It was 10th of Srabon 1971.
“I came out and saw the army. They wanted to go inside. I put my hands up like this and said there was no one inside. They flung me away into the yard and dragged my husband and son outside. They shot them both right there, there.”
“They killed every male in the village, every male. When the army was gone, there was not a single man left to bury the dead. We had to drag the bodies ourselves and bury them. Without a bath, without a shroud I put them into one single hole I had dug myself. Not a grave but a hole. No janaza, no kafon, no washing of the dead but only the earth to cover their blood and the body. Nothing else.”
They call Shohagpur the Bewas’ (widows’) village.
* * *
When I first visited Shohagpur in the year 2000 it was difficult to locate. We frequently asked for directions to reach the cluster of amazing greenery, placid and quiet yet with a past full of deaths and struggle. Farida Akhtar of UBINIG who had first unearthed the event had lent us guides which was a great help. Shohagpur-Kakornkandi lies deep inside Jamalpur district, resting against the hills where indigenous Garos once lived and had been dispossessed and forced to become low-landers. India lies just next door separated by the hills.
Floodwaters had cleaved and wounded the road leaving it festering. Two kids stood and watched us struggle. We asked for directions again.
“You mean the Bewas’ village?”
* * *
Ancient wooden chairs from ramshackle homes were pulled out to make the visiting sahebs more comfortable. The signs of wretched poverty were everywhere. Memories of death and hunger come out like a hurrying train.
On the 10th of Srabon the army had come and attacked the village without any warning. No rounding up, no questioning, no identification, just shooting to kill. It came swiftly, suddenly as if the angels of death had no time for the niceties of murder. The villagers had walked out of their dilapidated homes at dawn and the efficient soldiers of Pakistan quickly finished them off.
As I heard them and almost forced myself to stare at their faces as they talked, I wondered how could they find this almost hidden village in the high monsoon of 1971 when nearly 30 years later I had found it so difficult to locate?
Why this non-descript village?
In that year it had become a village without old men. All men who would have been seniors today had been killed on that single bloody morning. Children had grown up without fathers in Shohagpur to become labourers who worked in other people’s field. They had lost their possessions to law, custom and ultimately force.
“Life took our men away, our land away, our peace away. We only have our bodies left.”
* * *
There were many questions about that place and they had been left unanswered. I had seen them framed against the past but the palpable hunger and ruinous lives of today led by most of the poor are as much a result of our own deeds. We continued to destroy what the Pak army had mangled on a rainy morning many monsoons ago.
But their life lasted longer than the war and after 1971 we devastated whatever was left. Brutality was only half the tale, betrayal told the rest.
“I have lived next to their graves all my life. I shall never leave here. They lie buried together. I shall not leave this place even if I starve. This is where my place is. This is where I am.” Death holds a greater grip on them than life itself.
* * *
If the burial of the dead in Shohagpur done by the grieving women was an incomplete, botched up makeshift affair, there was nothing disorganized about their starving. Alekjan Begum had stood near a mound housing some of her dead and suddenly began to weep about the memories of starving. She described what foods the foodless of rural Bengal eat. Roots, plants, berries, wild vegetables…things I didn’t want to learn. They scared me.
“For days, we ate them, for days we had no rice… Days after days of banana shoot gruels…ate them… ate them… ate …”
Just as there is something deeply violating about burying the dead improperly without ritual baths, prayers and shrouds there is something equally violent about eating roots, plants, banana gruel to fend off starvation. It doesn’t just touch the body, it rapes the soul.
Everyone in the village told me about Kader daktar. He was the local quack or the healer of Shohagpur. Along with a few of that village they would prey on the refugees passing through to India. A lot of the loot was stored in one of the huts of that village. Few or almost none knew but some did. One night somebody broke into that hut and helped himself to some of the stuff.
The villagers told me that once the theft was discovered an enraged Kader went to the army post miles away and told them that Shohagpur was a Muktibahini training camp. Nestled against the border it made eminent sense to the Pak army. They mounted an early morning raid. They killed only the men, the ‘Muktis’. No women were touched. Kader had managed to turn harmless farmers and kamlas into Muktis to die at Pakistani hands through his own greed. No mercy was shown to people who were killed on the false charge of being partisans. It was war after all.
Years later, they still insisted they were not fighters. Many of them ran away to India that night but didn’t like the refugee camps. Soon, they returned to their broken homes, their unkept graves, their hunger.
* * *
Kader had two associates — Sona Miyan and Moyna Miyan — and though they moved away to other areas – Haluaghat – after 1971 they were never tried. They have been consumed by the anonymity of such endless processions of facilitators of mass murder.
If one noticed anything in particular, it was the lack of anger or rage. Years of endless hunger and half-fed bellies had taught them some plain truths. And hopelessness. And resignation. And the flame of revenge seeking was blown away by the winds of despair.
* * *
Some people had said that they would like to go and look for Kader daktar or try him or whatever. Maybe bump him off. At least I know what had happened. At least I should have done something.
But then whom should I kill for keeping hunger alive and well in that village where Shohagpur was consumed by the life of Bewas, Bewarish and Bangladesh?
Am I not Kader daktar myself?
I hope 10th of Srabon will be declared as the day of the anonymous dead of 1971.
Afsan Chowdhury is the Executive Editor of bdnews24.com