Bangladesh 1971: The Days and Nights of Pakistani Butchers
26 Mar, 2001
In 1971, I was a final year civil engineering student at EPUET (now BUET). We were about to graduate when the political turmoil in East Pakistan just got started. As we were preparing for our final examination, when suddenly, the university was closed due to the unrest all around us. This recount I am about to tell, would bring into the fore one more time the inhuman butchery and atrocities committed by the Pakistan army as I witnessed with my own eyes. This had been the most horrific experiences of my life and to put it mildly this had a profound impact on my views on religion and politics.
On the eve of 25th March, 1971, I was staying at Shere-e- Bangla Hall of EPUET. Just a few days before that the political problems engulfed East Pakistan as General Yahya steadfastly refused to accept the mandate of the people of East Pakistan for full autonomy. The students were on strike. Actually, it was the exam time and I was preparing for my final year examination as I said it before. However, due to the political unrest, the examination was withheld and many students had left the residential halls and went back home. I was, though, actively involved in student politics. Therefore, I decided to stay put in the hall so that should a need arises I shall be available to join the movement. A few days before the 25th March there were persistent rumours in the air that the talk between Mujib and General Yahya was not progressing well and that there was that possibility of a military crackdown looming over the horizon. However, the government media cleverly played down this rumour by insisting that the talks were fruitful. Some newspapers even suggested that General Yahya was prepared to hand over the power to a civilian government where both Bhutto and Mujib will have major roles. With those types of misleading information many people thought that at last the Bangalees will have a chance to taste their freedom after a sojourn of about thirteen years. But that did not happen. On the fateful night of 25th March,1971, the Pakistan army came out from the cantonment with fury to teach the Bangalees a lesson of their lifetime that they will never forget. And surely they did.
This is my very personal recount of the nights and days on and immediately after March 25,1971.
I went to bed a bit early at around 9.00 at night. I was quite tired for the whole day and quickly I fell into my sleep. Suddenly at around 11.00 P.M, my deep slumber was disturbed by a the noise of a constant barrage of gunfire. At first, I thought that it must be the firecracker's by Bangalees to celebrate the victory. But soon I realised my mistake. I opened the window. It was very dark. Not even the dim streetlights were burning. But there I could barely see numerous military vehicles moving around with soldiers with theirs automatic rifles. Occasionally, I could see very bright searchlights mounted on some of the military trucks and jeeps. Many soldiers were running and shooting in the street. I saw a large convoy of military vehicles had surrounded the whole of the EPUET area. As far as my eyes could go, I could see military men all around the campus. I could even hear the army people talking loud in Urdu downstairs in our hall. I immediately knew what was going on. I thanked my lucky star that I switched off the room light before I went to bed. There was deafening noise from the machine gun and automatic rifles, which were not too far from where I stood. I just could not believe what was going on. I was alone in the room; there was nobody to comfort me on that fateful night. Being panic-struck, I started trembling and fell down on my bed.
Then, all on a sudden a hail of bullet shattered the nearby window. The bullets hit the ceiling and walls and then hit the floor. A thought passed through my mind. I knew I was going to die. Without thinking much I went under my bed as a protection against hitting by stray bullets. I lied on my chest and grabbed the floor as if that was my life. The firing continued incessantly for almost the whole night. Then suddenly there was a lull. No machine gun or rifle sound. I thought it was over. So I slowly came out from my hiding place and sat on my bed. I looked at my wristwatch. I could not see very well. It was 3.00 A.M or so, I guessed. Suddenly, there was an extremely loud noise and the whole area was brightly lit. I could not resist the curiosity. Through the shattered window pane what I saw was utterly unbelievable. I saw a military tank throwing fire on the slums (Bastee). The slum was just next to our halls and along the old railway track. I saw people running out of their hovels. As the slum dwellers came out to escape the fire, the Pakistani soldiers started to shoot them with a machine-gun that was mounted on a military truck. I could see only one truck with the machine gun near our hall. But I am sure there were many more on other sides as I could see the fires from these machine-guns dropping like August showers in the darkness of the spring night. It was a seen I have watched only in TV and movies on Vietnam wars. I could hear the desperate cry for help from those hapless victims. I closed the window as I thought that one of those bullets would be enough for me. I sat on the floor and suddenly realised that this is it. There was no escape for me.
