I could not go to witness the surrender scene at Ramna Race Course on the day for which I was pining, like all other virtually imprisoned citizens of Dhaka.
It was not because I did not want to. It was because on my way to the Race Course in a friend’s car, we were fired upon by a Pakistani militia shooting away at random at all passersby from his hideout in an abandoned building in Elephant Road.
When we dodged the bullet and took an alternative road, we were met with throngs of youngsters, many wielding firearms and yelling in jubilation. It was difficult to tell if they were actually freedom fighters or young men who had been hiding in the city for fear and had just come out with weapons that were left behind by a fleeing band of soldiers.
In any event, it was not safe to go out anymore, we concluded. We returned home to watch the momentous surrender of Pakistan Army on television.
What happened in Dhaka on December 16 and in the rest of Bangladesh is history now. But what happened thereafter is history where it is recorded and only a terrible memory for those who had seen it personally.
One of those persons was a shopkeeper in Dhaka Stadium, a brave person who had kept his small business of selling tea, cigarettes, and betel leaf open during the dark days of occupation. His shop was an oasis of hope where he dispensed his dream of a soon-to-be independent country liberated from the clutches of a cruel army along with his tea and biscuits.
He was confident that the days of the junta were numbered. He was certain that the young men from his village in the neighbourhood of Dhaka who had trained and were raiding Dhaka daily would soon free the city just as others like them would liberate the rest of the country. He was convinced it was only a matter of time.
I used to meet this shopkeeper in those days, just not for tea but also for hearing his inspiring talks. He would talk in a hushed voice whenever a wandering platoon of militia passed by his shop or stopped for cigarette.
It was unreal to hear him talk about a liberated country in those gloomy days, but it was exciting to hear him say about the raids that he said would be forthcoming. Not that whatever he predicted came true, but many did happen, and Dhaka was a place stricken by many bomb blasts in almost all parts of the city. So the shopkeeper’s credibility was not that weak.
I went to the shop three days after Victory Day. He was open, but not with a smiling face that had greeted me earlier. He was morose and downtrodden. He offered my cup of tea, saying that this probably would be the last cup of tea there since he planned to shut down his business.
Naturally, I was surprised.
I asked why he wanted to shut down his business after his dream of a free country has come true. He replied he was not sure if this is the free country he had dreamed of.
But it is a national duty for all to remember that the harrowing and pain of 1971 was not all caused by a murderous military junta, it was also aided and abetted by some of our own people
He looked at my expression and then went on to narrate to me his harrowing and depressing account of the events that had followed the Pakistan Army surrender.
His first shock was from the wanton plunders by mobs of all stores along then Jinnah Avenue (now Bangabandhu Avenue) in the name of punishing non-Bengalis for their role, although many shops belonged to Bengalis as well.
His second shock was from the brutal killing by bayonet of two persons suspected to be Razakars in front of the stadium by a freedom fighter. But his greatest shock was to find several people who he had known to be Pakistani spies posing as freedom fighters and now joining the plunder and loot in the area.
“Sir, I knew that the Pakistan Army could not rule over us for long because they did not belong here.
But the people I see before me now are our own. They were not fighting the army, but helping them. They are not going anywhere,” my shopkeeper friend said in a lament.
The shopkeeper actually sold his business and moved on, but his comments remained with me for a long time. The shopkeeper had embodied in him the true hope and spirit of our independence struggle. In fact, in a metaphorical sense, he embodied the hopes and aspirations of all Bangladeshis that time who were going through the trauma of army occupation when village after village was being scorched and people hauled away for suspected support of the freedom fighters.
The irony was that many of these army raids were happening both in and outside Dhaka because the help came from within.
The number of such people may not have been big, but they are sufficient to cause harm.
These are the people who helped to cull down many of our scholars and intellectuals in the dark nights of December, but they later came out blended with their fellow beings openly.
One can forgive, but cannot forget. The nine-month trauma of 1971 for the majority who lived through it cannot be forgotten. Nor the pain of loss of dear ones for those who went through it. The principal perpetrators of the crimes of 1971 may have belonged to Pakistan, but a good number of them were born and raised in our own country.
Some of them may have acted because of their ideology or political belief, but others acted as mercenaries and soldiers of opportunity.
Not all of these people could be later identified and be hauled up in the war crimes trial.
But it is a national duty for all to remember that the harrowing and pain of 1971 was not all caused by a murderous military junta, it was also aided and abetted by some of our own people.
We will never be able to compensate the victims and their families, but we should at least let our posterity know that as a nation, we did not fail in bringing those perpetrators to justice.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the USA.