Lt Col M Nazrul Islam Bhuiyan, Bir Protik, psc (Retd), was a 19 year old university student in 1971. This narrative was gleaned from his account in Ishrat Firdousi’s book The Year That Was.
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On 7 April, Narsingdi came under air attack. Two Sabres dropped napalm and strafed the township, destroying the town centre and causing scores of casualties. It was the first time I had experienced anything like that. It was nerve wracking – the terrible rattle of .50 Browning machine-guns, the howl of jets and the terrified cries of people. I saw a man trying to squeeze into an irrigation pipe only big enough for his head. Another, his body full of chemical burns, was being evacuated on a makeshift stretcher made out of a wooden door. I saw the horror and pain in his eyes.
That night, my father called all of us brothers and told us bluntly to leave. “If you are killed fighting the enemy, at least your sacrifices would have some meaning. But to wait for your death at home is meaningless,” he said. My mother was weeping. Actually, few days earlier, some of us had formally joined Capt Matiur Rahman when he arrived at Narsingdi; he was commanding a contingent of EPR troops
On the night of 11 April, the Pakistanis crossed the Sitalakkhya, from Demra to Tarabo side. Next morning, our people were out and ready. The first enemy column was ambushed at Madhabdi Bazaar. Three trucks with some 50‑60 soldiers were completely shot up. Next, they attacked Panchdona. This time they were cautious and started with their artillery. Our cookhouse was the first casualty and it went up, cooked food and all. Then they tried to probe in. Twice, they were repulsed. But in the evening we fell back and Narsingdi was finally abandoned.
Two motor launches brought us to Bhairab where we met Capt Nasim and Lt Morshed who had brought along an entire armoury on the train when they left Mymensingh. The weapons and ammo were transferred to one of the motor launches.
Ashuganj was our main defence but the first screening position was at Ramnagar Bridge, on the old Bahmaputra river, with Captain Matiur Rahman in charge. That day, Shwadheen Bangla Betar announced the formation of the Bangladesh government-in-exile.
The following morning, two Sabre jets attacked our river-line defences. Then, four enemy helicopters landed behind Ashuganj power-station and, within minutes, firing started behind us. This was one contingency nobody seemed prepared for. They had almost surrounded us and we could not break cover because of the planes. Lt Morshed then ordered us to save the motor launch with the weapons. It was also loaded with thirty sacks of rice. The other launch, full of passengers, also left the jetty. Just then, the Sabres came screaming in again, and attacked the other launch. For some reason, our boat was spared.
We heard from eye-witnesses later that after our forces had left Ashuganj, the Pakistanis picked up Mr. Mizan, Manager of Ali Jan Jute Mills, who had helped us in many ways. He was tortured and then hanged from the Bhairab bridge, first girder on the Ashuganj side. When the Pakistanis left the area, the body, what was left of it, was brought down and buried.
Our next action was at Jagadishpur. From our positions we could see Pakistanis setting fire to some villages in the distance. That night, the light from the fires crept nearer and we could hear the cries of people. Then there was a tremendous downpour. The following morning, the enemy attacked. We stuck to our positions until late in the afternoon and, then fell back across the Indian border.
We set up camp at Sundartilla, opposite Teliapara. For a month we had no fixed defence. We organised the Company and carried out small raids and ambushes. Our main aim was to deny them the use of the Dhaka‑Sylhet road that passed through the jungle.
One morning, as we were starting for the border, an Indian border guard appeared in his bicycle, gesticulating wildly. The Pakistanis had laid an ambush right on our path! Captain Matiur Rahman took a bold decision. “We’ll get behind the bastards and attack,” he said, and we started running.
Halfway, we heard the sound of vehicles. There was a tree on top of a hillock nearby. A scout went up.
‘Four vehicles…” he signalled, “one jeep, two trucks, and a bus…full of Pakistani troops! The vehicles have stopped.” He came down and told us that some Pakistani soldiers were chasing goats.
