The war we fought from home
Forty-eight years is a long time to remember any episode of one's life; yet the memories of that morning of August 30, 1971 remain so vivid, etched forever in my heart and mind. In fact, every single day of those nine months of 1971 is embedded, engraved deeply forever in my consciousness as the entire nation became one to fight and defeat the marauding Pakistani Army. It was a time when parents willingly allowed their sons and daughters to join the liberation struggle, when selfish individual interests were sacrificed for a greater cause, a time of great pain and anguish yet exhilaration at the possibility of having a free and independent country of our own. We, were there, honoured to have played a role and be a part of history that resulted in the birth of Bangladesh.
However, independent Bangladesh came at a big price. Stories of the atrocities being committed by the Pakistani Army started coming in and young men and women in the thousands joined the liberation effort. The Mukti Bahini started to emerge as a force which further enraged the Pakistani Army intensifying their brutality as village after village were razed to the ground, with indiscriminate killing, looting and rape of women. Over the course of the next nine months three million people were killed, millions displaced, at least 200,000 women raped and the entire infrastructure of the country destroyed. Ten million people crossed over to India, most to save their lives but thousands of others to join the liberation struggle and establish an independent Bangladesh.
But this story is about those millions who stayed behind, could not cross over, were never called Muktijoddha, but were as intensely involved in the struggle for liberation. It is about those men and women who lived in danger everyday of being searched, humiliated, picked up, tortured, or even raped. My family and I were among those millions.
Life for us had only one purpose, that was to support the liberation effort. Wasif Islam, my brother joined the band of young boys, the urban guerrillas known as the Crack Platoon. Among his close associates were Shahidullah Khan Badal, Masud Sadique Chullu bhai, Alam, Bodiul Alam Bodi, Ashfaque (who later joined the Bangladesh regular army and embraced martyrdom) and many others. Together they carried out many daring operations in Dhaka city such as blowing up the power station, transporting arms and ammunition and yes, even helping Captain Khaled Musharraf's daughter cross the border and taking her to her parents. As early as March 27, they brought a few 303 guns and hand grenades to our house in Road 4 and buried those in our backyard. I remember our youthful exuberance, our somewhat naïve belief, that we would indeed drive the Pakistani Army out of our country with this ammunition.
Months passed and our house in Dhanmondi Rd 4 became a meeting place for the Muktijoddha friends. We started collecting funds, medicine, blankets and most importantly, providing shelter and safe houses, alongside translating news and information and sending them across the border. Friends and their friends would come from across the border, have a meal and share with us their exploits. Their stories made us cry and yet proud, sad at the death or capture of our freedom fighters, yet hopeful that a new dawn would surely emerge someday. How we clung on to Shadhin Bangla Betar, to every bit of good news of our young men inflicting losses on the enemy. We learned to live frugally, saving every penny to support the war.
One regular visitor was Masud Sadique, our beloved Chullu bhaiya, whose stories were always the most frightening and fascinating. Once he and my brother Wasif were transporting guns from one hideout to the other and almost got caught. The army stopped them on their way but did not search the car; on the way back their car was searched thoroughly but by that time they had already deposited the guns. He would often tell me, "Shaheen, if they ever catch me they will skin me alive." This would send a shiver down my spine as I constantly prayed for their safety.
Our closest friends at that time were Shireen Huq, her family, Towhid Samad and his family who lived down the road from us. Our mothers, cousins, aunts too joined our cause by raising funds, stitching blankets and sweaters. We had our heroes too among the freedom fighters as
every young woman I knew said they were knitting a sweater for Khaled Musharraf! The entire population had become a family with one purpose and that was to defeat the Pakistani Army who wanted to destroy our language, culture and way of life. However, many of us experienced deep regret for not being able to join the war personally.
But coming back to August 29, 1971. It was my youngest brother Rizwan's birthday, he had turned 15. I had hand-stitched a red sleeping suit for him and baked a cake. The day passed uneventfully as we quietly celebrated his birthday. Rumi, my friend from Dhaka University who had joined the war as a freedom fighter came to visit me around 9 pm. I reprimanded him for roaming around so freely and asked him to stay back that night. He said no, that he wanted to stay with his mother and was to join his fellow freedom fighters the next morning.
We said goodbye, I made him eat the cake I had baked for Rizwan but was gripped with fear as I silently prayed for his safety.
