Dhaka Sunday December 16, 2012

A Child's Victory

Inam Ahmed

December 15

The usual nightly sortie of the mysterious droning plane was there. Followed by the terrifying bombardments. Usually two or three bombs flew down from the mysterious plane. You could actually hear the bombs coming, or at least we would imagine them because it was so quiet everywhere. Then a blue flash would fill the rooms, something like camera flashes. And then the drone of the plane would face away. Every night it happened and we waited in muted anxiety and fear for the routine thing to be over.

That night, the December cold seemed even more suppressing as we could hear distant cannon fires. The booms were barely audible. You could only feel the change in the air pressure in the room and the windowpanes clattered. The windows were pasted with papers crossed in X so that the glass splinters could not hit anybody. Who told us to do it, I have no idea now. But probably it came from my father who had defence training.

I lay there awake, hearing the elders whispering about the 'imminent street fighting' and the Indian forces and the Mukti Bahini advancing on Dhaka city with cannons booming. We did not know what to do. We could not escape because of the curfew in force. The scared baying of dogs, the swirling fogs and the occasional swishing of tyres of army jeeps deepened the winter cold. It was a winter like never before. Or could be. It was the winter of 1971.


December 16
There was something unusual about the morning. It was a dull morning with thin fog still spreading across the city. The unusual thing was the absence of the morning bombings by the Indian MIG-21s, the delta-winged silver fighting machines not screeching across the sky and then suddenly diving onto Dhaka Airport. The sudden burst of flame from around the wings. And then the zapping missiles shooting into targets. The strange, heart-piercing noise as if somebody was tearing a sheet of steel apart. And then the boom and smoke. There was no air raid siren going on at high pitch. From the second-storey Eskaton building, we could clearly see the airport. The huge white balloons roped around the airfield to obstruct the fighter planes from approaching flying lifelessly. Not that they mattered in the past two weeks. There was a strange silence in the city. We could feel something was happening. Otherwise why the Razakars in black garbs, on army jeeps were not on the streets?

It was around 2 or three in the afternoon--we hardly needed a clock in times of war--that we saw the first jeep entering Dhaka. We looked in amazement at the huge green and red flag with the golden map inscribed inside on top of the open jeep. Behind there were more jeeps and trucks with Indian soldiers and Mukti Bahini in jubilation. The vehicles rolled down the airport road towards Hotel Intercontinental. Then we knew that the country was liberated. That we became an independent nation. That we no longer had to listen with a trembling heart to the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro at night on low volume in case the Razakars got to know that we were listening to the station. We no longer had to worry about our father and brothers and sisters falling into the hands of the Pakistan army and the Razakars and the Al-Badars. About ourselves, too, the children. There were shots around. Sporadic. We did not know what was happening and did not dare to venture out in case the Pakistan army hit back. (They did actually in front of Intercontinental and a few were dead). Instead, we tuned in to BBC and All India Radio.

December 17
It seemed years since we had last come outdoors. We were going in a Ford Cortina. The city looked so strange. It seemed ages since we had heard Joi Bangla slogan on the streets. Now there were people in groups shouting the slogans as the Mukti Bahinis moved around with sten guns and rifles on Willis jeeps and trucks. Suddenly, a dead city was coming alive.

We saw Pakistan army trucks with Pakistan soldiers moving towards the cantonment. They looked wild and dejected as people booed and showed sandals and shoes at them. But they looked menacing with their machine guns that they had used for the last nine months to mull down the Bangalis. They were all heading to surrender. There was this truckload of soldiers taking the turn at Farmgate and with a sudden impulse one of my cousins took off his shoe and waved at the retreating army.

The next few seconds were terrifying. A Pakistan army soldier suddenly jerked his Chinese rifle off his shoulder and pointed it right at our car window. We could hear the bolt cocking. We ducked inside the car and our driver floored the pedal. The car took a U-turn and whizzed past the truck at lightning speed.

Our next stop was the airport. Huge holes created by bombs dropped from Indian fighter bombers looked like volcano craters or dents left by huge meteors and there were the debris of Indian jets shot down in Pakistan army's anti-aircraft gun fires. We picked up some pieces of the planes as souvenirs. Then there was that burned-up Pakistan Air Force jets on the ground and the rocket holes on the ATC tower and the little masjid by the runway. The whole place was a mess. No wonder that the PAF jets could not be seen in the air for the last few days to counter the Indian fighters.

Just then we saw a helicopter, a French built Alouette with bullet holes patched with aluminium disks. It was outfitted with missile pods on both sides and a pair of heavy machineguns pointed down and out on the side doors.

There was a pilot standing by the chopper and he told us that they had used it and another single-engined Otter, similarly equipped, to launch the first attack on the morning of December 3 at Godnail oil depot.

We took pictures of the pilot with all of us standing there by the chopper. Later, we came to know his name was Sultan Mahmud Bir Bikram, who was to become an Air Vice Marshall and head the Bangladesh Air Force. Much later, he was a minister in Ershad's cabinet.

From the airport we headed for the stadium where the Indian army had taken position on the ground floor circular verandah in front of the shops. The soldiers looked tired and battle-weary. They had marched all the way from the border. Dusts still clung to their steel helmets, their heels worn-out. They had their dust-covered machine guns open on the veranda and the bullet belts flowed like coiling snakes.

There was this soldier who had come all the way from Punjab, a Shikh with turbans. My mother who had just lost her eldest son in the war on December 1 suddenly got emotional and held the soldier tightly and broke down in tears.

The Shikh soldier patted my mother and in his heavy drawl called her Mummi (mother) and said something that translates as “Mother, you have lost one son, but we all are your sons. You have gained more.”

It was late afternoon when we returned home to Indira Road. We had left two weeks ago when the Indian planes started pounding Dhaka airport. The neighbourhood looked deserted. Grasses had grown tall in the Farmgate park. We opened the door and stepped into the sweet home that smelled musty but welcoming.

The writer is Deputy Editor, The Daily Star.