A COMPLEX HISTORY
A. Qayyum Khan was a university student during the Liberation War. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant of Sector 7. His book on the war, “Bittersweet Victory: A Freedom Fighter's Tale” was published by UPL.
“Our aspirations were not so much economic as they were human.” In the brutal months of the war, what had led the freedom fighters on was the dream of a free country, says Qayyum Khan.
When Qayyum Khan returned to Bangladesh after twenty years in the USA, the Liberation War veteran was bothered by the way the history was being portrayed. He realised that the post-war generations knew little about their history. He finds the root of this in the nature of the politics of our country.
“The actual struggle was mostly done by ordinary people, not urban, but rural people. There were about 85,000 fighters in the Mukti Bahini. Out of them, less than 10,000 were regular military and paramilitary men. The rest were volunteers. I myself was a volunteer. So clearly, whichever party can claim 'I gave you freedom' has a lot of advantages.”
In many ways, our generation has moved away from that trauma. It is part of the forgotten past, warped by nostalgic light. To that, Qayyum Khan says, “I think we have romanticised the war and we've oversimplified it. We heard the speech on the 7th of March, we fought for nine months, and we got Bangladesh.” But war is much more complex than a linear narrative -- the war brought out the best and the worst in us, he says. “High patriotism, reckless courage and bravado, camaraderie and great personal sacrifice coexisted with actions that would be considered unethical under normal circumstances. There were reels within reels. And somehow we failed to acknowledge these complexities.”
For him, the battlefield itself was stripped off any romanticism. “The decision to go and fight was a very emotional decision. After you had lived through the night of 25th March, the choice was simple. And the rest were all practical decisions. They were realities.” He mentions in passing of the physical hardships of the war, eating terrible food, sleeping in the open and the diseases and ailments of the battlefield. “That didn't bother anybody in the Mukti Bahini.”
As Qayyum Khan puts it, there is much to be proud of. “The war was glorious but often the focus shifts from the right elements. This country has many heroes, but you don't know them.”
“Over the decades, many freedom fighters were treated poorly, as I said in my book, while undeserving individuals were given honour.”
Nearing the end of our time with him, we asked him how he had pictured Bangladesh to be in the early days of December in 1971.
“We entered Chapainawabganj on the morning of December 16th. People rushed out, they brought flowers, hugged us, put food in our mouths. To me, it represented the end of a nightmare. We didn't realise that there could be more nightmares ahead.”
A DEATH IN TIME
Shirin Ahmed, who lost her son on the 1st of December, 1971, recounts the days of the war.
Her son Iftekhar Uddin Ahmed had been aiding the freedom fighters in secret, and is laid to rest in Ghorasal.
1971 was a strange time, a time when every family suffered immeasurable losses, deaths and separation. The war made heroes out of commoners, but in the nameless sea of death we have forgotten the insignificant families and their enormous sacrifices.
Shirin Ahmed's family of seven was one such family, who had lost a brother and a son like thousands of other families across Bangladesh. We visit her house to hear the story of how the war tore up an average family.
At the start of 1971, Shirin and her family were living in Indira Road. The eldest out of her seven children, Iftekhar Uddin Ahmed, 23, was working at Janata textile mill in Ghorasal at the time. He was supposed to go to Dundee for higher studies, but war was starting out and he was stuck.
“My son had come to attend Sheikh Mujib's historic speech at the racecourse. And you know what young men his age are like. He went back after the 7th, but in his heart, he had joined the war. Ever since then, he had been involved in aiding the Mukti Bahini, though we did not know,” says Shirin.
Iftekhar used to visit Dhaka suspiciously often, even during curfews, ignoring his mother's warnings.
He had not come to visit his family since September, and towards the end of December it became clear that the war would end soon. “Dhaka was filled with Muktis. Rumi (Jahanara Imam's son) and his squad had launched attacks to free Farmgate.”
