Series genocide in 1971: Three times a survivor
It is difficult for 68-year-old Shikha Biswas to decide if she is fortunate or not.
For the last 52 years, she has been bearing the trauma of witnessing not one, but three incidents of genocide in the span of three days.
In May 1971, a 16-year-old Shikha, who was fleeing from her ancestral village in Khulna with her family in the hope of taking refuge in India, witnessed three mass killing events in greater Khulna's Badamtala, Chuknagar and Jhaudanga.
Running for her life from one place to another, she miraculously survived all three, but the sheer brutality of the Pakistani military still haunts her to this day.
"52 years is a long time. But how can I forget the numerous lifeless bodies soaked in blood? The memories are still so vivid after so many years."
Historians say that during the nine-month-long Liberation War, a large portion of the population in what was then East Pakistan fell victim to genocide by the Pakistani military and their collaborators.
Many of those who survived the war often carried the physical scars of the atrocities, enduring amputations and injuries. The widespread and systematic killing of the population meant that numerous survivors like Shikha Biswas witnessed the slaughtering of their dear ones -- family members, relatives, friends, and acquaintances.
They still live to tell us the stories of the atrocities they suffered and witnessed during those nine months.
Like other parts of Bangladesh, some areas in Khulna-Satkhira region saw mass killings, which targeted the same group of fleeing civilians repeatedly. Noted genocide researchers in Bangladesh describe such back-to-back atrocities as "series genocide".
One such genocide was carried out on thousands of refuge-seeking people on May 19-21 in Badamtala of Batiaghata upazila and Chuknagar in Dumuria upazila of Khulna, and Jhaudanga in Satkhira Sadar.
All three places are on a route that the people who wanted to flee to India used in the early days of the war.
The distance between Badamtala and Chuknagar Bazar is 16.5km. Jhaudanga is about 33km from Chuknagar.
The Daily Star has spoken to 10 witnesses of the "series genocide", who are now living in villages in Khulna's Batiaghata, Phultala, Debitala, Basurabad and Hetalbunia.
According to them, the first incident of the "series genocide" took place on May 19 in Phultala, Debitala, and Basurabad villages and Badamtala Bazar under the Batiaghata union of Batiaghata upazila.
According to the book "Badamtala Ganahatya", authored by Gauranga Nandi, in May of 1971, Gano Parishad Member "Kuber Babu" of Rampal took shelter at a house at Batiaghata's Debitala. Within a few days, on information, the Pakistani military launched an operation to catch him.
On the morning of May 19, the Pakistani military reached Phultala village on a gunboat from Khulna. Split into several groups, they went from house to house in several villages, including Phultala, Basurabad, and Debitala, and killed scores by indiscriminately opening fire on innocent civilians.
Later, with the support of local collaborators, they nabbed several hundred people from these villages, took them to Badamtala Bazar, lined them up and killed them.
Niranjan Mandal, 70, an inhabitant of Basurabad village, was captured by the Pakistani military at Debitala village. Now retired from his government job, Niranjan was a college student in Khulna back then. The witness, who himself escaped death by luck, described his ordeal to The Daily Star.
"I was caught with five other people from Debitala. They made us stand in line beside a ditch. As they were about to open fire, I jumped into the ditch and hid under water hyacinths. Somehow, I escaped death as they could not find me. My elder brother was killed there."
After the Badamtala genocide, inhabitants of those villages fled to Chuknagar. At the beginning of the Liberation War, Chuknagar was a safe shelter for India-bound refugees as Pakistani troops were still not in the area.
In early May, the rush of displaced people began to increase in Chuknagar and adjoining areas.
By May 18-19, according to local witnesses and historians, several lakh internally displaced people gathered there from Bagerhat, Rampal, Kandalganj, Sharankhola, Mongla, Dakop, Batiaghata, Chawl, and even Faridpur and Barishal.
According to the book "Chuknagar Ganohotya", edited by Prof Muntassir Mamoon, as the huge number of displaced people gathered there, on May 19, the then chairman of Atlia union informed the Pakistani military camp in Satkhira of the developments.