“Inshallah, we have a bigger target,” said our Captain, and we were running once more. Our ambush area was still a mile away.
We reached the place, quite winded, and everyone moved into position without being told. About thirty of us, spread over fifty yards, with all our weapons trained on the kill zone, a narrow stretch of dirt road.
We let the jeep pass. It was a little ahead of the bigger vehicles…that were now just where we wanted them…
The Captain fired, and then came a roar as all of us opened up! The only sounds from the Pakistanis were cries of, “Ya Allah, Bachao!” We kept it up for about a minute and a half. There was no return fire. A few jumped out and escaped but we seemed to have got most of them. We started collecting weapons. Five minutes later, we were racing back to the RV.
About half a dozen had still not turned up, including my brother. So Bachchu and I started back. But we hadn’t gone a hundred yards when we saw him coming, nonchalant, cradling a Chinese rifle in addition to his own weapon. A little late in withdrawing, he had come face to face with an enemy soldier, and reacted faster! As proof, he had brought along the other’s weapon.
Then, I was selected for the first batch of officers’ corps to be trained for regular military service. Our ‘academy’ was at Murtee, an existing military camp near the border with Sikkim (an independent country until it joined the Indian Union in 1975). The training was rigorous and after my commission I was posted back to my original Sector (Sector-3) and put in charge of a Company.
We were camped at Ashrambari. Across the border was Rajghat Tea Estate (Bangladesh), enemy stronghold. We started off by blowing up their MG posts. We would fire short bursts, to lure them into position, and then blast them with rockets. Once, one of our scouts lost a leg stepping on an anti-personnel mine. We carried him back but he knew it was bad. “If I don’t make it, I would like my grave to be in Bangladeshi soil,” he said. He died shortly afterwards. That night, we deployed an entire company to secure the area and buried him inside Bangladeshi territory.
Then 2E Bengal was split up and a new battalion, 11E Bengal, was raised. I joined the unit. Maj Nasim was CO.
Cholera broke out at a nearby refugee camp of about 50,000. Within a few weeks, the population nearly halved decimated by the epidemic or people had had simply fled. Many of the dead could not be buried or cremated and were just dumped into the nearby canal. A terrible stench lingered for weeks.
One of my brothers, who was with a guerrilla group in Narsingdi area, was captured. My mother found his mangled and mutilated dead body in front of our house the following morning. The same week, a second brother who was also a freedom fighter, was captured. He was never seen again.
On the night of 5-6 December, 11 E Bengal infiltrated I was commanding Charlie company. We moved stealthily, passing through the narrow gaps between enemy forward positions. We knew they could sense us but they didn’t seem too eager to leave their well fortified positions. Instead, they resorted to indiscriminate firing with their heavy weapons throughout the night to harass us. But we found our gaps very well. It wouldn’t have been difficult to capture some of these enemy positions but our orders were to by-pass them and capture important centres of communication deep inside thereby cutting off the enemy’s supply lines or routes of withdrawal.
Around 9:00, the following morning, we reached Paikpara. Around noon, I was called by Maj to move my company to Shahbazpur immediately. “At any cost, prevent them from destroying the bridge,” he said adding that my rear would be protected by B Company who would put up a road-block at Kena Badunti, near Madhabpur.
It was very quiet. Because of the war, vehicles were rarely seen but just as we were preparing to make a dash for the road, we heard the sound of vehicles. I peered through my binoculars. A bus and a truck, with enemy troops were rushing towards the direction of Madhabpur. “B Company will make minced meat out of these guys,” I told my platoon commanders. Once those vehicles were out of sight, we started moving and soon, we were marching on the road heading towards Shahbazpur.
I was right behind the point platoon with my platoon commanders. I found a suitable place to deploy the 82mm mortar section. Shahbazpur was well within range and I ordered the mortar section commander to silently register both ends of the bridge.
