This passed May, an interview with an Australian doctor who performed late-term abortions on Bangladeshi rape victims from the 1971 War of Independence, came to my attention. The more I read, and the more I researched online, I found countless testimonies, and even old news footage, providing evidence to what Bangladeshis already know, but many still dispute: During Bangladesh’s liberation struggle, a genocide occurred.
Alongside the systematic murder of our intellectuals, a campaign of rape and terror targeted the women and girls of then East Pakistan to tear away the very fabric of Bangladeshi communities.
When I wrote my piece, “1971 Rapes: Bangladesh Cannot Hide History,” I thought I was providing closure on a violent and gruesome chapter of our past. I cannot even count the amount of mail and comments this piece of mine generated, mainly from fellow Bangladeshis.
But it was one email that led to the revisiting not only of the stories of the rape survivors of 1971, but to the overall representation of Bangladeshi women in the war that gave birth to our country.
In 2009, while visiting Bangladesh, Dr. Nusrat Rabbee, an expert in biomarker development in the biotechnology industry, and a graduate of Wellesley College, Harvard University and UC Berkeley, was gifted the book “Ami Birangona Bolchi” (The War Heroine Speaks).
The book contained a compilation of stories of Bangladeshi women during the 1971 War of Independence by Dr. Nilima Ibrahim. Dr. Nusrat Rabbee’s father, Dr. Mohammed Fazle Rabbee, an eminent Bangladeshi cardiologist, humanist and scholar, was martyred in the infamous intellectual extermination by the Pakistani army. She herself is a survivor of the war.
Dr. Rabbee got in touch with me after the publication of my article in Forbes. After a series of emails, and a friendship which ensued between us, we decided the next generation of Bangladeshis must know not only the truth of our history, of the war that gave birth to Bangladesh in 1971, but of the role women played in this struggle, as both fighters and supporters of the war, but also as sacrificial lambs.
Birangona is Bengali for “the blameless ones.” It is the title given to the roughly 400,000 women who were raped during the war by the Pakistani army by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Father of Bangladesh, in an effort to respectfully reintegrate them back into society.
Unfortunately, the gesture failed. Rape survivors in post-liberation Bangladesh were shunned by society, and the word birangona became synonymous with dishonored and violated women, accepted as spoils of the 1971 war.
Below is the fruit of the tireless efforts of Dr. Nusrat Rabbee who, with the editing help of childhood friend, Shehzia Huq, painstakingly spent months translating Dr. Nilima Ibrahim’s book, “Ami Birangona Bolchi” (The War Heroine Speaks). A biography of her father, the late Dr. Mohammed Fazle Rabbee, precedes the series of war heroine narratives. Please note for the sake of space, these narratives have been shortened by me.
New York-based Elizabeth D. Herman, a freelance photographer and researcher, who recently returned from a year-long Fulbright scholarship to Bangladesh, graciously agreed to contribute her photographs of Bangladeshi war heroines.
I am honored to feature the series on Anushay’s Point, and hope the narratives contribute to the vibrant women’s rights movement in Bangladesh and beyond.
Dr. Nusrat Rabbee, A Daughter’s Point of View: I am very honored to summarize a few of the narrations from the anthology compiled by Dr. Nilima Ibrahim about the sacrifice made by Bengali women in the 1971 war. I believe the historic details of the 1971 atrocities committed by Pakistani government and army on Bangladesh is not well known. The war that killed millions of Bengalis was also accompanied by the systematic rape and torture of Bengali women and the infamous intellectual extermination. The intention was to destroy the intellectual, cultural, and infrastructural backbone of Bangladesh. Artists, dancers, writers, movie directors, doctors, scientists and engineers were targeted and killed by the Pakistani army by orders from top government and army officials.
My father, Dr. Fazle Rabbee was born in Pabna, a northwestern district of Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, and showed early signs of genius and a deep curiosity in medicine and healing. He graduated from high school at the age of 13 and went on to attend Dhaka College in science and then on to Dhaka Medical College (DMC). He graduated with the Gold Medal with the highest marks ever received by a medical student in that prestigious institution. He met his wife, Dr. Mrs. Jahan Ara Rabbee (OB/GYN), while he was a student at DMC.
During the 1950’s, the government of Pakistan shot and killed Dhaka University students while they were protesting the Pakistan government’s decision that only Urdu (the language spoken in then West Pakistan) would be the official language of the whole nation. Like many in his generation, Dr. Rabbee was politicized during this time and stood firmly against the oppression and discrimination of Bengalis by the Pakistan government. Shortly after graduation, he received the Commonwealth fellowship for post-graduate studies in the United Kingdom. Dr. Rabbee obtained membership of the royal college of physicians (M.R.C.P.) in record time in the fields of Cardiology and Internal Medicine from the prestigious Hammersmith hospital in London.
There was a great deal of medical racism in Europe in the post-war era – and non-white doctors were not allowed to treat white patients. Since Dr. Rabbee had repeatedly shown an uncanny ability to diagnose a patient’s disease and prescribe the proper treatment, his mentors sought him out to treat the most difficult cases amongst white patients. Nevertheless, Dr. Fazle Rabbee returned home on January 1st, 1963 and started an enormously successful medical career in Dhaka. His success and fame became both the hallmarks of his life as well as the reason for eventual blacklisting by Pakistani army.
On the night of the March 25th, when the Pakistani army first cracked down and killed thousands of students, faculty and innocent people sleeping at night in Dhaka, Dr. Rabbee and his wife quickly moved to organize medical and financial help for thousands of people injured by the atrocities. Dr. Rabbee and his colleagues not only performed surgeries on bullet wounds, burn victims, rape and torture victims, but also hid their Hindu and Muslim friends, who were well known artists, bankers, faculty members from the atrocities of the Pakistani army. Dr. Rabbee paid for many individuals and their families to flee to refugee camps in adjacent India. He helped the families of those who had already been killed in any way he could.
Pakistani army surrendered on December 16th, 1971. But right before they lost the war they lifted and later killed some of the most prominent intellectuals who had the vision and capacity to build the war-torn nation of Bangladesh. On December 15th, 1971, at 4pm approximately, about a hundred of Pakistani soldiers surrounded our home with members of the Bengali collaborator groups, Al-Badr, Al-Shams. Despite many requests from his wife, Dr. Mrs. Jahan Ara Rabbee, they handcuffed him, blindfolded him and marched off with him at gunpoint. His body was recovered in the morning of December 18th, 1971.
His wife arranged for proper burial with the honor of the highest national hero. His body was covered with the flag of the brand new country that he loved so much and made the ultimate sacrifice for. Thousands of people attended his funeral in tears and shock. In a telegram addressed to my mother, Dr. Mrs. Jahan Ara Rabbee, which arrived in January 1972 via India, his mentor Sir Avery Jones wrote, “Mrs. Rabbee – I cannot describe in words the loss I feel in the murder of your husband, Dr. Fazle Rabbee. I doubt that there will be another physician of his caliber born in the Indo-Pak subcontinent in the next 100 years.”
This is Meherjaan Speaking
This is Meherjaan. You may be delighted to hear my name thinking that I am related to Gouharjaan or Nagarjaan. Sorry, I have never met them in this life, but if I do meet them, it won’t be a surprise. Life is not a set of straight and parallel lines. I do own my life, but what determines fate – did you say, God? Are you mad? God directs the life of a Bengali girl? If that were true, then what would the Mullahs be doing for a living? Or for that matter, who would the politicians be lecturing to? These are my own convictions, not merely complaints.
I am very much aware and deeply believe that I am a war heroine. My country has given me that acknowledgement, my father and mother have embraced me with open arms, but I could not go back to them because of the terror and violence of my own society. I have understood the essence – that above everything I am a female. I have seen the lusty, cannibalistic nature of man, tolerated his rape and torture for eight long months. Every moment I thought I am a woman but not less! Born as a female, we are given the power to create life and to feed the newborn our milk. That is why I am also the mother of a child. I did not get the affection of a husband, a happy family, but I still stand tall on my two feet with self-respect.
I am not as self-righteous as the way I am talking to you all. Actually I never got the opportunity to express myself. I grew up with my head bent, occupied the lowest place in my family and was surviving under the radar as a member of my family. But later I met a woman who was like a mother to me, and she told me that I was an amazing woman, a hero. I may not have the body of Joan of Arc, but I have sacrificed what is most precious to me – my womanhood, for my country. But you will never see our names engraved in a tower. The reason for this omission is likely their own shame. They could not protect me from the hands of disaster. In what face would they applaud the fact that I am a war heroine? I have been ridiculed and shamed in cruel and heartless ways, but somehow a power greater than me has helped me keep my head high.
I was born in a village called Kapasia near the capital city of Dhaka. When the liberation war was going on, a heroic son of my village, Tajuddin Ahmed, became the prime minister of the temporary Bangladesh government. This is why the people in my village were staunch supporters of the liberation war. On my way to school, everyone would shout “Joy Bangla” and “Joy Banga Bondhu”, but this joy did not last for long. In the first week of April there was thunder without any clouds! Suddenly, Pakistani army started a fire in the Narsingdi bazaar by gunfire shot downwards from aeroplanes. My father had a very small shop in that bazaar. He was a tailor with two employees. We were managing fine with what he earned in that shop. All of four of us kids were attending school. One of my brothers was in high school and he used to live in Narsingdi with my father. My mother, two brothers and I were living in Kapasia, a village close to Narsingdi market. The situation gradually heated up. Injured and defecting members of the E.P.R. (East Pakistan Rifles) started to take up shelter in nearby houses. Most likely this news was not kept a secret. The Razakars had not yet revealed themselves openly in our village at that time. One day in the late afternoon, there was a scream: the military had arrived in our village. Everybody ran to his or her own home. All of a sudden it appeared that the entire village was being engulfed in fire. There was noise of intermittent gunfire. My father and elder brother were not in the house, they were busy repairing their badly burnt store in Narsingdi. At home, it used to be my mother, my two young brothers Lalu and Milu, and myself. Lalu had gone earlier to see a football game in the field and did not return yet. Ma was walking in and out of the house anxiously.
At that moment, an olive colored military jeep came to the front of our house and stopped with a loud jerk. My mother picked my brother Milu in her arms, held my hands and entered the bedroom. Someone was speaking to the officers in Bengali, “Yes, Saab. This is the home of Meherjaan. She is a very beautiful girl.” I felt paralyzed in fear! A loud kick was felt on our bedroom door. On the second kick, the door broke open. A few Bengalis wearing Lungis were standing in front of the army. We were pulled out from the bedroom. I resisted their pulling me as much as I could with whatever little strength I had in my small body.
They lifted me up into the jeep by my hair. My mother gave out a deep scream. The bastards pointed their guns at my mother and Milu and opened rounds of fire! When they were pulling me to go with them, I saw that my mother’s bullet ridden body was still shaking on the ground. When the jeep started, I saw that Milu opened up his eyes suddenly and then fell over to the other side. I knew that my mother and Milu had passed on. I let out a scream from my heart and immediately got an obscenity hurled at me, “Shut up, you whore”! How could they address me like this? I am from a decent family, a student of the eighth grade. Suddenly I became kind of wooden. This mental stagnation would leave me after a very long time. I changed places and captors many times since that afternoon. Sometimes I was alone, sometimes with other girls. Sometimes I would wonder if my father and elder brother escaped death. How about Lalu? Was Lalu able to escape the village on his own? I would think of myself as a bodiless entity or as a skeleton, or a ghost, but still I could not end the life in this body. Every two months they would allow us to shower for their own needs. We were only allowed to dress in Lungi and a T-shirt. We were not allowed to wear saris.
I thought that if they hated the Bengali saris, they could at least give us shalwar and kameez. There was a college student with us, an Apa (an elder sister or friend) from the Mymensingh College. She told me that it is not because they hate saris, but that some girls used saris and Dupatta to commit suicide. That is the reason neither of these clothing items were allowed. Besides we were like pets. If one day they didn’t feel like it, they would not even give us a Lungi or a T-shirt! Apa used to talk without any inhibition. She kept her gaze up above towards the ceiling. Most of the time, she used to gaze upwards. Sometimes I felt she was looking for a hole to see sunlight. One day Apa became ill. She was made to dress in a sari and was taken outside to see a doctor. Apa never returned. I thought maybe Apa was freed or was admitted to the hospital. But we had an older, female janitor there. She told us that Apa became pregnant so they shot and killed her. Out of fear, I felt my whole body turn into wood again. What crime did Apa commit here? Allah, why did you put us into this hell? What did we do wrong? Why are you not taking my life Allah? This is where I used to stop thinking.
For some reason I never thought about dying. I thought that the country would become free and I will return home. I would see my father, mother, my elder brother, Lalu and Milu. We would laugh and talk again. But I did see Milu and Ma die! But is it not possible that after the military had left, the villagers saved Ma’s and Milu’s lives? And then they found my father and gave him the news? There is a possibility I thought. There was no end to my thoughts. The difference between day and night was based on physical conditions only. During the first part of the night there was torture by those animals; the rest of the night was suffering, pain, and physical discomfort. I prayed to Allah so many times, maybe Allah listened otherwise how is it that I am still alive?
Sometimes there were days without the news of someone’s death, disease or physical torture. There were many girls of different ages and backgrounds amongst the prisoners. The girls ranged from fourteen or fifteen years old to about forty years. Some would always cry, sometimes quietly and sometimes with a mild sound, but never loud. Sometimes they appeared to be mute. Sometimes they would share a few stories, even laugh! Sometimes we would feel a faint tremor of hope in such a hopeless life!
Food was served on a tin plate. Most of the time it was bread, daal, and sometimes a vegetable mix which was pretty tasteless. They never gave us rice to eat. The woman who brought food said that they never gave us meat since they did not know if we were Muslim or Hindu. I laughed since I read Sri Kanta by Sharat Chandra. In the book the author wrote that it’s easy to share a home for twenty years but to share a kitchen is a much harder task! The beasts didn’t have any qualms about raping us, but they did not want to offend anybody by offering meat! No, I used to think the Pakistanis were heartless, but actually that could not be true. Otherwise, how could they be so magnanimous and show us sensitivity by not offering us meat? Whatever! Please keep your religion and caste to your own selves, but as far as your body is concerned, it was going for the consumption of the big man.
At first, we did not get any news from the outside. But when I arrived at this place, the female janitor used to whisper all the news from the outside world. First she told us that this place is called Mymensingh! There was a big battle going on with the freedom fighters in a nearby town of Kamaganj. I could tell from the words of the bastards too that the war was alive and well. The girls that were first together were no longer there. At any given time, one girl or a bunch of girls would be taken to different camps. We never knew who was going where and when, or for that matter, why. But those days we would hear gunshots and bombs going off near our camp. I used to think whichever way it goes, the war needed to come to an end. Either I would be alive or dead, but I needed to be released from this state of living death.
