Untold tales of an unforgotten war
The post-liberation generations, over the decades, have heard countless stories of the war and yet there is so much more that has been left out, folded in the fabric of time and burned in the memories of those who have lived through those tumultuous times. The Daily Star, as in the last two years, organised a special programme marking Independence Day, titled “Ronangoner Epar Opar”, featuring reminiscences of some of the people who have been at the heart of the war, and saw it from their own perspectives. The first General Manager of Bangladesh Television Jamil Chowdhury, Rabindra Sangeet artiste Milia Ali, noted actress Afroza Banu, and the three sisters of gallant freedom fighter Habibul Alam Bir Protik, Asma Nisar, Reshma Amin and Sayema Khan, reminisced on the days of 1971, while Munir Chowdhury and Liza performed songs in between.
Star Arts & Entertainment Editor Sadya A Mallick introduced the guests, after her opening remarks on her experience of the fateful night of March 25, 1971, and giving a little historical background.
Jamil Chowdhury gave a harrowing account of March 27, the first time the curfew was lifted after the initiation of genocide on March 25.
“As I visited the Dhaka University area, the first sight that really struck me was a little baby about one year old inside a house, lying on her face as if asleep; two bullet holes on the back. At that very moment I decided I was not a Pakistani national anymore; I did not know what I would do, but I would not work at the television (where I was employed),” he said. He shared his experience of traveling to India to take a recorded confidential tape of the Pakistani occupation army's conversations intercepted from radio communications on the night of March 25. He shared a part of the conversations that depict the brutal approach the army had taken against unarmed civilians. The tape was transcribed and in a press conference in Kolkata and distributed to journalists in India, and abroad.
Milia Ali shared her experiences from the other side, as she started off for India, sometimes on foot, sometimes on rickshaw or a boat, as uncertain days passed.
“At one point, someone said we had reached India. We sat down on the ground and started crying. We could see the sky and land that was our country, but we did not know if we could ever go back. We did not have an address or a home. We kept walking until we reached a refugee camp -- and there we discovered a different world; the most basic things that we take so much for granted, nothing of it was there. But in those difficult conditions, I saw the truest glimpses of the survival instincts of people. It gave me hope. Some of us gathered the courage to get on an old, broken-down plane to go to Kolkata, where I met some of my co-artistes, and under the leadership of Sanjida Khatun and Waheedul Haq, a group was formed called the 'Bangladesh Mukti Sangrami Shilpi Sangstha'. Our aim was to boost the people of the refugee camps. Once, when we went to Delhi to meet Indira Gandhi, Kalpana Dutta -- one of the revolutionaries from the Chittagong Arsenal looting incident -- spent time with us, and was a hugely inspiring presence,” she concluded.
Reshma -- one of the sisters of Habibul Alam – attired in a 43-year old Jamdani saree on the occasion just a reminder of those days, spoke of her family's involvement in the War; how their mother cooked for the Freedom Fighters, the sisters guarded the ammo hidden in their house, and their father, an engineer, helped with structural planning for the Freedom Fighters. “On August 29, the army raided our house. My elder sister was fluent in Urdu, and she convinced them that they were not involved in it. After the incident, we decided to move out of Bangladesh. When we spoke to Sector Commander Khaled Mosharraf, he offered us to help in nursing the injured Freedom Fighters at a makeshift hospital,” she concluded.
Afroza Banu began with how the members of their residence -- inside the Dhaka University campus -- took turns in keeping a watch round the clock for army vehicles entering through the gate, as advised by Professor Noorunnahar Fyzennessa, and books of Marx and Lenin were carefully burned because they would raise suspicion if the army did raid. “As we were leaving Dhaka, our boat came under attack, we could hear firing everywhere, and saw bodies dropping into the river from a nearby boat. Our boatmen dropped us off at a place from where we had to crawl on the ground to safety; and we kept walking. Throughout the nine months, we kept running helter-skelter but did not find a place to stay. Hours after we reached our village home in Kushtia, the Army invaded the village, and we had to move that night. We wanted to cross the border, but that border crossing was closed because the refugee camps on that border had suffered from a cholera epidemic,” Afroza Banu recalled. She closed in the belief that the current generation would complete the task that began in 1971, of building a harmonious, prosperous, secular Bangladesh.
