I have been interviewing people from all walks of life on their experiences of 1971 for nearly two decades. We excerpt here the memories of Shimul Billah — the horror of 25th March night, resistance by the Rajarbagh police, the rise of the Mukti Bahini insurgency in Dhaka and how her dulabhai (brother-in-law), the legendary musician Altaf Mahmud was picked up from the house never to be seen again.
Shimul Billah was a 14-year-old schoolgirl in 1971. This is her story of the war year:
We lived on Rajarbagh Road, right across the tin-roofed bamboo barracks of the Police Lines. On the night of 25 March, my brother-in-law Altaf Mahmud, my two brothers and I were playing carom on the veranda until 10:30. After that, the three of them went out. Just then, there were some shots but they seemed far away.
Scores of people had come out on the street. The policemen looked agitated. “Please get off the streets and go back into your houses!” they shouted to the crowd. “And if you can, get out of the area!!”
Then, half a dozen of them ran up to our roof with their rifles. Policemen were also taking positions on the roofs of other houses along the road. We were, in fact, the front-line.
Suddenly, a storm of firing erupted. We went under our beds immediately. The sounds got louder, now joined by explosions and automatic fire. The policemen were firing back. At one point noise turned into a roar.
Then, the police barracks caught fire. It was windy and we could feel the heat inside the house. The walls, the floor, were warm to the touch. The policemen on our roof came down. We didn’t know any of them although we lived just across their barracks but that night, the feeling of being Bengali was very real. We were all together in this fight. They asked for clothes, lungi and vest and told us to get rid of the uniforms. They were very emotional. They touched my mother’s feet in salutation. “Mother, we’ll meet again!” Before they left, they dumped their weapons in a pond behind our house.
By then, we had as many as 26 people in the house. Mustafa Manowar ran in from an adjacent house and Badal Rahman also made it somehow. A lady on the second floor had to be brought down on the shoulders of her relatives. A bullet had singed her hair and she had gone into hysterics before fainting.
But only a few of us knew that the house was far from safe. To make Molotov cocktails, Altaf bhai had stored petrol in a couple of 40-gallon drums in the bathroom! When the barracks caught fire, the drums became objects of terror. If the fire reached those, the whole house would go up and everyone with it. We could not even pour it down the sink. There was just too much petrol.
Desperately, Altaf bhai brought blankets, mattresses, and piled them on the drums. Cash and other articles came tumbling out as he pulled out clothes from the almirahs. Then he poured water over the heap. To keep the drums cool. Perhaps, feeling guilty that so many might be killed because of him, he sat near the bathroom keeping vigil for most of the night. But because of the high wind, the barracks burned quickly and the heat lessened considerably after that. Then we heard the sound of boots, and people running!
It was a little after 7:00 in the morning and a baby-taxi with a mounted loudspeaker was announcing something…
“Take down those flags and put up the Pakistani flags immediately.”
We recognised the voice. Though the man was a rabid supporter of the Pakistani cause, the announcement that morning in Bengali was still jarring, mocking. We took down the flags, the black one and the new Bangladesh flag that we helped Ma put together.
Suddenly, Altaf bhai’s three-year-old daughter Shaon climbed up on the wet pile on top the petrol drums and, for no rhyme or reason, started shouting, “Joy Bangla! Joy Bangla! Joy…..!” at the top of her voice. She was quickly hushed up.
That evening, after dinner, we quietly slipped out and went over to my friend Kashfi’s place.
At curfew-break on 27 March morning, we were thinking of shifting from Rajarbagh. We didn’t have any close relatives in Dhaka and my late father had left his village ages ago. So, there was no question of going there.
We knew the Mahathero, the chief monk who resided at the Bouddho Mandir (Buddhist monastery). He used to call me “kuti-ma” or little mother. We left in Altaf bhai’s car, now wiped clean of all incriminating stickers, etc., bearing nationalistic slogans that had adorned the vehicle just a couple of days earlier. We passed the destroyed Police Lines and saw the charred remains of the dead Bengali policemen inside the ruins of their barracks. I glanced at the vicious faces of the Pakistani soldiers on duty at the Police Lines. They were laughing like hyenas. “Why are you leaving?” they demanded in Urdu. “Why don’t you stay the night?”