Time passed and slowly the morning broke the silence of the eerie night. I could still see the military people from my window. I switched on my transistor radio on a very low volume to hear what was going on. The Dhaka Radio Station was dead. I switched to Calcutta . There was no mention of East Pakistan except that General Yahya Khan had left Dhaka after the final talks with Mujib. So I switched to Karachi. Now I got the news that I wanted to hear so desperately. There was a special announcement that General Yahya was going to speak to the nation. I heard him speaking. It was the voice of a heavily drunken person that one can tell. I cannot recall all that he said. But there were few words that I still remember to the letters. These words were "Mujib's act is an act of treason. He will not go unpunished." Yahya Khan ended by saying that Mujib will be tried by a special military tribunal. The news announced that Sheik Mujibur Rahman along with Dr. Kamal Hussain had been arrested and taken to West Pakistan for the trial. I also heard Bhutto saying that "Thank God. Pakistan was saved."
In the meanwhile the fire in the slum continued and I noticed a strange odor in the air. It took me sometime to figure out that it was indeed the smell of burning flesh. I did not hear any fire brigade siren or anything like that although there was a fire brigade office just next to our hall in Palashi. It was almost 8 o'clock in the morning and the fire slowly started to diminish after devouring the nearby shantytown. From my window I could see the tank moving out from our area. I again lied on my bed and started to search other radio stations for news. Suddenly, I heard mild knocking on my door. I froze. I felt that my blood circulation had suddenly stopped. In front of my eyes I saw nothing but white colour. I could not move from my bed. I just lay still. After a while there was another knock. Now it stroke my mind that if it was the army they will not wait for my response. They would simply burst open my door and start shooting. There must be some one else, I guessed. So, I went near the window close to the door and looked. I saw Monju, my next door neighbour crawling on his chest near my door. I gingerly opened a little of the door and asked him what was wrong. He whispered to me that something was wrong with his roommate, Ashraf. Monju asked me to follow him to his room. I opened the door silently and slowly crawled on my chest to Monju's room. I found Ashraf lying on the floor with eyes wide open but his mouth shut and he was vigorously shivering. There was water all over. I asked Monju why was there so much of water on the floor. Monju replied that it was not water. It was Ashraf's urine. He told me that Ashraf had urinated several times and now he (Ashraf) cannot talk. I called Ashraf very softly. He just stared at me but could not say anything. I knew what had happened. Ashraf had a nervous breakdown. I told Monju that we keep whispering to him that the military is gone and we are safe. Surprisingly, after whispering for about 15 to 20 minutes Ashraf started to murmur a few words. After a while he simply whispered, "Please, please, do not leave me." I told Ashraf that what ever happens the three of us will remain together. If we die we shall die together. This assurance from us made Ashraf slowly come back to normal. All of us were very hungry and thirsty. So we ate the stale bread and some water. Then we talked how each of us passed the dreaded night.
It was around midday and we found that all the military personnel had left our area. There was no sound of gunfire, no sound of military trucks or vehicles. In fact, there was an eerie unbearable silence all around the campus. No bus, no rickshaw, no car, hardly any people on the streets. We thought that it was our best opportunity to escape from the hall. We tuned to AIR and heard about the indefinite curfew in Dhaka. But we decided to escape no matter what happens even if that meant breaking the curfew and being shot at by the military. We decided that I shall go to Monju's apartment at Azimpur Government quarters. Both Monju and Ashraf used to live at Azimpur quarters. I crawled back to my room, put on my shoes and grab my transistor radio. The three of us then slowly started to climb down the stairs hiding ourselves as much as we could.