Sayema -- Habibul Alam's other sister, brought a historical piece of fabric from the days of the war. “Shahadat Chowdhury, the erstwhile Editor of Bichitra, asked us to make flags of Bangladesh to fly on August 14 -- Pakistan's Independence Day, to assert the presence of Freedom Fighters in the capital. They brought us a number of green lungis, red and yellow cloth. We made 200 flags within one night.” The piece of fabric she showed was green in colour and circular in shape -- the cut-out centre-piece of the flag -- adorned with lace outside. “If the army found all this volume of cut green cloth, they would be suspicious, so my mother gave us the idea of putting a lace around them to make them look like table-mats,” she said.
“The flags were carried in our car to the stadium, where a few flags were tied to balloons and flown. The Pakistani army had to shoot those down, which was a big moral victory for us at that time,” she concluded.
“I had one paper left for the applied mathematics masters on March 26, but I decided not to take it, because we were not going to be with Pakistan anyway,” said Asma, the eldest of the three sisters. “Jewel, Rumi (Shafi Imam, Jahanara Imam's son), Maya (Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury) used to come to our place often. Our neighbours were Urdu-speaking, and often inquired where my brother was. We said that he had gone to study. We didn't even dare tell our extended family members where he was.” She also shared her experiences in Melaghor. “The Freedom Fighters usually ate just once a day; we tried to keep as much food for them as we could. Among them, Khaled Mosharraf was wounded; I remember nursing him all night; my father was also there.”
Syed Badrul Ahsan went into a brief account of the historical background behind the struggle for freedom, beginning with the Lahore Resolution of 1940 and Bangladesh's declaration of Independence in March 1971. He then asked Jamil Chowdhury about his experience working with the Mujibnagar government. He replied, “We kept hoping that in the monsoon, we would get an advantage since the Pakistan army was not comfortable on water. Then we heard that there would be an India-Pakistan War after the ice melted in the Himalayas. We used to believe that the country would be independent by that year.” He also urged everyone to stand up against communal violence, and think of contributing to the country, as John F Kennedy once said, before asking what the country has given them.
Sadya Afreen Mallick also spoke of Jahanara Imam's son Sahfi Imam Rumi. He was a close friend of her brother Saad Andaleeb and had come to say goodbye. “He asked me if my brother was home, and I said no. He said, 'Maybe I'll meet him some other time.' Little did I know that the two friends would never meet again.”
“Freedom fighters often came to my mother and left hurriedly written letters in matchboxes with her. My mother Noorunnahar Fyzennessa never ceased to be supportive of them and tried to help them in any way she could.”
Zebunnesa, an assistant professor at Jahangirnagar University and a freelance Liberation War researcher, was in the audience and expressed her gratitude to The Daily Star for arranging the programme, saying she was overwhelmed to meet the three sisters and Milia Ali in person -- who she had heard and read about so much in her research.
Mahfuz Anam, who spoke towards the end of the programme, said cultural activities are such powerful catalysts in the awakening of the nationalistic spirit that, in their way are more powerful than weapons. He shared his experience of the days of war and reflected on the impact of the cultural movements in influencing patriotism in him and his generation. “When society is in a beautiful state, it is a matter of fortune to be a part of it, and living those days in our youths makes us feels like our existence was worthwhile,” he said. He also shared his experience of being selected by the Bangladesh government, and participating in debates and dialogues in Muslim-majority areas of India who had been misled by Pakistani propaganda. “Various tactics had to be applied to bring people to listen to us. A film starring Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore, “Aradhana”, was very popular, and people were once invited to a screening of the film, which was stopped during intermission, and I was asked to speak of the Liberation War,” he recalled.
Radio Shadhin was the radio partner of the event.