Suddenly one day we were ordered to get into a jeep and were driven somewhere at dawn. There were some tents where we arrived and a makeshift toilet made for us with bamboo. From the gaps in the bamboo, you could see a lot of light! I could finally tell day from night. It was so quiet in that place. There was hardly anyone around during the day. But the cook told us not to even think about fleeing. We would lose our lives. The army was nearby in camouflage under the trees and bushes. That was where they returned the gunfire from. I wondered if the headquarters had fallen and went to the freedom fighters. Those days I would feel cold in the morning and at night. At nighttime, I had to use a blanket. It must have been November or December then. I could not believe how many months had passed. I went there in May. And now the year was ending. How much longer?
The gunfire and bombings had almost stopped. Every night I heard the sound of heavy tanks. I felt that they were moving things from that camp. Where were they going? Crushing all my hope, I saw planes dropping bombs from the sky! Who was bombing us here? That was not war, since only one side was dropping bombs from the sky.
No news can remain secret. From mutual whispering, I was informed that the Indian Air force was bombing! But why the Indians? Were we going to fall into the hands of the Indians now? There was an older Habildar (caretaker soldier) in the camp. He was nearly sixty. Even though he was a Pathan, he seemed to have a heart and a soul. I didn’t know why he was always pleasant to me. Even though I was being raped and tortured, he would always express sorrow for me.
But on this day I saw that he was sad and very pensive. I gathered my courage and asked him, “Khan Sahib why are you like this today?” He said, “Piyari (my loved one), the war has come to an end”. Happily I said, “You will return to your country then? Aren’t you happy it is over? But where will you leave me?” Layek Khan shook his head and said that he was not going back home. He said, “No Begum. We have lost this war. We will be buried here in your country as defeated soldiers. In a few days we will be killed. Or we will be prisoners of war. If we fall in the hands of the freedom fighters, there is no hope for survival for us.” Even though I was ecstatic at the news of the victory, I still had my senses about me. I said, “Khan Sahib, marry me. I will save you from the hands of the freedom fighters”. Layek Khan was not stupid. He shook his head and said, “That will not be possible Bibi. They will not keep a single one of us Pakistanis alive”. Then the Pathan man said with a lot of sorrow, “You will survive. You will marry one of your own. You will make a new home and you will be happy. You are a very good girl. You will see that my words will come true”.
But I became very stubborn. I insisted that he marry me. I knew that if I did not do this then, there was no telling in whose hands I would fall next. I knew perfectly well that my society would not accept me. Because the day the animals caught me in my village, not a single person came forward. Today no one would come forward for me either. Suddenly I saw that tears were rolling down my cheeks and my father like friend, Layek Khan, was wiping away my tears. He took me close to him and said, okay. Now the war was over. If the Moulvi (priest) of the camp agreed then he would marry me. Nobody else must know just him, the Moulvi and myself.
Just before sunset the Moulvi conducted the Nikkah. Thus we were wed. The Moulvi said, “it’s a good thing for you. Khan Sahib will not desert you”. The next day everyone was running around and shouting. There were still some gunshots in the distance. All the civilians were running in freedom, but the Pakistani soldiers were standing with their weapons. I wrapped myself around my new husband’s waist. But I was so surprised that he did not push me away. Suddenly a loud instruction came over the speakers. All the soldiers dropped their weapons to their feet. Some freedom fighters and some soldiers from the overseas came around. The foreign soldiers spoke in Hindi. They proclaimed that the girls in the camp were free. Since they had experience, they had brought with them some saris. Everyone put on the saris and fled in different directions.
I put on the sari but did not give up Layek Khan’s hands. Now I understood that the Hindi speakers were Indian army soldiers! One of them told me, “Ma, do not be afraid. If you want, I will take you to your home.” My husband looked at me with pleading eyes. I said that I didn’t have a home, and that was my husband. A Moulvi had married us properly. “Wherever you take him, I will go there”, I said. The soldier laughed. He took me in the truck with the other prisoners of war. There were no officers in the truck. The Pakistani officers understood what was coming and had fled the scene earlier. However, I did hear that some of the officers were caught by the freedom fighters and paid the price for what they did. The freedom fighters took revenge of the cruelty they suffered from the officers during the nine-month war. But the Indian army took prisoners of war instead; they did not kill anyone since the war had come to an end. They did not kill the prisoners of war afterwards. This was apparently the rules of the war. I didn’t know any of this before; I heard it all from Khan.
This time we headed straight to the Dhaka cantonment. Later many more trucks and jeeps joined our motorcade. We reached the Dhaka barracks. All the officers were resting comfortably in their houses. The soldiers got to stay in the barracks. Khan got his own room because of me. I was relieved. I could not believe how I survived.
Layek Khan started to offer the namaaz prayers frequently. He never believed that his life would be spared. He kept saying repeatedly that he was saved because of me. Now that he was alive, he said he would return to his homeland for sure and be united with his wife and kids. My heart was shaking as I pondered where would he leave me then? He assured me that as a Muslim he took a vow with me that he intended to keep. This was not a time for debate, since the present brought a pile of danger for me. Otherwise I would have told him what came to the tip of my tongue, “how many women have you taken vows with and how many have you left to do?” But I kept my mouth shut.
The next day they came to record my name and address. There were two very educated women from Rajshahi university and Mymensingh college amongst us. There were about thirty of us there altogether at this time. We would talk and strategize our future together. The Apas told us that we must give our names and addresses properly. That people of Bangladesh must know what these animals had done to us.
After four days, my father arrived! They called me over and sat me down in a private room. I could not believe my father’s appearance. He looked like a raggedy old man. Half his hair had turned grey. For a few seconds, we fell into a deep silence. Then I ran to my father’s lap like a little girl. For some time, we were both crying. I learned that after two hours of my abduction, my father had returned home. My elder brother never returned! He went to join the freedom fighters. When Baba came back he found Lalu crying uncontrollably. He took Ma and Milu to the hospital. Due to Almighty’s blessings, Milu recovered slowly. But Ma died in the hospital. Despite the disasters, Baba had to wipe his tears and get up to feed his family. He had to find the strength to go to Narsingdi to open his store.
My father said, “Let’s go back to your own home, Ma!” I became very weak in my resolve. I felt like rushing back home with Baba to that happy home where Lalu, Milu and my elder brother were still waiting for me today. But no, I could not hurt this man anymore. I told my father, “Please go back. I am doing well with the rest of the women. The authorities will make arrangements for our rehabilitation”. My father refused to listen to me. He said, “I don’t want the mercy of anybody. You are my daughter. You will live with me just like you have for all these years. With a painful heart, I refused to accept my father’s offer and he returned empty handed. We all sat down and decided our fate together. As war heroines we all knew that not only were the Pakistanis our enemies, but also were the vicious Bengalis who were taking advantage of our predicament. What will eventually happen to those who gave us shelter now? Not only did we go through our misfortune, but also we will create more difficulties for those kind people who are like the living dead at the moment from all their sufferings.
Still I could not resist the temptation to return home. I still remember that Shiuli flower tree in one corner of the house which I could see from my bedroom. My mother would water it every morning at its roots with a pail of water after she finished her Aju. This is December. The flowers must still be on the tree. The neighborhood girls, Hena, Rabu and others would come to collect the flowers in this season. I asked my father if they were still around or if they got lost like me. I could never touch those flowers again. I am an untouchable to everyone now. I remembered that we used to sit on the floor of the kitchen and eat our meals together. Mother would serve everyone and then sit down to eat herself. After taking my meal, I would get up to do my homework and study. My mother and father would continue eating for a long time, taking the time to chat and catch up with each other.
The light of the lantern would shine on one side of my mother’s face. The flickering light of the lantern would dance on my mother’s face. Suddenly I gave out a deep howl. I said, “Maago”! My comrades comforted me. But there was no limit to the doubts and conflicts inside my mind.
Then one day three Apas came from Dhaka University to talk to us. They asked us many questions and wanted to know about everything we went through. After listening to us, they asked me “Why are you going to Pakistan? This country will take your responsibility. Haven’t you heard the Prime Minister has given you the title of Birangana?” Nira Apa was the most educated amongst us. She was a senior year student in Rajshahi University. She debated with the University visitor Apas quite a lot. In the meantime we learnt the names of the three Apas: Naushaba, Sharifa and Nilima. They had come to take us back with them. Suddenly that day my father also came to see me. In our group, most of the women were married. Their husbands had come to visit them. Some kept talking to them some brought saris as gifts for them. But they had clearly let them know that they could not take the women back with them. The reason was that they had to live in the society with other people who would not accept the men.
They simply could not introduce their raped and tarnished wives back into that society. The husbands said they really wanted them back; it’s just that they had no recourse given the circumstances. From these conversations I understood where I stood in the picture. If a husband could not take his wife back, then which prince will come to make me his princess? Therefore, “No”, I said, and remained adamant in my decision. I knew I was young. I asked them, “You are asking me to stay back here, but where will I go?”
Banga Bondhu returned to Bangladesh after being released from prison. People were celebrating everywhere. Only a few of us remained quietly in the dark crevices and caverns after having lost everything. I was not sure we had the right even to say that we were Bengalis! Why did this happen? Is it simply because we were females that we were hiding today? On the other hand those who were Razakars had been re-established in the society with big posts! What kind of justice was this, Allah? I thought to you, everyone was equal! Does Allah only hear the voice of males? Does He not hear the feeble voice of the females? Why does He not answer them?
Maybe I did not get the nation’s flag, maybe I did not get the golden Bengal – but I had fulfilled the wishes of the nation’s father. I had touched the Bangladesh soil as a war heroine. This much was my victory. This much was my pride. This is really the only thing and the biggest thing I could get.
This is Rina Speaking
This is Rina speaking. I hope I don’t have to introduce myself in any great detail. You made such a big raucous about me once that thirty thousand Pakistani war prisoners must have thought that Helen of Troy was being kidnapped from Bangladesh. The Indian authorities were not very surprised. Because they had seen just a few others who had the same good fortune as I! The Pakistanis were not taking us by force this time. We went with them on our own accord. When members of the Indian Army pulled me from my bunker, I was barely clothed and half dead. There were several Bangladeshis standing around me with so much hatred and disgust in their eyes towards me – which I could not even look at them for a second time. They used the vilest language to make comments about us. Thank God the foreign army could not understand their vulgar language!
The Indian army pulled us out with great compassion and transported us to nearby camps. We were given a chance to shower and put on some clothes. They asked us, “Do you want to eat anything?” I shook my head and refused the gesture. With their help I was able to get onto their jeep. I could not put weight on my two feet. My legs were shaking and my head was spinning. They quickly put me in the jeep along with three others. I understood that we were going to Dhaka from their conversations. But I could not figure out whether I was dead or alive. I never thought I would be in this predicament. I thought maybe I would be lying dead in the bunkers or the Pakistanis would kill us out of their necessity. I never imagined I would go out amongst my people in my society and face their hatred and taunting remarks.
I actually thought that if the freedom fighters ever found us, they would love us as their own mothers or sisters. We did not step on this path by choice. They left us at home and went to join the liberation war; but was it not someone’s responsibility to protect our lives? Did they think about what would happen to us even once? In the excitement of joining the war nobody thought about how we would survive! But there were simply no arrangements for our survival or safe keep. Left behind were the pregnant wives, widowed mothers, teenaged sisters, all but forgotten. The old parents lay dead now and the wives perished with their unborn children inside their wombs. In their deaths they became free. Many young wives and young sisters were forced to go to bed with the Pakistani army officers. Now the moment of liberation and independence has come, but the animals of this society are casting hateful glances at them. There was only one way out for this girls and women and that was death. Since they could not protect themselves, why didn’t they just die? At least no one was blocking that path. But why should we die? I ask that question still today. Since I chose not to die, I am still alive today like the next person. I am doing well and I have no lack of earthly happiness. The only thing missing is the respect of a war heroine. Instead I receive disgust and disrespect hidden in stares and knitted brows.
When did this happen? How many days ago? I had a past, a father and a mother, elder brother Assad and younger brother Ashfaque. My father was a high-ranking official in the Pakistani government. My uncle used to shuttle between Lahore, Rawalpindi and Dhaka. My elder brother gave his B.A. examination and entered the army. He was determined to end the disrespect and neglect of Bengalis in the army. My father did not want him to enlist in the army but did not resist his efforts. After he finished his training he remained in Sialkot for a while and went to Comilla as his permanent base. By that time my father had retired. Ashfaque was a 2nd year student in engineering and I was in my final year studying political science at the university. I was spending my carefree days in happiness and joy. I sort of had an understanding with Ataur. We liked each other. But before taking the final exams of my senior year I did not have the courage to express my liking for him to anyone else. Ataur finished his engineering bachelor’s degree and was headed to the US for his PhD. Both of us decided that he should go ahead and after my exams there should not be any obstacle in my going abroad either.
We lived in an area quite far from the university. Sometimes I used our car and at other times I took the bus to campus. The roads were not overcrowded during those times. In the evening my father used to go to the club; my mother and I used to study at home or we would watch TV or entertain guests when they visited us.
Apparently I was exquisitely beautiful. People pointed this out to me both inside the home and out. Sometimes I would inspect myself in front of the mirror: No defects whatsoever! I had a trim body, fair complexion, a sharp nose, deep, beautiful eyes and thin red lips. Much like the actress of kalidas! I was very conscious of my own beauty. I learned how to hold a captive audience in a room with my own beauty. I seemed to have no shortage of money whenever I needed anything. I used to get my own scholarship money; my elder brother gave me a monthly allowance and there was always mother!
In this relatively peaceful and happy life, suddenly the restless wind started to blow. Chaatra League and Chaatra Union became very active on campus targeting the six-point movement of 1970. I used to belong to Chaatra Union, but I did not fully agree with the six-point movement. The political movement became more intense with the cooperation of the students. Right afterwards started the Agartala Conspiracy Case trials. My father became concerned about my elder brother because the trials led to the arrest of a few navy officers. My father was aware of the political views of my elder brother. Ayub’s conspiracy case failed as a result of the collaboration and combined efforts of students, masses and political parties in then East Pakistan. Sheikh Mujib got the unparalleled support of the masses.