We went to the ground floor. To our disappointment we found the entry/exit gate was locked. The guards had locked the gate and fled. Later on, we realised that that action by the hall guards actually had saved our lives. In frustration, we came back to our room on the second floor. Then we decided to go to 1st floor and jump from the balcony/verandah. At first, we thought of leaving the radios behind. Then we realised that the radio was the only means by which we could know what was going on in East Pakistan. The three of us then jumped in the garden. Luckily, the jump was a success. Then we quickly ran. While running across the hall compound we saw the gruesome scenes of killing by the Pakistani army. In Liaquat Hall (I suppose it is Titumeer Hall now, but I'm not sure) we saw plenty of blood and a dead body possibly the guard's. (Later, I learnt that four students were killed at Liaquat Hall.) We quickly ran to the Fire Brigade Centre in Palashi. The Centre was very close to our residential Hall. We thought of taking temporary refuge in Fire Brigade building before proceeding to Azimpur colony. There was a small mosque inside the Fire Brigade compound. I saw four dead bodies there. All were riddled with numerous bullet holes. The floor of the mosque was flooded with blood. I thought that some Fire Brigade people tried to take shelter in the mosque hoping that Pakistanis will not commit murder in a place of worship. But how wrong they were! We saw many other dead bodies on the compound of the Fire Brigade. Some dead bodies were inside the Fire Brigade trucks and ambulance. They took shelter inside these vehicles hoping to escape the onslaught. Most likely none of the Fire Brigade people survived. Then we arrived at the road that separates the Azimpur Colony from the Palashi. On the road we found many dead bodies scattered everywhere mainly of rickshaw pullers.
There was a high wall at the entry of the Azimpur Colony. We did not know what to do at that point. The curfew was on and if any army people saw us they surely will kill us. We had no choice but to jump over the wall. To our utter surprise we could jump over the wall and fell on the other side of the wall. I still do not know how I did that. May be our adrenaline was running high after all that happened to us. I am sure that if I have to jump that wall again, I shall surely fail.
After jumping inside the Azimpur colony we felt a little safer and we all heaved a great sigh of relief. Monju suggested that I go and stay with him. Ashraf was too nervous to say anything. So, firstly we escorted Ashraf to his quarter and then Monju and I headed towards Monju's quarter. When Monju's father and mother saw us they simply hold us tight and started crying. We quickly went inside the bedroom and told our story. Monju's father said that they were certain that Pakistani army had killed us as he had witnessed the army operation from the window. We realised how lucky we really were to be alive that fateful night. Monju's mother prepared some food for us. We were extremely hungry. I finished all the food served to me. During this time we did not hear much gun shots in the local area of Azimpur. But we could hear the non-stop machine gun firing in the distance. We carefully opened a little bit of the window. All we saw was smoke and fire all around, a little away from Azimpur. We guessed that it was old Dhaka area possibly near the Buriganga river and Sadarghat. After the liberation, it was found that the killing and destruction done by the Pak military was one of the worst in the old Dhaka area. They have killed virtually each and every person in the Hindu dominated Shankari Patti in the Old Dhaka. The fire and smoke was so terrible that at night the whole sky was red. In the evening we ate some food and we tried to sleep. But none of us could hardly shut our eyelids. The whole night we searched the world on radio. At last we got the news from BBC of what was going on in East Pakistan. The Dhaka radio station was working again only playing mainly Urdu patriotic songs and Islamic verses. We were now sure that our dream of a free nation had suddenly vanished. The Pakistani army had captured us as slaves. The whole night we mostly talked about what would happen to the Bangalees since all our struggle was in vain. Finally, the morning came. At around 9 o'clock we heard in Dhaka radio that the curfew had been relaxed for six hours only. We found many people on the street. I suggested to Monju that I better go home and see if my family members were alive. As our house was in Nakhalpara (very close to cantonment and the airport), Monju, his father and mother were very reluctant that I should take the risk. However, after my constant insistence they let me go, but reminded me to return immediately to them if I had problem. Until today, I can never repay their debt. You can tell they were really so concerned about me.
So, I came open in the street. I found people and people all around me. No bus, no truck. Hardly any rickshaw plying the street. There were occasional cars and military vehicles with fierce looking soldiers and machine gun mounted trucks and jeeps. I asked some people where were they headed to. Most of them replied that they did not know. They simply wanted to leave the city and go to villages where they felt they would be safe. Many of them headed towards Sadarghat hoping that they could catch a steamer or a launch to go to villages. I also did not know what to do. Since there were no transport it would be very difficult for me to walk all the way to Nakhalpara. I thought of going back to Monju's place. Then I changed my mind when I found that thousands of people are walking, many of them bare footed and with nothing but their clothes on. So, I also started walking. Whatever happens to these people will also happen to me, I thought. The first place I came was Iqbal Hall (now Sergeant Zahurul Hall?). The scene I saw in Iqbal Hall was beyond any description, I swear! The whole area was like a battlefield. I knew that DUCSU VP Tofail Ahmed used to live there. There were holes on the walls created by mortar shells. Those holes were visible from afar. When I arrived at the playground of the Hall, I saw about 30 dead bodies all lined up for display to the public. Many of the dead bodies were beyond any recognition due to innumerable bullet holes on their faces. That was a gruesome sight. Many people started crying. My friend Jafar used to live in Iqbal hall. I did not see his dead body. Later, I learnt that his dead body was found in his bed. Needless to say, the displayed corpses were merely a small fraction of the students that Pak army had murdered in Iqbal Hall on that dreadful night. They simply displayed a few corpses to frighten and to break the morale of all Bangalees.
