Mahfuz Sadique chronicles stories of those who stayed, those who left, those who fought and those that were captured
Dr Samir Kanti Saha
Fled with his family from their village home in Noakhali and was registered with a refugee camp in Agartala
We lived in Dadpur village under Sudharampur thana of Noakhali district. My father was a commissioned agent, and we led a well-off life. I was studying in class ten at the time of the war. We left our village a few weeks after the war had started. We went to our maternal uncle’s place in Choumuhuni and stayed there for 15 days. But as that was getting increasingly insecure, we left for India in mid-May.
We hadn’t even gone 4/5 kilometres from the ghat when we were stopped by a boat which had Shantibahini members in it. They searched the entire boat and when they couldn’t find anything, they did something that I still find unbelievable. They just dropped a few bullets and a gun on my father’s lap and yelled out: ‘Here we have found weapons.’ We were brought back to Choumuhuni.
After persuasion from an uncle and a family friend, they eventually did let us go. We left on that boat and eventually on foot, we finally reached Agartala. I still remember we had to walk for hours on the Akhaura road. The people who were travelling with us on the road became our companions. They helped us carrying sacks and in a way they were a solace amidst all this mayhem.
We started living in this one-room slum quarter, very close to the refugee camp. We were registered with the camp, and had to go there to collect ration. Of all the memories I have of the camp, the most aching is the one of my mother crying. She cried regularly, especially whenever she started cooking, as she remembered how we used to live compared to what she was feeding us now. But my father never cried. He was always strong.
My father and I were returning from the camp with ration one day. My father had the heavy rice sack on his head, and I had the lighter sack of lentils on my head. As we were walking home, it started raining. It was fun for me. But as I looked up, my father’s body was shaking, he was crying. As a teenager that was something that really shook me. I watched my father, Chandra Kanta Shaha, employer of hundreds, a strong man, crying. He cried all night after coming back home. I guess, now that I look back, probably it was the feeling of hopelessness for his children and the life that he had painstakingly created getting lost in front of his eyes that pushed him over the edge.
All through those months, we were known as ‘Joy Bangla’. We rarely had any names. As physician, I find it amusing to recollect that in the camps and the vicinity there was a spread of conjunctivitis. And it also came to be known as ‘Joy Bangla’. They would say, ‘S/he has caught Joy Bangla.’
Sometimes, we would get a jackfruit for 20/25 paisas and that would be our supper. We slept on one single bed. We did not have any pillows, and my parents used a piece of brick with a cloth on top.
The camps were all so cramped too. With their blue plastic roof, in a single compartment lived several families. We sometimes played games. But every day there were times when the entire camp centred around the transistors where the Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendro would be playing. At home, my mother was mostly gloomy; but when the Kendro was playing some item, maybe the Charampatra or even the news read by Deb Dulal Bandyapadhay, her face would light up with hope.
At the camps, religion was never a factor. As I said earlier, we were all Joy Bangla. That was our religion and our identity.
Finally, in December, we left for Murshidabad. We started feeling that the war was going to end soon. One of my uncles lived in Murshidadbad. For me, the day of liberation came when I took my little sister, Kabita, on the handle of my cycle and slowly pedalled into a liberated country. We went to the bordering village of Ajani in Rajshahi, where my father had business and we had lived earlier. We saw collaborators being rounded up.
As I look back, those were such troubling days. The sense of humiliation I saw in my father’s eyes would haunt me fore a long time. That was the most painful experience of living in exile without hope.
Dr Samir Kanti Saha is a professor of microbiology at the Bangladesh Institute of Child Health, Dhaka Shishu HospitalShaheen Anam
Was in Dhaka throughout the war, and assisted guerrilla activities from her home, which was one of the major safe houses in the capital
It was early April, probably the first week. My brother, Wasif, and several others — Bodi, Towheed, Badal, Samad, Atik — came to our house in Dhanmondi with about five or six rifles. They were .303 rifles. They dug up a hole in the ground and concealed the weapons there. The fight was going to start. We were all young. I was in university, so were the others. Now I look back, and think, how were they even thinking of fighting a city full of army with those things?
