Bangladesh is celebrating the 49th anniversary of the nation's Victory Day today. As we look back, in awe and pride, we must marvel at the achievement of this young nation and the difficulties we've overcome in such a short period of time. We can't but also pay tribute to the sacrifice made by the countless millions during the Liberation War, and in the years before 1971, as well as after. Many of those who helped build this nation did not survive to see victory and we remember them all with gratitude and deference.
It is only appropriate that we keep in our mind and our hearts the hardship and challenges that the people of this country faced to break the shackles put on us by the colonial rulers. Some of us lost family members, near ones, friends and neighbours, and it is appropriate that we pay tribute to them. Even today, I never get tired of listening to the stories of how millions escaped the rage of the Pakistani Army, the trials and tribulations of those crossing over to the Indian border, then on to Kolkata or Agartala, and the hospitality of our hosts in India. It seems that, with age, these memories rekindle the pride and passion we felt, and they grow brighter as time passes.
Like every year, today I pay homage to the friends I lost in the War of Liberation. My classmates from Dhaka College and Dhaka University, Nazrul Islam and Nizamuddin Azad, my kindergarten classmate Nasim Mohsin, my senior Zaheen Chinku, a thespian of immense promise; my friends Arun Choudhury and Shafi Imam Rumi, and many many others. My classmate Sraboni Endow Choudhury, occasionally tells us stories, sometimes on Facebook, of the sufferings during the early stages of the War when Pakistani bloodhounds were on the loose looking for young girls to kill and molest, and how they managed to dodge that bullet. However, ten of her family members perished by December 16, most of them killed by a bomb in Sylhet town in an area known as Manipuri Rajbari. Her young cousin who died was denied a decent burial, forcing her Kakima to carry the corpse to the water's edge, letting it float away in the river Surma.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with some of the elders who had similar harrowing experiences and close encounters with death during those months. While memory is fast fading for many of them, their tales of the Liberation War, from March 7 to December 16, is one of great pride for them. I have heard from hundreds of people about attending the historic meeting at the Dhaka Race Course on March 7, and of the horrifying acts of betrayal and manslaughter committed by Yahya Khan and his cohort on the night of March 25 and the early hours of March 26. Those memories, the escape and the struggles in April, May and June onwards until the early breakthrough in November and the final surrender of the Pakistani Army at the ceremony in the Race Course, are fresh in all of our minds. Who could have imagined that this ground, now renamed the Suhrawardy Uddyan, would be witness to so much of our history, our hopes and determination, and the ultimate climax with the surrender of General Niazi, who had vowed to eliminate the dreams of the Bengali nation?
I talked with Gulshan Anwara Haque, an octagenarian, and past President of Dhaka Ladies Club, who after attending the historic speech at Dhaka Race Course on March 7, travelled the following day from her house in Dhaka to Sylhet for a wedding and was stuck there for a few days as the Non-Cooperation Movement and the negotiations between Awami League and the Pakistan Peoples Party dragged on. On March 25, she and her family were in Sylhet town and immediately took shelter in a "Chairman bari" on the other side of the River Surma after Operation Searchlight was launched by the Pakistani Army in Dhaka. Following the crackdown, they along with a few others, ferried scores of people from the town in their small cars over the rickety Keane Bridge spanning the river Surma to the safety of the villages on the other side. Subsequently, they escaped to an interior location with her two young daughters and son to evade the Pakistani Army that had been let loose in Sylhet town. They first went to Kaliti Tea Estate in Kulaura upazila of Moulvibazar. However, when the blood-thirsty Pakistani Army and their collaborators also crossed the Keane Bridge, they targeted the tea gardens and started going from one estate to another to flush out the "muktis".
She tearfully recalled one encounter with the Pakistani troops at a roadside checkpoint. Their small car, a Fiat 650 with six passengers, was stopped and lined up on the roadside to be taken down with one brushfire. The entire family, along with her late husband, started reciting the Kalima and Surah Fatiha in anticipation of the massacre. But they survived when one of the commanders had a last-minute change of heart and let them continue their onward journey. The trauma still haunts her and she says, "I don't know what happened. The Almighty looked down and foresaw what might happen if that lunatic soldier decided to pull the trigger. Maybe the captain also had young children and saw something that reminded him of his own family back home in the West!"
Finally, let us also recognise the contribution of our friends amongst the rest of the world, who rose up in arms to defeat the nexus of Bhutto, Yahya and the marauding Pakistanis. Even some of the sober Pakistanis, then and now, admit that the nexus got itself into a corner, in a no-win situation. In a recent paper, entitled, History: Bhutto, Mujib and the Generals, Prof Dr Moonis Ahmar, Meritorious Professor of International Relations and former Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi, wrote that by March 25, 1971, there were sufficient indications to "convince the Awami League that the nexus would never hand over power to the Bengali majority because of their suspicion, mistrust, antagonism and hatred against them." I only wish that the power-hungry military-political junta in Islamabad had recognised this truth then and spared us the nine months of bloodshed, mayhem and pain.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and works in Information Technology. He is also Senior Research Fellow at International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank based in Boston, USA.