Anyway, I had to hurry along. I started to walk again and came to the central Shaheed Minar. I saw the entire Shaheed Minar was nothing but a heap of rubble. Many people could not believe what they saw. The army had totally destroyed the Shaheed Minar by using powerful explosives, I guessed. Amongst all the cruelties inflicted on the Bangalees that night, I think the destruction of the central Shaheed Minar was the cruelest of all. I noticed some blood on the smooth and shiny floor of Shaheed Minar. But I did not see any dead body. May be the Pak army decided to remove the corpses from the street area so that their movement won't be affected. I really cried when I saw the Shaheed Minar. Even the displayed corpses at Iqbal Hall could not bring tears to my eyes and make me cry. But I could not hold my tears when I saw the corpse of the Shaheed Minar. The shock was much too much for me.
I started to walk again and came to Jagannath Hall. The entire Jagannath Hall compound was like another battlefield. I saw the footprints of tractor vehicles. There were huge holes on the walls of the Jagannath Hall. I guessed that the army had used tanks in Jagannath Hall. In front of the Jagannath Hall lawn I saw a huge mass grave. The grave was so fresh and shallow that we could see some half buried corpse. Some hands and feet protruding from under the soil due to the consolidation of soil, I guess. It was a grotesque scene, to put it mildly. I do not know how many people were buried there. Judging from the size of the grave, my guess was at least a few hundreds. After the liberation of Bangladesh many of us have seen the video footage of this brutality of the Pak army. The video was taken secretly by a brave EPUET (now BUET) professor from the window of his apartment
By the side of Jagannath hall there was a small narrow road. On the side of this road and on behind the back of Rokeya Hall there were a large number of washermen (dhopa) who used to live in small quarters with their families. Their number could be around 50 or more. I found that Pak army had burnt down the entire area. I could see the charred bodies of children and adults still in the burnt bed. On the side of the dhopa quarter and by the side of the road, I saw another freshly dug shallow mass grave. I could see the feet and hands of children and adults sticking out from the grave trying to tell the entire world what did happen to them. All people who passed by saw this terrible sight and shook their heads in utter disbelief.
After a long and tiring walk, I came to Shahbag Hotel (now IPGMR). The building (hotel) was intact. I looked at Dhaka Radio Station. No sign of devastation. Although, there was heavy military guards including tanks and armoured vehicles around the radio station. There was no damage to Inter-Continental Hotel (now Sheraton Dhaka). Then I came to the office of the daily newspaper 'The People.' My friend Obaid was a sub-editor with the 'People.' Naturally I went to find his whereabouts. What I saw was disbelieving. The entire office of the 'People' along with a few more shop houses was burnt to ashes. The place was still smoldering. When I went a little closer. I saw many dead bodies burnt like charcoal. They were absolutely unrecognisable. Only the shape says that they were human. The area was filled with the smell of burnt flesh (like barbecue smell). I do not know the fate of Obaid. But until today I never heard anything about him. So I assume that he was burnt alive in that inferno.
I came out from the ruins of the 'People.' As I was walking past the fashionable Sakura Restaurant (I am not sure if the restaurant is still in business or not) a car suddenly stopped near me. I was astonished to see my father, mother, and sisters all inside the car. My mother and sisters were weeping. My father asked me to get inside the car. My mother simply hugged me and started to cry loudly. I asked my father what had happened. My father said they were simply fortunate to be alive. Then he told me that we were all going to Dhanmondi to stay with our grandfather. My mother told me that she never expected to see me again as they heard that the army had killed each and every student in the residential halls.
Soon we arrived at my grand father's house. My grandfather was simply happy to see us alive. We ate some food. Then my mother narrated their fateful night of the 25th March.