Though there was fear, our age permitted us the liberty of adventure, or even excitement. We were doing something. And I felt bad as I stayed home and my brothers and the others were out there without food, or shelter, for days.
As the months passed by, our house started to resemble a warehouse. We stored blankets, medicine and anything that was required. Our almiras, floors were overflowing with these items.
On some occasions there were as many as 10 to 12 young freedom fighters at our place. They would be either planning or hiding for the time being. On one such occasion, a captain in the Pakistan Army, Rizwanul Islam, came to our home, without notice. I knew him by acquaintance from my school days at the Cantonment Model School. As he walked into the drawing room, there were at least ten men sitting there, all guerrilla fighters. It was a tense situation. He had a brief conversation with us and left. He probably guessed their identity, but did not inform the authorities.
Several months into the war, we heard that the army was conducting house-to-house searches in Dhanmondi. We got scared. Our house had so many belongings of freedom fighters. We just locked the doors and left. Fortunately, our house was not searched.
But on the morning of August 29, I woke up at gunpoint. A soldier was pointing a gun at me as I woke up. I told him to stand outside the room as I had not even got out of bed. As I came out, I found the whole house was ransacked. The whole house was swarming with at least 200 army personnel. They had searched every corner. Then they took us to the back of our house, where the dugout was located. The fighters had taken the weapons sometime in May, but inadvertently left the place bare.
The army men told us that they knew that weapons were kept there. When asked where my brother was, my mother told them that he had gone to Pakistan to visit relatives. We had some relatives in Pakistan. Actually, he was Agartala at that time. When they could not get any information, one of them suddenly pulled one of my younger brothers by the arm. They threatened us by saying that they would get all the information they needed if my brother was ‘properly’ interrogated. Both my mother and I grasped my younger brother and started yelling that we would not let them to take him away. At this point, a senior official came and broke off the standoff. He warned my mother and told us to refrain from helping any fighters. He also said that they knew that my brother was a freedom fighter, and he should stay away from such activity. Later, we learned from our neighbours that earlier in the morning they had surrounded the house and brought a limping man to the house. It was Bodi Bhai. They tortured him.
There were several such safe houses all over the capital. There was Atik Bhai’s house. Then there were Shirin Haque’s, where my brother took refuge when he came back from Agartala, Alam Bhai’s, Chullu Bhai’s office. The army had captured Bodi Bhai from Chullu Bhai’s place.
After the August incident, we were very disheartened. I am ashamed to think now, but many of us who were desperate to get news of the captured and to get them released, went to a peer. Poor Jhinu apa! She went and cried at Pagla peer’s feet so many times, thinking that he might be able to get her loved one released. Those were really hard times. Several of those who used to come to our house were captured and the worst was feared.
Then finally, December 16 came. On the seventeenth, Shahadat Bhai came to our house with Chullu Bhai. There were so many others. They were firing blanks. We were so happy! We went to Jahanara Imam’s house. We feared the worst for Rumi, her son. But she was so resolute.
For us, the generation that liberated the nation, a common frame of reference binds us. Those were glorious days. When I look back, I feel proud that our generation had liberated the nation.
Shaheen Anam is executive director, Manusher Jonno, a non-governmental organisation working on Human Rights and good governance.
Kazi M Iqbal
Captured in early June, 1971, while on a guerrilla mission, held and tortured in a prisoner of war camp in Dhaka Cantonment, and later at the Dhaka Central Jail, till December
I was studying at Dhaka University. On March 28, I left the city. First I went to Jhenidah, and then onto Magura. I crossed the border near Meherpur. I trained at the camp under Tauqfique Elahi, Bir Pratik. At the end of May, or maybe early June, we went into Pakistan territory to blow up a train near Jibonnagar, Darshana under Kushtia district.
