This memoir is published as part of Bangladesh’s 50th Independence Anniversary Celebrations. This is the 6th instalment
The 18th of December, 1971: Finally, we found him -- we found many of them.
Hafiz had found the location after managing to evade shots fired by the militia. Alim and the other intellectuals were lying dead on the brick fields of Rayerbazar. Dr Rabbi, Alim, Ladu Bhai, and a few others were found lying in the brick kiln. Hafiz recognized Dr Rabbi immediately.
Alim’s corpse lay inverted, upright. Hafiz had nearly left as he couldn’t recognize the body. He was there with Momin, Alim’s friend Mr Khan, and Ershad and Aftab -- my brother’s friends. Hafiz and Momin were the first to recognize Alim -- his shirt was a familiar one, and the same he had been wearing when he was abducted.
Momin came home screaming, “We found him, we found sir!”
Before I could register what was happening, he ran back out with a white sheet to fetch him.
At that moment, I thought, what a rare blessing this would be. He had been lost to us but now I could see him again. Once I saw him, however, I wished dearly that I had not.
How would the world answer the people of Bengal?
On the 20th of December, a newspaper, Dainik Purbodesh, published a feature with the headline:
Weep blood-soaked Bangladesh, we want justice for the heinous crimes against humanity:
The people of Bengal want justice. Heinous crimes were committed here, and the millions that want justice to be served.
The world has punished the perpetrators of the My Lai massacre and Nazi Holocaust. The violent zeal with which the Pakistani military enacted their campaign created thousands of incidents just like those in My Lai and the Holocaust.
The mourning Bangali has one question in mind, for whom is the Geneva Convention? Yahya, Tikka, Niazi -- are they subject to this convention? Will the International Red Cross not answer the queries of the Bangali masses?
Apart from killing innocent, unarmed civilians, these brutal human-formed animals abducted and executed educators, intellectuals, physicians, and journalists just on the cusp of their defeat.
Gradually news started to arrive from many parts of Bangladesh. The paramilitia Al Badr had murdered hundreds of intellectuals from Khulna, Comilla, and Brahmanbaria throughout the first two weeks of December.
Reports from multiple sources indicate that the Pakistani army and Al Badr had plans to kill three thousand intellectuals, educators, journalists, physicians and civil servants in Dhaka city alone.
Planning for this massacre began on the 10th of December. They commenced to execute the plan the very following day. Three hundred eminent intellectuals were abducted between the 11th and the 15th of December. Many were still missing -- a few were found as corpses.
What were the motives behind such despicable acts? Was it a conspiracy to paralyze the Bangali nation?
How would the world answer the people of Bengal?
In the same newspaper, under the title of we want justice for this massacre, it was written:
The Pakistani army and the paramilitants of Jamaat-e-Islami -- a fanatic group that had created Al Badr and Al Shams -- have murdered most of the intellectuals they abducted earlier.
We have heard many reports of gruesome murders, but the massacre carried out by Al Badr and Al Shams during these nine months of war -- especially in the week preceding December 16th -- causes the rest to pale in comparison…
We would not be surprised if the most pitiless shed tears once they saw the corpses of our countrymen. Death was a respite after the gruesome torture they endured...
The revelation of our victory -- that initial unfettered jubilation -- in mere moments we found dampened, were not snuffed out. For with news of our liberation came the reports of those that had been slaughtered, and with that our joy was overshadowed by grief. To have such loss on the very cusp of our liberation -- such trauma could scarcely bear recovery.
With this as our evidence, we demand justice for these atrocities, and hold to account all of mankind. The perpetrators of these crimes have begun to blend in with the general public. The people need to be alert. Each neighbourhood must keep a vigilant eye on its territory. They should not be able to escape. They might lose their rifles and mingle with the civilians. They may even chant victorious slogans for Bangladesh. They would do this and make plans in the meantime to later inflict on us. They need to be caught and handed over to the appropriate authorities. We believe that, if every citizen of Bangladesh remains vigilant, we can not only catch these perpetrators, but punish them accordingly.
The nation had expressed its despair and disappointment at the cruel, inhuman massacres that had occurred over the nine months of war. Our agony did not diminish, but we found some peace when we read the assurances regarding the punishment of the perpetrators. We felt, then, that at least those murderers would not be spared. The people of Bangladesh would punish them.
Dhaka Medical College, Salimullah Medical College, Mitford Hospital, the Post-graduate Medical University, and the Medical Association, all separately condemned the murder of physicians and mourned their deaths. In the edition published December 19th, the Dainik Purbodesh reported:
Dhaka Medical College organized a Commemoration for Physician Fazle Rabbi of the Clinical Medicine department and Professor of Ophthalmology Dr Alim Chaudhury at 11 am today.
Many speakers expressed their deepest condolences for the two departed physicians at the seminar convened by Professor SR Chowdhury of Dhaka Medical College. Professor Dr Mominul Haque, Professor Ali Ashraf, Dr Salahuddin, and Professor Akram Hossain broke down in tears while delivering their speeches. Among other speakers, on behalf of the Muktibahini were Dr Sarwar Ali (General Secretary of the Bangladesh Medical Association), Rafiqul Hasan (Associate Secretary of Dhaka Medical College Student Union), and Abul Qasem.
Dr Mahbubur Rahman and other speakers requested in their commemorative speeches that all physicians present establish pro-people medical services which would reflect the ideologies of the martyred physicians.
