DHAKA: Suspects accused of collaborating with Pakistani forces in Bangladesh’s war of independence are now on trial, but claims of appalling crimes are also tarnishing the “heroes” of that bloody struggle.
Migrant families who moved to what was then East Pakistan after the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947 say they were targeted as outsiders during the 1971 fight to become the independent nation of Bangladesh.
Thrown out of their homes and often murdered during the country’s bloody birth, they believe their suffering at the hands of native Bengalis has been forgotten as Bangladesh focuses instead on alleged collaborators with Pakistan.
The day after Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan on December 16, 1971, Sairun Nesa survived a massacre in which 15 of her family – including her husband, son and daughter – were killed by “freedom fighters”.
As one of tens of thousands of Urdu-speaking Muslims who had migrated to East Pakistan, Nesa said she and her family were rejected by those fighting to establish independent Bangladesh.
“We were stripped naked at gun-point. Bangladeshi fighters herded us onto the bank of a river. Then they slaughtered us one after another with machetes and knives,” she said.
“With a knife one of them gouged out my right eye and stabbed me several times in the chest,” she said, adding that she was left for dead in a pile of bodies in Goalonda, a small town west of Dhaka.
Bangladesh’s government says up to three million people were killed and hundreds of thousands of women raped during the savage nine-month battle for independence.
This week a special court began its first trial with Delawar Hossain Sayedee, a senior official of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party, charged with genocide against native Bengalis as he fought to prevent independence.
But the separate attacks carried out by Bengalis against Nesa and other “Biharis” – the migrants who had left India for East Pakistan – remain a hidden crime, experts say.
Even well-documented killings of Biharis have never been investigated, much less brought to trial.
“Everyone talks about the killings of Bengalis (by the Pakistani army) in 1971. But none dares to mention the pogroms that were carried out against Biharis,” said Ezaz Ahmed Siddiqui, a prominent Bihari community leader.
“We estimate that hundreds of thousands of Biharis were killed. In (northwestern) Santahar town alone, several thousand were killed in a matter of days,” Siddiqui told AFP.
After the war, Biharis were not granted citizenship rights in newly independent Bangladesh, lost their property and social status, and were forced to live in refugee camps under UN protection – where many remain to this day.
For decades, Bangladeshi historians and authors have downplayed the Bihari killings, casting them as isolated instances of mob violence.
“We agree some Urdu-speaking people were killed in isolated riot-like incidents,” Mofidul Hoque, a trustee of Bangladesh’s Liberation War Museum, said.
“But it was not a systematic or state-sponsored genocide like what the Pakistani soldiers did to Bengalis,” he said.
A new wave of academics is trying to shed light on the killings, with Oxford University researcher Sarmila Bose’s 2011 book, “Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War” leading the way.
Bose argues that Bangladesh authorities are in a “state of denial” about the murder of Biharis.
“The nature and scale of atrocities committed by the ‘nationalist’ side had been edited out of the dominant narrative,” she wrote after her book was heavily criticised in Bangladesh.
Ishrat Ferdousi, who recently finished a book on the 1971 atrocities, said attacks on Biharis could be seen as “genocide”.
“I saw at least a hundred Bihari children had been killed, their bodies were floating in the Rupsha river. Some (Bengalis) even boarded boats with machetes to hunt for any Biharis who had survived,” he told AFP.
Sairun Nesa survived after being plucked from the pile of bodies on the banks of the Padma River by a saviour who nursed her back to health.
Eventually, she married him, changed her name and has tried to forget the past – but the frail sexagenarian is still haunted by her memories, telling AFP she was “terrified even to talk” about what happened.
For Bihari leader Siddiqui, official acknowledgement of the atrocities is as important as the trial of alleged collaborators if Bangladesh is to come to terms with its birth.
“All we want is recognition of the crimes. We don’t want any trial. An admission would start a healing process,” he said.