We were moving very cautiously because in the broad daylight they would see us as we rounded the bend. Just then, the mortar section commander came over my walkie-talkie and he was virtually screaming: “Sir! Pakistanis in vehicles just passed our position and they’re heading your way!”
This took me by complete surprise. With B Company’s blocking position at Kena Badunti no one could have passed through. Perhaps, I have fallen into a trap, I thought. A large body of enemy ahead of me at Shahbazpur and now my rear is blocked. I could not move to my right because of the Titas river and on my left was marshy land with no cover.
Immediately, I called my last platoon over the walkie-talkie. They were about eight hundred yards behind and had just crossed the much smaller Rampur bridge. I was peering through my ‘glasses’ as I passed instructions: take position on both sides of the road and stop the enemy vehicles.
The lead enemy vehicle, a truck with mounted LMG, came and braked hard on the far end of the bridge when challenged by my troops close to the bridge. It looked like they were going to surrender and our soldiers charged out towards the vehicle. Just then, the LMG on the truck burst alive! Caught in the open our men were literally mowed down at that close range. Other enemy soldiers were jumping down from the vehicles and taking position on high ground on the far side of the bridge. On this side, the rest of our troops scrambled for cover. A fire-fight was on!
Our marching column had broken, the men scattering into the bushes. I tried to contact battalion headquarters but could not raise them. I quickly ordered the point platoon commander, Naib Subedar Mumtaz, to take up a blocking position facing Shahbazpur and stop any enemy interference from that side. Then I started for the Rampur bridge. There was no cover on the road so I decided to use the cover of a small cluster of thatched houses on the river bank.
When I reached the place I found some troops from my middle platoon behind those houses. Among them were three NCOs. One tried to update me.
“Sir, what can we do? Amader giri falaisay! (They’ve surrounded us!)
I told him to cut the bullshit and rally his troops. They had panicked and some were trying to swim away. After a degree of order was restored, I took the three NCOs along with me. There was about four hundred yards of open ground all the way up to Rampur bridge with absolutely no cover except for the standing wheat crop about two and a half feet high. Each time we broke cover, the enemy MG opened up forcing us to dive into the wheat crop.
It took me more than twenty minutes to cover the last two hundred yards. By then, all three of my NCOs were hit and lay where they had fallen. (Two died, the third had to have a leg amputated). But my rear platoon, though lying pinned down by enemy fire was somehow still firing away.
“Sir is here! Sir is here!” they cried when they saw me and seemed to be rejuvenated. I told them not to worry, that everything was going to be alright. But as I raised my head to take a look, a burst greeted me! The gunner on my right was grazed in the shoulder, the bullet ricocheting off his LMG butt. I peered out again. Someone was moving in the bushes, under the abetment of the bridge, barely 50 yards away. Until then, I had not used my weapon even once. So I took careful aim and fired a long burst! With the impact of the bullets, the man jerked upright. Then, in slow motion, he fell headlong into the water. Seeing this some of my men shouted with joy. I looked around and could see only about a dozen them. I and told them we had to open the bridge and link up with the rest of the battalion. “Ki? Parbee?” (What? Can you do it?) I demanded at the top of my voice. There was a chorus in the affirmative. “Let’s go!!” I shouted and started running towards the bridge with my men close behind.
There was no return fire as we dashed across the bridge. Moments later, we saw them, running across the fields, into the bushes. We started chasing them. They wouldn’t get far, there was only water ahead.
Unknown to us, one of my NCOs Havildar Rafiq and another soldier had swum across the canal with a 2″ mortar and a carrier of six bombs. They took up position behind the enemy and started firing on them in the immediate vicinity of the bridge which is why instead of resisting our assault the Pakistanis had started fleeing back towards Chandura. Without that perfectly timed cover fire our assault would never have succeeded and all of us would probably have been killed. Unfortunately, Havildar Rafiq embraced martyrdom a few minutes later, killed by our own troops by mistake. Both we as well as the Pakistanis were in khakis.
