MEMORIES OF HELL

Updated March 24, 2019

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‘1971’ by Zainul Abedin | From The National Museum, courtesy The Daily Star
‘1971’ by Zainul Abedin | From The National Museum, courtesy The Daily Star

March 26 is celebrated as Independence Day in Bangladesh, once a part of Pakistan. Forty-eight years on, Pakistan still seems not to have come to grips with the human cost of the terrible civil war that raged there, a prerequisite for learning political lessons from it. Eos is presenting excerpts from one of the most important books on those tumultuous times by an eyewitness, a veteran journalist and broadcaster, who lost several members of his own family to the war, in the hopes that this first-ever English translation will help spur further discussion on one of the most important chapters in Pakistan’s history…

TWENTY FIVE DAYS

The proclamation by General Yahya on March 1, 1971, postponing the National Assembly session had said that the country was faced with a serious political crisis; that the Peoples Party and some other political parties had refused to attend the session. The tensions created by India had further complicated the situation.

On March 2, Pakistan’s flag was set on fire in Dhaka and a series of protests and strikes began in the entire province including Dhaka, which began to impact trains and PIA flights as well. It was becoming apparent that a situation was brewing that would eventually end up in the separation of East Pakistan. But there was still a chance that, were Yahya Khan and the leadership of the Peoples Party to agree to unconditionally call for the National Assembly session, Pakistan could have remained one in the shape of a confederation. There was no other way to keep Pakistan united.

On March 5, as if cornered, Sheikh Mujib [Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, leader of the Awami League] also aggressively declared that he was not ready to accept any power sharing with [PPP Chairman] Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

On March 6, General Yahya announced that “the National Assembly session will begin on March 25. I will fulfill my responsibilities entrusted to me by 10 crore Pakistanis, come what may.”

The same day, the Pakistan Peoples Party announced in a press conference that it would participate in the assembly session on March 25. But by now the Awami League and the people of East Pakistan had had enough. Sheikh Mujib announced that his party would only take part in the session if martial law were lifted, if the army went back to its barracks, if the current riots were investigated and power was transferred to the representatives of the people. Until that happened, “I will call on the people of East Pakistan to stop paying their taxes, government servants to stop work in offices, for all educational institutions to be shut and everywhere a movement of non-cooperation with the government to be continued.”

In response, Mr Bhutto announced that “I still want to meet with Sheikh Mujib, but if power is to be transferred to the people’s representatives before any constitutional agreement, then power should be given to the majority parties in East and West Pakistan, because Pakistan has two wings and, in West Pakistan, the Peoples Party and, in East Pakistan, the Awami League has got the majority, and only this can safeguard the interests of the people.”

And then, on March 22, Gen Yahya announced the postponement of the National Assembly session that was to take place on March 25. On March 23, on Republic Day, in Dhaka, it was the Bangladesh flag that was flying everywhere.

ARMY ACTION

The Pakistani military conducting an operation during the 1971 war - Courtesy official Mujibnagar website
The Pakistani military conducting an operation during the 1971 war - Courtesy official Mujibnagar website

I believe it was March 25. Me and my colleague Ahmed Ilyas, who at the time used to also write for the weekly Lail-o-Nihar edited by Hasan Abdi and published from Karachi, came to Hotel Intercontinental where Mr Bhutto and his companions were staying. When we entered the hotel lobby, there was a big crush of journalists there and there were some army vehicles standing outside.

We ran into our West Pakistan journalist colleague, the late Dawood Subhani, there. At the time, he used to work for the English language daily Sun published from Karachi, as well as some international wire agency. He told us that the Peoples Party had refused to accept Sheikh Mujib’s conditions with respect to the National Assembly session and that Mian Mahmood Ali Qasuri was going to inform the government about this decision. Then he whispered, “Buy some foodstuff and go and stay in your house, the army action is going to begin from tonight.” We also met another local journalist colleague, Anwar Zahid, and he too told us that the situation was very bad.

So Ahmed Ilyas and I left for our homes. Ahmed Ilyas lived in Mohammadpur and I in Mirpur. The two colonies were about two or three miles apart and, in both, the heavy majority of those who lived there were Urdu-speaking people. I had seen Ayub Khan’s martial law but had never seen an army action, so I had little idea about what to expect. Nevertheless, we were both very worried and were trying to hide our anxiety with our silence.

