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Stories of valour

  • Published at 12:02 am December 16th, 2019
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Victory is the result of a united effort

Bangladesh is on her way to celebrating her 48th year of independence.

The country and I have grown up almost together. 

As the nation is almost on the verge of 50 years, the first thing that strikes is how Bangladesh has undergone phenomenal transformation from a war-ravaged, economically-crippled country. In the decade after independence, there was a general sense of malaise over the country as if the nation was still trying to get over the devastation and the carnage of the Liberation War. 

Every year, when December 16 or March 26 came around, conversation around the home inevitably turned towards the war of independence. This possibly happens in all families as almost every family has or had a senior person who had experiences to share. For March 26, the discussion usually began by some senior member recalling where he or she was when the military crackdown began on the late hours of March 25. 

When it comes to December 16, the conversation incorporated a wide array of issues covering experiences spanning across the nine months of bloody struggle. Not all of them were of fighters who saw action on the battlefield, but were ordinary men and women who took huge risks to do their part in helping the freedom fighters. 

A restaurant owner in Benapole 

In 1996, I went to Kolkata by road and, on the way back, had an evening to spend at the Benapole border. With time to kill, a friend and I went into an eatery dimly lit by a kerosene lamp. A few other people were also there, sipping tea.

Soon, a man with a limp entered and sat at the reception; the rest rose up deferentially. Curious, we asked who he was and one of them said that the owner was their radio operator in Jessore area during the war.  Intrigued, we went up and asked him about the war and he casually said: “We did what had to be done and got what we wanted -- a country.”

Sensing our interest in what had happened during the war, he went on: “It was brutal and savage but it taught us the meaning of protecting what one feels to be his own. My friend, who fought by me, was killed by enemy machine gun fire.” 

Obviously, when an issue about the War of Independence comes, a question is asked almost by default: Are you happy with how the country has progressed? He said: “It was in our fantasies that we envisage a perfect country and, during the war, we also dreamed of a nation without aberrations and anomalies, but reality is never immaculate and that applies to all nations. No country is perfect, there are problems even in the best ones, and so it would be wrong to say that we were or are disillusioned.” 

It’s a bit like love; when two persons are in a romantic bond their hopes for the future are always rosy, replete with contentment and happiness, but after marriage, reality forces the couple to come out of a reverie and face life’s tribulations and disappointments and make the best of it all, he added. 

A matron at Chittagong Medical College

The late Zohra Khatun was the matron of the Chittagong Medical College during the war and her part in the struggle was mainly to safeguard the young nurses who were working at the hospital. Back in the 90s, while recounting the experiences of the war, she said: “The Pakistani Army was stationed nearby and, to keep the girls safe, I instructed all of them to walk together to duty and walk back with me.

“At one point, there was a confrontation with the army when a soldier pointed a rifle at my chest, ordering me to step aside as they wanted to enter the hospital. But I remained defiant and demanded to see their officer. 

“After much debate and many arguments, it was settled that the nurses would not be touched or harmed in any way.” 

A double agent who fooled the army

Anyone talking to Ashraf Hossain would be impressed by his eloquence. He is a polyglot, having mastered several languages. I met him at L’Alliance Francaise in the early 90s and he introduced himself in an unforgettable way: An avowed Bohemian, and a maverick till death. 

Soon we got to know about his exploits during the Liberation War as we found that several of his friends were active fighters in 1971 who were decorated later for valour.

“But I never fought,” he used to say with pride, and then added: “I dined at the cantonment and took the best hospitality from the invading army.”

One day he told us that all throughout the war, he was known as a person loyal to the army and spoke Urdu so well and vilified the freedom fighters so vehemently that he was always above suspicion. In reality, his task was to get inside information by mingling with Pakistani army personnel. 

Son of a wealthy man, he drove a car and maintained a rather nonchalant approach towards the independence struggle. “My subterfuge was so perfect that at one point I was asked to pack up and take a flight out of Dhaka at the beginning of December, 1971,” he said. 

There are possibly countless people like the ones above who did not actively take part in the war, but their contributions are just as vital as the ones made by those who fought. Victory is the united effort by all and, today, those who believe that Bangladesh can be more prosperous and better in all aspects are the freedom fighters of a new age.

Towheed Feroze is News Editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.