Yasmin Farzana Shafi*
We lived in Enayet Bazaar. Behind our house was the Jamaatkhana of the Bohras and the Goalpara Hindu slum. I was the eldest among three brothers and four sisters. My father was a dentist and my mother a Reader at the radio plus a social activist. Both were supporters of NAP (Bhashani). There were meetings at our place. Like the seniors I too participated in rallies and processions. J. M. Sen Hall was the hub. Motia Chowdhury used to stay with us at times when she was in Chittagong.
My father had a successful practice and was very popular. Literary evenings were held frequently at our house. Many intellectuals attended. Mother was the editor of Bandhabi magazine which had its office in our house. We also had a printing press in the back which was run entirely by women--in fact, it was called Meyeder Press.
On 23 March, my uncle Belal Mohammed, a radio executive, arrived with a few of his colleagues. They consulted with my parents, and on 26 March made the transmitter at Kalurghat operational. Shwadheen Bangla Betar Kendra was born and a declaration of Bangabandhu was read out by different people. The following day, Maj. Zia made his speech.
That evening, we were on the roof when a truck pulled up near our gate. Some boxes were unloaded and taken upstairs. They looked heavy. It was NAP leader Chowdhury Harunur Rashid. He conferred with my father and then left in the truck. Civilian agitators had attacked a convoy that was on its way to the cantonment and had made off with some of the ordnance. The upstairs flats were empty. The previous tenants, Dr. Mashiur Rahman, the gynaecologist, and a Kabuliwala had both left earlier. I learned later that those weapons were to be used in the war by leftist guerrillas.
Uncle Belal called us from Kalurghat on 29 March and when he heard about those boxes he strongly advised they be handed over to Major Zia forthwith. That was our last communication with him. But my Uncle Harun refused to do hand them over after being informed. Instead, he left for India without even telling my parents. On 30 March, the radio station at Kalurghat was bombed by Pakistani aircraft. Abba looked worried.
A Kabuliwala who didn't know any Bengali used to have his letters read or written by my younger brother. He also visited our Kabuliwala tenant upstairs. A few days earlier, he had come to warn us that there was going to be a raid on our house. "So why don't you all leave?" he had asked my brother.
On the morning of 7 April, a truck and a jeep full of Pakistani soldiers pulled up near our gate. In minutes, the house was surrounded. All of us children were herded into a small dressing room. A soldier opened it and saw us. He turned to someone, probably my parents, and told them they needn't be afraid. "We also have children," he said and closed the door again.
My father was taken away. "We'll question him and release him," they had said.
They had complaints from our non-Bengali neighbours that Father was an Indian spy and Mother was a leader of the Awami League and practised Hindu culture. Also, that the 'Joy Bangla Radio' people would frequent our place. They had brought along a newspaper cutting with a picture of a Mahila Samity procession marching in support of Sheikh Mujib's non-cooperation call. Mother was in front, holding the banner.
Half an hour later Father was back. He asked me for a glass of water. People huddled around him demanding, "What happened? What did they ask?" I could make out that Brigadier Beg, who was a patient of my father, had ordered his release. I forgot about the glass of water and was soundly rebuked for it. In the end it was agreed that everyone would leave that very day.
Khandakar Ahsanul Haque Ansari, my mother's younger brother and a student of Chittagong University, was performing wazu for Zoh'r prayers, when the soldiers returned. This time they wanted to check the locked rooms upstairs! They had missed them the last time. My father's face was ashen. ("Please don't give it to anyone," Uncle Harun had said about the ammunition boxes. "We'll come and collect it!") The Pakistanis found the crates, the details stencilled on them. All were brought down by my mama, alone, and then loaded into the truck. Then the soldiers drove away with my father and mama. In the meantime, most of our guests had slipped out the back door. The rest didn't stay long. Only a few relatives remained, among them, Aunt Minu, her brother-in-law Uncle Alamgir and Mr. Yar Mohammed, Uncle Belal's friend.
Late in the afternoon, another group of soldiers arrived. They wanted money, 50,000 Rupees! There was little cash in the house so my mother offered them her jewellery. They declined. Cash was what they wanted and they said they would be back in the morning. "If you try to run, we'll shoot your men and blow up your house!" There was curfew outside. Where could she get cash for them? Uncle Alamgir said all this was just an excuse, that they had other intentions. We didn't sleep the whole night. No one ate. The cooked food--and there was plenty of it-- just rotted away in the kitchen.