Now, let’s change the scene. Ayub left and then came Yahiya Khan. Next the general elections of Pakistan were held. In the elections, the Awami League party won in a landslide over all other parties. So we thought that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is now the logical candidate to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Instead Bhutto had a very evil idea in his mind: he got Yahiya, who was weak from his recent defeat, on his side and set about implementing an agenda to crush East Pakistan. There was not any lack of bad intentions from his soul. His evil play prevented the Pakistan parliament from assembling that session. Instead he took that time and got ready for a full-blown military attack on East Pakistan. For one month there was a non-cooperation movement in Bengal (East Pakistan). The atmosphere was full of excitement. Then? Then came 25th March, 1971, a black chapter in the nation’s history. I got the news of Dhaka being under siege. We could not actually fathom how bad the situation was there. Ashfaque planned to take my father and the rest of us and head for the countryside for cover. He was talking on the phone to us from Dhaka itself. He said that he is going to the home of some relatives and he will be in touch soon. He told us that our younger brother is doing okay. My mother and I became very anxious after this phone call unlike my father. He felt since he was a high-ranking government official, everyone respected him. What is the point of being scared?
He told me not to worry! I started to worry a lot because I did not believe what he was saying. Everyone we knew began to leave his or her homes one by one. Rahela’s mother, who used to be a domestic worker for us, left as well. This means that the women working as domestic workers in nearby households were packing up and leaving. She apologized and asked us to forgive her for leaving us! Before leaving she said that if she were alive after the war, she would see us again. I don’t know why but my mother gave her a lot of clothes and gifts as she left our home.
Even though the days passed in a moderate pace as we stayed busy with various activities, the nights dragged on. It seemed the darkness of the evenings grabbed me by the throat. Abba did not go to the club anymore. Inside the home we could watch TV. In fact any kind of noise scared us even more. The curfew continued throughout the city. The university was closed.
Suddenly one day the tiger attacked Krishnadas and his cows. That was right in the middle of the afternoon. It was about 1pm and my mother was making arrangements for our lunch. At this time an army jeep arrived at our doors. My heart was beating so fast that I could actually hear the sound.
My father went near the front door. The Pakistani army officers entered through the door. He shook hands with one officer named Tamiz. My father asked them to sit down but they refused. They asked where his son was. My father said that he is the captain of the army, the same army as theirs, and is now serving in the district of Comilla! Before my father could finish, they gave a resounding slap on his face. My father was stunned. He asked, “Don’t you know who I am? I am …”. Before he could finish his speech, they shouted “You bloody dog” and kicked him so hard that he fell on the ground of the verandah. My mother rushed to his side. They pushed her aside and said, “Get lost, Buddi!” Then our khansama, Ali, came and they also pushed him aside. At that point, they opened fire with a sten gun with the sound effect: tah-dah-dah-dah-dah. The bloodied bodies of my father, my mother and Tahir fell on the floor. I was in shock as I walked outside. Their angry faces lit up with delight when they saw me. “Aiye, aiye,” they said as they pulled me with their hands into the jeep. At that point I could not see or hear anything.
I am not sure I was even conscious. A bit later, the jeep shook wildly and came to a stop. Someone extended a hand to pull me out of the jeep. I gave out a blood-curdling scream: just a few moments ago this same hand pressed the trigger on the gun that killed my father and mother! In a voice full of affection, the murderer said, “Please don’t be afraid. We will keep you alive and well here with a lot of care and affection.” I understood that I am being taken to the nearby cantonment. Therefore I thought they would behave a bit better in the cantonment. He got me to sit down on the sofa on one side of the room. He repeatedly kept asking me, “Do you want to drink anything cold?” Who knows? I just saw my parents not more than a few moments ago! Yet I could not believe that my entire chest and throat were parched dry. Somebody took a lot care to bring forward a cup of tea for me to drink. I took one sip after somehow lifting the cup to my lips. Immediately my whole body lost control and I vomited all over the beautiful carpet. It took all my strength to utter the word, “sorry”. Upon the order of my captor gentleman, I was taken to an adjoining room. It looked as if somebody stayed in this room since it had an attached bathroom. In a little while a janitor woman brought in a set of shalwar kameez for me. I had spoilt all my clothes with my own vomit. I entered the shower.
The janitor told me repeatedly not to lock the door after me. I could not still utter any words; I simply looked at them in silence. She said that many girls had been in this bathroom and locked the doors so that they could kill themselves. They had been punished very hard. I thought it did not matter whether the door was closed or open. I thought sometimes even God was scared of the naked. So who was going to scare me? I could scare a lot of people. I put a lot of water on my head to calm myself down. No, I would not die. If they killed me I had nothing left to do. But I would not try committing suicide. I cleaned myself thoroughly. Water was dripping from my hair. There was no comb or hair dryer, only a dry towel with which I dried my hair. Just a little bit later, a comb and cosmetics arrived! Wow, I said to myself, what a grand welcome indeed.
In the evening they called for me. I understood that I was to appear at the officer’s mess. I was surprised that they asked me to sit and eat at the same table. Slowly the conversations began. To be honest most of my life I have been spent with my Bengali father in West Pakistan. Therefore I could understand Bengali, Urdu and English. They asked for my father’s identity and address. They did not look guilty even for a moment. They asked about my elder brother. Most likely they didn’t know about my younger brother. They wanted to know which faculty member in the university belonged to which political party. They wanted to know which dormitories housed students from which political parties. I do not remember today how I responded to their questioning. What I do remember I messed up the truth every time I answered their questions. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that the ringleader was the Lt. Colonel who was about 45 years old. He had a very fit body and from his accent I could tell that he was Punjabi. My heart trembled because my father disked and distrusted this class of people. He used to say they there uneducated, barbaric and stubborn. I was just playing with the food on my plate. I don’t recall today what I was thinking.
Colonel Sahib came to me and gave me a lot of assurance: do not be scared. You will be taken care of well here. But remember that if you want to escape we will catch you and kill you. Don’t ever lock the door and the janitor lady will sleep with you every night in your room. I had no answer to any of his statements, nor did I want to. I went back with the women into the room. I shut the lights and went to sleep. I have no regret to say that night I slept like I had never slept before. I did not even think that I had no father, no mother and that I was standing in the gates of hell. Why did this happen? I think my consciousness was markedly reduced. From that day onwards I began to love me in a new way. I used to sun bathe outside. One day the janitor, just like my pet servant, gave me new toothbrush and toothpaste. I laughed because I realized she is familiar doing these chores for the girls. As soon as I finished washing my mouth, a steaming cup of tea arrived for me. Then she said that the Sahibs are calling you for breakfast. I asked for my breakfast to be brought to me. In answer my friend laughed and said whatever you wish. You are in the top graces of Colonel Sahib. You will have the luxuries of a queen. What I thought inside if this is my fate then why does it matter whether I was queen or a janitor?
But I did take advantage of the opportunities being given to me. I was looking for pen and paper. There was no paper in the room. They took all the precautions. I realized I was not the only royal guest in this complex. Before me many have come and gone. Allah, you reserved this for my fate, didn’t you? I had so many colorful dreams about my future! In a few months I would be in the US in the home of my husband, Ataur. I would travel and see so many countries. I would enjoy life. I would become the mother of children. I laughed in my heart. One day this war will end. No matter how strong they were, we would be the ones victorious. Where would I be at that moment of victory? I was sure that I would die long before that time with disease in my body. I had read so many stories of war prisoners in my life and seen many movies. I had never seen or read tales of such good treatment for a queen. I had never read about all the luxuries and comfort being accorded to me. That was why I was so fortunate.
Janitor Jaigun became my close friend. One day I asked her if the Colonel is transferred then what would happen to me. She answered that I would be the queen of whoever comes next. Why? Won’t he take me with him? She vehemently shook her head, “No Way. I saw Begum Sahib. If she finds out about you and then she will strangle both Sahib and you together”. I asked where Begum Sahib was. Jaigun said sometimes in Dhaka and sometimes she was in Islamabad with her father. Unknowingly I put both hands near my throat – I felt as if Begum Sahib was strangling me. One evening Colonel took me for a drive in an open jeep. Somehow I fantasized that seated next to me was my sweetheart, Ataur, not the Colonel. And that we were driving through a town in America. I really liked my fantasy. I think I was humming a little tune. The jeep came to a halt in front of a little roadside store. There were a few little boys who were standing outside the store. You know the ones we call Tokai in Dhaka. They were probably playing and when they saw military they stopped what they were doing. I stuck my neck out and asked, “What are you, up to?” The youngest boy said, “Bengali!” “Don’t talk to her…she is a prostitute!” The Colonel was laughing with a big wide smile – all his teeth showing. The little boys ran away. But I felt somebody had just thrown tar on my body. I still have not able to extricate myself from that feeling. Just like Lady Macbeth. If you gave me the most fragrant perfume from Arabia, it would not take away the dullness of my interior. The disgust in the eyes of that little child trampled all the trophies of my “queen hood”! A little bit later the Colonel figured out that something was wrong with me. He understood that the boys ran after saying something to me. He turned the jeep around and went after those boys. I grabbed his hands on the steering wheel and made him turn the jeep around again. I never dreamed for anything except the freedom I wanted to experience with Ataur. That boy had labeled me wrong. My reality was very different than that. Alas I had lost the ability to dream.
I didn’t remember which date or month it was. Most likely it was June. That day was really very unlucky for me. The Colonel left his automobile and came whistling into the inside quarters. There was lightning and thunder as soon as he came in. A car of the G.H.Q. was standing in the carport. Somebody very important had arrived. The Colonel motioned me to go inside through the rear door. That was the last I had seen the Colonel, my lover, and that was the end of our affair. Brigadier Khan had come from the headquarters. This was all the news from the janitor lady. After the departure of the Colonel, my carefully preserved and loved body was fed to the mad animals for gang rape. My heart still trembles when I think about it.
They clawed me, bit me like wild animals all night. They almost killed me. Only after I lost consciousness did they throw me away. I think I did see one of the men after turning around. It was pitch dark after that. When I went to wash my face the next morning I saw my whole body was filled with bites and marks. I did not realize that a sexually addicted person could turn into a wild beast and attack. When I saw my face I could not help but cry many times. I did think about the word the tokai used to describe me: Prostitute Lady! It is true I was. You could find the proof on my face and on my body. It was a steady fall for me from this point onwards. I really was a war heroine now.
I entered the prisoner of war camp in Dhaka with great fanfare. The Pakistani officers and soldiers were in the most jubilant mood. They were so happy celebrating the fact that they got off scot-free after what they had done in Bangladesh. Nobody came forward to save my day. I remembered the Bengali officers in Comilla hospital. None of them came to me and asked me if I wanted to be freed either. Why should we only blame the outsiders? I blamed my own fate and my own lack of ability. Didn’t know how seven days went by in a haze. Suddenly one man came and said has your visitor seen you? You have been asked to go to the visitor room. My visitor!? Who could it be? No, no – there must be something wrong in this information, I thought. The man said, hurry up and let’s go. I covered myself head to toe with Dopatta. Very unwillingly I pulled my tired feet forwards to the visitor room. I kept walking for a long while to the end of the corridor. He opened the curtains and asked me to go in. I felt like my feet were part of the floor cement. I did not have strength to either go forward or return back. Slowly my brother came towards me. He held my hands in his. I jumped in his chest and cried. I kept telling my brother, “I have died. I have died”. My brother was stroking my back and hair. He let me cry as much as I needed to. Then he took out a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped my face. He said, “Rina, I am taking you with me. Please come with me. Get your clothes”. Then he changed his mind, he said, “No, don’t get your clothes. On the way back we will go to New Market and pick up new clothes and then we will head home. All you have to do is sign some papers. Just sit tight.” My brother went to the reception and spoke with the officers. He filled in a bunch of papers and asked me to sign in a couple of places. I asked if I would get a Bangladeshi passport. The gentleman said, of course. Wish you good luck. Good luck and have a happy life!
My life went on smoothly. Without any doubt I was happy. I had three children; two sons and a daughter with my new husband, Nasir. Nasir had the opportunity to go to the US for two years for official training. I was with him. I had to leave my job because his job required us to move often. We lived in Comilla for some time. I toured that hospital where I was once treated as a prisoner. I visited that room and the bed where I was lying very ill. I touched everything with my hands. Then I was a prisoner and now I was free.
I have achieved everything that a girl envisions for her life. Still sometimes, a big sigh rises from my very depths. What did I want? What was lacking? Yes there was one thing. My desire for it will stay with me until I die. I wanted a young man or a young woman from this generation to stand in front of me and say:
“Birangana, I bow my head to you. I give you a thousand Salam. You are a brave freedom fighter. You have a stake in the national flag. You have a voice in the national anthem. You have first rights to this land.”
I am still waiting for that auspicious moment.
You Want to Know Who I Am?
You want to know who I am? I am a 100% genuine Birangona; not just in body and mind – but also in mentality and in my heart. So now you are thinking if a Birangona possesses a soul or a sound mind? Yes I do. If you are male, I don’t know if I can win in a physical fight with you – but if you are a Bangali Muslim man who is over fifty – then you are inferior to me in mental strength. Because I have faced you and I have seen you from head to toe. I even had the misfortune to see your soul inside your body. The children of the mothers of our country are either shaheeds or traitors. I hate those who were living a life of luxury during the war. I have been spitting on your face, on your whole body for the past twenty-five years.
You might be asking how a Birangona can be so bold! You have helped make Birangonas. That is why to us you are also cowardly, greedy, base, hated and useless beings. I am still a Birangona today and I reserve the right to pity you even now.
Who am I? I am that proud Bangali woman whom you left behind unprotected and fled by crossing the Padma river to India to save your own life. When you returned you falsely took on the identity of a ‘freedom fighter’. It is a shame that you opportunistic male, were a Razakar in your heart and screamed ‘Joy Bangla’ through your mouth! Shame on you! Where did this seed of traitor come about? It is certainly not from Pakistan or from the middle east. The traitors are you – our brothers and friends – those who are now selling your belongings and leaving the country in fear that your sons will be killed over their role in 1971. But where would you go really? More than twelve million people will come after you. Anyway this is not my problem, its up to you and your co-conspirators to solve your problem.
I am Shefa. My mother used to call me Shefali. But everyone used to call me Shefa – starting from Baba to everyone else in our household and neighbors. I used to have a formal name for my school. But I won’t disclose what that is. I cannot know for certain whether you will abduct me and put me away in some bunker again. The name I have shared with you is more than enough. Those who had “helped me” by abducting me from the house know me by Shefa. I grew up in a small town environment. However it was not really a village. There were court offices, a judge, and a hospital, about seven high schools. Two of these schools were for girls. There were also two good colleges for women. We had a large, government hospital, and a big play field. We had clubs for professional gentlemen, a European club, etc. My father was a lawyer and he was intimately involved with politics and law.
