Note: This memoir is published as part of Bangladesh’s 50th Independence Anniversary Celebrations.
I have never been to the site of the Rayerbazar massacre. I have certainly wanted to—the desire has come upon me many times. Yet the mere thought of such a visit leaves me paralysed. To make such a journey—to walk the same path they trod to an untimely death—the prospect alone is more than I can bear with equanimity.
They were held in a small, darkened room inside Mirpur’s Physiological Institute. Their eyes were covered, and wrists bound. At the crack of dawn, they were lined up. Bayonets were used to wound them. They were shot. When the bodies were recovered many had been in the brick kilns. The fields were piled high with corpses. A number of them, long deceased, could no longer be identified—with no names, they were left unclaimed.
Those residing near the brick kilns woke every morning to a din of misery. Gunfire, screams, groaning—this violent cacophony accompanied many from this place. For one Mohamed Delwar Hossain, however, it was the terrifying backdrop to a fortuitous escape.
Delwar Hossain had been abducted on the 14th of December from the Shantibagh area in Dhaka. His account of events, published in 1972, is a rare window into the experiences of those taken by Al Badr.
This is his recollection of the time just prior to his escape:
“The militants from Al Badr had us transported to their camp on a bus. By some stroke of good fortune, I had managed to have my blindfold loose, and was able to see our surroundings as we approached. There was a large banyan tree, in front of which was a large marsh. Patches of the land remained wet—some big enough to be a pond. As we got closer, I saw that there were around 140 people held captive on the ground. The militants had begun to wound them—indiscriminately attacking them with bayonets. Then there was gunfire, wailing, desperate screams. The very air was filled with terror. I threw off my blindfold and ran and ran and ran—faster than I ever thought was possible.” (Dainik Bangla, 21st December 1972).
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Delwar Hossain was fortunate to have escaped with his life that day. The others became corpses. On top of the bodies, piled high, Alim was lying face down. His hands were tied behind his back, and the gamcha used to blindfold him dangled around his throat. He was wearing a lungi, a shirt, and a vest.
When Alim was taken from me, he had his watch on his wrist. On his feet were sandals. They took the watch before killing him. In the cold, chilled weather of December, he and the others had no winter clothes for warmth. The people taken that night were writers, journalists, doctors, teachers, and philanthropists. The best and brightest of a nation forced to endure a night of torment at the vicious hands of their murderers. What they had sustained over the course of that long, terrible night—only those who had seen the corpses could begin to comprehend.
When the bodies were found, Alim had several bullet wounds on his chest. His forehead and lower abdomen had been wounded by a bayonet. Dr. Fazle Rabbi lay just beside Alim, his body similarly injured. It was evident that either they had all been left to die from their wounds, or tortured mercilessly before their lives were taken.
Alim and Dr. Rabbi had been abducted on the 15th of December around 4:30 in the afternoon. It seemed that they had been tortured throughout the night and then brutally killed at dawn on the 16th. Silenced forever. We recovered their bodies on the morning of December the 18th.
Alim’s body was a little swollen, it had not yet begun to decompose. The clothes he wore had to be cut off his corpse. The sight of that scene—it was more agony than I could bear. I lost consciousness.
Those taken on the 15th of December were last seen walking at gunpoint towards a mud splattered microbus. Three days later, they returned as mangled corpses. I had lost any capacity to engage with these events at the time—I have no memory of them even now. I cannot say how or when Alim was prepared for burial. Then they washed his body or wrapped him in a pristine white shroud but I cannot recall what happened during the journey to the Azimpur graveyard. My only recollection—vague and distant—is of a body, moving gradually away from my sight, carried on the shoulders of a procession. It is a debilitating thought, that a single moment—the blink of an eye—is all it might take to lose a person of such vitality.
The turbulent events of that March had everyone in a perpetual state of unease. I myself was often preoccupied with the improbable anxieties that arose from my concern for Alim. The ideologies he subscribed to, his work and the activities he took part in—any and all of these things made him a likely target, and I soon spent my days in constant apprehension. Seeing me in this state, Alim would sometimes try to allay my fears. He would tell me that I shouldn’t be afraid—that if his destiny were to die now, it would happen whether he spent the day at home or outside. Nothing would befall him if that was not his fate. He would ask me, then, to be a bit more courageous and let him work. I would do my best to seek comfort in his assurances.
At the time, Alim was spending his afternoons practising at the clinic. He had gone there as usual on March 25th. Soon after his departure, the musician Sudhin Das came by for my music lessons. But there would be no music that day. Sudhin Da told me that the city seemed unsafe and urged me to immediately call Alim home. Having given his warning, he was quick to depart.
That something awful would happen seemed inevitable—we were all caught in a terrible anticipation. President Yahya had left Dhaka under the cover of darkness. Bangabandhu’s negotiation had borne no fruit, and the consequences weighed heavy on our minds. Our thoughts were shrouded in fear.
The Mujib-Yahya negotiations began on March 16th and continued from the 18th to the 22nd. Our hopes were roused as they progressed—the prospect of settlement began to seem more and more likely. In the newspapers, there was mass speculation. Articles suggested that General Yahya would declare a transfer of power to Mujib through a radio address on March 23rd.
During that period, there was an increasing number of confrontations between the army and the general populace. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman strongly condemned these events, and in doing so, questioned the value of his meetings. “What purpose do these negotiations serve?” he said, “I cannot betray the blood of martyrs.”
Sheikh Mujib declared March 23rd a general holiday. That day, many of us raised the flag of Bangladesh and let it fly over our homes. But this freedom was short-lived. On the morning of March 25th, the newspapers reported that hundreds of civilians had been attacked and killed all across the country. There had been a dispute at Chittagong Port regarding a ship carrying weapons from West Pakistan. As it was being cleared, guns were fired at the workers. It was obvious then that the negotiations had been a pretext to buy time while preparations were made for a military assault against Bengali civilians. From this realisation sprung a nationwide resistance movement. Barricades were erected on the streets of Dhaka. The students and youth came out to protest. Trees were cut and pipes left about, all in a bid to obstruct the Pakistani army’s movement.
(Translated by Farah Naz and Madhuri Quayes)
Shyamoli Nasreen Choudhury, wife of Dr. Alim Choudhury, is a recipient of Ekushey Padak for contribution in Education, and winner of Agrani Bank Shishu Academy award for her contribution in literature. She has written 14 books and an autobiography, which is waiting to be published.