Then on the 2nd of December, a car stopped in front of her residence, carrying some relatives. “Seeing them, my heart jumped. Why are you here?” I asked them.
”My sister's husband slowly broke it to me, 'Iftekhar is no more,' he said.”
It had happened on the first of December. The Mukti Bahini had set up camp at the mill, and Iftekhar had been aiding them in every way. The Pakistani army caught whiff of his involvement, and one day they raided the mill.
“Iftekhar was sitting in his room with two friends. They banged on the door. They dragged them out and shot him thrice, in the head, chest and stomach. They shot his friends too,” Shirin says. The army had come for the three, and then they left for the next mill, where they brush fired a hundred people.
For Shirin and her family, that was when the war ended. “I felt as if I had lost all energy,” she says. The next few days were spent in a daze, as Indian fighter planes streaked the sky of Dhaka with missiles. Her family went into hiding, moving from house to house, as the murder of intellectuals went on in secret. Then suddenly, the war that had caused them so much pain was over. 16th December saw Bangladeshis taking to the streets in an outpouring of joy and rage.
”We went out to look around the city in my sister's car, and came across the body of a dead soldier. People were spitting and throwing shoes at it. Though it was useless to disrespect a dead body, I could see the extent of hate Bangladeshis had in store for the army. All around, the city was a wreck. There were craters as big as ponds in the airport. It was also laid with landmines, which would injure many people in the years to come,” says Shirin.
For her family, 16th December was an end, and the beginning of a long process of rebuilding pieces of their lives, even though a gaping hole would always remain at the heart.
THE DIFFERENT SHADES OF VICTORY
Md. Jahangir Hossain was an 18 year old student, residing in Barisal during the war. He fought against the Pakistan army to liberate this country. He is severely diabetic and sells tea near Dhanmondi Lake to make a living and cover his medical expenses.
As Jahangir Hossain adjusts his starched panjabi and takes a seat next to us, he is already in the process of pouring us steaming cups of ginger tea. It has been his reality for a long time, but as the talk drifts over to the Liberation War, he is reminded of another harsh reality he lived through 42 years ago. “I went to war because I felt it was important to free our country. I fought for my Shonar Bangla. I had a family who I knew wouldn't support the idea of me going to war, so I didn't tell them before enlisting with my cousin.”
The war took him all the way to India first where he joined others from the Mukti Bahini for 14 days of training. Jahangir Hossain goes on to add that most of the people fighting alongside him were villagers. “Some in our sector were local political leaders, some were college students and some were farmers before the war.”
He recalls his first operation with ease, the images imprinted on his mind forever. “It was in Jessore where we had our first face-off with the razakars. They were lying in wait to ambush us. We were a party of 21 and we killed 6 of them. After that, we were told to go home and visit our families, but only for ten minutes. When my parents saw me, they cried, but didn't try to stop me from going back.”
But what of his own fear? “You don't feel fear at these moments, do you?” -- he asks with a wry smile. “You don't feel scared when you're fighting for your life. I was not scared.” And on the subject of liberation he tells us he had no prior knowledge the country would be liberated in December but he was always sure that we would earn liberation one day. “In fact, I fought with the Pakistan army on the 17th December, as not all of them had surrendered their weapons. In the end they finally did and the war was over.”
“I had no expectations from the war. I didn't want anything going in and didn't want anything afterwards. We gave back our weapons in February, 1972 when Bangabandhu returned and we all got certificates declaring us as freedom fighters with a signature from General Osmani, but I lost mine in a flood.”
Jahangir Hossain came to Dhaka in 1977 and joined the Ansar. He left after suffering a stroke and has since been working by the lake, peddling tea. “The government has been turning a blind eye to me and many more in my state for years now,” he remarks as we get up to take our leave, plastic cups still in hand.
As we begin to turn away, promising to bring him a copy of the story, he falters for a moment and then says, “Don't show me this story unless something comes out of it,” and walks away.
PHOTO: DARSHAN CHAKMA