So this was how it happened at our home on March 25, 1971. The recount was based on what I did hear from my mother.
Round about midnight everyone in our house woke up with noises of heavy vehicles, people marching on boots, loud shouting, bright lights and some more gunfire. At first they erroneously believed that it must be a victory celebration. That was because just before every one went to sleep, there were rumours that Yahya Khan had agreed to transfer power to Mujib. However, when my folks opened the window they couldn't believe what they saw. It was shocking to see that the entire Nakhalpara area had been cordoned off by armoured military trucks. The soldiers with rifles and machine guns were running all over the place. Also, there were very bright searchlights all around. My family also noticed jeeps mounted with machine guns very close to our house. Naturally everyone was frightened. Being nervous my mother started praying without loosing any time. A few minutes later they heard a loud banging in our front door. They were at loss not knowing what to do. My father picked up the courage and opened the entrance door. Four soldiers with pointed rifle immediately entered our lounge. They asked everyone to line up in the lounge. So, my father, my younger brother, my brother in-law, my four sisters, nephew and niece and my mother all obliged by lining up in the crammed space. All of them were shivering in hot March night. Then one of the soldiers separated the males from the females. The males were ordered to remain in the lounge. All the females including my mother were ordered in the bedroom nearby. At that stage my mother started crying and fell down on the knees of the soldiers for their mercy. The soldiers simply dragged her to the bedroom. One soldier guarded the males while the other guarded the female quarter. The two other soldiers then started ransacking each and every item in every room including the food in the kitchen. They even examined the newspapers and other documents even though they did not understand a single word of Bangla.
One of the soldiers then found the shotgun that my father had always had with him. I have seen that shot gun since my birth. It was licensed and completely legal. I have seen my father going for hunting with his favourite shotgun every once in a while when time permits. The soldier who found the shotgun came immediately to the male captives. He demanded to know whose shotgun was that. My father calmly replied in broken Urdu that he was the lawful owner of the gun. The soldier then pointed his automatic rifle at my father and ordered him to follow him downstairs. My father knew that he had only a few minutes to live. At that stage my younger brother stood between the rifle and my father and requested the soldier that he wants to accompany my father. The soldier became furious at the insolence shown by my brother. The soldier threw my brother on the floor and started pushing my father with his rifle towards the exit door. My father then requested the soldier to look at the license of the shotgun. But alas, the soldier could neither read nor understand the English language. So the soldier said that he had to call his officer. Another army man was called to guard while he went outside looking the for the officer.
After about fifteen minutes the soldier returned with the officer. My father was not sure what was the rank of the officer. Thank God! The officer was not as brute as the lower ranking jawan. The officer showed little bit of courtesy for my elderly father. He asked my father to take a seat so that he could examine the document. After a thorough examination the officer then asked my father why he had not surrendered his weapon to police station. My father replied that there was no directive to that effect. The officer then rebuked my father for being so stupid to keep the weapon in the house when there were so many miscreants in the area. My father agreed with him and asked for his forgiveness. The officer then said that my father's life will be spared but they will have to confiscate the shotgun. Then he started interrogating every one on various matters including our religion and political affiliation. My father became the spokesman. He answered what the army men wanted to hear. That we are all Muslims and we have no connection with the Awami League or any pro-freedom party etc., etc.
The officer then asked my father how many sons he had. My father replied two. He inquired about the whereabouts of his sons. My younger brother identified himself. He told the officer that he had finished his HSC and waiting to go to EPUET (now BUET). The officer then asked my father about me. My father replied that I was about to graduate from EPUET. The army officer then demanded to know why I was not at home. At that point my father could guess the real reason these army people are barging into our home. He carefully said that I was very studious and I preferred to study with my friends. So I did not come home for a few days. The army officer then started to note down all the details about me and told my father that as soon as I returned home he (my father) must contact him through telephone. I was simply lucky that my father did not disclose the University residential hall that I was staying. The officer then warned my father not to leave our house as they may come to investigate again. My father said no problem. Throughout this ordeal, my brother-in-law did not talk much because he was actively involved in NAP politics!
