Monday, June 24, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

The tale of freedom fighter Nurjahan

Update : 16 Dec 2021, 12:52 AM

In June 1971, the Pakistani forces raided the village of Nuri in the Bankura area of Barisal. Unbeknownst to them, they had also made a fearsome enemy.

Nurjahan, just 14 years old at the time, frantically tried to survive amid the chaos. Her mother somehow managed to escape, while her father was brutally tortured with a rifle bayonet.

“There was fire everywhere. I do not know where the Pakistani army took my father to torture him, or how my mother managed to escape. I could hear the screams of women from the nearby Hindu houses,” the now 65-year-old woman told Dhaka Tribune.

The teenaged Nurjahan climbed on to a tree to see what was happening inside one of the houses. Razakars (Bengali collaborators of the Pakistan army) were looting the house while the army men dragged Kakima (an aunt) out of the house by the hair.

The soldiers dragged the woman right under the tree where Nurjahan was hiding, chucking her seven-month-old child to the ground.

“I heard the child make a single noise and then no more. I counted 25 Pakistani devils there. They stripped Kakima of all her clothes, tortured and violated her. I clung to the tree for about an hour and a half.”

After the Pakistanis left, Nurjahan climbed down from the tree and clothed the Hindu woman. When she wanted to drink water, Nurjahan soaked a part of her saree in a muddy puddle nearby and helped the woman drink.

She found the baby with ants covering the wound in his head. She brushed them off and put the baby in his mother’s lap.

The child survived and is now a doctor.

Reporting for duty

“After watching the carnage that day, I just could not stay at home,” Nurjahan told this reporter, with fire in her eyes.

She immediately went to freedom fighter commander Nur Hossain Nuru and asked for training to participate in the Liberation War.

“Commander Nuru did not think it was appropriate for a 14-year-old girl to join the war effort or stay at an army camp, so he sent me away. However, I was determined to fight.”

Nurjahan’s father had been killed and so she went to a Hindu teacher and asked him to write a letter for her.  The letter said her father had given her permission to become a freedom fighter.

After taking the letter to Commander Nuru, Nurjahan joined the freedom fighters with three of her friends - Gauri, Kamala and Basona.

“I underwent rifle and bamboo training. My first mission was to act like a mentally unstable person and collect information from a Pakistani camp.” 

She put dirt on her clothes and body, cut her hair messily, and began begging in front of the camp every day.

“I knew Pakistanis liked veiled girls, so I decided to wear a burqa. My uncle used to work as a cook at the camp, so I had no problem entering,” Nurjahan said with a mischievous grin. “They thought I was just hungry and crazy and kept telling my uncle to let his niece eat bread.”

Her uncle eventually gave her news that the Pakistanis had kept a stash of rifles in a canal five or six kilometres away.

“Commander Nuru bhai gave the responsibility of recovering the rifles to me, Gauri, Kamala and Basona. We recovered about 40 rifles.”

Nurjahan did not just gather intelligence and steal supplies. She also took up arms against the Pakistanis on several missions.

“Before one mission, Nuru bhai told me, ‘You have dealt with Pakistanis with guns many times. This time, you will attack the vehicles of the Pakistani Forces.’”

At the command, Nurjahan stood under a bridge while other freedom fighters hid in different positions with rifles.

“I had just one grenade, just one chance to take out all the cars. I threw it when the three cars got close to the bridge, and it fell in exactly the right place,” she said.

Fate of a hero

After several daring missions, Nurjahan’s time as a freedom fighter was cruelly cut short just over a month before the end of the war.

“One day, while returning from a Pakistani camp with bread, I was caught on the road by the military. The next 44 days were like 44 years. Many girls, including me, were taken from one camp to another and tortured.”

The girls were not allowed to wear any clothes and repeatedly subjected to sexual and physical abuse until they lost consciousness.

After getting to this part of the story, Nurjahan screamed and refused to speak to this reporter for some time. Eventually, she ushered the reporter into her bedroom, away from the prying ears of her grandchildren.

She opened a box that contained medicine and demonstrated its contents.

“I have to take medicine and treatment at a cost of about Tk25,000 a month. I have been getting a government allowance of Tk20,000 for the last three years, and it used to be much less before.”

She also spoke of raising her son, who has a disability.

“I got him married some time ago. He doesn’t have two hands.”

She also showed marks on her body from gunshot and bayonet wounds.

“Every day, their boots would hit my hands and toes. My wounds started to rot, it felt as if my entire body was rotting from their injuries. My wounds would stink.”

On December 16, the Liberation Forces rescued Nurjahan and 14 other women from a Pakistani camp.

Her mother and brother did not accept her for fear of “disgracing” the family. Nurjahan came to Dhaka by launch, changed her name, and worked as a domestic help in various places. Her employers know her as Rozy.

“When I lived in a slum in Mirpur, I proposed that the elders get me married to a local lunatic. My son was only 6 months old when my husband died.”

She started going to political processions to make some extra income for her son, earning about Tk100 per appearance. 

“One day, freedom fighter Talukdar, who had rescued me from the camp, saw me. He followed me and came to my slum. No one there knew of my true identity.”

Talukder later returned with more freedom fighters and took Nurjahan to Barisal. Her camp commander was there, and he requested that the district commander issue her a certificate.

 “This is how my identity came to the fore. The government honoured me as a birangana, and I am very happy because there was a time when people hated and abandoned us.”

However, Nurjahan also said that one small question continued to bother her.

“One thing I cannot understand is why I was not recognized as a freedom fighter. My identity is a freedom fighter first, and birangana second.”

She also lamented that she had little to show for her heroism during the war.

“Those who have been respectful, who have fought for the country, have they really got anything now,” she asked before sitting in silence for a moment.

“Can't I expect a strong roof over my head in these 50 years since independence? We have given our lives to protect the soil of the country, now we want an address of our own. We want security. I don't want to think about how to live at this age,” she added.

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