When I reached home, my wife realised I was worried but she too did not know what an army action was. So, we fell asleep thinking about it. But we were soon woken up by the sound of machine guns and the boom of cannon fire. The southern horizon of Mirpur was glowing red and the whole area was ringing with the sound of machine guns and cannons. We were sure that all of this was not happening against us but, had it been so, what would have been the effect on our hearts and minds?

The army action that began on the night between March 25 and 26 continued with the same intensity until late the next morning. There were very few Bengalis in Mirpur and of the ones that were there, the majority of them were poor shanty-dwellers. There were also a few clerk types, but most of them had already moved to their villages or to some other safe place. The ones that remained were those who either trusted their neighbours or those who had no place to escape to.

After the army action began, at first everyone — whether he was Bihari or Bengali — was in a state of shock. He may have heard of machine guns, mortars, bazookas and who knows what other weapons, but this was his first time seeing them being used and to hear them.

Believe me, the sky over over Tej Gaon and Kurmi Tola Cantonment was red. The sparks that would fly at night had turned to trails of smoke during the day. The people of Mirpur were watching from afar and everyone was trying to analyse the situation in his own way. Some were saying that the war was happening in the cantonment, some said that Bengali soldiers had rebelled, some said that the houses of all the Bengalis in the city had been set on fire. Basically, everyone was both scared and also trying to imagine all manner of terrible vengeance on the Bengalis.

POGROMS AGAINST BENGALIS

Refugees seeking shelter in 1971 | Courtesy the official Mujibnagar website
Refugees seeking shelter in 1971 | Courtesy the official Mujibnagar website

Suddenly, the process of setting fire to the shanty towns around Mirpur began. These dwellings were where those Bengalis lived whose women worked as cleaning women in houses and whose men worked as labourers somewhere. Then someone told us that army men had brought three Bengalis and had told the people to kill them because they were ‘cursed’ [mal’oun]. At first, the people were hesitant but when the armymen mocked their cowardice, their sense of nationalism overtook their sense of humanity and they slit the throats of all three. The one who told us the story also told us that, among the three killed was an old man who kept reciting the kalma until his last breath and the killers also kept shouting Allah-o-Akbar.

In any case, I neither saw this scene of dying and killing for God, nor would I have had the strength to see it.

After this, the looting of Bengali houses began. People would enter the houses in the shape of a frenzied mob and carry away whatever they could get their hands on, without thinking about what they were doing or why. A cry would go up and suddenly you would see people running away carrying something in their hands or on top of their heads or on their shoulders, as if they had got a hold of some bounty that they had spent their whole lives desirous of. I once saw a man running away with a pillow, from which the filling was falling out and flying in the air. Another I saw was running off with a wash basin. This looting and pillage continued with great intensity for one or two days, then waned. But it would continue periodically for many days.

Meanwhile, different types of news kept coming from the city. Someone said the entire city had been destroyed, someone said battles were raging in every street — but we had no contact with the city to corroborate. In Mirpur, there was full licence to do anything, as if the army had delegated its responsibilities to the Biharis there. Every evening, search parties would go hunting for those Bengalis who, despite all this chaos, had not run away, who had managed to hide or find refuge some place or were still under the delusion that they were safe in their own homes.

One evening, one of my former students, Qamaruzzaman, came to me and told me that the family of one of his Bengali friends needed refuge. If I could shelter them through the night, he would try and get them out by the morning.

Qamaruzzaman was also the secretary of a regional branch of the Awami League. The house I lived in was a one-room quarter which had no space other than for a bed. But despite my wife’s strong opposition, I did not have it in me to refuse. After dark, Qamaruzzaman brought over the entire family comprising of four people. We spent the night together in that one room. The whole next day passed but arrangements to move these people to a safe place could not be made.

Eventually, Qamaruzzaman came in the evening and told me that a tableeghi jamaat [proselytising group] was staying in the nearby mosque and its ameer [leader] had said that if the man were brought to the mosque, they would take him with them when they left on their rounds after the morning prayers. The attempt to get the women and children to their relatives would be made later.