I was in 10th grade when the non-cooperation movement started in 1969. We continued our studies in the midst of attending protest marches, political rallies and meetings. My mother scolded me much for participating in the movement. She told me many times that it was not good for a girl to be so outgoing. But I was my father’s favorite daughter and no one had the power to touch me. In the meantime, my father was put in jail by the authorities. He was freed from jail about six months later. I spread my wings, shouted the slogan ‘Joy Bangla’ and immersed myself in the pro-Bangali activist movement.
The events rapidly progressed in the nation. Sheikh Mujib ordered the closure of school, colleges and offices everywhere. I was just about to appear in my high school examinations (HSC- higher secondary school certificate). I didn’t even touch my books during that time. We were all waiting to be liberated as a sovereign country. I passed my days by drinking hundreds of cups of tea in the living room, watching my younger brother play, my toddler sister holding onto my mother everywhere. Somehow we arrived on March 25th. Worn out from my mother’s insistence Baba left for our ancestral home in the village. He wanted to take me along but my mother prohibited my accompanying him. She was afraid that something dangerous might happen to me as I was a growing girl. If she had permitted me to go maybe I would have been martyred but I would not have become a Birangona. We could not even exhale from fear during the two days that passed. On the 27th of March curfew was lifted and people started to move around in fear and panic. I could tell that many folks were leaving for their village homes in the darkness of the night. I appealed to Ma for escaping this imprisoned life and going to our village home. Ma agreed this time. She was worried for her 17-year-old son and me. Apparently the Pak army shot any student age they saw. My mother started preparing for our departure. There was a judge living next door to us. Later we found out they were collaborators of the Pakistani army. Their son, Faruq came over and convinced my mother not to leave home. The next day the police came looking for my father. They were yelling rudely at my mother. We decided that mother, Sonali and myself would leave the house that night. Just like clockwork Faruq came as the evening set in. He offered to go with us part way in our journey. I didn’t know why but I think my heart stopped beating when I heard his proposal. But it seemed that my mother was relieved at his offer. After going straight for a while our taxi took a sharp left turn towards the cantonment instead of following the first one where my mother and sister were riding. I asked, “What’s going on?” “Why are you going this way?” Faruq snuggled up to me and said “Some of the boys put up a barricade in the other direction”. I said “Why then Ma and Sonali are going that way?” I felt extremely uncomfortable. I screamed loudly at the driver to stop the taxi. Instead the driver increased the speed of the vehicle. I tried to jump out of the taxi. But I could not physically overpower the scoundrel next to me who forcefully kept me inside. I sank my teeth into his flesh. The monster screamed in pain. Then he stopped the vehicle and gagged my mouth with a towel. Then we headed straight for the cantonment. I became a prisoner there. Faruq presented the Pak army with me as his gift. Today Faruq is a judge in Bangladesh. He never wears half-sleeve shirts because he bears my teeth marks on his arms. If someone sees the marks he says he was wounded in the liberation war as a freedom fighter! The Pak army wounded him with their rifle bayonets. See for yourself who claims to be a freedom fighter in this country!
I was allowed to sit down on a chair. I was offered a cup of tea. I did not pay attention to anything and related the story of my abduction by Faruq. I never did once mention about Ma and Sonali because I wanted to protect them. The officer had a smirk on his face while listening to my story. He then went to the next room and started to drink 100% pure, Pakistani, Muslim whiskey according to him. He asked me repeatedly to join him. He started telling me stories of Pakistan and asked me if I had ever been to Pakistan. Since I had never been there he offered to take me there for a visit. He promised to take me to the sea beach. He described the beauty of Karachi. After he became fully drunk he quickly pulled me towards him and removed my clothing in one swift motion. No one came to protect me. I shouted as loudly as I could but he put his huge paw on my mouth to keep it shut. I had lost consciousness by the time he was finished with his first sweet wedding night with me. As the sun covered my face, I slowly opened my eyes and saw an Aya was standing there. She showed me the bathroom, asked me to take a shower and told me that she was going to bring breakfast. I somehow managed to stand up and go to the bathroom. It seemed like the bathroom of a high-ranking army officer. When I went to brush my teeth with my finger I found that my teeth and jaw were extremely painful. This was due to biting the monster. I removed myself from in front of the mirror. The monster scratched my whole face. I was well known for my beauty. My mother named me Shefali for my fair skin tone. Suddenly I removed my clothes and stood under the shower. I felt the need to wash the body. But my soul remained clean. I stared at myself for some time though. What a difference between the me from yesterday and the me today! Shefa had died and Shefali remained standing undefeated. The color of my face appeared drained. But as long as I was conscious my heart would remain beautiful, sacred and bright. The woman came in through the door with breakfast. I could not eat normally. There was intense pain all over my body. After a while she brought in a set of shalwar and kameez but without a dopatta. I never saw the sari that I took off that day again.
Another beast arrived the next night. He was very chatty. He was so happy that I knew English. He even sang a few gazals to set the mood. Afterwards he performed his duties of rape. I could no longer taste food. The bread and lentils remained untouched. I understood that each day would bring a new guest. What kind of hell was this? No, I had much time before I saw real hell. I kept on getting transferred from one facility to another. Sometimes I was taken with a group of girls – different ages and tastes – and sometimes I was transported alone to the destination. Sitting alone in a dark room day and night, it was hard to tell the time. Sometimes I would ask out loud what date it was. Sometimes I wondered if my family was still alive.
I could hear the sound of bombs and explosions in the distance. As a prisoner I wondered where is the battlefield? Who was fighting this war? Sometimes they cursed the Mukti Bahini and called me horrendous names like whore at night. Sometimes I heard the janitors and the security guards talking and whispering amongst themselves. I put up my ears and listened intently. They were afraid that if the Pakistanis lost then the Mukti Bahini would unleash bulldogs on them so that they would be mauled to death. Suddenly I felt alive. This means these servants were also thinking about the potential victory of Mukti Bahini. I prayed to Allah for mercy on Shantu’s life. I prayed for Baba’s safe return home. Ma and Sonali…suddenly tears were trickling down my face. I didn’t know what I was thinking! Suddenly that same day, five or six of us were taken away in a truck. I thought surely we would be killed. I no longer had any passion or interest for living. I wanted to escape from the prison of my body. But still somewhere somehow I had a big hope to see my country free and the chance to say ‘Joy Bangla’ with all my heart. The truck was covered with canvas but I was freezing.
Two soldiers dropped blankets on our bodies. The truck was speeding off to an unknown destination. At one point the driver turned off the lights of the truck. I think I must have dozed off to sleep when the vehicle came to a stop at a very dark spot. Somebody ordered in a heavy voice, “Get inside the bunker”. Like chased dogs, we hurried into the bunker. So this was a bunker! There were tarpaulin mattresses; a few cots; a pitcher of water and two glasses; piles of blankets. I wondered whether I would be buried alive here. But why was there water? They must wanted us alive still. Otherwise who was the water for? My memory failed me for the next several days. There was simply too much torture. Sometime food came, sometime it did not. One day they came and ripped and snatched away even the tattered clothes and rags we had on. We were completely naked. Nobody could look at anyone else. During the day some light would come in through the entrance of the bunker. I realized however that it was winter. There were not enough blankets so 2-3 of us would pile up under the same blanket to stay warm. But our nightly visitors had become even more bestial. Sometimes they didn’t come at night at all.
I could understand that the end was drawing near. Suddenly I felt I could hear ‘Joy Bangla’ at a distance. This was the most desirable slogan I could hear! But I did not believe it. I heard this a few times before but later understood that my mind was playing tricks on me. But wait…I heard the footsteps of many people running away! Were the Pakistanis fleeing? There was much more sunlight coming in through the bunker entrance now. The sound of ‘Joy Bangla’ was getting much louder. I thought maybe Shantu had come to rescue me. But how could we go to the entrance? We were denuded.
Suddenly we could hear lots of people at the entrance and their screams and conversations. Someone put their head into the entrance and shouted: “Koi Hai Edhar Aao!” I think we all started to wail simultaneously. But the language terrified us! We did not know whether it was the Pakistanis again! Then some folks spoke in union in Bangla, “Ebare Ma, aapnara baire ashun. Bangladesh shadheen hoieche. Amra apnader nite eshechi.” Forever courageous I got up. I faced all the people in my complete denuded state. Suddenly I got scared and ran back to the bunker again. But the man who first spoke to us with a booming voice took me behind him and gave me cover. He took off his turban, unwrapped it and covered me as much as he could. I told them there were six more of us down in the bunkers. People brought out lungis, shirts, and any extra clothing item they could find. One by one the prisoners came out and they were clothed as best as possible.
I embraced the Sikh army officer and started howling in pain. The gentleman put his hand on my hand and told me everything would be fine. We were taken in a jeep to a nearby hospital. I saw there were sores all over my body and I was filled with lice. I heard that people got lice in their head – but not in their flesh. One by one the ward nurses came and bathed us with soap and water. I asked them to cut the hair off my head. The nurse was about my age and asked me very affectionately, “You have such beautiful hair, why do you want to cut it Didi? I will shampoo it every 2-3 days and untangle your matted hair. It’s just dirt and grime in your hair, that’s all. ” I was shocked to hear a human being speaking with such compassion in the voice! I realized that I was living with beasts the past few months – not humans. I have forgotten the language and manners of the civilized people. My primary care giver was a nurse. The doctor came to see me on the third day. I said myself “Doctor I think I am pregnant”. The doctor was somber and replied, “You are right indeed”. I took the doctor’s hands in mine and said, “Please save me!” The doctor said in a compassionate voice, “No, don’t worry at all. You are in the preliminary stages. I will make all the necessary arrangements. You will be fine. “
I became free of my problem in about ten days. I recovered and started to breathe and live again. When would we leave the hospital? There was not too much delay after this point. I needed to complete about a one-month stay in the hospital. It turned out that many of the girls and women survivors were sick from various diseases. Everyone got his or her individual treatment plan. Finally I arrived in Dhanmondi, Dhaka at the women’s rehabilitation center. This is where unfortunate women like me first arrived! It is here that relatives were contacted to take us home or if that was not possible we remained in the shelter of the government. They wrote a letter to my father after getting the address from me.
I am happy to be alive and wanted to live for a long time. I had total commitment to raise my children as upstanding citizens in the best way possible. I was a mother and an extraordinary mother. My biggest identity to the outside world was that I was a Birangana. I sacrificed my biggest gift, my womanhood, for my country. I am not less fortunate or less sacred than a martyr. They gave their life once – but I sacrificed myself many times. So many people, including my husband, looked down on me. I felt sorry for them, felt pity. One day I would take leave from this earth as a victorious woman. I would reclaim my pride and dignity the day Jogi and Kunda would honor me and reveal my heroic deeds to the society. This is my last prayer to Allah.
I Am Maina Speaking
The sun was setting on a cold winter evening. I was sitting on a wicker chair with a news magazine on the inside verandah of the house. At one point I considered going out of the house that day. It was Friday and a holiday. But I felt lazy. My past and present were shattered on either side of me. Many people go through a traumatic experience. But at some point they move on – they become free of their past. I felt that I was an exception to the norm. I loved my new place. It was quite a feat to be able to escape the bricks, concrete, wood and steel of Dhaka. I could at least breathe in this small town. I found this tiny place – a bus ride and a quarter mile walk away from the hustle and bustle of Dhaka. After a long day’s work this was a haven of peace.
The trouble was that none of the exceedingly honest and religious landlords wanted to rent a room to a woman without a husband. I had to suffer a lot. I lived in a hostel for some time. But the woman who was the building manager was so curious about me that I left on my own. It took six months to find this place with the help of Asif, my coworker. Asif’s uncle owned this house. It was a three-story building. The upper two floors were already rented out. They are getting twelve thousand from rental income. Asif’s uncle and aunt lived on the ground floor. The wife insisted upon meeting me and approved my application afterwards. They had two sons; one lived in New York and the other lived in Finland. The sons would visit every 3-4 years for two weeks. Therefore there was plenty of room in the house and a shortage of people to talk to. Both the couple and I liked the new living arrangement. I would leave the house by 8:30am and would not return until 7:30pm. I did not go out a lot on my days off. For instance today I really wanted to – but simply could not muster up the strength.
Suddenly the doorbell rang. Chachi stopped the conversation she was having with someone in the living room. She parted the curtain a few moments later to my room and said, “Maina someone is here to see you! It’s a lady.” I broke my laziness and entered the living room. I was taken aback and said, “Apa. You have come here! How could you find this house?” Apa said, “I am a world traveller and you think I cannot find this house?” I said, “No, I am not saying that. Where did you get my address?” Apa said, “Don’t you remember? You gave it to me!” I wanted to take Apa into my room. But Chachi intercepted us and insisted that we sat in the living room. She said she would be serving us some tea. Apa mentioned that she was just coming back from a lunch invite and being so full she must refuse tea at that time. If she stayed and talked with me for a while, she would ask for a cup herself. Chachi replied there was hardly anyone left in the house to serve tea and reminded us again to ask for tea when we were ready. She left through one door and Apa and I left through the other towards the inner verandah where I was sitting.
Apa complimented me on my choice of living space: “What a beautiful, serene place. Maina you have good taste.” I said it was not my taste; but really good fortune. It was just like having a good friend like Apa. She also recounted her blessings in having good landlords like Chacha and Chachi. I asked Apa to sit down on the wicker chair and sat down on a nearby stool myself. I placed my two arms on Apa’s lap and lowered my head on her hands. Apa slowly stroked my hair. She then said, “Maina I have come to talk with you and you have started to cry instead. If you continue crying I will leave”. I jerked myself off of her lap and said, “No no Apa. I will not cry anymore. I am not going to cry in front of anyone anymore”.
Maina: “Apa I am not from an area too far from you. Actually I am a very close neighbor of yours. I am a girl from Chasharar, Narayanganj. Everyone knew me as the troublemaker girl! I passed 10th grade from Morgan high school and got admitted into high school (I.A.) diploma classes. I was not good in studies but they all loved me somehow. I used to be very active in student politics.Days were going on like just that before the war. I also had keen interest in sports. That is why I would hang out with the boys more than other girls. Many people did not think I was really a proper girl! Then again…the society was backwards like that at that time”.
I passed the I.A. exams in second division. My father was a doctor of homeopathy. We were managing all right as a middle-class family. My elder brother passed his B.A. exams and got a respectable job at the Dhakeshwari Cotton Mills company. We exhaled in relief as a family. My parents were hoping that if I passed my B.A. exams with distinction and got a job as a schoolteacher then they would have an easier time to find me a husband. We were two brothers and two sisters in total. My younger brother was getting ready to take his 10th grade examination; my younger sister was in the 8th grade. My mother earned some extra cash from sewing. We did not have any lack really.