Somebody was lying in a ditch, his lower body under water. It was Maj Nasim! A few yards away, three Indian soldiers lay dead. They were part of the Artillery Observation Team allotted to 11E Bengal. “How have you come here?” I demanded, pulling the CO out. He was shot in the hip. I told him, I’d be back for him and went after the Pakistanis.
The enemy had moved back on the bank of another canal but the rest of 11E Bengal troops were on the far side. Few (West) Pakistanis could swim so they gave up and came out, hands raised with one frantically waving a piece of white cloth. We took twenty-two prisoners, each of them bigger in size than any of us. But my boys, with their bayonets open, were poking and herding them like cattle before tying them all up. Later, during interrogation they told us that their total strength had been fifty-two. Most were either killed or injured and only a few had managed to escape.
When I returned for Maj Nasim, I found our RMO Capt Moin sitting on the ground bleeding profusely, his second injury in the war. As I kept looking around for more casualties I saw the brigade commander Lt Col Safiullah, his uniform wet and muddied. Behind him was the captain of the Indian artillery forward observation team. I was shocked and angry. They were supposed to stay put at Paikpara until I had completed my task of capturing Shahbazpur Bridge.
The brigade commander told me that soon after I left, they also moved out with the rest of the troops in order to save time and cover as much distance as possible. They knew that with my Company ahead of them and B Company’s road-block at Kena Badunti, they were not likely to face any danger from either direction.
When my troops stopped the truck, the second vehicle a few hundred yards behind it also stopped. As enemy soldiers left the vehicles the small party which included Lt Col Safiullah and Maj Nasim fell between them.
With a raincoat from a dead Indian Signalsman, we carried the CO to the enemy truck. Incredibly, the engine was still running! I collected our casualties. We lost fourteen men that day. To compound matters we had no driver. The brigade commander could drive but had probably never driven a heavy vehicle before. He did alright. The rest of us fell back to Paikpara to regroup.
That night, we were sitting around a campfire as captured Razakars were interrogated. A man kept denying committing any atrocity when a figure appeared from the darkness and walked up to him. Unearthly lights and shadows cast up from the flames flickered across the apparition. It was a woman, and she was in a terrible state. The man just gaped at her, speechless, as if he had seen a ghost. Slowly, she raised what was left of her sari and urinated on the Razakar! An audible gasp went up from those around. Her whole body was covered with wounds! She had been kidnapped by that man, raped and then handed over to the Pakistani soldiers. There was no pity in anyone as the man was dragged away.
Then it was the turn of a big fat man. “Ay Shala! How many Bengalis have you killed?” demanded an interrogator.
“Sir,” he croaked. “I am the cook!”
When it was ascertained he was speaking the truth he was untied and sent straight to our company cookhouse.
My last action was at Ashuganj. The Indian 10 Bihar Regiment, supported by three light tanks would attack first. I was to lead the second wave with two companies of 11 Bengal. But the charging Indians ran into a murderous fire! The enemy had laid out an elaborate defence and camouflaged it very effectively. Two tanks were knocked out, the third hurriedly backing up and rolling out of sight as the Pakistanis came out of their defence and launched a spoiling attack. That broke our assault and the Indian losses were heavy, perhaps a hundred dead or wounded. In retaliation, their artillery then started to pound the Pakistanis, the barrage continuing throughout the night to discourage escape. In the morning, the Indians called in an airstrike. It was a massacre. When we captured the place, it was littered with corpses. I saw at least twenty dead or dying Pakistani soldiers on the jetty alone. They had lost more than two hundred men.
The great river crossing by the Indians took place about two kilometres away from our position. 11 Bengal was ordered to contain Bhairab which the Indians then bypassed as they dashed towards Dhaka.
We reached Narsingdi on 18 December. My father was waiting at the jetty. A frail old man, he fainted when I embraced him and told him about the martyrdom of my second brother. The shock had paralysed him. I carried him home and put him to bed. And there he remained until his death, three and a half months later.
Ishrat Firdousi is a journalist and writer.