My wife immediately sat and sewed a cap for the gentleman and, with a pair of scissors, trimmed his moustache — which was very thick and hung over his lips — in line with the expectations of his religious potential hosts. In the dark of night, Qamaruzzam managed to get him to the mosque and, in the morning, when the jamaat went on its proselytising rounds, he was put on the path towards some rural areas. We breathed a sigh of relief. Now only the wife and children were left. The process of killing women and children had not begun as yet in Mirpur. You cannot imagine how relieved we were at the departure of that gentleman. More than his safety, I was worried that someone would find out and that he would be caught from my house. I didn’t want to be accused of sheltering a Bengali or have him caught from my house.

In any case, after the gentleman’s departure, his children stayed with us for many days. And when the curfew eased up a little bit, Qamaruzzaman managed to trace out one of the family’s relatives in the city who was apparently a ‘patriotic’ government servant and they were transferred to him with some difficulty.

I may not be a religious man but the way the tableeghi jamaat people and my student Qamaruzzaman had saved me from embarrassment, I will always remain in their debt.

We had barely completed this mission that, one day early in the morning, we found out that a search party was out looking for Bengalis who had survived so far. Why? Because their living in Mirpur could itself be dangerous for the rest of the Mirpuris.

Right across from my house, there lived a Bengali family that took great pride in its fluency in Urdu. And it was true. While they were from western Bengal, the head of the household had spent his life in the railways and most of their time had been spent in Delhi, so their pronunciations were correct and even their accent was better than many Urdu-speaking people in East Pakistan. He had two grown-up daughters and three sons. Their eldest son was called Umar, and everyone knew the household by his name, i.e. ‘Umar’s house’, ‘Umar’s mother / father’ etc. We had very good relations with the family and we used to visit each other often.

My wife asked me ‘What will happen now?’ Perhaps it was the first time she’d realised that what was happening was not right. She looked at me with great despondency, as if to say, ‘If anything happens to them, we’d die of shame.’

Believe me, despite basically being a coward, that day I vowed to myself that nobody would harm these people while I was alive. In a little while, the search party arrived. It was being led by a Pathan who used to work as a nightguard in the area and who used to take two rupees from each house as his wages at the end of the month. He had a rifle in his hands. Aside from this there were about 10 or 12 Biharis in the squad; some had sticks, others metal rods or meat cleavers — in essence every member was armed as per their social stature. Among the squad was also a schoolteacher who I had got to know during a teachers’ strike. Seeing him, my confidence grew and I stepped forward. The search party’s leader loudly asked, “Does any ‘cursed’ one live in this street?” One man, who was possibly an informer, pointed towards Umar’s house.

I addressed the schoolteacher I knew and said “These are very good people.” He stared at me with intense scorn and said, “You’ve sold your conscience for a little money and are trying to save these cursed people!” I stood in front of the squad’s leader, the nightguard Khan Sahib, with my hands clasped together and pleaded with him. “Khan sahib, these are very decent people!” I don’t know what part of my pleading affected him but he asked me, “They don’t have any weapons, do they? Will you give their guarantee?”

I don’t remember what all I said to give their guarantee but when, sparing their lives, he said, “Okay, then let them go,” I lowered myself and placed my head at his feet.

I don’t know whether this act of mine was good for the nation and country but, when I look back at my life, it is only this act that vindicates me in my own eyes and I forgive myself for all my sins and pettiness.

A few days after the army action, when the curfew eased up, I went to the city with a friend, Sagheer, in his car. An official bus depot was along the way. Near it, in a depression in the earth, bodies of three men floated in it and a venue of vultures sat on the sides of the hollow. It was the first time I had ever seen human bodies lying in front of vultures in the open like this. From the uniforms on the bodies it was obvious that the men had been crew on the official bus service.

Periodically, one of the vultures would go and sit on one of the bodies but when the body would begin to sink in the water, the vulture would fly back to the bank of the depression. For two or three days, we would go to the city during the relaxation of the curfew and would keep seeing these bodies floating there. Then one day, God answered the vultures’ prayers and the water dried out so much that the bodies settled on the mud below.

The scene after that I still cannot get out of my mind.

IN SEARCH OF MY FAMILY

Top and above: Bangladesh, 1971 | Raghu Rai
Top and above: Bangladesh, 1971 | Raghu Rai

A librarian of the Asiatic Society, Mr Reza Dairvi, who coincidentally lived very close to me and was a very well-read man, especially about the history of India, was also in favour of the army action. One day while I was sitting at home, he turned up looking very worried. He told me that news had come from Dinajpur [in northern Bangladesh] that Bengalis had not left any non-Bengali alive, that they had taken them one by one in small groups and shot them dead. He made a show of expressing great sympathy with me and asked “Your whole family is there, isn’t it?”