On the morning of May 20, the military sent its forces to Chuknagar. Around 11:00am, Pakistani soldiers arrived at Jhautala Maltia intersection on the Chuknagar-Satkhira road in two vehicles. Later, divided into three groups, they marched on foot towards the nearby villages.
Firing indiscriminately, one group moved towards Malopara-Raypara, one group towards the Bazar area and one marched towards the river to intercept the fleeing people.
Witnesses said the gunfire triggered panic among the tens of thousands of people. They tried to hide on top of trees, some in boats and others in fields, behind bushes. But many hadn't had the luck, they added.
The Pakistani military started shooting at the fleeing people from three directions. The carnage continued for five hours till 4:00pm, killing at least 10,000 trapped people, according to witnesses and historians.
Shikha Biswas said she and her family members reached Chuknagar from Bagerhat's Basurabad that morning after a night-long journey on foot.
"We were hungry and thirsty. The gunfire forced us to hide wherever we could. My family members and I hid inside a shop. The sound of gunfire continued for a long time. The military left the area in the afternoon after the carnage."
Asked about what she saw after the massacre, she said, "It was beyond description. There were dead bodies everywhere. In the ditches, fields, marshlands, or orchards … Wherever my sight went, I could only see bodies lying on the ground."
After the Chuknagar massacre, people fled towards Jhaudanga, a place only a kilometre from the Indian border, said the witnesses.
According to the book "Khulna Ekattor: Amar Muktijuddho", authored by Dipa Bandyopadhyay, on May 21, Pakistani soldiers in two trucks were heading towards Satkhira from Jashore. They were stopped by a peace committee member of Patharghata village, which is adjacent to Jhaudanga Bazar area. After a short discussion with the collaborator, the soldiers took position on a culvert in the south of the bazar.
Seeing the Pakistani troops advancing towards the bazar, the people there started to flee. But many of them died as Pakistani soldiers opened fire.
The Pakistan military men also caught many people, including those who were wounded, lined them up on the culvert, and gunned them down.
"We were at the bazar when the two military trucks reached the bridge. They opened fire as soon as they got off the trucks. We ran towards a thick bamboo grove and hid there. They continued the carnage for about an hour," recalled Shikha.
Prakash Chandra Roy, who fled from Debitala of Batiaghata, was another witness to the acts of genocide in Chuknagar and Jhaudanga.
Describing the aftermath, he said, "A woman, who was shot in the leg, pleaded for water. I brought some water in my palms from a nearby ditch. As I helped her drink it, she said, 'Son, what did you give me? It is not water, it is blood!'
"As I stepped ahead, I saw a toddler suckling on its dead mother's breast. A few steps ahead, I saw another child looking at the dead body of a woman saying, 'Mom, why don't you wake up? Everyone's left'."
Genocide researchers say "series genocides" took place in other parts of the country as well.
On April 23, two large-scale genocides took place at Jatibhanga of Thakurgaon Sadar upazila and Dhapdhup Beel of Panchagarh's Boda upazila. More than 3,500 innocent people were killed during the two incidents.
Many who witnessed both genocides are still alive.
"The main reason behind committing series genocides is to demonstrate and accomplish atrocity. It is a well-planned way of committing genocide," genocide researcher Dr MA Hasan told The Daily Star.
He said a "series genocide" took place in Dhaka as well.
"Many of the inhabitants of Old Dhaka's Shankhari Bazar who came under attack on March 25, were also attacked at Jinjira of Keraniganj on April 2," he said, pointing at the genocidal intent of the Pakistani army.
He noted that the Pakistani military mainly carried out the "series genocide" on refuge-seeking people,
He said the practice is not uncommon either.
"Apart from our Liberation War, we can find examples of 'series genocides' in WWII's Holocaust, in Rwanda, Cambodia and Bosnia. At present, such an occurrence is taking place in Gaza," he added.