I just stared ahead, wanting to get away from that place. Altaf bhai dropped us at the Mandir and went out again.
We spent two days and nights there. We came across familiar faces among the dozens of refugees, among them cinematographer Baby Islam, his wife Tandra and their son Joy. The Mahathero looked worried and advised us to move further in, to another neighbourhood.
We next found shelter in a house in North Bashabo, near the railway tracks. From our veranda, I could see the soldiers stopping the Bengalis regularly and body-search them before letting them go. Once, they stopped an old woman. When they asked her where she was going she started saying, “Son, I’m a Bihari” (non-Bengali), in Bangla! The soldiers grabbed her and tied her up. Then, they kicked and clubbed her with the butts of their weapons, shouting abuses.
This we heard later. Bareen Majumdar, music teacher, was sheltering with his family in Jinjira. The place was already crowded with refugees when it was attacked by the Pakistani soldiers on 27 March. During that violent night, Bareeen-da had run out with his teenage daughter. But after running blindly in the dark for sometime he realised, his daughter was no longer with him. He searched far into the night, desperately crying out her name again and again. But it was as if the earth had swallowed her up.
Our landlord sent word that the military had asked him about the empty flat, warning that if the tenants did not return, they or other non-Bengalis would move in. But a month passed before we returned. The house had been looted. Not a single furniture was left, and what they couldn’t take, they had smashed.
Soon afterwards, we began having visitors, Bengali young men. They were freedom fighters who had come to see Altaf bhai. One day, he brought Shahadat Chowdhury who was member of the Crack Platoon, a mukti bahini group who had just arrived in the capital. Altaf bhai started working for them. There were others like Samad, Chullu, and Hafiz who was an excellent violinist. A number of operations were planned in our house. The Police Lines next door were now full of collaborators and (West) Pakistani personnel.
The thrill was in waiting excitedly for some operation that would take place. For instance, they’d tell us: “A bomb will go off at Chamelibagh today late in the afternoon.” We’d be up on the roof, and sure enough, we’d hear the explosion in the distance. We could not shout or cry out, so we’d come down and hug each other in joy. The freedom fighters stopped by at times for tea or meals. Ma usually cooked extra in anticipation. Uncle Alvi (Prof Abul Barq Alvi, Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka), an artist and freedom fighter was among the regulars.
I had sang on the TV and the radio before and Altaf bhai told me to participate in those programmes, from time to time, or they would mark us. Sakhina Sarwar, TV producer, lived next door and I went and returned with her. My elder sister Minu was a dancer. But when request came for her to perform on TV, Ma put a bandage on Minu’s feet and told them she was injured.
Once, we were rehearsing in a room on the 4th floor at the TV station, when five rounds of live ammunition were found in the file box! Mominul Huq, producer, was very frightened. None of us said anything. We just stared at bullets and at Mr. Huq. He then wrote a statement on a sheet of paper and we all signed. It essentially said that the bullets had been found accidentally and none of us knew anything else about it. The document was handed over to the military officer in charge along with the ordnance. The explanation was accepted and they allowed us to leave. They probably kept Mr. Huq under watch for some time. He used to be quite nervous for a while after that incident.
One day, Altaf bhai brought in two steel trunks in the boot of his car. They were full of arms and ammunition. He had not been able to close the boot properly and had driven in like that! That night, he and uncle Iku, a neighbour, took the trunks to the backyard of another neighbour’s house and buried them under a lemon tree. Dogs were howling mournfully that night and continuously so they completed their job in a hurry.
On 27 August, Minu, one of my brothers and uncle Iku, left for India with Shahadat Chowdhury and Alam bhai (Habibul Alam, Bir Protik). Altaf bhai was supposed to leave on 3 September.
Early morning on 30 August, I heard the sound of a vehicle. Ma was reciting the Koran. I peeked through the slats. A military truck and a white car had pulled up near our house. Soldiers got out and in no time, our house was surrounded. Moments later, the back door was smashed and soldiers barged in. They were shouting in Urdu: “Altaf Mahmud! Where is Altaf Mahmud?”
