I always feel emotional whenever I write about Bangladesh’s Liberation War. It brings back many memories of the period when I was a young man in Calcutta in 1971.
As far as genocide is concerned, I grew up in London during the years immediately after the end of the Second World War and learnt about the genocide which Hitler of Nazi Germany ordered in his attempt to exterminate the Jewish people. However, until August last year I had never been asked to specifically speak about genocide. In a way, for many years I did not talk about my 1971 experiences. They were so painful; I had kept them hidden away. It was only in 2007 during a chance visit to the Liberation War Museum that I felt able to talk about my experiences of 1971.
Last year, I attended a Planning Commission seminar on Extreme Poverty and through the address by one of the officials, I learnt that 76% of the current population are less than 40 years old and may not know the accurate history regarding the formation of this country. I am regularly asked to write about my memories of 1971 and when I have expressed that I found it difficult to write the same things year after year, Bangladeshis of my age and older tell me that I must keep on writing as it is important that the people of this country are reminded again and again about the true history of the period before, during and after the Liberation War.
For someone who witnessed the birth of Bangladesh, it is painful and difficult to understand that some Bangladeshis do not support the war crimes trials. Surely justice must be done! There are also those who deny that any genocide took place. Whenever someone tells me this or I read this, I become very angry indeed and also incredulous. I remember families of Bangladeshis – Hindus and Muslims – coming in a traumatized state across the border to access some of the over 900 refugee camps — men, women and children of all ages, struck dumb by the horror of seeing some of their loved ones murdered before they managed to escape. I remember being in a hospital in Krishnanagar, West Bengal, in June 1971 at the same time as an international reporter from, I believe, Newsweek. I remember this young girl in a colourful dress and this is how the reporter recorded our meeting with this girl who was about 10 years old:
The story of one shy little girl in a torn pink dress with red and green bows has a peculiar horror. She could not have been a danger to anyone. Yet I met her in a hospital in Krishnanagar, hanging nervously back among the other patients, her hand covering the livid scar on her neck where a Pakistani soldier had cut her throat with his bayonet. “I am Ismatar, the daughter of the late Ishaque Ali,” she said formally. “My father was a businessman in Kushtia. About two months ago he left our house and went to his shop and I never saw him again. That same night after I went to bed, I heard shouts and screaming, and when I went to see what was happening, the Punjabi soldiers were there. My four sisters were lying dead on the floor, and I saw that they had killed my mother. While I was there they shot my brother – he was a bachelor of science. Then a soldier saw me and stabbed me with his knife. I fell to the floor and played dead. When the soldiers left I ran and a man picked me up on his bicycle and I was brought here.” Suddenly, as if she could no longer bear to think about her ordeal, the girl left the room. The hospital doctor was explaining to me that she was brought to the hospital literally soaked in her own blood, when she pushed her way back through the patients and stood directly in front of me. “What am I to do?” she asked. “Once I had five sisters and a brother and a father and mother. Now I have no family. I am an orphan. Where can I go? What will happen to me?
Perhaps it is necessary to remind people about what happened in 1971 and for the members of the younger generation it is important to accurately inform them of the genocide unleashed by the Pakistani army and their collaborators. Because of ‘Operation Searchlight’, 10 million refugees came to India, most of them living in appalling conditions in the refugee camps. I cannot forget seeing 10 children fight for one chapati. I cannot forget the child queuing for milk, vomiting, collapsing and dying of cholera. I cannot forget the woman lying in the mud, groaning and giving birth.
We had heard of the genocide from the night of 25th March. Thousands and upon thousands were rounded up and shot, machine-gunned or bayoneted. From 25 to 31 March, it was estimated that about 200,000 Bengalis had been killed. An Italian priest living in Jessore at the time told me that in Jessore itself about 10,000 had been killed in the ten days after March 25.
It is most unfortunate that the details of mass graves (and how many bodies?) all over the country have not been properly recorded. Only last year, in Kaliganj, Gazipur, I heard of hundreds of Bangladeshi male Christians being machine-gunned into a mass grave nearby a church in 1971.
However, what about the actual numbers? By end of May 1971, I remember a Dhaka University professor, Samir Paul, who, as a refugee, was helping us to organize camp activities, telling me that, till then, it was estimated that one million Bengalis had been killed inside Bangladesh until that time (May 1971).
It is very clear to me that many Bangladeshis died on their way to India and many more died after coming to the refugee camps as a result of the injuries and wounds suffered on the way. I saw people with bullet wounds and bayonet wounds and some of them did not manage to survive.
During the cholera epidemic of 1971, I remember that in one refugee camp of 15,000 persons, over 750 died in one month – about 5%. People should also remember that many of the refugee camps were severely flooded during the heavy monsoon of 1971. Sanitation could not be maintained and many died of gastro-enteritis as well as cholera. By September 1971, hundreds of children were dying every day from malnutrition and doctors who had also, earlier, worked in Biafra, were of the opinion that the malnutrition in the Indian refugee camps was worse than that of Biafra. Many more children died as a result of the severe cold winter. In mid-November an accepted figure of the numbers of children dying was 4,300 per day in the refugee camps alone. I remember attending a coordination meeting at that time when it was estimated that by the end of December 1971 up to 500,000 children would have died largely from malnutrition.
Aid officials of the time estimated that between 20 and 30 million Bangladeshis had been internally displaced inside Bangladesh and there would have been significant deaths from those numbers.
The US government archives may suggest that a total of only 300,000 died and the Pakistan archives say that only 2 million refugees came to India. Everyone should know that both these figures are complete nonsense!
Rightly or wrongly, personally I consider all the deaths of all people who left their homes as a result of the actions of the Pakistan authorities and their collaborators as genocidal deaths. Perhaps we will never know the accurate figure. It could easily be over 3 million.