We were staying at a safe house. Two others and I were caught with explosives, guns. The 18th Punjab regiment’s Bravo company captured us. I find it amazing that even after catching me with explosives and weapons, they did not shoot me. I was first sent to a camp in Darshana. Then from there onto Chuadanga, then Faridpur, Jaidevpur and eventually the dreaded Prisoner of War Cage No 1 at the Dhaka Cantonment. Just think about it — it was called a cage. As if we were animals!
Life at the camp was just horrifying. There were all kinds of people being held there. A half-moon warehouse had been turned into a camp. There were at least 1,000 inmates at any point of time. PIA loaders, college teachers, government officials, day labourers — they were all there. The infamous Field Interrogation Unit of Major Faroque brought in many inmates.
I was interrogated and tortured. My entire body had marks of beatings after I was released. Starting from beatings with belts and hunters, to standing on your knees for hours and burned by torches, there were many forms of torture. The main attempt by the interrogators was to degrade and humiliate the inmates as much as possible.
‘Thala, bati, kombol, ei tin shombol’ was the saying at the camp. We were given a mess-tin. That was the only container we got. We carried water in it, used it for washing and carried food in it. The food we were given was barely food. A blob of rice, and a slap of cooked dundul, those vegetables, which are eventually dried for scrubbing. For some weird reason, they did not give any salt in the food. In the morning, we just got a mug of tea, sometimes cold and if we were lucky slightly warm. By the time I left the camp, I had come down to 80/90 pounds. I was young, but others were worse off. The sight at the camp was no less horrifying than the images seen in World War II movies, and those of Nazi concentration camps. Many went mad after several months. Many more were completely mentally unstable.
My interrogation went on as usual. They asked me what I would do to if they let me go. I said that I would go back to India. So they beat me even more. Eventually, they let me write a confession. I took full liberty and started writing my life’s history, which eventually led to nothing. During those days, we saw many freedom fighters, and some Indian soldiers being brought in. Samsher Mobin Chowdhury, Bir Bikram, was brought in one day. He was limping from his wound.
Finally, in October, I was transferred to Dhaka Central Jail. Compared to the PW Cage, that was like heaven. Though I was held up at a small cell with several others, the situation was quite different. For one, we could eat to our hearts’ content. We could take as much rice as we wanted. And the cooking was edible, with salt.
Sometime after I had been sent to the Central Jail, I was told that I would be tried under Marshal Law. There was also an underhand deal going on, as I later learned. My father was summoned to the cantonment, and told that if he gave the investigating officer a bottle of whisky, they would punish me, but would not beat me. My father gave it without a question.
My trial was a mockery. When I declined to call any defence, they appointed a lawyer on my behalf. His opening words were: ‘He is guilty, but kindly reduce the punishment.’ Anyway, by this time December had come. And when on December 4 India gave its consent, we knew the end was near. As the jail was an open compound, we could see the early attacks of MiG-21 fighters coming in from the other side of the city.
On December 17 we got out. Shahadat Chowdhury came and took us out. I went to my aunt’s house near Science Laboratory.
The days at the prisoner camps were like a nightmare. They were days when we lived on the borderline between rationality and insanity. Other than the memory of eating arum for the first time while in Dhaka Central Jail, I didn’t bring back any good memories.
I look back and wonder how we survived that cage.
Kazi M Iqbal is a director at the Consolidated Tea & Lands Co. (Bangladesh) Limited, a subsidiary of Finlay
Ishtiaque Aziz Ulfat and Major (retd) Manzoor Ahmed, Bir Pratik
Left Dhaka for training camps in the early days of the war, and fought for the entire duration
We were friends since childhood. One lived at Abhay Das Lane and the other at Ram Krishna Mission road. In early March, even before the war had started, we being the youthful rebels we were, had planned to hijack a Pakistan International Airlines plane. But we abandoned that plan.
