Haunted forever | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 25, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 25, 2011

Haunted forever

Aly Zaker recalls horrors of Black Night 40 years back

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It was unlike any other evening of March in 1971. An eerie calm hung on the air of March 25 at the Dhaka University. The campus was always abuzz with some form of jingoistic activities-- be it rally, procession or strategy-planning -- throughout the month.
But this day looked awkwardly different. No drama staged, no patriotic song sang, no fiery speech hurled at the rulers in West Pakistan. It's very unusual, they, a group of five friends, muttered at their usual hangout at Room No 119 of the Science Annex Building.
Like every other day after work, they, all aged around 26, rushed to the campus for soaking in the latest on tension arouse from Yahya Khan's dilly-dallying over handing over power to prime minister-elect Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. At their den, they sipped tea, played chess and discussed passionately what was going to happen after Bangabandhu's March 7 speech: “The struggle this time is the struggle for emancipation. The struggle this time is the struggle for independence.”
They were feeling very uneasy and edgy. Something must have gone very wrong somewhere. It was only 10:00pm and the campus had gone to an early sleep. Very strange, thought Aly Zaker, an advertisement manger of the East Asiatic. But the horror that followed hours after was way beyond their wildest anticipation.
“Have you seen war movies like The Longest Day, Guns of Navarone or any other movie made on the Second World War? It beats all those,” said Aly Zaker, now chairman of the Asiatic Marketing and Communications Ltd, recalling memories of 40 years back at his cosy office, the Asiatic Centre, in Banani.
Clad in a blue panjabi, Aly Zaker, also a leading theatre personality, seemed to have lost in that fateful night of the 25th. “I have never seen a city held hostage by sheer power of gunfire and sheer power of intentions to annihilate in my life, ever before.”
Every war has two sides. But it was not a war then. So, the armless people never imagined soldiers equipped with sophisticated arms and armoury were about to pounce on them in their sleep and kill them like flies at the stroke of midnight.
At 10:15, it was lull before the storm. Aly Zaker and his friends --- Nurul Sagir (banker), Syed Lutfar Rahman (engineer), Mahmudur Rahman Benu (singer), and Kamal Udding Siddiqui (bureaucrat) -- decided to go out and explore.
They strolled to the Shaheed Minar and startled to see a lot of soldiers there. They talked in hushed voice and decided to head off to Dhanmondi at Road Number 32, the house of Bangabandhu and heart of East Pakistan's politics, for getting a bearing on the happenings.
They flung themselves into a Jalopy car, Beetle, that Aly Zaker owned. Hardly any light was out there. Even the lights were dimmed in the teacher quarters. They approached towards Rokeya Hall, forgetting that students earlier felled a huge tree to barricade road against possible army action. Aly Zaker jammed on the brakes when a Pakistani army man came out of the shadow.
There were two trucks full of Pakistani troops. And they were chopping the tree off, making a small passage by then. Panicked, they managed to seek permission to drive through.
“Go, go, jao,” barked the army personnel.
Aly Zaker drove off to the New Market junction and turned right.
Not a single Pakistani army official or jawan could be seen on Dhaka streets since March 1. They just slipped into the background amid the people's upheaval. What brought them to the centre of the city? Even in the university area that was totally occupied by pro-Bangladeshi zealots? They asked each other and got worried only without any answer.
They stopped for a couple of minutes at the Iqbal Hall, now Zahurul Haque Hall. Sirajul Alam Khan Kapalik and a few others were there. Asked, Sirajul said, “Pakistani army is probably going to attack us.” That was not much.
So, they drove down the road and reached Road No 32 at around 10:40. Bangabandhu's house was totally desolate. Until that afternoon, it was full of people. They were chanting slogans whenever Bangabandhu showed up at the porch, waved and went back in.
There was only a security guard manning the house. The big gate was closed. “What is the news, why has everything become quiet?” they asked in unison.
“Pakistani army is going to crack down. Bangabandhu has instructed everyone to go to war, wherever they are,” came in the reply.
They got in the car and sped away. Aly Zaker dropped his friends at a deserted Mogbazar. Asking them to be careful, he zoomed towards Rajarbagh, where he lived with his elder brother. Their two-storey house was on the Momenbagh lane, some 130 yards from the Rajarbagh Police Station. Changing clothes, he joined his brother Ali Taher and sister-in-law Nasiba Taher for dinner.
But eating stopped abruptly at around 11:00 with a thunderous sound out on the street. Aly Zaker shot up and bolted out in shorts and T-shirt.
Scores of policemen - some in T-shirt, some in khakis, some in lungi and half shirts -- were there on the street with .303 rifles in their hands with a huge number of people around them.
The police urged everyone to go back for safety. “Can't you hear the gunshots? Pakistani army is coming,” screamed one of them.
Yes. They all could hear those ominous sounds. It was like machinegun and cannon going off. BOOM, BOOM! CRACK, BOOM! CRACKKKKAAAATTT, BOOM!
“They already attacked Pilkhana (the headquarters of East Pakistan Rifles). Another column is coming towards us,” someone declared.
Policemen became desperate to send people home, reminding them of the risks of getting killed. “We assure you that until the last bullet is exhausted, we are going to fight back,” vowed a policeman.
A mission impossible for those skinny police men armed with only .300 rifles and sticks. But, how brave one could be when patriotism courses through the blood. Those magical words worked. Everybody ran back home.
And within few minutes, Aly Zaker could distinctly hear the CRACK and BOOM sitting in the house, where his younger sister also stayed along with her husband Tareq. This time the sound was even louder. He ran up to rooftop terrace with the brother-in-law at his heels.
They could see all what was happening from there.
Tracer bullets lit up the sky from west side of the Rajarbagh Police Station. Firing of mortar shell silenced momentarily the BING BING of bullets. Another column must have attacked from the other side, which was Shantinagar. So, they had decided to come the normal way and Rajarbagh was not actually surrounded, thought Aly Zaker.
