening in Bangladesh. I had feared that all our relatives there were killed, but I had a brother-in-law who was in the Defense Science Organization in Rawalpindi, south of Islamabad. I had very little money to finance my family’s needs; I decided to sell some of my jewellery at Rawalpindi. There was a local milkman who traveled back and forth from the camp and he seemed to have compassion for us, so I convinced him to help me get out of the camp in secret, as we were not allowed to leave and the male prisoners had absolutely no shot at leaving. I told the milkman that I was going to Rawalpindi to visit a relative who was there, but I didn’t say why.”
At the time, the Bengali women at the camp wore sarees and were easily recognizable, so in order to sneak out she had to wear a salwar-kameez, which is what the Pakistani women wore at the time. So she disguised herself as a Pakistani woman and managed to sneak out of the camp with the help of the milkman and reached her relative’s place in Rawalpindi.
“When my brother-in-law saw me at his place, he immediately assumed the worst – that my entire family was killed, but I explained to him that I was only there to sell my jewellery as I was in dire need of money. He told me that I wouldn’t need to sell my jewellery and that he would give me the money I need, but I refused because I didn’t know how the whole thing would turn out and whether I would be able to pay him back. So we went to the market and had my jewellery sold with his help. The next morning I started to go back to the camp, but a violent snowstorm had started, blocking all roads and crippling transport. I knew that I had to go back to the camp no matter what because if the guards found out there might be serious consequences. So I started walking in the snow, an uphill climb, falling down every so often. I didn’t have any boots or warm clothing, relying only on makeshift canes from fallen trees. I was exhausted and scared, and after walking for nine hours, approximately eight miles, I finally reached the camp and managed to sneak back in with the milkman’s help, where the other Bengali officers had already realised what had happened. After Pakistan surrendered and the war was over, we were offered the choice to stay back in Pakistan and live here as nationals, but that wasn’t what we wanted. We were flown back shortly by the Red Cross, and it was almost a blessing to back in Bangladesh.”
The courage and perseverance displayed by Mrs. Husain in the face of adversity really shows what people are capable of, especially when it’s a matter of life and death involving the self and loved ones.