They urged their colleagues to create a society free from affliction, and to champion fair and equitable access to medical facilities for people from all walks of life. They also declared that two student dormitories would be named for Professor Alim Chaudhury and Professor Fazle Rabbi respectively.
The newspaper continued:
They offered their sincere condolences to the families and relatives of the martyred physicians, and finally made a number of proposals, which would offer support and cooperation for their welfare.
Many of those giving speeches -- physicians, professors, and students of those martyred physicians -- found themselves in tears. They all promised to fulfil the objectives of their deceased colleagues in their own careers.
In the forum, they once again offered their deepest condolences to the families of the deceased physicians, and requested that everyone join the congregational prayer the next day to pray for the departed souls.
A charade of justice
On the 24th of January, 1972, the law enacted to try local war criminals -- known as the Bangladesh Collaborators (Special Tribunals) Order 1972 -- came into effect. Under this act, the accused could be sentenced to anything between two years of imprisonment to the death penalty for crimes committed during the war and genocidal actions. This law authorized a defendant’s right to appeal to the High Court against the tribunal order, but denied plaintiffs the opportunity to appeal to any other court of justice if the case was pending in the tribunal court.
The law was passed as a clever attempt at shielding those who led any collaboration with the Pakistanis -- is such a belief at all inappropriate? Section 7 of this act had a provision which stated that any conviction under this law would only come into effect if the Officer in Charge of the local police certified the criminal offence.
According to the act, no case can be filed in the tribunal courts if the Officer in Charge declines them. The case cannot be brought to any other court either. The families of collaborators were certainly solvent enough to pay out any officers involved. The same could not be said for most of the poor and oppressed civilians who lost those dearest to them.
On March 28th, a total of 73 special tribunal courts had been established in every district to facilitate the trial of collaborators. According to the Tribunal Act, the crimes which would be prosecuted under this law would not be tried in any other court of justice. It was declared that all other courts would refrain from hearing any case under the purview of the tribunals. The trials began in April.
The events that followed, however, proved that the act was in fact a shield for the most notorious killers and collaborators. The Peace Committee -- tasked with creating lists of innocent civilians and then helping the Pakistanis execute them -- received a sentence of seven years imprisonment. Members in the Committee had testified and said themselves that their primary aim was “to seek out all rebels and Indian spies and uproot them with the help of the Pakistani Military.” With such a statement, it should have been possible to punish anyone identified as a member with a maximum sentence.
Before the declaration of the General Amnesty on the 30th of November, 1973 -- ie until the 31st of October, 1973 -- only 2,848 of the 37,471 cases under the Act had a complete trial. Of the accused, only 752 were found guilty and given punishment. As many as 2,096 were acquitted. Only one Razakar was sentenced to death.
Shouldn’t we question the motivations of those that say no murders were committed by collaborators during those gruesome days of genocide? Were civilians -- hundreds of thousands of them -- merely telling stories? The wounded corpses from the execution sites, bearing the signs of brutal torture, do they only testify to the brutality of the Pakistanis?
The trials held under the Collaborators Act were merely a pretence. The Razakar responsible for abducting Shahidullah Kaiser, the journalist and novelist, was convicted with conclusive evidence. His sentence, however, was only seven years of imprisonment.
Now I firmly believe -- and I am far from alone in this sentiment -- that the Special Tribunal was just an excuse to safeguard the members of the Peace Committee. It was created for the systematic execution of civilians, consisting of Razakars and members of Al Badr and Al Shams -- and yet they were given a punishment that not only seemed like a token, but would also keep them safe in prison from the fury of the oppressed masses.
The conspiracy behind the Act
The civilians could not understand the conspiracy behind the Collaborators Act, which was only a farce to safeguard collaborators and war criminals until their so-called trials took place. Many concerned intellectuals, however, had raised protests from the very beginning -- citing many defects and irregularities.
Civic awareness came later, when it was found that these collaborators -- orchestrators of murder and genocide -- had been given such insignificant punishments, and then later again, when they were set free.
When this led to mass criticism of the Act, the Awami League government decided to amend the law.
The situation became even more painful when on the 30th of November 1973, the government of Bangladesh suddenly declared a General Amnesty for those convicted under the Collaborators Act.
The War criminals from the Peace Committee, convicted members of Jamaat-e-Islami, Muslim League, and PDP; associates of the Nizam-e-Islam, and the Razakars engaged in the systematic execution of the pro-liberation intellectuals -- all left prison within a week of the declaration. These individuals who were involved in such crimes against humanity, in gruesome murder and in genocide, were free to once again mingle amongst those who had been their victims.
Another ordinance was declared on behalf of the military government in January 1976, halting any further activity under this act. Though earlier governments had rehabilitated these collaborators, and brought them back into society, they had never assigned them to a high-profile position of authority. Now, some of the anti-liberation criminals had the opportunity to group together and form a political party. These razakars, responsible for the gruesome deaths of innocent civilians, later became members of parliament.
The abhorrence, humiliation, and distress caused by these events weigh on me to this day, and yet defy any expression. I have lost my words.
One Saturday in April 1972, an announcement was printed in the Dainik Bangla with a picture of Moulana Mannan.
Originally written in Bangla by Shyamoli Nasreen Choudhury, wife of DR Alim Choudhury, recipient of the Ekushey Padak for her contribution in Education. The article is translated by Farah Naz and Manoshi Quayes.