August 30, 1971. It was 7 am, I heard some strange noises and opened my eyes to see two men in army uniform in my room holding guns to my face and asking me to get up. I closed my eyes thinking this must be one of my nightmares which I experienced every time an army truck crossed our road, thinking it might stop at our gate. By then we knew the consequence of the Pakistani Army entering anyone's home. But this was no nightmare, they were actually in our house, they were everywhere, ransacking and searching for something. All hell had broken loose, our domestic helps started to scream and cry, as I calmly asked the army jawans to go out while I got dressed. I was escorted to our living room where Rizwan in his red sleeping suit and my mother were being held. I noticed the room was dark, as all the curtains had been drawn as if to prevent us from seeing something, the environment was grim and menacing. My first thought was of relief that Wasif was away, he had crossed over just a few days ago. A young Major started to interrogate us roughly with questions such as who visits us, were our friends, where was Wasif now, do we know traitors like Altaf Mahmood, Chullu, Rumi, Bodi. I silently whispered to myself, I don't know any traitors, only freedom fighters by those names. Rizwan, much to our shock suddenly said he knew Rumi. The Captain literally jumped up but Rizwan with a smile said he is a boy he goes to school with!
After a while we were called out to the back of our house and shown the place where the guns and grenades were buried but thankfully had already been removed a few days ago. However, evidence remained prompting them to start questioning us again. My mother who is originally from Kolkata and spoke fluent Urdu told them about her widowhood in 1959, how she had singlehandedly raised the four of us. She convinced them that we have been travelling and this must be the work of miscreants while we were away. Then in one horrifying moment another Jawan caught hold of Rizwan's hand and said, "let us take him, a little torture and he will reveal everything". We had heard too many stories of young boys taken away, their blood drained out and left to die. We just could not let them take Rizwan. I started screaming and crying, Ammu as we call our mother, suddenly became a lion protecting her cub. She stood tall and in a firm voice said: "NO I cannot let you take my son away from me they are all I have in this world" as we both caught his other arm. There was complete silence, after a long pause that felt like an eternity, the Major came forward, looked straight into her eyes and said, "I am giving him back to a widowed mother but ask your older son Wasif 'wo Insaanbanjaye' [he should become human]".
After the Army left, we broke down in relief but were bewildered thinking what could have happened to warrant such a visit by them. Our worst fear came true when we learnt of the tragedy that had unfolded the night before on August 29, when I had pleaded with Rumi to stay and yet he left to spend the night with his mother. Our friends, comrades, fellow freedom fighters such as Rumi, Chullu Sadique, Bodi, Altaf Mahmood his brothers in-law and many others were picked up in a raid dealing a massive blow to our covert operations.
I was devastated thinking of what Chullu bhaiya had told me. For days I could not eat or sleep and was haunted by images of our friends being tortured in captivity. We spent our days in anguish and tears thinking all was lost. Our neighbours later told us that morning when the army trucks were outside our home they saw a man being dragged out of the truck, his face covered with a black hood, he could hardly walk and had to be held. He was taken to the back side of our house. We found out that it was Bodi, forced to reveal the location of the buried ammunition. However, he knew that Wasif was away and the guns removed, even in the face of torture he remembered to save his friend. Wasif returned a few days later but did not come home. He took shelter at Shireen Huq's house and her mother took care of him.
On the morning of December 17, when the entire country was going wild with celebration we were waiting impatiently to welcome our friends about to be released from jail. Wasif, Alam and others had gone to bring them, we knew they were headed towards our house. Hearing gunshots we rushed out crying and screaming, Shireen was with me that morning. Alas! Our joy turned to shock and despair as we found Rumi and Bodi were not in the jeep with the others. Rumi, Bodi, Altaf Mahmood were all murdered after brutal torture. Chullu bhai, his body bruised and battered but head held high, came out to a free and independent Bangladesh. Rumi, my friend spent the last night of his life with his mother Shaheed Janani Jahanara Imam.
Our freedom fighters sacrificed themselves at the prime of their lives so that we could live in a free and independent Bangladesh, speak our language, sing our songs, practice our religion and live in peace and dignity. I often wonder, have we adequately honoured their sacrifice?
Shaheen Anam is Executive Director, Manusher Jonno Foundation.