About that time, we also made many Bangladeshi flags and sold them. We had collected a lot of money from the sales and were hoping that they would come in handy if there was a resistance. It did. Then came March 25. All night there were trucks plying on the roads. On the night of the twenty-sixth, they burned down the Ittefaq office, (Ulfat’s house was right next to the paper) and we could feel the heat coming out of the hot iron.
When the curfew was lifted on March 27, we went to see what had happened. Near the Ittefaq office, a teenager was lying dead stuck in between the gap of the gate of a house. Everywhere we went, there was death. Shankharibazar, Shadarghat, everywhere! We had only one thing on our mind at that point — revenge.
All our brothers were friends with each other. When news came that Khaled Mosharraf had started a resistance, Manzoor’s brother Akther was also among those in the 4 East Bengal Regiment in Kishoreganj, we felt we had to do something.
After an initial visit to Pirojpur, we got instructions from Major Jalil, who was in Barisal, to go back, and collect more young men from Dhaka and come back. After returning we gathered several others, and eventually three of us — Ulfat, Manzoor and Shelly — left Dhaka.
We reached Madaripur. There we stayed at the residence of the Bhuiyan’s, who were very helpful. Then we went on to Bagerhat, where the manager of the Australasian Bank gave us refuge and helped us. We finally reached Shelly’s paternal home in Satkhira. After staying there for a day, Shelly’s family wouldn’t let him come with us. So, he stayed back, and later joined us in war. We took his watch and all the money we could.
Eventually on April 20 we crossed into India. We reached Manzoor’s maternal home in Hoogli. We stayed there for nearly ten days. Then started the long journey to Agartala, and Matinagar camp, which was the first camp for training. Kolkata to Bihar, on to Shiliguri, Lauding, Dharmanagar and finally Agartala. We ate at the Ashoka Restaurant and went to look for the Shonamuri camp.
Those were golden days. We felt like David in the novel Exodus, or like some character out of Kiriti Ray’s book. The journey we took, looking for the war, was probably the most enduring, as those were the days when we were starting to know the world too. We had just finished college. In a way, we grew up with the war.
Ishtiaque Aziz Ulfat is president, Freedom Fighters Peoples Council
Major (retd) Manzoor Ahmed, Bir Pratik, is a director at Agro-based Industries & Technology Development Project
Major (retd) ATM Hamidul Hossain, Bir Bikram
Fought in the war, got caught by the Pakistan Army, and was subsequently let off, rejoining the war
In March, I was at home in Syedpur under Rangpur district. My father was the sub-divisional police officer there. I had come back home after finishing my studies at Gordon College in Rawalpindi. I left for training right when the war started. I went to Panikata in Darjeeling. After initial training, I came back and, set up a camp at Anginabad in Balurghat. It was made up of 121 fighters, most of them civilians.
Several months into the war, we were planning to blow up a bridge near Syedpur town. So, I decided to go and ‘recce’ (reconnaissance) the target myself, as it was near my hometown. The 48 Field Regiment (Artillery) and the 26th FF Regiment of the Pakistan Army were stationed in the area. Early that morning I started off by bus. The bridge was heavily guarded, and the bus was stopped at a regular patrol post on the bridge. While they were searching the passengers, I closely observed the positioning of the patrol post and other parameters. It was about 9:30am. Everything went fine.
After entering the city, I went straight to a friend’s place to get news of my family. The authorities were holding my father at that point. I was on my way back, on the same bridge, and the same checking. But this time before I realised anything, they strapped my hands and blindfolded me. They took me straight to Syedpur Cantonment. After a while, still blindfolded, I heard salutes and boots clicking. Then I heard the duty officer saying that the adjutant officer was going to interrogate me.