The military crackdown and torture on Dhaka on the night of the 25th March 1971 was not spared for Narayanganj either. Everyone left their houses and went in different directions. We left our house too and headed for the countryside. In about a month or so we realized we jumped from the frying pan into the fire. In the country side there was no Pakistani military – yet the local Razakars were doing all the misdeeds themselves! They lodged false charges of land and property grabbing against the men – brought the police to the houses and had them arrested. They were harassing and torturing the women. They would take away people at dusk when the light was dim, blindfold them and drive them straight to the cantonment.
One evening I was caught in their net, just like that. My brothers fled the house earlier. They had taken my father to the cantonment and beat him up severely. When we got the news, Ma and I rushed to see him. They let him go but kept me as ransom. When I was finally presented to the Pakistani army for torture, I had already been raped and abused by these Bangali men. The Razakars had sacrificed me. The army did not keep me in the countryside but brought me to Narayanganj instead. I knew all the ins and outs of that town! But I was surprised that the Narayanganj where they brought was completely devoid of life, sound and human presence. It was an abandoned ghost town! In fact I could not recognize the place the beasts had brought me even after trying for seven days. One day they asked us to get into a jeep. There were six of us here for the first time. We were blindfolded and I could not understand if we were going to Dhaka or elsewhere. We stopped somewhere at dawn. We were pushed into a room after our blindfolds were removed.
I rubbed my eyes and saw that I was standing in a very large room. It was a long room. Perhaps it was a school. There was a long line of girls who had already come and taken their throne in their beds on the benches with blankets on top. I went closer to one of the girls and asked where we were. She shouted at me and said, “Shut up. If they hear us talking they will kill us”! I became frightened. It seemed that it was almost morning. They had closed all the doors and windows shut with nails in that room. The main door was open and the sunlight entered the room through the door and through the cracks of the other windows just then. It was really hot already. I wondered how the girls were under the heavy blankets in this temperature! Later I would also lie like that. When an abused dog lies at the door playing dead and waiting for the next round of beating – they were doing just that.
Actually they cannot sit up straight much less walk – after the intense physical torture inflicted on their bodies all night. Most of them ran a fever and needed the blankets for chills. My later experience taught me all these things. In a little time a very strong, obscene looking young woman entered the room. She was wearing a sari and looked obviously like the janitor of the facilities. She motioned us to use the two bathrooms on either side of the room and asked to finish all the ablutions. She said breakfast was coming soon. I was so tired from the journey overnight. The only thing I was peaceful about was the fact that the bathroom was clean. Later I would laugh at the way I reasoned. What was the point of being in a clean bathroom when my body was desecrated? I did not know how I would shower and not risk getting my sari wet. The janitor solved my problem by taking my sari away. She gave me a small Lungi and warned me not to make any sounds in protest – otherwise she would call the soldiers. We were not allowed to close the bathroom door ever. I swallowed all my shame and dignity and put on the Lungi and a Genji. Of course these were provided courtesy of our captors.
I came out of the bathroom and looked at everyone. Of the six of us who came here, four were still sitting wearing their saris; one was in the bathroom showering. Of the six who were under the blankets were already in lungi and genji. Their Lungis were filled with blood and grime. Nobody washed those clothes for them. They had to wash those clothes and dry them on their bodies.”
A young man brought in food. He was given a fancy title, cook! All he brought were two pieces of bread and a cup of tea for each of us. It was incredible how eagerly everyone was eating that concoction! But I knew that extreme hunger accentuated the taste in one’s mouth. We were served bread and lentils in the afternoon for lunch. As soon as evening descended, they dropped off some unidentifiable vegetable stew and bread for us and locked the doors.
The door was open during the daylight hours with two sentries on either side of the entrance. There was a lamp turned on in the room in the evening – but no one could see the faces of the others. I would understand the reasons in a few days. Apa, you have seen mass killings on the streets of Dhaka in the war; you have seen mass graves in Jagannath hall, but you have never seen the mass rape scenes we have experienced first hand.
Every night 3-4 soldiers would rape each of us; each would enjoy the misdeed of the soldier before him. They would say the most obscene, horrible denigrating things to us and to each other. We would stare at them with empty eyes and hear their words in fear and anxiety. The only sound we could hear from ourselves was the beating of our hearts. Sometimes I would hear the lub-dub sound in my ears. I wondered why I was not dying despite being dead! I could not think about the world or any of its problems! The only thing on my mind was how to escape this prison!
After about 15 days, I honestly thought I would explode or lose my sanity from the extreme physical and mental torture. I had a nightmare about Sheikh Mujib’s dangling body after being hanged! I touched my own throat and found there was extreme pain there. I did not know if I was losing my sanity and the ability to speak. I tried to remember my parents – but could not.
One morning I was just sitting in the room. I saw a man walk by the door. He had a red towel and a green cap on. Suddenly I lost my restraint, screamed “Joy Bangla” and ran outside the door. I heard a few gunshots being fired. I felt a baton hit my leg quite hard. Then I felt a jolt to my head and I fell down to the ground. Actually Apa, I wanted to die. I was praying that they would shoot me so I could escape this hell once and for all”.
When I regained consciousness I saw I was lying in a small room in a cot. On the bed next to me there was a male nurse dressed in white. We used to call the male nurses “brother” in the medical college hospital. I saw that he was reading something very intently. I could not tilt my head. There was neck pain of indescribable proportion. I must have uttered a sound. The man jumped up and came close to me and said “Thank god. You are alive!” I gathered all my physical strength to speak and asked “Are you Bengali?”
The sun flooded the room the next morning. A female nurse came. She was happy that I had regained my consciousness. It seemed she was Bihari from her Urdu. She cleaned my face and fed me some bread dipped in milk. Later she gave me my medicine. Since I could not speak Urdu I spoke to her in my broken English: “What is wrong with me?” The nurse was so happy to hear me speak in English. She said, “Bahin, don’t talk too much. You have a broken leg. Once that is healed you can go back to normal life. I was stunned to hear her reference to normal life! The doctor who came later was a Colonel in the army. He was polite and mild-mannered. He conversed with me in English. He did not say anything outside my illness.
One day he seized the opportunity to ask me why I acted the way I did on that fateful day. I looked directly into his eyes and said that I wanted to die in fact. I wanted freedom. The doctor touched my head with his hands. He said, “Do not to worry. All of you will be free”. He emphasized the words “all of you” very much. I was scared that he might be trying to get some information out of me. I could not trust anybody these days. But it was true that with all the rapists and murderers, sometimes I would see one or two good men. Most of the Punjabis were like beasts. The men who were different were either Pathan or Sindhi. Let’s face it – I did not have the mental space or environment to do a thorough analysis of this at all.
When I was in the hospital the door and the windows were kept wide open. Right near the window there was a guava fruit tree and a Nim tree. The winds would dance on the leaves of the Nim tree and enter my room. When I observed the color of the leaves, I realized it was either August or September. The leaves were catching a yellow-reddish hue. There were many crows and shalik birds that sat on the tree branches. They were always eating.
I fell asleep from the pain in my physical body, exhaustion and mental suffering. Suddenly I was awakened by an awful, loud noise. The siren went off. I could understand from the screams of the nurses that the Indian army had dropped a bomb. I also found out that anti-aircraft missiles were being launched from the ground. I started to shake like I had malaria. My teeth were chattering. The nurses had already left for the bomb shelters. I stood there alone like an idiot. Did it matter if I lived or died? The siren went off again and everyone returned to his or her own station.
Indeed I heard on the radio that evening in Hindi and Bangla that all of us who were imprisoned Bengalis could leave and go to our own homes. No one would stop us on the roads. I leaped up and ran outside to the streets. I did not know any of the streets but I kept running along a major road. I saw many people running just like myself! I asked a man to point me to the direction of Dhaka. He pointed me the way and said he was running away there too. He told me he was a Razakar, but if he did not mix in with the freedom fighters then he would be killed.
At one point I found I had run all the way to the front of the Dhaka Cantonment. There was no need to run anymore. But I wanted to go to Chasharar and I needed to find a bus that would take me there. I came to Dhaka so many times via bus to attend student protest marches. Somehow I boarded a bus for Narayanganj. Was I really going to Chasharar? The bus took off. Suddenly I realized I did not have a single penny. What if the driver insulted me and asked me to get down? I would mention my father’s name. I would beg and plead. But I would not tell them the truth about what happened. I told the conductor that I had no money to pay the bus fare. He laughed and said, “It is okay Apa. The country is free today. Everything is free today. Give it to me another day.”
I got down close to my house, ran down the lane and stopped at the gate. Nearly one month passed in limbo. Montu, my younger brother, returned. They had to amputate from his left wrist down. Amma wept tears of joy and sorrow all mixed in together. Montu had returned with his life intact. There was a lot of happiness in seeing his whole being present as well as some sadness for the loss of his hand. The financial problems of the family began to surface. My father’s dispensary did not have as much business as before.
The society was in financial ruin, stress and exhaustion after withstanding the extreme torture of the ten-month holocaust. Even if someone was dying they could not afford a doctor or medicine now. My oldest brother, Mil was not doing well. Those who were coming in power in our town were beginning to take away everything gradually from our house: from the furniture to Mil’s tools.
The real freedom fighters had to conceal their identity and those who were the opportunists and collaborated with Pak army were doing their best to hold onto power in the town through dirty politics. Mil was looking for a job. I was restless. I felt that I could start teaching even in a primary school and earn 300-400 Taka per month. What if I trained myself to become a nurse? But there was no way my father could arrange the deposit necessary for a nursing school. When the situation became so dire, my father went to Harun’s father for consultation. Both our families knew about the nature of the relationship between Harun and myself. They also knew the final destination of our friendship. My father had gone to Harun’s father in the hopes that they would consider setting a date for the wedding.
By this time my father passed away, so my mother spent most of her time with me. This helped me out a lot. I started to think about Gautam’s future very seriously. I went to visit Mymensingh Cadet School one day. Gautam was twelve years old. Therefore I could enroll him if I wanted. He had to take a test. Gautam scored very well in the entrance exam. He was very good in his studies like his father. One day I packed a bag for him and took him to Mymensingh. Gautam enrolled in the boarding cadet school. I came back and began searching for a house with the help of a colleague. When I got this tiny place, I immediately left the company apartment. The boss showed much remorse at my decision. I answered that my son was at the cadet school and I had no use for such a big apartment.
There were many employees in the company who needed that apartment more than I did. I applied and got my old job back after ten years. I did not want money – I wanted peace. This was the organization that hired a Birangana – so I joined them leaving the other job with the title of “Mrs. Harun Ur Rashid”. I did not have a real need for money then. I bought a tiny apartment in Dhaka and rented it out. The rental income was sufficient to carry Gautam’s expenses. I had little expense of my own. My mother had died by this time. My parents-in-law had died earlier; they could not take the shock of their son’s passing.
Today I am standing on the streets of this big city. I am a Birangana. The ones who wanted to make me a Birangana and break me – also murdered my husband. But I have survived as Gautam’s mother. Gautam would be a freedom fighter since he was the son of one. His father freed this country. Gautam would clear the debris of this land and build a new Golden Bengal.
I Am Fatema Speaking
Do you want to know who I am? I don’t have any dignity left today to introduce myself to you. The neighborhood boys and girls used to call me Pagli with affection. Actually I was quite sane. Those who tried to make me go insane were the ones really screwed up. They did not know this truth themselves.
My parents gave me the name of Fatema. I was my parents’ first born. My Dadi spoke a blessing at my birth, “This is the daughter who will make this family proud one day – you will see”. I learned that Hazrat Mohammed’s daughter was Bibi Fatema. When I grew up, I understood the greatness of my name. I was a little bit proud to have my name. Our house was situated in a town called Shonadanga, near the industrial town of Khalishpur in the outskirts of Khulna. Our house was made partly of brick but with a tin roof. We had a number of trees; several mango trees, a jackfruit tree, a chalta tree and an amra tree. I could point you to their locations even now. What am I saying? There are multi story buildings there now.
Anyway, we grew fresh vegetables in our garden; gourds, squash, beans, peas, greens – everything. My father was a farmer but did not work on anyone else’s land. He could feed his family with his own produce. His land was located about 5-6 miles from the town center. Baba was very hard working. He employed a few farm workers to help with the work on his own land. He also bought fruits and vegetables locally at a discounted rate and went to the town market every Tuesday and Saturday to sell the produce at the fair market price. He bought all our weekly groceries including salt, chilies, soap, hair oil etc. from his profits.
We were five brothers and sisters. I was the oldest, then there were three brothers and our youngest sister was last. Everyone used to call her Aduri. The most senior member of the family was Dadi. But I never met her. She had died before I was born. My father was her only child. We had no uncles or aunts from my father’s side. We had a very neat and clean family.
We all attended school with the exception of Aduri. We would eat rice mixed with milk upon returning from school and then run outside to play. I played with all the girls of the neighborhood. Our favorite game was jump and skip. On holidays we jumped into the pond and swam from one side to the other. Did you say there was a tear in my eye? Ladies you know that whenever I think back to those joyful days I cannot hold the tears back! Sometimes Baba would take us into town to see a movie. We saw movies at the Ullashini Cinema and Picture Palace!
Life was going on peacefully and smoothly. The political unrest started the year I was to appear in my matriculation examination. We all became inspired by the principle of the non-cooperation movement. We would not remain in servitude to the Pakistanis. Why were the Bengalis working so hard only to have the profits of our labor be taken away to West Pakistan? They were exporting our jute abroad and building luxuries and excesses in Islamabad while we were getting poorer each day! They put Mujib in prison for speaking out the truth. In fact they put many Bengali military and political leaders in jail. They accused Mujib of being in cahoots with India and conspiring to destroy Pakistan. They called it the Agartala Conspiracy case.
It was a judgment against Mujib. It was incredible how many meetings, protest marches and slogans were going around at that time. We forgot our normal life. Baba stopped going to the market to sell his produce. He used to tell Ma, “What would be the use of living if they hung our beloved Mujib?” One day we were jubilant when we received the news that Sheikh Mujib was freed from prison. Everyone welcomed him back and put garlands around his neck. It seemed Khulna was bursting with joy and celebration. The police watched everything from a distance but did not step forward to control the crowds. It seemed they were also happy.
A few of the elders in the neighborhood told me, “Fatema you should restrain your activities a little bit. Girls should not be so outgoing and wild. You are catching the attention of the police and the military. One day they might arrest you – then you will be full of regrets”. I smirked at them and defiantly said, “It is not easy to outsmart Bibi Fatema! Just take care of yourself, don’t worry about me!” My younger brother’s name was Shona Mia; he was 14. The next brother was called Mona and my youngest brother was Pona. They were all two years apart. Like me, none of them were going to classes any longer. All day they ran behind much bigger boys on the streets, carrying the national flag. Gradually everything settled down and we got back to a normal life. We all started going to school again.
