DHAKA: It should have been like any other morning.
But March 26, 1971, was the first full day of a war that would tear apart the region then called East Pakistan. When the fighting ended nine months later, as many as 3 million people were dead and East Pakistan – until then an annex of Pakistan – had become the independent nation of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh marked the 40th anniversary of the end of its independence war this month, still struggling to close the deep wounds that accompanied its birth and divided over how to deal with those who allegedly aided Pakistan during the war.
The fighting was just hours old at 7 a.m. when soldiers burst through the wooden door of Arun Kumer Dey’s apartment on the Dhaka University campus. Dey’s father managed the school’s cafeteria, a popular meeting place for government opponents.
The soldiers, firing machine-guns, quickly killed Dey’s mother, 15-year-old sister, eldest brother and the brother’s new wife. Then they left.
Dey, then a teenager, and his injured father fell onto the corpses in grief.
But the soldiers soon came back. “I begged for my father’s life,” Dey said. Instead, his father was taken away and executed, the body dumped into a shallow grave.
“It still haunts me,” said Dey, who now runs the cafeteria. And every day since then he has wondered: “When will the killers and their collaborators be punished?”
He may soon have an answer.
Forty years later, the Bangladesh government has begun prosecutions tied to its war of independence. It has created an International Crimes Tribunal, charged seven people and said some could face the death penalty. With independent researchers saying about 1,800 people collaborated with the Pakistani army in committing atrocities, many more arrests are possible.
International observers have guardedly welcomed the trials, though some are also concerned they could become weapons against the government’s political rivals.
Certainly the opposition sees it that way.
The Bangladesh National Party, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, said in a statement that the tribunal is “nothing but a servile, rubber-stamp organisation” out to victimize the government’s political opponents.
All those arrested so far are members of Jamaat-e-Islami, a fierce opponent of independence in 1971 but also now a key Zia ally. Two of those arrested were Cabinet ministers during Zia’s 2001-2006 government.
Zia is also the long-time rival of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who pushed hard for the tribunals. She is the eldest daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the hero of the 1971 independence war and Bangladesh’s first president.
Hasina’s government insists the trials will be fair, though guilty verdicts are widely expected for all those arrested so far. The seven face charges ranging from crimes against humanity to murder, arson, rape and looting. Six are in jail pending trial. The seventh man was freed on bail because of his age, and is being questioned at his home.
The roots of the 1971 war go back to 1947, when independence came to British India and the colony was carved into mostly Hindu India and overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan. The map drawn by the British created a tangle of geographic, political and cultural divisions.
The new state of Pakistan was physically divided in two by the mass of India. To the west lay what is now Pakistan; some 1,000 miles to the east stood the annex of East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh. Nearly all political power rested with the Urdu speaking Pakistanis in the west, leaving the Bangla-speakers of the east feeling isolated and adrift.
When the central government began pressing for Urdu to become Pakistan’s sole official language, a Bangladeshi nationalist movement was born, growing over the years amid cycles of protest and crackdown.
Eventually, demands for Bangladeshi autonomy turned into calls for outright independence, and on March 25, 1971 the protest movement turned into a war for independence. As attempts to quash the revolt grew increasingly bloody, India – seeking to weaken its long-time rival – began supporting the rebels.
It was a nine-month spasm of horror and bloodshed.
Bangladesh says Pakistani soldiers, aided by local collaborators, killed an estimated 3 million people, raped 200,000 women and forced millions of people to flee to India. Pro-independence fighters were targeted by Pakistani soldiers, as were members of the Hindu minority such as Dey who were often seen as agents of India.
“We are mute and horrified witnesses to a reign of terror by the Pak military,” the then-US Consul General in Dhaka cabled the State Department in late March 1971. The soldiers were hunting down their political opponents by “seeking them out in their homes and shooting them down.”
Pakistan, which views the war as a closed chapter, disputes Bangladesh’s toll of the dead and injured and denies any allegations of war crimes.
In Bangladesh, though, the war has never been forgotten. In the last national elections, in 2008, Hasina’s now-ruling Awami League got immense support for its vows to prosecute war criminals.
“Many of my friends were killed,” M.A. Hasan, one of dozens of independent researchers who have spent years compiling data on the 1971 war. “We can’t forget it so easily. It’s a national trauma, it cannot be erased.”
He also urged the government to press for prosecutions of Pakistani army soldiers who are back in Pakistan, holding the trials in absentia if necessary.
But with almost no one expecting Pakistan to turn over war crimes suspects, the country has turned inward in search of collaborators.
The first trial began in October when Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a top official of Jamaat-e-Islami and allegedly one of the leaders of a pro-Pakistan militia, was charged with involvement in the killing of more than 50 people, torching villages and forcibly converting Hindus to Islam.
Sayedee denies the allegations. If found guilty, the 71-year-old could be given the death penalty.
Years after the killings, those left behind just want some justice.
“My father, my mother were killed, isn’t that true? Our family was traumatised. We have suffered terribly for so long,” Dey said.
“We want justice. We want to look toward the future. But we can’t forgive the people who killed my family in such a brutal way.”