Every moment of the night of March 25 in 1971 and the following two-months will always shine brightly in the depths of my memory. Even though I might not be able to express all those living memories in words, I will try to articulate a possible description of the events.
I remember my husband Tajuddin telling me on the day of the horrifying March 25 of 1971, “Lili, none of you should stay at home tonight, because I’m leaving, and Yahya’s army has chosen a merciless path. I don’t think it’d be wise to take an unknown risk by staying at home tonight.” He didn’t say anything else. However, I couldn’t get out of the house on that terrible night.
It felt as if everyone could forecast the frightening results of the failure of the meeting and dialogue between Yahya and the leaders of Awami League. But no one could probably even imagine what was going to happen in reality. A strange kind of eeriness was present in the surroundings; it felt as if something ominous was going to take place. Relatives, friends, and acquaintances and strangers crowded in our house to know what the real news was! Many of them were leaving for a safe refuge. By the time I bid goodbye to all of them, it was almost half past eleven at night. But despite a hundred doubts, I couldn’t step outside my house for elsewhere.
I had sent my older daughter and her younger sister , Ripi and Rimi, and an adult niece, who had come to visit us a few days back, to my elder sister’s house in Tatibazar. My only son Tanjim, who was a little over a year at that time, and five-year old daughter Mimi were with me. I had thought that if I had to escape in a hurry then it would be difficult to move with all of them; I could probably slip away swiftly with my youngest children.
On that dreadful night, Tajuddin left the house in a car with Barrister Amirul Islam; Dr Kamal Hossain (the current Law Minister) also accompanied them. On the way, Dr Hossain got down at a relative’s house in Dhanmondi. I later learnt that he was arrested by the Pakistani army a few days later. I was standing by a bush near the gate of our house, observing their car speed towards Road 15 in Dhanmondi, and then take a turn for Lalmatia. Right about then, I heard the sound of bullets and mortar going off in a distance, and I immediately noticed several armed cars of the Pakistani army speed by the road opposite our house, rushing toward Lalmatia. An unfamiliar fear gripped me at that time, but the very next moment I realised that Tajuddin had left the house for a dark, dangerous journey to fulfil a great responsibility and no matter how terrifying or gloomy the path, there was an invisible force that was guiding him in an unrestrained manner to his destination. The speeding cars of the Paksitani army had lost their way. They were successful in going beyond the Pak army's reach. It was as if there was a celestial manifestation of this incident within me.
Now I returned the focus on myself, as I took a firm resolve to gather all my strength. Our house was two-storied; we used to live on the ground floor. Abdul Aziz and Begum Atiya Aziz lived as tenants on the second floor. Mr. Aziz’s was from Kaliganj in Dhaka, he was a former vice-president of Chattra League. Over the time we became very close. A few minutes after Tajuddin’s car departed, I took my two children and got into the car, and told the driver to get on Road 21, which was opposite our house, as fast as he could. I would get down in front of any house there. I could see electric and telephones being torn, making a tremendous noise as they fell down right in front of our gate. Just then Aziz and Atiya almost leapt in front of us, and prevented me from setting off and said in a subdued voice, “Bhabi, get down from the car without a moment’s delay; the minute the car gets out of the gate, it will be captured by the military.” I immediately realised that the path of escape was obstructed but we couldn’t stay in the house either. I quickly changed my mind. I got down from the car, and under the stairways I told Atiya, “I will go upstairs along with you and pretend to be a tenant as well.”
Thankfully, Atiya and I both knew Urdu well. We changed our look by changing into salwar-kameez. Atiya would sometimes dress in this attire at home. We both looked like non-Bengalis thanks to our height and appearance, and this gave us hope that we could evade the clutches of the enemy.
Aziz bhai was also not supposed to be at home that night, but unfortunately, because of Atiya’s firm opposition, he was forced to stay back, the result of which was tragic; he was captured by the Pakistani army and incarcerated in cantonment for seven months suffering from death throes, even though he was finally released in an unimaginable and miraculous manner. I went upstairs, changed my attire, laid down my sleeping son and daughter on the bed in Atiya’s bedroom, and stood by the window. The sound of guns and mortar attacks was wafting up from a distance. I noticed that Atiya and Aziz bhai were tending to sleeping arrangements on sofas in the big hall room. But I thought that it would be wiser for me and Atiya to be in the same room. The sound of shooting gradually started to come from a closer distance. Atiya and I were together in the same room.
None of us uttered a word. I peeked through the curtains of the window to the South and an indescribable scene met my eyes; the entire sky in the South was splattered in red. The sky seemed to have disappeared within the red. I heard the sound of ensuing cars, one after the other, and it felt as if our whole house was surrounded by the military force. They were now really entering the house, shooting bullets on the way. Upon hearing Sheikh saheb’s call for creating a fortress of resistance, they probably thought that there was every kind of arrangement of resistance and counter-attacks in the houses of the leaders. Thus they took their positions all around the house, equipped with modern arms of that time, heading forwards in a very cautious manner. I peeked out of the window to take a quick look at the position of the main road outside of our house. Nothing apart from the cars of the Pak army and the occupying force came into view. Atiya and I decided that we would close the door and be inside the room, if they asked us to open the door or pushed it, we would open it and confront them. But by that time, intense shooting began downstairs. The occupying force were demolishing the doors, windows and fences of thick wires surrounding the veranda, which already came under the attack of their shells. They went into every room in search of Tajuddin and me.