By order of the adjutant, they opened my fold. As I looked up, the man standing in front of me looked very familiar, but I could not place him. Then, he looked straight at me and said, ‘If I am not wrong, you are Tareque from Pindi.’ In a flash, I remembered who the army officer was. Captain Khaled Latif Chowdhury was the cricket captain of the small community team we had back in Chaklala in Rawalpindi. He was a few years senior to me at Gordon College.
He asked me to follow him to his office. There he offered me tea. After that he took me to his mess, which was then at the Syedpur Technical School. It was about 3:30pm. After giving me lunch, he locked me from outside and went off. While in there, I tried all forms of ways to escape. As the sun was setting, I desperately tried to escape, in vain.
Finally, he came after dark and asked me to follow. ‘There is a divisional meeting at Bogra. Come with me’ All this time, he had not asked me even once whether I was a freedom fighter.
So with a Wanton Dodge Truck at the rear, I got up beside him on the M38 jeep, while he told his runner and driver to sit at the back. As we approached Taraganj haat, he abruptly stopped the car. He told me to get off the car. I didn’t oblige, as I knew many such incidents when they shot prisoners from the back. So the captain got off, came over to my side, pulled me down and dragged me to a Banyan tree nearby.
‘I know you are Mukti. And I know you will go back to India the moment I let you go. But yaar, we are friends right. Go. I won’t shoot you. Do you have money?’
And then he gave me some money, and warned me not to take specific routes as their patrols were on them. He got on his jeep and drove off. Not until the red tail lights of the jeep had faded did I gain my composure. I couldn’t believe what had happened. I was let go even after being captured, and that too after they had clear knowledge that I was a freedom fighter.
Many years later, when I was the first PSC graduate on a scholarship to Pakistan at the Quetta Staff College, I met Khaled Latif Chowdhury again. ‘You are back again,’ he boomed. As I look back, I realise that wars are so complex. There is pain and death, but also a human bond that cannot be broken.
Major (retd) ATM Hamidul Hossain, Bir Bikram, PSC is a manager at Padma Oil Company Limited
Fled Dhaka during the war and lived in a village in Tangail
39, New Elephant Road. Yes, I will always remember that house. On the ground floor, we had a pharmacy called ‘Sheba’. We lived on the first floor. We lived there until March 27, 1971. I gave voice for the radio and my husband, QA Zaman, was a manager at the Daily Ittefaq. As the month of March entered its third week, things had started to get tense. We were confused about what was going on. We could feel that something was going to happen. Like many homes in the capital, we had put up the new flag, the one with the map of Bangladesh on it. My three daughters made it.
Then on the night of March 25, around 9:30pm, my husband, Atik Bhai, and others in the neighbourhood went to the turning at Science Laboratory. Now that I think of it, they were so naïve — they were setting up some sort of barricade on the road, as news had spread that tanks were waiting at the Dhaka Cantonment on their way into the city. Then sometime after 10:30pm, we started hearing large bangs and saw smoke rising from the Dhaka University and other adjoining areas. At that time, Dhaka did not have so many high-rises, so from our house we could see smoke bellowing from many buildings. I clearly remember the time because the radio was on, and we were listening to a regular program. A man with a very distinctive voice used to conduct a program on Akashbani that made subtle fun of Pakistan. It started at 10:30pm.
We got scared at that point. We switched off the lights and pulled down all the curtains. Now that I think of it, amidst all this tension, we had forgotten to take the flag down. As the night progressed, we could hear heavy vehicles plying on the road in front of our house.
No one slept that night. In the middle of the night, a military convoy stopped at the house on the opposite side of the road. It was the house of Moazzem Bhai. He was one of the accused in the Agartala Case. Through the slit of our curtains, we saw military personnel threatening the family. As they were about to take them away, Moazzem came into the room. Later we learned that he had been hiding in the attic room. The moment he entered the room, they shot him several times. They took his body to the truck. It was a gruesome sight. They carried his body like that of an animal. In the morning, a man going to the neighbourhood mosque was shot on the street.