To scorn him I replied, “Reza Sahib, if my family has been killed then I will think that it’s penance for whatever’s being done with Bengalis here!”


Two days later, I came to know that some wounded had arrived from Dinajpur. One of them, a boy named Mehtab, was a soldier in the Pakistan Navy and a friend of my younger brother. I went to see him in the hospital. He became anxious upon seeing me. When I asked him about the situation, he told me that he had not seen anyone from my family among the people that had survived. I felt in my bones that my penance for the cruelty against the Bengalis had been served.

But it takes very solid and irrefutable evidence for one to believe in such things. So I began efforts to get to Dinajpur.

At that time, trains, buses or flights had not resumed. Military helicopters and planes were the only way of getting to various parts of the province and, of course, this facility was only available to people in the military. I requested Major Salik if he could get me somewhere near Dinajpur via a military aircraft, but he expressed his inability to do so.

Nevertheless, about a month later — I think it was the month of May — PIA began flights of its small planes to Ishwardi and we also heard that trains had begun to run over there. I immediately got to Ishwardi. I had left the airport and was making my way to the railway station, which was nearby, when I saw, from among the embers of a burnt-out train engine, a human leg sticking out. The leg still had a shoe and a sock on and dogs were tearing at the calf. All the passengers of the plane were passing by this scene with their heads bowed, as if they had no courage to see it. Or perhaps they had become so used to seeing such kind of scenes that it held no element of curiousity, amazement or fear for them.

There was a crush of people at the Ishwardi train station platform. These were all non-Bengalis, who were either travellers to various places who had been sitting and waiting for days for the trains to resume running, or those who fled the border areas and rural areas to escape from the attacks by Bengalis and had taken shelter here.

It should be remembered that, in the first phase of the army action, the army had only managed to secure Dhaka, Khulna and then Chittagong; in the rest of the far-flung districts and towns, as per reports, Bengali soldiers had killed their unit commanders and taken control. In those places, most of the officers in the army units were non-Bengalis but most of the jawaans were Bengalis.

Most of the employees of the railways were either non-Bengalis or from Calcutta. So the military didn’t face much difficulty in running the trains. But securing the tracks was not so easy. In Ishwardi, I met a friend whose father was employed in the railways. I stayed with him and left the next day for Santahar. The train moved at a snail’s pace. I believe a trolley was moving ahead of the train, so that if the tracks were broken at any place, there would be forewarning. Travel was only done during the day and under the supervision of the army.

We reached Santahar after four hours. This too was a big railway station and near it was Harding Bridge. A lot of non-Bengalis used to live here and it is said that many had been killed in Bengali attacks. I met another friend, Khurshid, here who himself lived in Syedpur but whose elder brother and his kids, and his parents lived here. According to him, all had been killed, except for his three-year-old niece who had somehow survived. My friend himself used to work in the railways and was very active in the trade union. But this incident had totally shattered him and I could tell from my conversation with him that he was under severe mental stress.

We had to spend the night at the train station, so we were sitting on the platform. Everyone was telling others his story. It felt like everyone was broken and even a small nudge would make him cry out in pain.

I was sitting on a bench and thinking about my family and, listening to these tales, my doubts were beginning to harden into certainty, when all of a sudden from one side, I heard someone cry ’Naara-i-takbeer!’ I turned to look in that direction and saw soldiers running with a body on a stretcher. It turned out that the soldiers were taking out the corpses of non-Bengalis from some place to bury them when, from under the pile of bodies, they’d come across the body of a young man who still had some signs of life, even though the massacre here had taken place some 19 days earlier.

After this incident, a ray of hope burst in the hearts of even the most despondent of people there and people’s belief in their own gods became stronger. As much as the tales of those killed weakened everyone’s beliefs, even one incident like this strengthened them more than before.

The sun had just set when a colonel came and started berating the people at the platform, saying that while the soldiers were busy in taking care of the bodies, nobody was helping them, that everyone was just sitting around. This shamed some people into going with the colonel.

