In some parts of Bangladesh, armed conflict had already broken out before Operation Searchlight was executed
In the 47 years since independence, dozens of mass killing grounds in Nilphamari have lain neglected and forlorn, without any significant effort to recognize and preserve them.
By the time the flag of independent Bangladeshi flew in the skies of Nilphamari, what remained of the Pakistani forces and their collaborators had fled to the Saidpur cantonment, where they were eager to flee the avenging freedom fighters.
Yet, before their cowardly flight, they had made certain that they left scars among the population.
Forgotten and neglected
As many as 25 mass killing grounds have been identified in Nilphamari alone. Lack of any care for the sites, in addition to the neglect on part of the authorities, has led to collective amnesia, save for the people who survived the dark days of the war.
The mass killing grounds in Kaliganj lies 30km out of the Nilphamari town. A small local market that people call Bangabandhu haat has a dark past. Over 300 young men from the neighbouring areas were butchered by the Pakistan Army and their collaborators in 1971.
One survivor, Amal Chandra Adhikari, recalled April 27 of 1971, when a fleeing caravan of refugees was flanked by a convoy of the Pakistani Army which killed and buried around 400 people in a matter of hours. He survived by pretending to be dead, crawling out of the mass graves after the butchers had left.
The killing grounds of Golahat were just outside the Saidpur railway station. The Bangalis would be transported in trainloads and told they would be sent to India. Just after exiting the station, they would be ordered out, where bullets and blades competed to take Bangali lives.
Nuruzzaman Joardar, a local freedom fighter, recounted the experience, and revealed he had survived by throwing himself out of the train into a deep ditch. A sheet of rain concealed his stealthy crawl out of the killing grounds.
Massacre of March 24
In some parts of Bangladesh, armed conflict had already broken out before Operation Searchlight was executed. On March 23, the city of Saidpur was besieged by Bangalis. The next day, there were reports of shots being fired by Pakistanis. In response, a man called SM Mahtab Baig charged the enemy armed with a .22 calibre rifle and a pistol, followed by a mob with mere sticks and staves.
The night of March 25 only turned up the intensity and the aggression of the occupying forces. Mass murders and rapes went on for nearly a month unabated, with hundreds killed, as believed by survivors of the massacre.
One of the survivors, Tapan Kumar Das, said the Pakistani Army had forced thousands of prisoners to labour for the construction of the Saidpur airport.
He said: “The airport is a legacy of blood and toil under the threat of a gun. It ought to have been renamed in memory of the Liberation War.”
What the survivors want, is rather straightforward. They want more than an annual cleaning and refurbishing of the killing grounds on a handful of days. What they want, is an official account of the number of people who were killed, their memories remembered and preserved for the generations to follow.