Mastura Tasnim talks to the generation that climbed out of the rubble.
Tahmina Khan watched through her seven-year-old eyes as her father was dragged out of the house and shot point blank in their front-yard. She watched as he was pierced with bayonets till his intestines popped out and sprawled on the ground, and she watched as the colour of his skin turned from brown to blue - her father's killers did not allow them to bury the body till two days later. Tahmina's 22-year-old aunt, terrified that the soldiers would take her away, hid in the sewer tank, gasping for clean air. And somewhere in the house, the rice-pot had been set to boil, and the faint aroma of cooking rice intermingled with the smell of rotting corpses like a badly-made joke. A life had been lost, but other lives still needed to be fed.
This is not something that happened millions of miles away in a country far, far away. This happened here, on Bangladeshi soil, to people who are just like you or me, to people whose parents made the mistake of supporting freedom in a time when it was lacking. Tahmina's father, Shahid Mukshod Ali was an officer for the government in 1971, but chose to take part in political activities which put him under the direct scrutiny of the Pakistan National Army. He was executed in the above fashion, leaving behind five children and a young wife, who struggled to maintain the family for nearly three decades, and finally passed away from cancer before the beginning of the millennium. Tahmina maintains that throughout the time her mother was alive, Tahmina had one fighter by her side; the other one had fallen in '71.
Kazi Saifuddin Abbas knows how it is to fight for survival. He was four year old when his father, Kazi Shamsul Haque, a politician, was taken away by the Pakistani soldiers, but unlike Tahmina, he never got the chance to bury his father. After independence his mother was burdened with raising eight children and so, Abbas started earning since he was in class eight and supported his own education through the years to come. His eyes do not get misty when he talks of those memories - he shrugs in a matter-of-fact way. We guess over 40 years of struggle can render you immune to tears.
Rizia Rahman certainly feels so. “I do not cry any more, nothing brings me to tears.” Her father, Shahid Azizur Rahman, was the administration officer of Ghorashal National Jute Mill in 1971. All of their neighbours and they were huddled up inside the mill when the Pakistani army officers tore down their outer wall and brush-fired 185 people, all of them civilians. Eighty-six of them survived with handicaps and injuries. Rizia's father was not one of them.
“I remember my mother trying to hold back my father when he went to unlock the door. They were calling out his name, banging so hard the door would have fallen of its own accord anyway. They dragged him out to the courtyard; there were six army personnel and four rajakars, and when my father told them he was a Muslim, and could narrate any verse from the Quran that they wanted to hear, they laughed and yelled "Bangali Musalman hota hai kya!"
They shot him then and pierced him with their bayonets before kicking him with their boots on the way out. Rizia was in class seven at that time.
Amar Sur was preparing for his SSC exams in 1971. On the afternoon of the 26th of March, when the Pakistani army came to finish the destruction they had started in Dhaka University the day before, he lost a father, a brother and a sister. He has a list of 66 people who died on that day, and there is no count to the number of homes that were burnt down. He, like his forefathers, makes shakha for his living. “I could've resorted to illegal means like so many others had but I didn't,” he says. “It was difficult to survive, but survive we must.”
And so, like him, many others survived, though survival was often more bitter than the prospect of death - and sometimes, harder to grasp.
Life can seem nothing more than fleeting and fake when one knows that their father died while having lunch with his compatriots, ambushed in a supposedly safe area. Mizanur Rahman Talukdar's father Shahid Abdul Wahab Talukdar was not only the Camp-in-charge of Sector-6, but also a teacher at the Islamic History Department of Kurigram College.
Life also seems cruel when you find that the torture cell your father was trapped in was called 'Safe House'. Fahmida Khanam to this day does not know the exact date that her father, Shamsul Karim Khan, an Airforce officer, passed away from the torment inflicted on him.
Md. Nazrul Islam, on the other hand, knows exactly when his father died. Shahid Shihabuddin Sheikh was caught and killed on the 10th of December, after he had snuck into town to get a glimpse of his newly-born son, Nazrul, born on the 1st of October, 1971.
All of these accounts are from a particular generation. The martyrs not only had sons and daughters - they had mothers and brothers and wives as well. But the sands of time have wiped many of them away. What remains is the generation '71 who have come together to form the organisation Projonmo Ekattur. This reporter was lucky enough to warrant a presence in a meeting they held on the 7th of December. The organisation is made up of the offspring of martyrs, be they intellectuals or freedom fighters. Many of them are still adrift - it is not easy to pull back a shattered family, but some of them prosper after much hard work. All of them ask for justice for the war-crimes of 1971.
This country was not formed by the sweat and blood of martyrs alone, but by the sacrifice of families who believed in an ideal, believed in it so much that they became that ideal. There was no individual glory in the War of '71. From the accounts of the Bir Uttams to the mysterious death of Jahir Raihan, our history is scattered with families and their struggle for independence. And it is a continuing struggle.
Special thanks to Jesmin Ara Begum, daughter of Sanwar Ali- a Martyred Intellectual of Sunamganj who was shot down by the Pakistanis along with his youngest daughter, Shitara. He was also this writer's grandfather.