A sleepy, dishevelled Atlaf bhai came out in the corridor and as soon as he said he was Altaf Mahmud, they grabbed him. Then they began kicking him and clubbing him viciously with their rifle butts. Jhunu apa was stopped by Ma from rushing out of her room. Then Shaon started throwing up. Uncle Alvi and my three brothers were sleeping on the living room carpet. They were roused up by the noise and on the spur of the moment, Altaf bhai identified uncle Alvi as, “Abul Barq” (his first names).
The officer in charge told Altaf bhai that he would count up to ten and if by then he hadn’t told them where the weapons cache was, they would shoot all the male members that were now lined up against the wall, including Naser and Rasul, two boys from next door. And he started counting. Altaf bhai looked at me and my brothers, once. Then he started walking. The officer and some soldiers followed him. My brothers and the others were also led out and made to sit on the veranda floor.
I didn’t know what to do. In desperation, I started calling up people on the phone. But what could they do? I was the only one unoccupied then, it seemed. Ma was with Jhunu apa and Shaon, locked up in their room.
I ran out to the building next door. From the first floor veranda, I could see the group. They had reached the lemon tree. A rope and a shovel appeared. My brother-in-law started digging. Time to time, they slapped and kicked him, shouting abuses: “Kafir ka bachcha! (son of an infidel!) Communist ka bachcha! (son of a communist)” and so on. Perhaps weakened, at one point, he fell on the ground. A soldier lunged, his bayonet stabbing. When Altaf bhai got up again, his face was covered with blood, a piece of torn skin hanging from his forehead. He could not even open his eyes and two of his teeth were missing. Finally, with the help of the rope, he pulled the trunks out. They were loaded into the truck. Then they tied his hands behind his back with the rope. The white car drove up. As Altaf bhai crossed me, his eyes met mine briefly. Then he was bundled into the car. My brothers and the others were forced into the truck, and they drove away.
Something strange had happened. Altaf bhai owned a nila ring (star sapphire said to bring extreme good luck or bad). A week earlier the stone had come loose from its setting and was lost. When he found it again in the car a few days later, Ma forbid him to wear it. “Get rid of it!” she had told him. But he had it reset and it was back on his finger the following day. He didn’t believe in superstitions.
We remained in the house, the four of us. Around noon, the soldiers were back. “Altaf Mahmud has confessed, there’s a pistol in one of the steel almirahs!” they announced, and checked everything. But no pistol was found. Looked like they had come for loot. Ma had removed all the jewellery and hid them in the overhead flush tank in the bathroom. (And there they remained until we found them when we returned after the war).
Rumi, Jewel, Bodi, Hafiz and many others had been picked up on 29 August, but we didn’t know that. The first two evenings, they were brought to Ramna Police Station. There were many other prisoners there and some of them knew Altaf bhai. My brothers saw someone offer him some analgesic tablets. Allah knows where they got them from or how but the Bengalis locked up there were helping each other in any way they could. Azad was an only son of his widowed mother and she had been to the Ramna Police Station to see him. He asked her to bring him some cooked rice the following day. But when she returned with the food, Azad was not there. He was never seen again. His mother survived eighteen more years but she never touched rice again.
The following day, Naser and Rasul were released. On 1 September, around 4:00 in the afternoon, uncle Alvi and my brothers came out crawling from the Drum Factory military camp. They had been warned not to turn around or they would be shot. They were in a bad shape. When Ma took off my brother Linu’s filthy, bloodstained lungi, shreds of his skin came off with the garment. My elder brother had blood clots all over his hands. He had also been hit repeatedly on the spine with rifle butts. Another brother had been hit on the head and had grievous wounds there. We couldn’t move them because none of them could stand up on their own feet. When the soldiers had found out that uncle Alvi (“Abul Barq” to them) was an artist, they beat him in the hands so badly that he couldn’t close his fists.
For days, I would listen to their accounts although my brothers didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to remember the terrible scenes and the screams at all hours of the day. “They all come back,” they said.
