Kalidasi Sarker jumped into the Bhairab River in the afternoon of the polling day with her 15-day-old baby. The 30-year-old mother must hold the baby above water while swimming across the 50m wide river, which too, she knew, she must.
About 100 people had to jump into the river that afternoon as they were chased by activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir, all equipped with firearms, crude bombs, machetes, iron rods and sticks.
Their only fault – they are Hindus and many of them had cast votes in the just concluded 10th national election.
Waiting on the other side of the river were Sabita Sarkar, 55, and many others from her village to help these people.
Watching the people running across the yellow mustard field before jumping into the river reminded Sabita of herself and her father running across a field – only, it was littered with dead bodies – decades ago, chased by the Pakistani occupation force during the 1971 Liberation War.
“I want justice for what has happened to us,” an enraged Sabita told the Dhaka Tribune.
The community of Hindu fishermen had to leave their village Malopara at Chapatola in Jessore’s Obhoynagar to save their lives.
Ironically, the Bangla word “obhoynagar” means a safe place for people.
These poor people had been living amid intimidation yet they had defended the small locality for almost six hours since Jamaat-Shibir men hacked five villagers around 10am for casting votes in Sunday’s national election.
But they had to give in now as their pleas for help to local Awami League leaders, the district’s deputy commissioner, upazila nirbahi officer and the officer-in-charge of the Obhoynagar police station went unheard throughout the day.
This reporter met Sabita yesterday morning as more than 700 people returned to their homes after law enforcers had finally arrived.
“We could not believe that people with whom we had just had tea suddenly became so different! They became part of the group of people who tried to kill us, looted our valuables and set the whole village on fire,” said a resident of Malopara whose identity is not being disclosed for safety concerns.
Five sons of a villager named Nur Mohammad – the youngest of them only 18 who stabbed three of his neighbours – and Farid, Humayun, Kashem and Kibria played a key role in accompanying some 500 Jamaat-Shibir men, mostly from adjacent areas, marching the village for almost an hour during the attack that left at least 20 injured.
Maya Rani Mandal managed to get on a boat to cross the river and spent the night in the nearby Deyapara village.
Maloti Barman, 50, could not think about her daughter in the hurry and escaped, leaving her daughter behind. She tiptoed back to the village around 8pm and took her daughter and two-year-old granddaughter with her. About Tk2 lakh, which she had got selling land, was gone.
The ones like Shila Sarker who could not flee had hidden under cots or shades built for growing betel leaf.
Many did not even get the chance to take warm clothes in this chilling weather.
More than 100 houses in Malopara were looted, burnt and destroyed on Sunday afternoon. Even homestead trees – coconut and banana – were burnt or chopped down and cowsheds were burnt, too. Idols in the houses were vandalised. Everything else was looted.
The villagers had been living in fear since Jamaat leader Delawar Hossain Sayedee was sentenced to death for war crimes on February 28 last year and guarded the village at night in groups of seven men.
But their fear came real on the day of the national election.
Jamaat-Shibir activists had threatened the Hindu villagers not to go to cast their votes.
Some villagers, mainly activists of the Awami League, however, refused to bow to the threats and went to cast ballots.
About 25 Jamaat-Shibir men exploded crude bombs at the polling centre for the voters from Malopara with an aim to stop voting there but failed. Then they made an attempt to attack the village, but failing there, too, the Jamaat-Shibir men resorted to their newly adopted technique of inciting their followers by lies. Around 4pm, they made phone calls to their activists and students of the local madrasa, telling them that five of their activists had been killed in a clash with Malopara villagers.
Jamaat-Shibir activists poured in from nearby villages – Baliadanga, Jagannathpur, Deyapara, Joldanga, Basundia, Dhakuria and Bangram – and attacked Malopara.
They also drove in some motorised three-wheelers, locally called Nosimon, laden with sacks of stone. When they left they loaded the Nosimons with their loot.
The incident once again unveils the same indifference the Jessore district administration had shown during voting when Jamaat-Shibir men went on the rampage forcing the authorities to suspend voting in 60 centres in Monirampur upazila.
Obhoynagar upazila Awami League’s General Secretary Enamul Hoque Babul said he had called the deputy commissioner, the UNO and the Obhoynagar police station’s OC for help. “They all said police or Rab or army were on their way, but they did not come until all had been ruined,” he said.
Obhoynagar UNO Sifat Mehnaz said she had not come to know about the incident until 5pm.
Police reached Malonpara around 11pm.
Around 2pm yesterday – when it was time for this reporter to leave Malopara – blow from a conch was heard. It is a tradition among Hindus to blow the shell, called shankha in Bangla, as a worship ritual. Usually, the sound of shankha is heard from all houses in the neighbourhood. This time there was only one was blowing.