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OP-ED: A dark hour: The hair-raising nightmare of 1971

  • Published at 07:26 am December 19th, 2020
1971
The nine-month-long war saw over three million deaths but the barbaric Pakistani rulers failed to achieve their goal AFP

All that was experienced in those days must be told, so that coming generations know about the horror


The Yahya Khan-led brutal Pakistan army crackdown on innocent Bengali civilians on March 26, 1971 and the genocide of millions of its “own,” brought about the demise of Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s Pakistan of 1947, and gave birth to a new sovereign independent country: Bangladesh. 

It took nine months of a ruthless and bloody War of Liberation to humble the seemingly “invincible” Pakistan army of more than 90,000 soldiers to surrender to the allied forces on December 16, 1971. The Bangladesh War of Liberation will surely go down in history as one the most glorious of struggles for the cause of freedom and self-determination and upholding democracy. 

Our armed struggle was not only against a disproportionately powerful organized army, but also against a brutal and diabolical oppressive regime that wanted to wipe out the Bengalis from the face of the then East Pakistan. Yahya Khan let loose his dogs of war in an orgy of human rights abuse at its worst ... mass killings, rape, and arson … men, women, children … Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists irrespectively. 

What Yahya Khan and his cohorts had grossly underestimated was the ferocity of the backlash of the Bengalis of the then East Pakistan. 

They were short in visualizing the ensconced fire embedded deep inside the otherwise gracious Bengalis which when unleashed can consume any adversary that intrudes into his culture, language, and freedoms. The Pakistani occupation army came to learn it the hard when every day of the nine-month period of occupation was an agonizing and hellish experience for them. 

The Liberation War was fought on two fronts: One on the battlefield and the other was the onslaught by the urban guerillas. The guerilla fighters of the Mukti Bahini were the worst nightmare of the Pakistan army, caught unaware by the hit and run from nowhere and then disappearing after causing havoc and destroying strategic outposts, armouries, bunkers, and personnel. 

In cowardly retaliation

In desperation and exasperation, the Pakistani soldiers, together with the help of the treacherous Razakars, in cowardly retaliation, would pick on innocent civilians. The episodes of these cowardly retaliation are innumerable. 

The most notorious one was the brutal killing of 200 intellectuals (eminent educators, scholars, top professionals, and selected elite) on the dead of night of December 14, 1971, two days before the surrender of the Pakistanis to the Mitra Bahini (Allied Forces) of Bangladesh Freedom Fighters and the Indian Army on December 16, 1971. The sole purpose of the dastardly and satanic murder was to leave Bangladesh intellectually barren and bereft after its liberation. 

After the crackdown

The Liberation War of Bangladesh started immediately following the army crackdown on March 26, 1971 and the declaration of Independence. The youths of East Pakistan and the Bengali officers and jawans (soldiers) of Pakistan army, the then East Pakistan Rifles (EPR), police, Ansar, and the ordinary people took up arms and crossed across the border to regroup and fight the occupation forces.  

Many trained themselves and returned as groups to fight the urban guerilla war. And those who could not do either for one reason or the other, lived by day for the nine agonizing months not knowing if they would survive to see the sun rise the next morning. 

A good many of the harrowing experiences suffered are left unsaid, and perhaps getting lost, as many of the generation of 1971 have either passed away or are in the twilight years of life. I believe that all that we know and have experienced must be told, so that the coming generations never forget the horror and agony of occupation. With this in mind, I share a personal one.

Our stories must be told

I was in Chittagong for the most part of 1971, living with my parents and siblings. My father was an officer of central government. We used to live in a D-type government quarter in the Agrabad CGO colony. Our building was among the newly constructed ones at the time, adjacent to the the East Pakistan Labour Directorate Office. 

Our buildings were separated from the older ones by a large football size field. Behind our building was another newly constructed government building, but empty. The inhabitants of the colony were all central government officials, comprising Bengali and non-Bengali speaking families. 