We were ready to confront death with resolute determination. My father, a nephew and my sister-in-law’s son were downstairs. Unable to fully understand the situation, 60-year old Barik Miya, the caretaker and gatekeeper of our house, hid in the bathroom of my father’s room. One group of the occupying force tied their hands, and shouted out loud, inquiring about our location. Another group, consisting of around 50 men shelled the door of the stairway, breaking it into pieces and entered the veranda of the second floor. It felt as if some of them were running on the rooftop of the house. When a group of around 25 to 30 men pushed at our door with a tremendous noise, Atiya asked in Urdu, “Who's there?” and opened the door. Immediately four to five army officers took their position and entered the house, and pointing a small sten-gun at our chests, they asked in a stern voice in Urdu, “Where is Tajuddin? Who amongst you is Mrs. Tajuddin? You or you?” Meanwhile the rest of the sycophants were relentlessly shooting bullets from the window.
Atiya immediately answered in Urdu, “Where is Mrs Tajuddin here? You must be mistaken. All of us are tenants here, Tajuddin is our landlord. They reside on the ground floor.”
I was worried about a picture of me hanging from a wall downstairs; there was the possibility of getting caught if we were even slightly careless. My son was in my arms, I concealed him a little and before Atiya could even finish her sentence, I said in a chastising tone in Urdu, “I had told you before to not rent a place in these politicians’ house. Finally this is what is in our fate . . . Innali la hi wa inna ilaihi rajiun." Before I could end my sentence, the officer asking questions quickly lowered his sten-gun and fixing his sharp gaze firmly on us, he accepted his mistake as he said, “We made a mistake. Please stay here without any worry. I don’t need to ask anything else.” Meanwhile my five-year old daughter Mimi woke up from her sleep, she held on to me tightly in fright but thankfully, she didn’t say anything in Bengali at that time. The officer patted my daughter’s head and said to me, “Bibi, please go to sleep. You need not be scared of anything." After that they left the room. Atiya also went after them.
A newly married couple, guests of Atiya, were sleeping in the next room. They had come to visit from Narayanganj in the evening. As it got late after dinner and as it was risky to get out in the night, they had decided to stay back and had gone to sleep. They woke up in shock at the dreadful noise of the door being pushed, and as soon as they opened the door in fright and stood outside, an army officer ordered the gentleman in a stern voice to go with them. Immediately Atiya said in a reprimanding tone in Urdu to the guest, (who newly joined the Tularam College as a lecturer), “Habib bhai, what kind of a sleep were you in? These men were screaming so loudly and yet it took you so long to open the door!” In response, Habib bhai’s wife accepted their fault in Urdu in an apologetic tone. Immediately an army officer said, “It’s alright. You can go back to sleep.” In an unthinkable twist, they both escaped.
Then they (the occupiers) tied up Atiya’s husband, both my nephews and the old Barik Miah, and kept hitting them while they took them to their car. Aziz bhai’s nine-year old nephew saw all of this while he was hiding from the army.
My father used to stay in a corner room downstairs; they went there and asked my father various questions in a rough voice. My father was quite ill at that time; he could not even get up from bed. The main query of their interrogation was where Tajuddin and I were. A few of them suggested that they take father along with them but two of the officers were unexpectedly well-mannered. When they asked him to lie down again, it felt as if his illness had touched their hearts. Later, while remembering this gesture of theirs, I felt like they were wolf in sheep’s clothing (badorer hashi). My father didn’t lie down expecting to be saved; he thought that he would be shot the minute he lied down. He overcame his fear and replied to them in English, “President Yahya can best say where Tajuddin is.” At that time, father also did his own stint at acting. While on his bed he recited a stanza of a timely and valuable poem of Sheikh Sadi in Farsi and then translated its meaning in English for them. Even amidst such a tense situation of shooting, they looked at each other’s face and left the room saying, “Assalamu Alaikum,” leaving behind a bundle of rope in father’s room. When I saw it later on, I guessed that the rope was brought to tie Tajuddin and take him with them. I have kept the rope with me, as it will remain a small witness if the history of the liberation movement is ever written.
After around two hours when the invaders left, all of us seemed to have become as still as a rock. None of us moved an inch, not a word left any of our mouths. We looked around very carefully to see that nobody was around. Atiya and I were alone upstairs, even though Habib bhai and his wife were in the next room with their door closed, and my father was alone downstairs. Every moment was spent in a frightening anxiety. But there was nothing to be done.
At that intolerable moment, I felt a very acute sense of pride in my sub-conscience. Without even realizing it, I was confronted with a heart-rending question – how strange is a person’s mind! Tajuddin did not say a thing before leaving; he didn’t even point towards any direction. That night, at around 10.30 pm, he returned home with Mr Samad (current foreign minister) and Mr Mohaimen (MCA). Amidst the urgency I noticed the faces etched with worry; there were many others with them, all of them left almost immediately. I saw that he was strolling around in the garden without saying a word to me; I felt as if he would leave right then. Just about then Barrister Amirul Islam (MCA) and Dr Kamal Hossain arrived at our house. They left after a while; on his way out, Tajuddin almost ran to me and asked me for a small towel. At the final moment, nothing was said. He just left me in the midst of danger. How was this possible? I found the answer to this question later. The question of the rights of over seventy million people was shining luminously in the glow of his decision at that moment; his wife and four children were lost amidst this.
The writer was a prominent leader of the Awami League and served as its president from 1980 to 81. She was married to Tajuddin Ahmed , prime minister of the exiled government and later the first prime minister of independent Bangladesh.
Translated by: Upashana Salam of The Daily Star.