Early in the morning, our pet birds and rabbits were released. It was raining heavily. Someone had to hold our dog Chauhan otherwise he would have followed us. It was decided that we would walk out of the neighbourhood and then take a rickshaw to the house of my khala at Askar Dighi. First, we went to the house of a man we knew, near the graveyard. He refused to let us in. We stood on the road while Uncle Alamgir, who was the only male member left, took away the kids to put them up in another house. When he returned he told us they had been refused entry.
"Then where are the children?"
"Safe," he assured us. He had left them in the room where the dead are washed before burial. On the way to the graveyard, we saw people on the road brushing their teeth, washing, etc. It must have been strange for them seeing us there so early in the morning. Just then, a man asked us what the problem was. We told him. He didn't know us but offered shelter in his house without hesitation.
Later, khala arrived and took us to Askar Dighi. Khalu worked for the American Express Bank. A few days later, my mother left for Mirersharai to the abode and langar-khana of Sahib Sufi Abdul Latif. My parents were devotees. She sent for us a few days later. All of my brothers and sisters left, except me, since my uncle decided it was not safe for me to travel. My mother and the rest of them crossed over to India shortly afterwards.
Someone told me once that they had heard my mother's voice on Shwadheen Bangla Betar. But we had no radio in the house. Once, I got a letter from my mother. But there was no other communication.
One morning, I went out on the lawn when I saw the Kabuliwala who had warned my brother earlier. I was sure he'd seen me. But he didn't know which flat we were in. He returned a couple of times to inquire about the Doctor Sahib's daughter. Very few in that place knew my identity. The man didn't get much help.
My khala and khalu loved me as much as was humanly possible. But I still missed my parents. I would anticipate that my father and mama would return any moment. A knock on the door and everything would be all right, and the three of us would go over to my mother. I wished that at least my mother would come and take me away. Khalu tried to find out about my father. Nothing came of it and he himself almost got into trouble himself.
One of my uncles had a house next to the 'Kabuli' building. They fled during the initial fighting and the place was set on fire by the non-Bengalis. Much later, he returned to have a look and the non-Bengali goons grabbed him and took him away. He was never seen again.
Behind our house lived a Hindu family who had already left. My aunt knew them. One day, there was a frantic knocking on the door. It was a boy from that Hindu family and he pleaded for shelter. But my khala didn't let him in. "Don't you recognise me?" he asked her. She probably did but didn't acknowledge it, and in a few minutes the Razakars chasing him arrived and the boy was dragged away.
That was the only freedom fighter I saw during the nine months. The Muslim League leader Delwar Hossain Saudagar lived next door. He was a Peace Committee Member and had received a warning from the freedom fighters. They had sent him a shroud and a pot of sweetmeats with the letter! Delwar had rigged himself a rope ladder from his first floor living quarters and would draw up the ladder once he was inside. He also got himself a couple of Punjabi ex-servicemen as his personal bodyguards. Freedom fighters regularly destroyed electric transformers in different areas of the city. One day, they blew up one at our neighbourhood. Delwar scrambled down the rope ladder and disappeared somewhere with his Punjabi bodyguards.
Then the war started between Pakistan and India. Blackouts were rigidly enforced. Once, someone forgot to put off a light somewhere in the house. The soldiers and Razakars came and began kicking at the door, shouting abuses and terrorising us.
We saw the Indian planes from our veranda. The Railway HQ at Batali Hills was hit. The Razakars in the area were silent for the first time. But on 15 December, right after Yahya Khan's speech on the radio, the bodyguards of Delwar suddenly went berserk! They started firing wildly in the air, shouting: "Maar-dalengay! Maar-dalengay! Jang Chalega!" We thought they'd rush in and kill us all. We were up the whole night.
In the morning, Delwar and his bodyguards disappeared. Hundreds of people were on the streets. It was like Eid. Dozens of children were smartly turned out with new clothes. Boys of the neighbourhood marched in celebration.
Then people came to meet me, to offer solace. But I detested those visits, and i found irritating their sincere words, although I didn't voice it. See me for what? And what words? They were not going to bring back my father, my uncle. The nation was free but I had lost everything. And why hadn't my mother returned? I was impatient for her. Uncle took me to our house. The place had been looted clean.
We looked for my father and uncle everywhere. We went to all kinds of people, from officials to soothsayers.
But we never did find them.