When the interrogation of the male members was complete the officer then entered the bedroom to view his female captives. Needless to say, my mother feared what might happen to her daughters. My eldest sister was a schoolteacher. My next two sisters were college going and only my youngest sister was still in her childhood. My mother was so hysterical that she kneeled down to the two soldiers and begged them that whatever they wanted to do let them take her daughters out of her sight. The soldiers were simply laughing and taunting my mother and sister with abusive language and accusing them of being pro Awami League. They told my sisters that very soon they would take them to cantonment. At that stage my eldest sister picked up some courage and told them in pidgin (in broken) Urdu that they cannot simply do that without a warrant of arrest.
The soldiers laughed heartily hearing the response from my sister and said that they were not police. They were army and they could do whatever they wanted. Luckily, at that point the army officer entered the bedroom. My sister asked the army officer why they were being harassed. The officer told my sister that he had information that there were many miscreants in our area. Their duty was to catch these miscreants and take them to cantonment for punishment. He then told my sister that he had found us very gentle, polite and cooperative and so he will let all of us go free this time. But he wanted to let everyone know that they will come again. At last he showed some respect to my mother by apologising to her and saying good bye to her in chost Urdu. But before the officer departed he whispered something to his recruits. The two soldiers then forced my elder sister to open the steel Almirah (Safety box) . They took all the money and the jewelry that were there for safekeeping. Thus, in a hurry we lost most of our valuables.
After almost 36 hours the curfew was lifted for 6 hours. My family members heard the wailing sound of bereavement all around the area. The Pakistan army had taken many people from Nakhalpara area to cantonment that night. Most of those taken were young students. It was a sheer miracle that my family members were spared. None were taken to the cantonment. It is not known how many of those unfortunate people lost their lives because until today their whereabouts are not known. Be that as it may, most of them never returned home. All the residents of Nakhalpara realised that the area was absolutely unsafe to stay. Therefore, most residents left Nakhalpara almost barefooted with only the clothes they were wearing. My family also followed the suit. They also left Nakhalpara immediately after the curfew was lifted. From grapevine we heard that Dhanmondi was a safe area. So we went to our grandpa's house over there in to seek refuge and secrecy. A few days later we heard the dreadful news from Chittagong. Two of my uncles were killed in Agrabad Railway colony in a military operation similar to the one the army did in Nakhalpara operation. The army call those "Mop Up Operation." To us, the Bangalees those operation was akin to serving the death notice or something similar to that.
After few weeks my younger brother secretly ventured to Nakhalpara to see in his own eyes the condition of our homestead. To his horror he found that everything including a bag of rice had been removed or stolen. So we became destitute right away. But that did hardly dampened our spirit. We knew we were not alone in this struggle. Life became Durbishoho (I can't find an appropriate synonym in English). It was an struggle every day for the rest of the nine-month period.
For the last 29 years I have always wondered why the army had targeted our house and our family. It had always been a mystery to me. Now I have some clue to that question after such a long period of time. Ashrafuzzaman Khan (the then member of the central committee of the Islami Chatra Sangha) used to live at Nakhalpara. This piece of information I got from the Internet.
As I write this re-count, I learnt that 100 new 'killing fields' have been discovered all around Bangladesh. Was I surprised? No, not at all! However, what surprised me the most was why did it take so long? Why did we have to wait almost 30 years to know that innocent folks were butchered just as cattle? Rest assured that many more killing fields will be found. The killing fields of Cambodia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan, etc., will be nothing when compared to the killing fields in Bangladesh. Let us not forget these killing fields. Let us not forget the sacrifice of 3 million people who shed enough blood to change the verdure of monsoon drenched land of Bengal. They certainly gave their lives so that we can enjoy the fruits of freedom. Freedom from the tyranny of Punjabi masters and Pakistani Oligarchy. I would ask every Bangalees not to forget the butchers of those nights and days when we remember the fallen angels of our land. The crime should never go unpunished.
Abul Kasem is an Bengali ex-Muslim and academic. He has contributed in Leaving Islam - Apostates Speak Out and Beyond Jihad - Critical Voices from Inside and Why We Left Islam.. He has also written extensively on Islam in various websites and is the author of five e-Books: A Complete Guide to Allah, Root of Terrorism ala Islamic Style, Sex and Sexuality in Islam, Who Authored the Quran? and Women in Islam. Mr. Kasem leaves in Sydney, Australia. He can be contacted at email@example.com.