Within few minutes they realised guns being fired from the Motijheel Colony area, which meant they bypassed Rajarbagh from the other side of Motijheel and came to this side.
The CRACK and BOOM got louder, louder and louder. And they could bear it no more. So they came down to find his brother -- all scared and worried about them.
“Where have you been?” he asked at the top of his voice and immediately went on to take shelter under his bed, asking his wife to come along.
They lost track of time as the firing, shelling and bombing went on outside. Knocks on the door shook them up. It was 30 minutes past midnight.
Aly Zaker went down and asked, “Who?”
“I'm Momen Khan.”
The house of Momen Khan was across from the Rajarbagh Police Station. He along with his wife and daughter came to seek refugee in a relatively safe house on the lane. Allowed in, the frightened family quickly found safety under the dining table.
Aly Zaker and Tareq, the two youths fell into a trance, wishing to go out and fight the brutes.
At around 2:30, the Rajarbagh went up in flames. Within minutes, the heat became unbearable. So much so that they started to splash waters on their faces and cool down their bodies with wet towels.
The police barrack was then had bamboo woven walls, tin-roof and pucca floors. All those, except for the main building office, were burning fast.
At about 3:30, there was another knock on the door. Chill went down their spine. It must be Pakistani army, they thought.
Onus was on two younger guys. They came down the stairs.
“Apnara ke? (who is there?)”, they asked, trembling.
“Amra police, bhai (we are the police, brother),” was the answer.
Opening the door, they saw two men in the half darkness, both wearing lungi and a rifle in hand.
“We ran out of bullets. Many of our comrades died. If we continue to stay there, we will die too.” Their voice was thick with sadness.
They came with request to hide the rifles somewhere as they could not move with those. Someday they would come back, collect the rifles and liberate the country.
“If you can, spread it around that the police have not let you (countrymen) down.” And they left.
Aly Zaker held both rifles in hand. Numbed, he suddenly gave in to pent-up emotions. He started to cry. Kneeling down to the floor, he cried his heart out like a child. After a while, he got up and went out into the lane. Seeing no-one around, he ran towards a nearby swamp. He quickly threw the rifles in it and rushed back home.
The firing went on until about 4:35 in the morning. Now the big guns had stopped. There were no more shelling from canons or tanks. The sun started to emerge after some time. Announcement in Urdu could be heard from city streets, asking everyone to stay at home as curfew was imposed. Shoot at sight was read out.
So, they had nothing to do, except for going through an agonised wait. Fears lurked in the back of their mind that Pakistani soldiers might go on a door-to-door hunt. They only hoped that the massacre-mongers would think getting into lanes and by-lanes of Dhaka would be risky.
They continued to live on their nerves. The long day of the 26th eventually wore off, heralding yet another uncomfortable night. They could not contact anybody as phones were not available then. They tried in vain to listen to Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, the voice of an emerging country.
And little could they know about the extent of massacre carried out last night at the Dhaka University, Pilkhana, Kamalapur Railway Station, Sadarghat Launch Terminal and old part of the city. The killers in uniforms murdered anything and everything in those areas, even not sparing stray dogs on the streets.
Holed up in the house, Aly Zaker became mum. His newly-married brother was nervous about the uncertain days ahead. “Don't worry, everything will be alright,” said Aly Zaker, drifting back into silence.
At one point, he came to realise what he wanted to do now. He would just get away, leaving the country at first opportunity.
Aly Zaker came out of his house on the morning of the 27th, when the curfew was lifted for few hours.
He did not dare to look around, as army was there. The police barracks were just in ashes. Charred human bodies could still be recognised from distance. He started walking down to Mouchak.
His friends too scurried towards Rajarbagh, thinking he might have died. They slowed a little, but then rushed to hug each other, laughing and crying together. They were just so happy to be alive.
Walking, they saw ransacked offices, bullet holes on every wall and totally dishevelled Café Taj at Moghbazar. Ashes were just everywhere, but the streets were clean.
They heard continuous sounds of tanks, lorries and other vehicles on the streets during the curfew. The West Pakistani killers must have cleaned up the roads in two days to show the world nothing was wrong in Dhaka, they thought.
They decided to have a look at the Dhaka University. So, they hopped in rickshaws and went to the Jagannat Hall, where they found stone-faced soldiers on guards.
“Bhago yahase! (get lost from here!)”, they barked.
They could not go inside the university area. But from distance, they could saw bodies being thrown into the army trucks.
Shocked, they decided to go back home. On the 28th, they were ready to leave Dhaka and go to their family home in Nabinagar, Brahmanbaria. Ali Zaker's friend Nurul Sagir did a great job driving family members to the bank of Buriganga River in several trips.
On the way there, soldiers stopped the car, asking: “Kaha ja reheh ho? (where're you going)?”
“Apna gao me ja rahe he (going to our village),” Sagir, who looked like a Punjabi, would say.
They were crossing the river on a country boat, and Pakistani troops fired a few random shots as they neared Jinjira. They narrowly escaped.
Hours of tiring walk and two days on boat finally landed them in their village, where Aly Zaker met a lot of university students. They shared hair-raising stories of a massacre in Tantibazar, at Victoria Park and in Sadarghat. People, who were waiting to board launches, were killed indiscriminately.
The more he heard about those brutal incidents the harder got his resolve for working to free the country. On April 12, he decided to cross the border to India and eventually ended up with the Bangladesh government in exile at Mujibnagar.
He started working as a producer of English language programme. Every evening, for the next nine months till the liberation of Bangladesh, Aly Zaker appeared before his world audience with a one-hour programme on war updates.

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