However, we started to feel a bit uneasy. The nearby town Khalishpur was filled with Biharis. They were always very arrogant and behaved rudely with us. They would look down on us at every opportunity they got. Once there was a riot around this type of behavior – many people died in that riot. The riot was concealed within the laborers of the different industries. We all had to be careful after this incident. Then came the general elections of Pakistan. We were so elated – all the votes went to Banga Bandhu. He was no longer just Sheikh Mujib! He became Banga Bandhu Sheikh Mujib. He came to a political rally in Khulna.
I think the crowds went insane just to catch a glimpse of him. I climbed a wall in Gandhi Park and saw him clearly for a brief moment. Oh I could never forget that moment. Yet so many people were screaming at me, “Get down you dare devil, uncivilized, shameless girl!” I could hear them but could not really get down without seeing Mujib once. Even if I jumped down I would land on someone’s shoulder. What an exciting day that was. My mother asked me why I did not want to eat that day. I replied, “Ma I am so happy inside that all my hunger has evaporated. I feel sad for you Ma that you could not see Banga Bandhu. You should have seen his eyes, Ma…” Ma cut me off, “Enough! Now get up from the table.”
The elections took place on the designated date. Banga Bandhu became the Prime Minister of all of Pakistan. I felt mighty big that day! “What would those sons of Biharis say today?” I mused. There was a Bihari called Nasir who would always address us as “You Bengali dogs!” I wanted to see who felt like a dog that day! Oh I just could not wait any longer – I just did not like to do anything mundane anymore.
The exams lay ahead of me. Maybe when Banga Bandhu took office we would not have to take exams and simply take a year off to celebrate! But the parliament could not be formed! Bhutto was making excuses for cancelling the parliamentary session. Everyone understood that the situation had turned dire. We could hear gunshots in the distance over many days. Banga Bandhu declared the non-cooperation movement during this time. Everything was closed down. Only hospitals, water & electricity plants and banks remained open. Banga Bandhu asked us to starve off West Pakistan by shutting down production of goods and services. Bhutto came to meet with Mujib with all his party officials. Having failed to convince Mujib to give up his aspirations of becoming the Prime Minister, he left East Pakistan forever.
On 25th March 1971, Pakistan landed tanks, guns and cannons to massacre Bengalis. We got all the news from Dhaka through our town telephone connection. The rest was all rumors. Later I learned that the rumors were pale by comparison to the extent of killings that actually took place in Dhaka. They took Banga Bandhu prisoner. They flew him to West Pakistan for court marshal. I gnashed my teeth while listening to the speech made by Yahiya Khan on the radio. The Biharis of the nearby town flexed their muscle after the speech. We decided to leave our house immediately. The students had left their college dormitories already. The Biharis killed some of them while they were in the midst of fleeing.
The Pakistani military was on its way to our town. We could hear the infamous, frightful slogan by the Biharis, “Nare Takbir Allahu Akbar!” We grabbed whatever we could see in the house and headed towards the deep countryside. But Pona and I could not escape the hands of Nasir Ali! I was running carrying Pona in my arms and was the last in the queue. Nasir Ali caught me. But I was pretty strong and put up a fight. Because I struggled he grabbed Pona and threw him on the ground with all his force. Pona’s skull split open and his brains oozed out. I cried out loud. Nasir Ali motioned 2-3 people to help him carry me to his house. Everyone was standing and watching the fun. Some were even cheering him on. I was the only one standing completely speechless. I often wondered if there were any Bengalis amidst them. I am sure there were. Otherwise who else would do such harm to our family?
Apa, Fatema died that day – right there in that very slum. Did you ever hear of a father and a son taking turns in raping a girl? That was what they did to me. I was not the only one either. The Biharis brought several Bengali women from our Shona Danga village and among them there was a mother – daughter pair who was raped side by side in each other’s plain sight. Where was the Pakistani army to “protect us”? When the army came to rape us, the Biharis had already forsaken us. We were brought to Jessore in an open truck after 4-5 days. We sat in the truck with our faces covered with our hands. People were laughing at us. I could not see but I think I also heard female voices in the crowd. I know you would not believe me. How could you? You have never faced such a thing.
Today, my identity is that of a hapless, crazy Pagli. We were brought to Jessore and sold to Pak army at nominal value. What I mean is that Nasir Ali and his friends got a few medals and pats on their backs for our capture and abuse. I had already suffered physical abuse at their hands. I used to be frightened of Pakistani army men but I found out there were good and bad mixed in amongst them. But Nasir Ali was a real bastard, a complete traitor. One good thing Apa is that Shona and his fellow Mukti Bahini men chopped Nasir Ali into pieces later. They got a dog to come and enticed it to eat the flesh. But they regretfully told me that the dog refused to eat it. You know Apa even a dog has taste; he discriminates between good and bad. That is what differentiates a dog from the base human that we are. Thank God they have their senses.
They used to feed us at the army cantonment. Lunch and dinner comprised of lentils, bread, bhaji. We had bread and tea for breakfast. Apa, I had often refused to eat rice and milk that my own mother would serve with affection and yet I would eat this horrible jail food with much appetite. I decided to live. I had to live to take revenge for the murder of my brother, Pona. They had taken everything that belonged to me except my beating heart. I had to keep myself alive for my brother Pona. I promised to find Nasir after I was released and kill him with my bare hands. Somehow I had an inner faith that Bangladesh would be free and Banga Bandhu would return to us.
But when I understood that my family and society would not accept me – that I would not be able to go see Banga Bandhu again – I would cry and wanted to die. But Apa in reality I did see him! Shona took me to Dhaka and managed to show me Banga Bandhu from a distance one day. I noticed the fire that had burned so brightly inside him once dimmed a lot. Perhaps since the country was free he needed to calm down for everybody. Shona joined the Bangladesh army; Mona got admitted into high school. But how about me?
We were held prisoners in a long rectangular room, possibly a barrack in Jessore. There were no fewer than 20-25 girls there. They were not all from Jessore. Some were from Barisal, Faridpur and Jessore. Most of the girls were older than me. There was only one girl younger than me – about 14-15 years old. We had to whisper a lot. The sentries guarded the doors on either side and the janitor ladies surrounded us like vulchers. Still I preferred this situation to that traitor dog Nasir Ali! Nasir and his cronies would constantly beat me while I was imprisoned by them – they would laugh at my pain. They would yell “water, water” while urinating on my face. I never thought that the animal called human could be so bestial. Later I understood that I just had fallen from the frying pan to the fire.
I don’t think even psychologists know how many perverse ways sexual violence could be inflicted on a female body! There were so many girls there together. It seemed we had all overcome hatred, fear and shame in the end. One day a very ugly incident happened. Apa I am not even sure how I would tell you the details. There was a soldier who was especially cruel to me. I didn’t know the reason behind this. I think perhaps he could see the loathing in my eyes. If I had to walk past him he would kick me. Or he would slap me on the head. I had to take this cruelty silently – there was no alternative.
One day he came to our room completely drunk. I thought Muslims were prohibited from drinking. Only the weak minded Bengali Muslims must be the ones following those strict rules and regulations. I saw the Pakistani soldiers drunk many times. The officers were drinking both at home and in the clubs. The soldiers would talk about it.
Anyway, he got drunk one day, entered the room and jumped on me. He was not satisfied even after he took off my clothes, bit me and clawed my skin. He put his penis down my throat. I didn’t know what to do so I bit into it with my teeth with all my strength. The man screamed as loudly as an animal that had been shot. I knew that would be my last day alive. He dragged me and then tied the Lungi I was wearing before, to my hair. He then made me stand on a chair and tied my hair to the ceiling fan and turned on the switch. I remember screaming a few times and then I lost consciousness.
The girls later told me that the monsters first started to laugh at me rolling with the ceiling fan. But since the girls started to scream and panic, they got scared. Another soldier came in and turned off the fan. The news got out. The beast was court marshaled. I never saw him again. I was in the hospital for 3-4 days with extreme pain in the head and neck. As soon as my fever decreased they put me back in the barrack. The monsters left me alone for a few days. Afterwards the abuse, torture and rape continued as usual.
I never got any news from the outside world. A boy of about 20 would come from the kitchen to deliver food to us. He would tell me, “Apa Moni, please wait for a few more days. They are being beaten pretty badly by our boys now – they won’t be able to hold on much longer”. But he could not say much more than this from fear of retribution. Even the abused girls were not abstaining from gossip. Apparently a girl from Magura betrayed the confidence of a janitor. I was told the janitor woman was killed for this. Nobody talked to that girl anymore. We were scared though that she would make up lies about us! One day they took her somewhere else. We were all relieved. The monsoon rain had stopped for many days now. We had to use a blanket in the early morning. Perhaps it was autumn.
One day six of us were taken away from the barrack. I somehow felt that they were just removing some of us from Jessore. It was too close to the border with India. I remembered going to Kolkata and saw how simple bamboo sticks would line the boundary line of the two countries. Who knew what was going on outside! They took us at night blindfolded. We came to a big town I thought. But we could not hear any people or cars. I guessed it was near dawn. In the morning I saw we were in the countryside!
There were four windows in the room but they were really high up. Light and air would enter the room through those windows, but we could not see the outside world. Since the light came in we could tell night from day for sure. We could fathom just a little bit about the surroundings. The men were less vicious as compared to the last place and they did not come every night. It seemed it was a military transit station. The soldiers would come here to rest, receive instructions and then they were on their way. It was hustle and bustle followed by a period of quiet. Some days the whole contingent would attack us. They would perform acts of inhuman torture and cruelty on us all night! They would leave only after delivering us in a semi-conscious or completely unconscious state. Here we could talk with each other freely – but we lost the courage to speak in a normal voice. I did not know whom to trust. Anyone could betray any of us.
Armored trucks and jeeps full of Mukti Bahini and Indian army officers arrived from Jessore. The Pakistani soldiers were taken as prisoners of war into the vehicles. One officer from the Indian army took us girls in a separate truck. Chapa and I sat huddled together. I said, “Chapa, I want to take you to my home. Will you go? I told you that we are Muslims, right?” Chapa said, “I don’t have any religion or class! I have died. This is Chapa’s corpse you are looking at. Whoever gives me shelter will be my benefactor.” We came straight to Khulna. We were asked if we could find our way if we were given money. I agreed to the plan of the Indian army officer. I would take Chapa with me – we would go together.
With 100 Taka in my hand, I took a rickshaw and came straight to my house in Shonadanga with Chapa. My father was there. He burst into tears when he saw me. I said, “Baba I could not save Pona and I have brought another young one in his place.” Chapa bent down to touch Baba’s feet – but Baba pulled Chapa to his chest. We showered, changed our clothes and ate a huge meal of Muri and Gur. Baba said Shona had gone to bring Ma – they would arrive any minute. Shona had returned home the previous day.
Author’s Note: Out of all the Birangonas I have met, Fatema has been the most tortured and abused. Perhaps it is her name keeper that saved her in the end. Today Taher is a well-established, rich businessman. Fatema’s daughter Chapa is in high school. She is following in the steps of her aunt Chapa who is a nurse; and has her eyes on becoming a doctor. Fatema’s son wants to be a journalist. Fatema does a lot of volunteer work in social welfare agencies. She is really a brave, proud Bibi Fatema and a woman who is well deserving of Banga Bandhu’s title, a truly virtuous Birangana of Bengal.
I Am Mina Speaking
Many people knew me from this neighborhood. I am speaking in past tense because that was twenty-two years ago. I left the neighborhood after my wedding in 1968. If you walked from Mouchak Market towards Rampura TV station for seven or eight minutes, you would see quite a few narrow lanes on either side of the road. We used to live on one of those lanes. Everybody from the neighborhood knew me as Mina. Dhaka city was not so crowded then. Everything was spread out. My father was from Noakhali I don’t know if you are laughing at this or not. People always made faces upon hearing about that region. My mother was from Faridpur. How my parents crossed such a long distance to tie the knot is a story of its own. My maternal grandfather and my paternal grandfather worked at the same government office in Dhaka. They used to live here in a small single-story house for lesser rent away from the city. It was their friendship that got my parents together. We were two sisters and a brother.
My elder brother was studying commerce at Dhaka University at the time. I was the second child and at the time of my wedding, I was pursuing my B.A degree at the Central Women’s College. My father married me off with much fanfare, well above his means since I was the eldest daughter. My husband, Hasnat, was working for the Ordinance factory at the time. It was not an insignificant job.
The four of us in the family lived comfortably with the earnings from his job. In 1970, my daughter Falguni was born – the first born in both sides of the family. Waves of joy and happiness passed through everybody. My father used to travel a great distance just to be with his granddaughter every day. My mother-in-law was delighted to be able to see my father every day. My father-in-law had passed away ten years before that. The baby used to stay with her paternal grandmother. My husband and I had no shortage of time for movies, the theater or other entertainment. Eventually, the cloud of misfortune covered the lives of all in the nation. The civil unrest erupted like an explosive ball of fire. Still we were still happy with anticipation that the country shall be liberated.
On the night of March 25, 1971 all such dreams and hopes came to a screeching halt. Everybody was confined to the house on March 26th with the curfew. My husband had not returned from his work sine the night of the 25th. We heard that he remained back in Gazipur where the ordinance factory was located. On March 27, with all the rumors going around, I started to worry about my husband being alive. My mother-in-law became sick from worries or her son. I had no news from my parents; nobody dared to leave home to inquire about family and friends. My brother-in-law was a young boy at the time but we were afraid that the Pak military would shoot if they saw anybody of his age on the street.
During the daytime it was somewhat okay but at night it was very scary. After the first months, gunshots could be heard every day from the Farmgate area. Since we lived a little away from the thoroughfare in Indira Road, we could not hear the sound too clearly. Sometimes it sounded as though two sides were exchanging gunfire. Our feet and hands would turn cold in fear. That year, it rained a lot during the monsoon months and we would stay up all night with our ears perked for the slightest noise. Gradually people started to get out of the house. My husband’s office called him back to work. Both my mother-in-law and I begged him not to go but he did not listen to us.
The next day he came home to tell us that the authority would not allow him to live in Dhaka city. He had to live in Gazipur where the factory was and if we wished to, we could accompany him. My mother-in-law was adamant about not leaving and my husband got upset at his mother and left alone. I was upset by my mother-in-law’s stand. I thought to myself that the lady only was concerned about her younger son’s safety but did not have any consideration for the older son who was the sole earning member of the family. He used to come at the beginning of the month to give us the money from his salary, stay overnight and leave the following day for Gazipur. We got sort of used to the sound of firing by this time.