I had neither the spirit to kill anyone nor to bury them, so I just listened to the colonel’s speech quietly and saw the people going off with him to help in the burials. I don’t know why, but everyone seemed mad to me — the ones who had done the killing, the ones who had been killed and the ones burying them. I felt I was surrounded by a mob of crazy people who were engaged in extremely crazy acts — and that these mad people were not even in control of their actions, that they were simply born to do them.

LESSONS FROM MY MOTHER

The next day I reached Parbatipur [in Dinajpur district], where my sister and her husband lived. Part of the journey was covered on a bus, part of it on foot, I don’t remember now which part was covered how. Along the way, on the bus, I met a relative of my brother-in-law. Although he didn’t say what exactly happened with my family, I understood that my father and my two brothers, who lived in Dinajpur, had been killed, and so had my brother who lived in Kushtiya [District in western Bangladesh]. My mother had moved to Parbatipur with my sister.

The deaths of these people of my family was indeed a huge tragedy for me, but I had already become mentally prepared for this shock. The thing that worried me the most was how would I face my mother, how could I tell her that every historic change takes many children from their mothers, turns many children into orphans, and leaves many women widowed. And believe me, this still bothers me. That, had I been able to make her understand this, she would not have spent the rest of her life in the agony that she did.

Everyone on the bus, including my relative, seemed normal to me, as if they had compromised with the situation or as if their grief was at least a month old. But I felt that if I opened my mouth my voice would betray my grief or that I would begin to cry. So, instead, I sat looking away trying to imagine how it all would have happened.

How would my father, whose anger was legendary in the family, have been killed? Would his hands have been tied behind his back? Would he have been blindfolded or would someone have just riddled his body with bullets without it? Or would someone have asked him to say the kalma before slitting his throat? What would he have been thinking while he was being killed? Would he have felt his helplessness?

I had never ever in my life seen my father helpless. And despite my trying, I could not construct a credible image of his helplessness in my head; I have still not been able to. It has been 38 years since and, even now, when I am alone or when I get a window seat on a bus or train or a plane, my mind manages to wander, one excuse or another, towards this somehow. And then such images of cruelty, violence and barbarity emerge in my head that I feel that the ones who die, die only once and take their leave after cursing this world. But that those they leave behind, they have to helplessly tolerate this cruelty, violence and barbarity within themselves till their last breaths.

I was still thinking about how I would console my mother, and make her understand, when Parbatipur arrived. There, everyone thought I too had been killed. When they discovered I was still alive, there was bedlam in the house. And when my mother and sister found out, their wounds became fresh again.

Nevertheless, in our family, the women are so well trained in patience and thankfulness that, whatever the circumstances, they never let go of their patient nature. My mother also absorbed this tragedy in the same way that she would have any other tragedy. Only once, and that too perhaps overcome with her grief, she said to me, “Son, I want to pick up a gun and kill three Bengalis.” Then, recovering her composure she added, “But don’t you ever do that son. Because then their mothers would hurt the same way your mother is.”

This line of my mother’s changed my life’s direction. All the standards of good and evil, blessings and sins, religion and nation, freedom and slavery, all changed for me.

VICTORY AND DEFEAT

When I had left Dhaka for Dinajpur, a much junior Bengali friend of mine, Mustafa — who used to work for the Bengali daily Purbodesh and who was from Dinajpur himself — had asked me to find out about his family and how they were. When I inquired about his family, I found out that when the Pakistan Army had taken back control of Dinajpur, they had run away to India and were safe and sound now in a Bangladeshi camp near the border region of Kaliaganj.

I felt a strange kind of happiness on hearing this, that I was worse off than Mustafa, and imagined in my head that when I would tell him that his family was well and alive in India while my family had been wiped out, he would feel shame. What could be a better opportunity to undercut the narrative of Bengalis, who keep crying about their oppression and exploitation at the hands of West Pakistan!

When I reached Dhaka and went to Mustafa’s office to tell him about his family, I found out that he himself had been killed in the intervening time.

That my triumph would turn so easily into my defeat amazes me to this day.

Excerpts from Jeevan Aik Kahani by Ali Ahmed Khan, published by City Press in 2015

Ali Ahmed Khan is a veteran journalist and broadcaster who has worked in many Urdu and English news organisations. He retired after many years of working for the BBC’s Urdu Service in London and now lives in Abbottabad

Translated from Urdu by Hasan Zaidi, Dawn’s Editor Magazines

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 24th, 2019