From the archives: The last battlefield
Across the country, red-green flags were fluttering over buildings -- euphoria was in the air following the end of a nine-month-long bloody war.
But Dhaka's Mirpur was yet not taken by Bangladesh forces -- almost six weeks after the Pakistan military had unconditionally surrendered to the joint command of Bangladesh and Indian forces on December 16, 1971.
The area remained under the control of pro-Pakistan Biharis, the Urdu-speaking Muslim community who migrated from Bihar and West Bengal during and after the Partition.
Mirpur was finally freed on January 31, 1972 but at a heavy cost -- over a hundred martyred and dozens of others injured in a fierce battle on the previous day.
'DYING AT THE HANDS OF THIEVES'
It was around 10:45am on January 30, 1972, when a group of Bangladesh Army soldiers took position in Mirpur-12 to assist the police in the recovery of arms and ammunition from the Biharis holding out there.
Helal Morshed Khan, then East Bengal Regiment Delta Company's commanding officer, thus describes the start of the battle at Mirpur nearly 50 years ago today, in an interview with The Daily Star recently.
A chorus of clanging noises suddenly engulfed the area, emanating from the striking of telephone and electric poles all over.
A few moments later, bullets started ripping through the air from what seemed like all sides. The opposition were firing from the surrounding houses.
"There were screams of agony as bullets tore into our men, giving them no chance for the basic drill of dash down-crawl-observe-fire back. There was no real cover," said Helal, also a retired major general, decorated with the gallantry award Bir Bikram.
One bullet hit soon-to-be-martyred Second Lieutenant Selim Mohammad Kamrul Hasan, who Helal said fought in the Liberation War courageously and proved a leader in battle.
As Helal lowered him to the ground, an injured Selim said, "Sir, in the end I am dying at the hands of thieves."
THE FIGHT BACK
With the Bangladesh army soldiers and policemen caught off-guard, many had been hit and were either dead or gravely injured.
But after the sudden shock, they too opened fire. A group took positions inside a house -- half a dozen with Helal and as many with Selim, who was still firing even after being shot.
"We were trying to do only one thing -- not let the enemy come close to us. We also felled scores of them," said Helal, a former chairman of Bangladesh Muktijoddha Sangsad.
The Bangalee soldiers held their ground -- covering the nearby lanes and were shooting at any Bihari fighters if they came close and tried to scale the compound walls.
Mokhlesur Rahman, another East Bengal Regiment Delta Company member, said that he was posted in the Mirpur-12 Panir Tank area, around 500 yards east of Helal's position.
Bullets had started to fall on them like rain, he told The Daily Star in a recent interview.
Mokhles said he saw writer and filmmaker Zahir Raihan, who is known to have accompanied the security units to Mirpur, and some others lying shot on the road.
Journalist Julfikar Ali Manik, in several investigation reports published by the Daily Bhorer Kagoj in 1999, established that Zahir Raihan was shot to death in Mirpur on January 30, 1972 when he went there in search of his brother -- writer Shahidullah Kaiser -- who was abducted by al-Badr forces on the eve of liberation in December 1971.
The bodies of Zahir and many members of the security forces who died that day were never found.
Mokhles said at one point he saw around 60 enemy fighters coming towards them, opening fire. Their bullets killed lance naik Nurul Islam. Mokhles then charged a grenade and simultaneously opened fire to disperse them.
In the afternoon, Mokhles said, he along with two other soldiers jumped into a waterbody to lay low but was shot.
Finally, when the sun set, he was able to leave by crossing the waterbody and was later rescued in the early hours of the next morning by some people going to the mosque for Fajr prayers in the Matikata area.
Helal, too, said darkness came to his aid that day. He and some others also swam a waterbody to reach the Balurghat area.
Selim's brother MA Hasan, also an East Bengal Regiment Delta Company officer stationed in the Pilkhana area during the battle, said Second Lieutenant Selim was a brave fighter.
"In the evening, he along with several soldiers reached Kala Panir Jheel [a local waterbody] and encouraged the soldiers to cross it," said Hasan, who later became a physician after leaving the army.
Selim himself did not cross the water body as he had bullet injuries on his body, he added.
Helal said Selim told his soldiers, "While I live, I will not leave you."
FREE MIRPUR DAY
Helal and Mokhles both said they witnessed Bihari fighters gathering the bodies of Bangalee soldiers and hacking the bodies into pieces and then hiding them.
"They did not want to keep any evidence," said Helal.
After the battle, the survivors did not manage to find any of their martyred compatriots' bodies but finally, in 1999, got some of the mortal remains -- bones and skulls -- at the site of the Noori Mosque in Mirpur-12, Helal said.
"The battle of Mirpur still does not have any official recognition as part of the Liberation War. That the mortal remains of so many brave soldiers remained traceless until 1999 was a crime," said Hasan, also convener of the War Crimes Facts Finding Committee, Bangladesh.
On January 31, 1972, around 80 army men and 250-300 policemen had gone to Mirpur, Helal said.
"Forty-two soldiers of the East Bengal Regiment and we can estimate that around 80 policemen embraced martyrdom and dozens other sustained injuries," he said.
Bihari allies and collaborators of the Pakistani forces from every corner of the country gathered in Mirpur and Mohammadpur areas with their weapons.
Among them were some Pakistan army soldiers -- even commando troops members, said both Helal and Mokhles.
A battalion of East Bengal Regiment Delta Company later moved in and cleared the area in 10 days, recovering at least four truckloads of weapons.
Citizens observe Free Mirpur Day on January 31.
The Dainik Bangla on January 31, 1972 carried a double column news on the front page, reporting that bullets were fired on Bangladesh forces when they went to recover illegal arms.
The Bangladesh Observer on February 1, 1972 reported that a large quantity of arms and ammunition were surrendered in the Mirpur area after people there were notified to surrender all unauthorised arms in their possession by 2:00pm on January 31.
Both the newspapers on February 3, 1972 also reported on "going missing of Zahir Raihan" after he went to Mirpur.
THE LAST BATTLE
"People did not know what was happening in Mirpur. The focus was then on the arms surrender ceremony at Bangabandhu Stadium. It was a secret operation," Helal said.
The Mohammadpur and Mirpur areas -- full of water bodies -- were under the control of pro-Pakistani Biharis and a relatively safe haven for Pakistani soldiers and Al-Badr and Razakar forces to carry out atrocities and torture, said Julfikar Ali Manik, author of the book "Muktijuddher Shesh Ronangon Mirpur".
Manik said that pro-Pakistani Biharis were already armed and some Pakistani soldiers who did not surrender on December 16 joined the Biharis living in Mirpur -- meaning there were large quantities of arms in the area.
The ultimatum to surrender arms was issued after Pakistani collaborators hiding in Mirpur and Mohammadpur had opened fire on Bangladesh forces.
The liberation of Mirpur was the last battle of the country's road to independence, said Manik.
"If you want to write the full history of the Liberation War, you cannot deduct the battle of Mirpur."
The government has a responsibility to officially endorse this chapter of Liberation War -- including the martyrdom of Zahir Raihan and others who were killed in the battle of Mirpur -- as these incidents took place in a sequel to the nation's struggle for independence, he told The Daily Star yesterday.
This must not be set aside as "unsolved mysteries" anymore after all these years and there should be closure, he added.