Around this time one day, the military broke into some houses and took away all the young men from the families. That’s when our fear really set in. On top of that, Falguni had been running a high temperature for a couple of days. I could not call the doctor, as I was afraid to leave the house. On that day, in the afternoon, she passed out. She was not even two years old yet. Like a mad woman, I ran out the house, got on a rickshaw and went to the nearest dispensary on the main road. Fortunately the doctor was there. The nurse took my baby to another room. All of a sudden some shots were heard and a couple of jeeps stopped in front of the dispensary. While the doctor was examining a patient, some men pulled me by my arm. I screamed out loud. Before the doctor could say anything, they dragged me into the jeep by my hair while kicking, punching and slapping me. For the first couple of days I lay unconscious. When I regained consciousness I wondered if my daughter was still alive. If only we had left with my father in March, none of this would have happened. Just because of my husband’s stubbornness my daughter and I were going to lose our lives.
Then started the torture! Like the carrions tear away the meat from the dead, they tore into us. Night and day we rotted away in that dark hell. Sometimes they called us above ground, we would shower, change clothes but then we would sent back to the dungeon. I cannot tell if the monsters that tortured us were Bengalis, Biharis, Punjabis or Pathans. When someone got sick they would take her away. I used to wish to fall sick so that I would be taken out of that hellhole and to a hospital. I later learned that it was not to the hospital the sick were taken. They were taken to permanent freedom – unmercifully killed.
After the war many mutilated female bodies were found with their stomach ripped and eyes gouged out. You could understand what kind of torture was going on in those camps. I got there relatively later than many – in August. We used to whisper with each other and listen to the horrific stories. The only outside visitor was the janitor woman who would tell us stories mixed with truth and rumors. She used to give us advice so that we didn’t get pregnant, because if they found out about the pregnancy, they would eliminate us in the cruelest way for sheer entertainment. Gradually I got accustomed to the darkness in the dungeon.
Even in the faintest light I could see things, recognize faces. I befriended a Christian girl named Mary. She was from Kola Kupa Bandura. She used to be a nurse at the Chondroghonahospital. At mealtime, they used to turn on a very bright light. We would cover our eyes in shock and would not be able to see anything for some time. I used to see blue dancing balls and realized that if it continued for much longer, I would become blind. Why did they keep us alive like that! I later learned the army would being people from different foreign embassies to the camps to prove that there weren’t any women being tortured there, when all along there were many like us waiting for death in the dungeon.
Suddenly, the sound of firing increased. The janitor woman said that the war has spread all through the nation and the Pakistanis were congregating in the capital city as they were beginning to lose the battles. Even in Dhaka city, the freedom fighters had infiltrated. By that time I was aware of the freedom fighters and what they stood for. It was beyond my belief that the underfed diminutive Bengali young men were fighting against the modern warfare of the enemy. I didn’t know what else was taking place outside.
All of a sudden the bombings began. The earth shook with the sound of the bombs. I thought we would all be buried alive right in that hellhole. Someday, someone would unearth our skeletons. Within five or six days all the noise stopped. All day and all night, we could hear the sound of heavy vehicles and a lot of activities above ground. Gradually all the noise, commotion calmed down. Our guests of all hours stopped visiting as though their interest in women just vanished. They were most likely worried about saving their own lives. The janitor woman told us that the Pakistanis would surrender. But what would happen to us? “Well, guess you all have survived,” was her response. I asked, “Why didn’t they kill us? She responded, “There will be no more killing. If the freedom fighters find out that they killed you they will chop them to pieces. Have a little patience and you will all see the light of freedom.”
True to her words, one day all were silent and we were called up from the dungeon. But, where would they take us? That powerful light was turned on again. Somebody said in Hindi, “Bahar aye Maiji! Come out mothers!” What did I hear? Someone was addressing me as “Mother”, while I was a bitch, bastard, worse than an animal for four months! Why all of a sudden were so much affection and respect given to me? I had forgotten how to trust anyone. I forgot that right from my home. I had no time to think. Some people almost dragged our skeletal bodies out. Some started to scream and wail yet others kept on laughing hysterically. We were taken to a room and asked to wash up and change our clothes. By then we got used to following orders like the soldiers, we behaved like pet dogs. We were then given bread, butter and bananas to eat. We all ate somewhat in a trance. Then we were taken to another room where one by one, all our names and addresses were noted.
The ones that had an address in Dhaka gave both their addresses in Dhaka and in the village home. Some of the girls left on their own. We remained there for a couple more days. Some of the girls left with their fathers who came to take them. A nun came from Tejgaon to take Mary with her. The nun hugged and consoled Mary just like a mother would have. I saw Mary a few times afterwards. She remained in her own profession of nursing at the Holy Family hospital. She got married to a male nurse as well.
I was daydreaming when a Bengali officer asked me where I wanted to go. I was two months pregnant. I asked if they had any establishment for women in my situation. He said, “Of course. Would you like to go there?” I nodded. I said that I wanted to get out of these walls. I wanted to breathe the air of freedom that was attained at such a high cost. I reached the women’s rehabilitation center in Dhanmondi. There were doctors and nurses there. They told me that I was pregnant and they wanted to do an abortion if I agreed. Excitedly, I asked the doctor to do the operation right away. The doctor affectionately touched my head and asked me to wait a few more days. He said that I was still very weak and I needed to first eat and rest for a while then everything would be fine. I told the doctor that I have a daughter at home named Falguni. I asked him to have mercy on me.
The doctor assured me of help and then called a nurse to cut and wash my hair. He said that my long hair was tangled in dreads and I probably had infection on the scalp too. He asked her to gently take care of me. I washed up and laughed when I looked at the short haircut. I used to have really long hair. I remembered when one day Hasnat decided to make a bun out of my hair. He fought with the comb, brush and hair and stopped after tearing a bunch of my hair. It hurt my head just thinking of that day. Would he get mad to see my new bob cut hair or would he tease me for it? I smiled to myself. Ten days later my abortion was done. I was at the end of my first trimester. If it were a few more days, the monsters would’ve come to know and what would they have done to me then? I screamed in fear from the thought and the nurse came running to me to ask what happened. I wiped my tears and said that it was nothing. After seven days of resting, I left for home. I was given some money as soon as I asked for it and was told to return if I failed to find my way home. They would make arrangements for me. I got off the rickshaw in front of my house but nobody even looked at me. I knocked on the front door. My mother-in-law looked at me for a moment after opening the door then held me in a tight embrace and started to cry.
Author’s Note: A few days ago I saw Mina at someone’s wedding. I used to see her often at the Bailey Road Working Women’s Hostel. My sister-like friend Zerina used to work there. Sometimes I used to sit in her office. Mina used to look downward as she entered or left the room. She used to respond hesitantly if I ever asked her anything. I used to ask Zerina why these girls felt so inferior, why they did not have the spark in their heart. Zerina would tell me to spare her the narratives and that the heat from the fire that our society has lit around them prevents them from looking up. Zerina used to be very sensitive about them. When Zerina heard about their wedding, she visited them and invited them over for dinner once. I never had the courage or eagerness to do that. Mina looked more beautiful than ever in a blue silk sari and a flower in her hair. She brought over a girl of ten or so to me and introduced me as an aunty. She said that it was her daughter, Sraboni. That’s when I remembered that she also had a beautiful daughter named Falguni. I held my tongue and asked whose wedding she was so busy with. She whispered that it was her daughter’s wedding – but aloud said that it was her niece Falguni’s wedding. She cried with mixed feelings of happiness and grief. I held her in a tight embrace. She wiped her tears and asked me to pray for Falguni so that her mother’s misfortune had no effect on her fate. I sternly said, “Misfortune! What are you saying Mina?” She said, “You are right, Apa, please forgive me. I am a war heroine; the great leader’s words became true. I am a proud mother – a great woman. I am very happy.” She tried to touch my feet but I stopped her. After a long time today a burden was lifted from my heart. So in this Bangladesh, there still exist some decent men who have the audacity and courage to build a life of happiness with girls like Mina. Silently I said, “Joy Bangla, Banglar Joy!
This is Mrs. Nielson Speaking
Just like nature, human nature is also very diverse. In nature, sometimes there are flat lands covered with lush forest and in other places, there is barren desert where not a drop of water is found. On one side stand the Himalayas, the greatest mountain range of the world. On the other side flows the water of the great ocean. Somewhere on this earth it is the hot and humid summer and in another place, there is the cool wind of the fall or snowfall.
Sometimes I sit by myself and think that my life is also the same. Just like the diversity in nature, I’ve had love, affection, romance, hatred, shame, rage, and pity. I’ve been touched by everything in this life: sometimes a gentle touch, and at other times, the hardest blow. I never thought I would have the courage to express the depth of my feelings to another person. Since childhood I have never learned to express this courage. I have always repeated to myself that I am a girl, and I must tolerate everything. I’ve repeated this as often as the multiplication table. I will be tolerating everything like Mother Nature. There was only one way to protest, either through taking the test of fire like Sita, or by entering the underground. Sita was a goddess. But as a mere mortal, I could not do either of those two things.
When I heard shame, shame, shame around me, when the leaders of my society and close relatives had said, “Why didn’t you die you wretched woman? Have you come back to murder us with this black face?” I could not tell them in return, “No, where did I get the chance to die? You couldn’t even make that happen for me. You didn’t extend a hand to keep me alive, nor did you help me to die. You couldn’t say these words through your mouth. Nor did you have the honest courage to turn these words into action. You never did have the courage, you don’t have this courage now, and you never will.”
I am not just surprised today, I’m filled with positive emotion that a woman, who is my mother’s age, has come forward and shown me so much compassion. But today, after 20 long years, I am standing on the present, resting firmly on my two feet. In fact I no longer have a lot of aspirations for the future. Using the strength of my determination and hatred, I have forgotten my tainted past. What I once was very proud of was also the object of shame, fear, and loathing by my family and society.
Author’s note: I remembered when we moved forward as a nation with optimism and hope as tall as the mountain. Then one day all hope was extinguished when a great life was taken from us. Once again people lost their happiness and their dear ones. It seemed so many monsters had congregated around me these days putting on the masks of human faces. For the past ten years, I felt only my body was alive. My soul had died. I wondered at which bend of the journey of my life did I meet this foreign woman, Mrs. T. Neilson? My friend Shirley from Vancouver told me that we might have been sisters in past lives, Mrs. Neilson and I. That’s why even though we lived far apart, we were so drawn to each other! Shirley cultivated her spiritual side a lot. She was very wealthy, and yet there was not a trace of arrogance in her. She was full of patience and respect. Once a year she came to London and left a Christmas gift for me with my daughter who lived there. Is Mrs. Neilson someone like that? Suddenly, suddenly, a thousand watt bulb turned on in my head!! Oh my God, I remembered the Women’s Rehabilitation Center. I remembered a girl standing beside the entrance of the Operating Theater at the clinic of the Women’s Rehabilitation Center in Dhanmondi, Dhaka, matted hair, pale, reddish lips, and wearing a plain white sari with red border. Standing with absolutely no fear or hesitation. Her name was Tara. I had gone to this girl so many times to ask: where was she from, what happened to her, and got absolutely no response except yes or no. Whenever I asked her a question, she just came close and snuggled up to me – but didn’t say anything. I understood she wanted my touch, whether that was a maternal touch, or the touch of her country, I didn’t know.
In 1971, I was in Rajshahi right before the Liberation War started. My father worked as a doctor right outside the city in a small town. He was a government employee at one time. After the 1952 Language Movement, my father left his job and went back to the town where he was born, bought a sizeable amount of land, and built a small house for us. My mother’s dreams were fulfilled because now she could have her own garden. By this time, Dadi had passed away. My elder sister Kali got married and went to live with her husband in Calcutta, a neighboring city in India. My brother was preparing to appear in his last examination at the medical college. However the non-cooperation movement by Bangladeshi citizens against the oppressive Pakistani government came to head at that time and derailed the institutions from administering examinations on schedule. My mother was disheartened by the fact that my brother might not be able to appear in his last exam. But my father actually seemed happy for reasons I did not understand. Baba used to come back late from work.
My mother would be anxious and complain about his late returns. Baba smiled and replied, “Didn’t you hear the call to resistance made by Banga Bandhu, Sheikh Mujib? He said, “Whatever you have, in any way you can, participate in the non-cooperation, resistance movement against the Pakistan government?” “Yes I have heard it,” my mother would reply, “but what are you jumping into this movement with?” Baba replied, “I have a son, I have a daughter, and I have you. I have two hands.” But at nighttime, Baba did not sleep restfully. Any little sound would wake him up. He would walk up and down the balcony. Did he see any ominous sign? I don’t know. He never let us know.
By middle of March 1971, there were already some scattered incidents of violence reported in our area. We believed, however, that everyone was well united in our town. We were confident we would be able to fight back if we were to be beset by enemies. Then along came the black night of March 25th tearing down this tremendous confidence and changing our destiny. There was a curfew the next day, but I saw several men circling our house. My mother was praying to the Hindu gods to calm down her anxiety. Baba was pacing restlessly. We were holed up in our place like rats on March 26th. On March 27th, as soon as evening descended, we got ready to go to our village home and grabbed our handbags. But no car or rickshaws were to be found anywhere. Suddenly, the local town chairman’s jeep came around and stopped in front of our house. They asked my father to come and join them in the jeep. “Doctor, please come with us,” they addressed my dad. “Where are you headed anyway? Come with us and we will take you wherever you need to go.” Since Baba refused to go with them, four or five men came inside the house and pulled me into the jeep.
There was no sound of gunfire anywhere. The jeep took off and I didn’t know whether they took my father or mother later, or killed them. The jeep sped forward with me to an unknown destination. For some time, I must have lost consciousness. When I woke up I realized I was in the police station, and in front of me was an army officer. He talked with me politely. I said they brought me by force from my father and mother. The officer laughed and said, “That’s for your own safety.” I saw two to three other girls my age crying, sometimes screaming. They were scolded if they screamed. Couple of hot cups of tea arrived, and even some bread and a few bananas. Nila Apa, that scene is still crystal clear to me as if it was happening right now. The officer was happy that I could speak in English with my small town accent. We spent that whole day in the police station.
As evening descended the town chairman stopped by the station once more. I understood everything but still got down to the floor and held his feet. I appealed, “Uncle, please take me to my Baba. You have known me since I was a little girl. I have played with your daughter Sultana together and went to school together. Please take pity on me.” He pushed me aside and quickly left the station. I knew he left me as a sacrifice to be devoured by these monsters. I witnessed how in a moment a man can turn into a monster. I did not see another human being again until after December 16, when Bangladesh was liberated.
