Note: This column, published in monthly instalments, marks the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence. This is the 3rd instalment.
On March 27, when General Zia’s message was broadcast, the signal was strong and we were able to hear it across all of East Pakistan. Zia’s message was based on the telegram from Sheikh Mujib written on the night of March 25. After hearing this speech, regarded as the Declaration of Independence from Sheikh Mujib, Bengali Freedom Fighters (Mukti Bahini) started an armed resistance to the occupation army of West Pakistan. This was the day Bengalis got over the initial shock of the brutal massacre and decided to engage in full-scale war.
My parents joined the Freedom Struggle with whatever means they had; with their knowledge and connections they helped anyone victimised by the Pakistani army. In particular, my father started to treat the injured on the one hand and helped Hindu and Muslim colleagues, activists and intellectuals escape Dhaka on the other. Soon, a humanitarian crisis ensued with thousands fleeing the violence to nearby towns in India. By May 1971, more than 1.5 million refugees would seek asylum in India.
We did not return to school, but Abba resumed his regular work hours at DMC. Our guests resumed their visits to our house and I was hearing intense discussions around the war strategy. My father followed my mother’s advice of spending nights over at a nearby friend’s house—knowing that the army could arrest him at any time. This put such a strain on his mind that he returned only after a few days. Abba experienced upper GI bleeding and had to be admitted to
the hospital. Amma supervised his treatment and care. We, the children, were at home alone at night.
The genocide spread all over East Pakistan in April. There was no end in sight for Yahya’s total annihilation campaign in this part of the Bengal. The blood bath, dubbed “Operation Searchlight,” was an ethnic cleansing, covered up by a thin veneer of false propaganda claiming the Bengali uprising involved only a small number of pro-Indian subversives and extremists. Yahya banned foreign journalists so he could hide the brutal killings.
Word started to get out and soon there was an international outcry about the genocide. One of the first persons to break the news to international media was Mr. Archer Blood, who was the last serving American Consul General in Dhaka when the genocide started. Mr. Archer sent several telegrams to then US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, detailing what he had witnessed during the crackdown on March 25.
A provisional government-in-exile was formed in Mujibnagar and the Mukti Bahini (Freedom Fighters) began fighting back. By April 1971, the provisional government in Mujibnagar had given a structure to Mukti Bahini under the leadership of Colonel MAG Osmani. My father was not only seeing the effect of the genocide but also treating the most severely injured people that came to him at the DMC. He was in charge of the overall treatment logistics and operations of the wounded at the main hospital. He didn't care about saving his own life by fleeing. Instead, he made sure medical treatment was available to all.
Another disaster struck my family in late April. My brother, Tinku, a student of Government Laboratory High School, had run away to join Mukti Bahini at the age of fourteen! We found out that he was missing when we woke up one morning. My parents were extremely worried as they did not think Tinku was old enough to join the guerrilla warfare. I stopped talking during this time from the profound shock that this trauma had on me. My mother worried that my father’s health would take a nosedive again. She herself fell into a deep depression.
My heartbroken mother consulted many people, even mystics, to seek assistance to find my brother; my father spread the word in his large network to find the whereabouts of my brother. Even through this difficult time, we didn’t turn anyone away from our house. Our house was a safe place to congregate, to strategize, to talk, and to get help. So many people who had lost relatives and their homes came to see us. There was always tea and food to eat. Everyone who came gave us hope and got assistance as needed.
Tinku fell sick in the training camps of the Mukti Bahini. Someone was able to get our father’s name from him and my parents were contacted by the kind well-wishers from a town outside of Dhaka. The next morning, Abba set out to fetch my brother and returned with him later that night. Amma almost lost consciousness when my brother walked into the house. I jumped up and down. It was truly a miracle my brother had come back to us, unharmed. Our family routine resumed, albeit with modifications for the war, after two and a half months. We were happy and it seemed that normalcy had returned to our lives for the first time in a long time.
But in June 1971—my mother got a telegram—she had been invited to attend an important international conference to represent Pakistan.
Dr Nusrat Rabbee is a biostatistical leader in the pharmaceutical industry. She holds a PhD from Harvard University. She is a writer on the 1971 War History of Bangladesh.