After that there was total paranoia. We were just waiting to get out of there. On the morning of March 27, they had lifted the curfew for just two hours. We took nothing. We just locked the door and left. I remember that the recorded March 7 speech of Sheikh Mujib, transmitted just a few days ago and given to me for safe custody, was locked in my almira.
On the morning of March 27, my family, the family of my two brothers-in-law and my brother left for my village. As my husband’s family had come from West Bengal after partition, they had nowhere else to go.
There were about seven to eight cars and jeeps filled with people. My brother’s car was on the lead. He was tall and fair, and could pass off as a Pakistani. We were so tense all along the way. Near Mirpur, there were Biharis out on the streets killing innocent Bangladeshis. One such group stopped us. I do not know what my brother said but eventually they let us go. No one came out of the cars during this time. We were stopped, again, in front of the Savar cantonment; but they let us go too. All along the way, we kept whispering any prayers we knew. One of my brothers-in-law, Colonel Qazi Nuruzzaman, whom we called Phul Bhai, was in grave danger as he was in the army.
We finally reached our village in Karatia in Tangail. Though it was a village, it was quite developed. It had electricity even at that time. Ours was the Syed Bari. It was a big house. However, there were so many of us. There was cooking all day and it was a makeshift kind of living.
While we felt relieved for a few days, it worsened on April 3. Phul Bhai had left by this time. He left the moment we arrived at Karatia, looking for the war. He was so restless. He felt that something needed to be done. The army came on April 3. They came firing, left and right. Many of us fled the house. All the cars were damaged.
The days in the village were always full of uncertainty. Around mid-April, it was no longer safe for Phul Bhai’s family to stay at our place. So they were sent to an even more remote village called Gandhina. The army raided our house several times during the months leading to December. A kabuliwala in the main town always came to our house to warn us of any army raids. On one of these days, they ransacked the house.
Every time the army came, every man, woman and children had a small sack with them as they fled. They had a spare piece of cloth, a gamcha, and in some cases some sort of dry food.
After several weeks, the families of my brothers-in-law went back to Dhaka. Later they fled to India. But as my mother was ill, I stayed back. I had requested my husband to leave with my daughters, who were young then, but he would not leave me back there alone.
I had to come to the capital sometimes. All along the way, I would see dead bodies lying by the roadside. As a one of the big houses in the area, and known to be supporters of the Muktibahini, freedom fighters regularly came to the house. But the saddest day was on Eid day. There was a small canal behind our house.
On the morning of Eid, I had gone to the back of the house. I saw several young boys lying on the bank. They were barely teenagers, and so skinny. They were doing reconnaissance for freedom fighters. I asked them to come in and eat some shemai. But they were scared, and did not come in. It was the saddest of sights.
All through the war, I kept feeling that why had I not died at the very beginning. Then this omnipresence of death would not haunt me every moment. The radio was a relief. The Shadheen Bangla Betar Kendro kept spirits up even amidst dark days. As the months progressed, news of Kader Siddiqui’s fighters fighting the Pakistani army came and we started to regain hope. Gradually, during daylight hours, the Pakistani army ruled, and by night, it was the reign of the Muktibahini.
Then one morning in December we saw hundreds of umbrella-like things dropping from the sky. The fields were bare as the harvesting season was over. Then we realised that they were paratroopers. Before we knew it, December 9 came. Our region was liberated. We eventually came back on December 17. On our way back to Dhaka, I remember seeing many bodies of young Pakistani soldiers lying by the roadside. I felt sad. They were young boys, son of some mother. They had little understanding of what was going on.
As I look back to those days, I realise that a shadow of death hung over us throughout those months. But those were also days which bore our history. They hold tales that will never end.
Mirana Zaman, an actress, has performed in Bangladesh Betar and Bangladesh Television for many years.
Published: The New Age/ December, 2005