There was never any hatred or animosity with our non-Bengali neighbours; rather, we lived in perfect harmony. 

However, after the army crackdown, suspicion crept in, and we were wary of our non-Bengali speaking neighbours for obvious reasons. The suspicions and lack of trust grew when we would notice Pakistan army officers and soldiers visiting them every now and then. Our nearest non-Bengali speaking neighbour in the next building was the regional director or assistant RD of the Chittagong station of Radio Pakistan. 

He was a mild and soft spoken gentleman who got along fine with others. The same could not be said about his teenaged brother who lived with them. 

It so happened that a large contingent of Pakistani army soldiers freshly brought in from the West camped in the empty facility behind our building. They were a trigger happy lot, frequently firing rounds of AK-47 shots into the air at night scaring the living daylights out of people living in the CGO colony. 

The teenaged brother of the Radio Pakistan RD befriended the soldiers and managed to get hold of a weapon which he would arrogantly brandish whenever he passed by. The firing from the weapon could be heard from the apartment at dead hours of the night, creating panic among the dwellers.

I wonder if readers are familiar with D-type government apartment designs of those days. Each building would be 3-4 floors divided into two parts with 3-4 spacious bedrooms. There was, however, a major disadvantage: The entry and exit to the apartments in the building were the same, and there was no backdoor exit, as was the case with some of the “C” type flats. How dearly we missed the rear door exit will be obvious, as you read my story. 

It was sometime in late November, 1971. The Mukti Bahini had already begun gaining ground and making the nervous Pakistan Army more desperate than ever. There was no power in the CGO colony at night. 

The silence and pitch darkness of the night was so heavy that one could slice it with a knife. We would all be huddled together over the transistor radio muffling the sound by pillows to listen to the broadcasts of Shadhin (Free) Bangla Radio, BBC, VOA, and All India Radio. 

My father was never at ease, always tense and restive. He would not sleep and would be seen pacing the rooms in silence. My mother would be on the prayer mat with tasbih (prayer beads). I could understand their tension, especially concerning my youngest teenage sister (the other two being married and living elsewhere) and the horrendous stories of Pak Army atrocities on women.

It was around midnight that cool November night when we heard the sound of a vehicle stopping just outside the entrance of our building with the engine running. My brother and I slowly moved the curtain on the window to take a look downstairs. What we saw froze the blood flowing in our veins. 

It was a white Volkswagen mini truck like the ones used by the UN. There were about ten fierce looking people dressed in civilian shalwar suits seated on both sides of the truck holding on to AK-47 assault rifles and long sword-like knives. No one was speaking, and there was no movement of people on the idling vehicle. 

My mother was about to faint, and my father was livid. We knew that they had come for us, to pick and choose from each flat in the building. When death is imminent, the fear vanishes, perhaps because of divine intervention. Instead of going into hysterics, an eerie calm took over us. In fact, it was the same for those in the other flats of our building.

Not without a fight

My younger brother and I stood near the door with cricket wickets in hand, while my sister and mother locked themselves in a room with kitchen knives. We decided we will die, but not without giving a fight.  

We waited in silence for that dreaded bang on our door. The whirring of a vehicle at the building entrance was loud and clear in the silent night. Every second seemed like hours, and yet the dreaded knock did not come about. I could feel I was sweating, but the drip was cold. 

Five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes went by ... endlessly. Then we heard the crack of a single rifle shot but at some distance from our building. After a couple of minutes, we heard the vehicle leave. We peeped outside our window, and it was no longer there. 

The rest of the night was spent sleepless, offering our gratitude to the Almighty in prayers. The next morning, we went down and learned that the chowkidar of our colony was shot dead. What was his fault we would never know. 

My father decided that we must move out of the CGO quarter without a moment’s delay. He told my mother to grab some essentials, and we moved to a relative’s house in Jamal Khan Road in downtown Chittagong, where we stayed till December 17, after our victory and surrender of the Pakistan army. 

This is just one episode. There would be many more. 

Hemayet Uddin is a Retired Government Officer.

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