The officer took me inside the jeep. He showed a lot of interest in me. After the jeep travelled a certain distance, he started to tell stories about his military bravado. Not one word would enter my head. Suddenly, I jumped from the moving jeep. The officer was in the driving seat, and I was next to him. Behind us, seated, were two Jawaans, (Pakistani soldiers). I must have instantly lost consciousness. When I awakened, I saw my head was wrapped in a bandage and I was lying in a hospital cot. It was a small hospital. I got a lot of care, but all the employees were male. They had brought in a village girl by force just to assist me in a few physical necessities. The girl was crying the entire time. In the evening the officer left. Before he left, he was addressing me by honey and darling and said Khodahafez. I lay in bed three days, and then I sat up. I knew I was feeling better.
We had the ingrained cultural value that a mule or an ox could not be sacrificed to the gods if it had an imperfection. I was now ready to be sacrificed. It was a Bangali officer who inflicted intense physical torture and abuse on me during the first day. I lost my voice from the shock of the trauma. Since I was already ill, my head was not working properly. I could not fight back. I became the victim of a monster whose eyes were filled with greed and lust. That night, so many people attacked my body. I could not tell you how many, except there were probably six to seven men. In the morning, the Pakistani officer came in and saw me in this condition and got very excited. He even beat up a few people. Then he took me to the jeep again, and we went to the third destination. I took the hand of the officer and said, “Please save me. Now, let me go. You are my brother. I have an elder brother your age.”
Suddenly, he became enraged and changed from a gentleman to a monster. His eyes lit up in anger. With his left hand he grabbed my hair and said, “Tell me, where is your brother?” I didn’t know where my brother was. Then he spat on my face and scolded me in words I didn’t even recognize. I sat there in stillness. I sat there like a still mass with no feelings or emotions. For many days my head didn’t work at all. I ate as if I was a machine. And I got passed around to so many men and simply put up with their rape and sodomy. When I could, I bit my lips with my teeth and screamed, “Joy Bangla.” I got spat on or kicked most of the time for saying this.
Where I grew up in the village, there was a saying that the soul of a female is just like that of a cat or the tortoise. No matter how much you torture, it still lives. It doesn’t die. I doubt any males would survive the torture that my female counterparts and I have survived on the way to death. But there’s a reason behind this. The females who were being tortured in the war were an essential element for these monsters to survive the war. We were the comfort women. So no matter how much they tortured us, they kept us alive in flesh and blood so they could use us. There were about eight to ten girls at this place where they kept me. Their ages ranged from thirteen to thirty years or even higher. They were all from the village. There was one educated girl from town. I got a chance to talk to her a little bit. She was older than me, very beautiful.
She was apparently a senior at Rajshahi University. Her two brothers were in the army. I’m sure that by this time they had joined the freedom fighters of Bangladesh. She put her hand on my head and said, “Please keep yourself alive in some way. We will be victorious.” It is from her that I first heard this was July. I could not believe I had survived this hell for four months. Bhagavan, for how many days will the war go on? These animals didn’t look a bit discouraged or weak. That same evening, the university student was taken away from us, probably as a sacrifice to another big Pakistani army general.
We were not allowed to wear regular clothes, like a sari or a scarf to cover ourselves. Apparently, in another rape camp, one girl committed suicide by hanging from the ceiling using her sari. We were dressed in tattered Lungis and blouse. Sometimes they would go to the markets and get new clothes in bulk and come back and throw the clothes to us one by one like we were animals. You know how people give clothing to beggars at the time of Durga Puja (Hindu festival) or Eid (Muslim festival)? When I would get the clothes thrown like this at me, tears would well up in my eyes. I would remember Baba. Baba would always ask me on special festivals, “Daughter what kind of sari will you take on this occasion? I would say, “Whatever you give me, Baba.” With affection he would put his hand on my head and say, “No matter which man’s house you go to as a wife, that house will be filled with peace and happiness.” Baba, did you know that your daughter was not born to go to any man’s house as a wife? Her birth moment was the unluckiest of all? That she is cursed? That she is a gypsy woman?
Suddenly, one day, I wondered how I would look after all this torture and abuse? There was no mirror here, nor were there any glass windows or doors in case we committed suicide. What they didn’t know was that I was keeping my abused and disrespected body alive with a lot of love and tenderness so that I could take revenge. You know that man that I used to call uncle and who was the town chairman? Do you know what will I do to him when I get out? I wonder where my beloved Shaman is now. Shaman appeared in the final examination in engineering college right before March 25th, when the war started. He was waiting in Dhaka for his results to be published. Is he dead, or is he alive? Since he was male, he was most likely dead. I had so many fantasies around Shaman. He was so handsome and his body so muscular. He was very shy. When everybody was present, he would barely speak with me. His sister, Kajali used to go to the same school as me. She used to say, “Do you know that my brother loves you?” Upon hearing this, my ears would turn bright red. Little beads of sweat would form on my forehead. It’s amazing what human beings plan, and what becomes of their real lives! Where was Shyamal now? Was he dead or alive? Maybe he has joined the freedom fighters to resist the Pakistani army invasion. His elder sister, brother in law, father, and mother were all in India. He will be all right.
I suddenly laughed at myself and wondered about the futility of thinking about Shyamal still. I was suddenly awakened from my daze by the yell from Moti Mia (Mr. Moti). Moti Mia was supplying us with food and other essentials. Sometimes he delivered some news in an indirect language. He always gave the date and time under the guise of being meticulous. Mr. Moti informed us this was now September. There were three more months to go in this year. The Pakistani generals would not be here any longer than this. Yes, they would return back to their country to their wife and kids after winning the war. I understood that my freedom was imminent because these days, outside the rape camp, I could hear loud sounds of gunfire and bomb explosions.
The officers and soldiers who came to this camp somehow seemed very anxious and fearful. Sometimes news in Bangla would float to my ears. No, not from Dhaka or Rajshahi (the town where Tara was from) radio stations, but the accent is from west Bengal, from Akashbani (Bangla news chronicle from radio station located in west Bengal, India). Somebody put on a voice like an actor and delivered the news on the radio station. As soon as the news was over, the Razakars in the camp would start denouncing the radio program with obscenities. I actually prayed to Bhagavan so that my little soul could survive until victory day. I would bite my lips and pronounce “Joy Bangla” under my breath.
Suddenly the next day, a girl died amongst us. She was pregnant. From the early morning, she was hemorrhaging profusely. She banged on her door and screamed a lot for help, but nobody came forward. Nobody understood what was going on completely. Her name was Moina (black bird). She was about fifteen. She threw about her arms and legs like a slaughtered animal for a while, and then slowly succumbed to sleep. Her face turned blue after she died.
An elderly woman called Sufia’s Ma, (mother of Sufia), came and wrapped her in a small blanket since the army officers never gave us sheets. That evening they came to take Moina’s body away. There was an uncomfortable numbness that settled inside of me. It seemed that even these monsters were running out of their need for females. That means they could kill us. I was feeling a lot of discomfort in my chest. I said, “I can’t take this pain any more, God. We have all been through so much. Please lift me up, Bhagavan, please liberate me.” But I never prayed to be dead. I only wanted and prayed so I could live.
The sound of guns and bombs were gradually decreasing. It was quite chilly now. I grabbed a small blanket that was available and wrapped it around my body. One day, as dawn broke, it seemed unusually quiet and silent. Sufia’s Ma spoke up, “Have the bastards run away?” Suddenly her words gave my body incredible strength. I got up and started to bang on the door. I started to yell. Suddenly I heard, “Joy Bangla!” Joy Banga Bandhu (hail to the friend of Bengal, Mr. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of Bangladesh). I could not believe what I heard. I never even spoke to Sufia’s Ma during all these months, and yet today, I flung my two arms around her like my own mother and started to cry. I don’t think I cried since March 27th, when I was kidnapped, until this moment. Suddenly our door flung open. We were all scared and entered back into our room. The men who came did not seem to be gentlemen. Sufia’s Ma stepped forward and talked with them. They said they were freedom fighters, but I didn’t believe them, seeing the way they were looking at us.
At that very moment, a jeep pulled up, and in a very loud voice the passengers yelled, “Joy Bangla!” We also screamed spontaneously, “Joy Bangla!” Descending from the jeep came three men wearing Khaki uniforms and another seven to eight men wearing Lungi (traditional Bangla male wear) tank tops and pants. Everybody had guns in their hands. Their leader came forward. I was so scared that I retreated to a very dark corner. I was instantly transported to the scene of March 27th when I was abducted. One of the men in uniform understood that I was very scared. He approached me and spoke to me in the gentlest of ways, “Aiye…”
I don’t know what happened to me. I gave out an intense scream and fell to the ground. Later I heard the men who liberated us were indeed both Bangla freedom fighters and the Indian army. From the nearby village, the men brought us clothes so we could cover ourselves. Since I was unconscious from that point onwards, they delivered me directly to the nearby hospital in their jeep.
When I had awakened, I found myself in a small hospital. From the people in the hospital I understood that I was still in north Bengal. I asked someone exactly what town I was in. I think I heard Ishwardi (a district also in northern Bengal). Since I endured unimaginable torture and pain for so many days, my head did not work properly. I did tell people repeatedly that I wanted to go to my father. But when they asked me my father’s name, I just could not recall. I just sat there and kept crying. It seemed I had lost part of my memory. As a result, I was directly transported to the capital city of Dhaka, which helped quite a lot in the end. Most likely I flew in a helicopter. Once in Dhaka I regained my consciousness. I realized I was in the women’s ward of the main Dhaka medical college hospital. I looked all around me and realized that I had never seen so many people. I could not tell what time it was, but they were delivering the afternoon meals. I got mine also. A nurse helped me. I washed my face and pulled the plate of rice towards me, but tears rolled down my cheeks and fell down on my plate of rice. The nurse put her hand on my back and gave me a lot of affection. She sat there with me so I could eat. I don’t know if I had ever encountered such terrific hunger. It was as if I never tasted rice and curry before. It was like heaven in my mouth. I felt like I survived! What I did not know is how many deaths would still await me.
After being there for three or four days, the doctor informed me that I was pregnant. They asked me where I wanted to go. I bit my lips and said I had no one. I told them to make the same arrangements as they had made for other destitute girls. The female attending physician asked if I really had no relatives. I shook my head. She somehow understood.
After about a month, I was transferred to the Women’s Rehabilitation Center in Dhanmondi, Dhaka and I saw you (Dr. N. Ibrahim) many times. When I was being treated at the Medical College, a steady crowd of curious men and women came to see me as a war affected woman, as a spectacle. We were on display. When I asked about these people, I found out they came to see women like me. The nurse there explained everything to me in great detail. The new Prime Minister (Banga Bandhu) has announced that the women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for Bangladesh will be addressed as war heroines (Birangana was the title given to us). I thanked and blessed the Prime Minister from my heart. I am a war heroine. I could not believe I had been given such high respect. I felt honored. But why were my eyes still filled with tears and why couldn’t I stop them? I was so eager to see Baba and wanted to know their news. I missed my home! But I could not find someone trustworthy whom I could request to help me track my family down. Finally, I gave Baba’s address to Mrs. Mushfequa Mahmud, the executive officer of the Rehabilitation Center. I kept on waiting and looked at the street everyday thinking, “At any moment, Baba will race up the street to see me.” But days went by, and then weeks.
I got the news that Baba was busy reconstructing the house that was damaged in the war. He would come in a few days. I could only utter in response, “Baba, you too!” When I now see any visitors, I just leave their company. Finally I met a female, Polish physician and I asked her to teach me some crafts or skills. She was simply delighted to teach me. So I gave up all my worries and started to work with her in full force.
In the meantime, my abortion was arranged. With a strong heart, I got prepared for this procedure. I finally understood my place in this society and in my family. Nila Apa, you have seen how all the girls simply resisted getting an abortion. Each girl wanted to keep her baby. Women have a tremendous weakness because every woman has an innate desire to be a mother at least once in their life. But where will I go with this child? Do you remember Marjina? She used to wear a frock and was only 15 years old. She was like me and had a son. She did not want the son to be taken away overseas. She used to scream every time she saw you, thinking you would take her son away. In the end, they did forcibly send her son away to some other country for adoption. You didn’t come around anymore after that, Nila Apa! Why, Nila Apa? Was it too hard for you to face Marjina? Dr. Ibrahim lowered her head and said, “One of the toughest things in life was to send away Marjina’s son to Sweden. It was the most painful thing. I talked with the Prime Minister, Banga Bandhu, and he said, “Nila Apa, you must send away all those children who have no identity of their fathers. The child of a human being must grow up with the respect of a human being. Besides, I don’t want that polluted blood in this country.” Many people tried to tell Banga Bandhu that those children would be converted into Christianity when they are adopted abroad. But Banga Bandhu was unmoved. Tara knew her plight and prepared to fight in this world all alone.
Suddenly one day, Baba arrived. Baba looked like he had aged many years. He held me tight in a strong grip and burst into tears. I remembered that about seven or eight of us went to see Banga Bandhu in his executive office one day not too long before. The trip was arranged through the Rehabilitation Center. Our tears flowed on the chest of the prime minister that day. He said, “You are like my daughters. You have given the most precious thing for the liberation of this country. You are the highest heroines in my book. I am here, don’t worry about anything.” That day I really felt I had nothing to worry about. Banga Bandhu was behind us. But somehow I could not put my head and shed my tears as freely on my father’s bosom. Baba’s hand on my head did not relieve my anxiety. I raised my face to his and I asked him, “Baba, should I go home with you now? I have to tell the office that I am leaving.” Baba stopped and hesitated, and then said, “No, my sweet, I cannot take you today. The house is being rebuilt. Your mother’s brother is visiting at the house now. Tomorrow your sister Kali and her husband will come to visit. When they all leave I will come and get you.” Softly I let go of my father’s arm. “That’s okay, Baba. Don’t come again. “No, no,” said Baba in hesitation.
He gave me a bag of fruits. I didn’t want to touch it, but I didn’t want to become a laughing object by throwing it away either. Baba came again, but never offered to take me home. Even my big brother came from Calcutta with a new sari. And my old heartthrob Shyamal? He also came to see the war heroine that I became. One thing that my brother said that my father could not bring himself to tell me, “We will drop by and see you whenever we can. But please don’t suddenly come home. You will shame us.” The muscles of my face were so tense I couldn’t move my jaw. My brother noticed and quickly added, “Please don’t send any letters to our address either. We are doing well you know. I’ve got a new job, and we got some money from the government to build a new house. The money was given to the family for you. We added an extension to the house.” I got up and turned away from my brother. I never looked at him again. The next time I saw my brother, I was no longer the hapless, destitute, and bad luck Tara. I was a proud Mrs. T. Neilson.