Thirty-two prisoners had been packed into a six feet by four feet room at the infamous Drum Factory army camp. They ate, drank and slept, standing. One by one, they would be taken out and tortured at a place, just outside their cell, so that the other prisoners could have a clear view. The victims were tied to the overhead ceiling fans and beaten, kicked, poked with bayonets or burned with lit cigarettes. The day before their release, they had been lined up to be shot when someone stopped it. “We’re not going to waste bullets on these kafirs! We’ll just weigh the bastards down with bricks and drown them. I’ll speak to the Captain.”
When they had last seen him, Altaf bhai was sitting on a chair, legs splayed out, all his limbs looked broken. He just sat there, staring at nothing. “Take care of Jhunu and Shaon,” he had whispered painfully as he handed them his engagement ring. “There is no one else to look after them now.” His face was swollen, a mass of wounds. One eyeball of Hafiz was hanging out from a bloodied socket. Rumi had been beaten terribly. Jewel had earlier lost four of his fingers during an operation in Farashganj power sub-station. The torturers would trample on the stubs of his mutilated fingers and stub burning cigarettes on them. Zaki and Bodi were in equally terrible condition.
After that, almost every day, my mother went and kept vigil at the Drum Factory gate, from morning till sundown, waiting for the release of Altaf bhai. She was expecting that like her sons, he too would come crawling out of the place, alive. But one day, they told her that Altaf Mahmud had been transferred to Dacca Cantonment. So, she shifted her place of vigil to the Cantonment Gate. She would ask permission to see Altaf Mahmud. They would refuse and she would persist.
Perhaps, to get rid of her, the soldiers there told her that Altaf Mahmud had been sent to Dacca Central Jail. And day after day, Ma went and waited at the Jail gate. She even told us that some of the released prisoners had seen Altaf bhai in the jail hospital, in a terrible state, more dead than alive. She believed she would see him, sooner or later. She also went to the Pagla Pir (Mad Seer), her holy man where Jahanara Imam was also a devotee. Her son Rumi was among those who had been taken away. The holy man told them that he could ’see’ their wards, the arrested persons, sitting in a room and that they were alright.
We remained in our Rajarbagh house for a month, waiting for Altaf bhai to turn up. But people cautioned us that it was not safe. If the soldiers came and picked up my brothers a second time, it could be the worst for them, they warned.
So one day we just grabbed some clothes and went to a house close to the asthana (abode) of the Pagla Pir. It was good for Ma. We lived there through October and November. Ma went regularly to our Rajarbagh house. “What if Altaf returned?” she would reason. Whenever she saw any dishevelled beggar or deranged man she would go up close and scrutiny their faces, to see if it was Altaf bhai!
We re-established contact with the freedom fighters. Atiq bhai used to visit us. Winter was approaching; so they asked for warm clothes, blankets, shoes, etc. Ma used to collect them from different sources. Medicine came from a friend whose father owned a pharmacy.
On 16 December, Ma took out the Bangladesh flag and sent someone to put it up on the roof. People in the house were crying. My brothers rushed to the Central Jail. But they didn’t find Altaf bhai. From there, they went to the Baddhyabhumi (killing grounds) of Mirpur and Rayerbazar Itkhola, and saw terrible scenes. Hundreds of bereaved people were looking for their dead and there were scores of dead bodies, decomposing and unrecognisable. But they didn’t find any trace of Altaf bhai or his comrades. The hospital morgues were checked. Nothing. They had vanished without a trace. I went to Rajarbagh Police Lines and saw the place where they had tortured women. The victims hardly resembled human beings, so badly they were disfigured.
Around 4:30 pm, Shahadat bhai, Alam bhai, Fateh bhai and Maj Hyder, a Bengali army officer arrived in a jeep. They fired a few times in the air. Then they came in and spoke to my mother and Jhunu apa. They were very emotional. They couldn’t say much and left shortly afterwards.
The following day, I participated in a programme on TV. My song was, “Kando, Banglar Manush…” (Cry O people of Bangladesh) but I couldn’t finish the song. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I ran out of the studio.
* * *
Shimul (Billah) Youssuf, actor and singer is married to freedom fighter and theatre and cinema director Nasiruddin Youssuf (Bachchu) and lives and works in Dhaka.
Ishrat Firdousi is a journalist and writer.