The town hall building of Rangpur town was constructed in 1913 by the British as a government office building, which later on became a place for cultural activities. It was the place of meetings, seminars, dramas, cultural programmes, etc. It stood as a proud heritage with a distinct cultural identity of the people of the area.
In 1971, the Pakistan Army and their collaborators stopped all cultural activities in the building like they did everywhere else and took possession of the building to set up a military camp. They started conducting nefarious activities in the building and destroyed its sanctity. Many people who were arrested by the Pakistan Army and their collaborators were brought here and brutally tortured and killed. Out of fear, people of Rangpur avoided coming near the building. A number of torture cells were set up in the rooms of the building where the local people were brought and tortured in the name of interrogation. Also, this was the place where a large number of women kidnapped by the Pakistan Army and their collaborators were tortured. The auditorium where people once used to sit and enjoy cultural events was used for keeping these women imprisoned. The chairs of the auditorium were removed; flat wooden planks were placed on the walls with hooks with which the women were tied so that they could not escape.
It is opined by the people of Rangpur that the most brutal killings and torture were conducted in this town hall. Adjacent to the building there was a big well, where a large number of people were thrown after being killed. It is unfortunate that later the well was filled up and no mark was kept. Among the many women who were brought to this town hall building was Mansura Begum, the wife of Freedom Fighter Mostafa Mia. Young and beautiful, Mansura, with light green eyes, was the youngest of the three children of her parents who lived in Tapodhan village under Rangpur Sadar. She was married to Mostafa Mia, son of Abdul Khaleq, residing in the same village in 1969. Mostafa was a small trader in the village. In March 1971, when the Liberation War started, she was four months pregnant.
Mostafa Mia decided to join the Liberation War. He advised his father and Mansura to keep his plan of joining the Liberation War as secret. In early April, he met Dr Abdus Samad of Shaptibari village and accompanied him to the Mukti Bahini training camp located at Sitai area of India. But the collaborators of the Pakistan Army came to know that Mostafa Mia had joined the Liberation War and reported this to the army camp located at Rangpur town hall. They also informed that Mostafa Mia had returned to the village after receiving training from India for conducting operations against them. On the morning of 14 June, Pakistani soldiers accompanied by the collaborators, surrounded Mostafa Mia's house and forcibly entered the house in search of him. As he was not found, the soldiers started beating and kicking his father, Abdul Khaleq, mercilessly with rifles and boots. At one stage of the brutal torture, Khaleq lost his consciousness but the soldiers continued beating him. Mansura Begum saw the incident while hiding behind a small bush near the house. She could not anymore bear her dear father-in-law being beaten to death. She broke the cover and rushed to the old man, grabbed his bleeding body and begged the military not to kill him. The beautiful Mansura attracted the attention of the notorious soldiers. They picked up injured Khaleq on their truck and also pulled and dragged Mansura onto the truck. Mansura tried to resist but the soldiers did not let her loose.
As the truck was moving at high speed, the soldiers, thinking Khaleq to be dead, threw him out of the truck. Khaleq died instantly. The soldiers brought Mansura to the town hall building.
Mansura recognised the town hall building. She was in a state of shock already. She was dragged to the auditorium where she found a large number of young women who had no clothes on. Every woman appeared to be in great distress and was crying.
Out of the window, she found a number of Bangalee youths in the field who were being tortured by the Pakistan Army. She felt as if she had come to hell from where there was no way to escape. She saw a number of young people on whose eyes acid was being poured and who were later shot dead. Till evening she saw the horrific scenes but more was yet to come. By this time the inhumane soldiers took away Mansura's clothes. In the evening, the soldiers entered the auditorium and dragged the woman away into a nearby room. She could hear the screaming of the women. She was, too, violated by a number of soldiers. As she resisted, the soldiers whipped her and put acid on the injured places. In the early morning, the women were brought back to the auditorium. That day four women tried to escape but the soldiers chased them. Seeing no other alternative, the women jumped into the well and committed suicide.
For a long twenty-five nights, the same atrocity was conducted on Mansura and the other women. Women screamed in void but it was as if no one heard. They were abandoned to their fate. Human life was violated by extreme forms of atrocity. A number of women died inside the auditorium. After repeated torture, Mansura became very ill and was bleeding profusely. Thinking she would die soon, the soldiers called a rickshaw van driver and put her on the van. They ordered the driver to take her near the river and throw her into the water. By this time, Mansura had her abortion. Fortunately the van driver knew Mansura and Mostafa. He brought some food and water for her and took her to her village.
The villagers came to know that Mansura had come back alive. The collaborators came to Mansura's house, accused her of being a characterless woman and said that she must leave the village immediately. They also said that since her father-in-law had been killed and her husband had joined the liberation forces, she would be living alone in her house and the youth of the village would visit her as she was of loose character. Mansura understood that if she leaves the village, the collaborators would occupy her house. She was also too sick to walk. She begged the village elders to allow her to live in the village. The village elders requested the collaborators not to force her out of the house as she would die on the way. The collaborators agreed to let her stay in the house till her physical condition improved, but no one in the village was allowed to meet her or help her. However, the common villagers were highly sympathetic towards Mansura. Before every dawn, people used to put rice, dal and vegetables in front of her door secretly and anonymously. She struggled against the wave of apathy and resentment and managed to survive on such small donations till Victory Day.
Mostafa Mia was not aware of the tragedy surrounding his family. As a victorious Freedom Fighter, he entered the village and was welcomed by the people of the village. Some of the village elders advised that Mostafa Mia, as a Freedom Fighter, was an important person in the village; as such, he should not live with a violated woman and should divorce her immediately. They further said that they would arrange a beautiful bride for him. Mostafa Mia told them that he had to talk to Mansura first before reaching a decision. Mansura was overjoyed to see her husband alive. She narrated the whole episode to him. Mostafa told the village elders that Mansura was not a characterless woman as characterised by them. She was kidnapped by the Pakistan Army and their collaborators. Providing her security was the responsibility of his father and of the villagers. His father tried but was brutally killed and the villagers did not come forward to save her. As such, the fault lay with the villagers and not with Mansura. He would not divorce his wife.
The villagers started a noncooperation movement against Mostafa and were very unkind to Mansura. As a result, Mostafa's business failed, the family became very poor and eventually, they had to move to Rangpur town in search of a living. They took shelter in a slum and he started pulling rickshaws. Mansura made a peaceful home and gave birth to two children. Although poor, they were happy in life.
A Freedom Fighter, who came to know the tragic story of Mansura and Mostafa, wrote a chapter in his book on the Liberation War. He also arranged a television programme and invited them to participate in it. His wife provided financial assistance to them. After the programme was aired, a martyred family member provided them with rickshaws and vans. Later writers, media reporters and researchers also wrote their tragic tale. Students and youth of Rangpur on Independence and Victory Days honoured the couple for their heroic struggle. After long years, the villagers realised their mistake and welcomed the family back to the village. They are now proud members of the community. Recently, they appeared as witnesses in the War Crimes Tribunal formed to try war criminals of 1971 as they are living witnesses of the atrocities committed on the people of Bangladesh. They decided to fight the silence and tell the world about the atrocities of 1971.
The writer is a Freedom Fighter, recipient of Swadhinata Padak and a researcher on the Liberation War.