Freedom fighter, writer and feminist activist Begum Mushtari Shafi writes about the day she lost her husband and brother
April 7 - it comes and goes unnoticed by all, but for me, it is a date etched with pain. I know April 7, 1971 will not find a place in the pages of our history, but that date has been burned on to my heart and seared into my children’s minds with the red hot fire of an iron rod.
The day before
By then we had become used to the sound of gunfire. The Pakistan army had finally managed to enter Chittagong at the end of March. The East Pakistan Rifles had put up a brave fight and many had fallen. The city had turned into a battlefield and half of its Bengali inhabitants had already fled the Pakistanis’ indiscriminate killing.
It was a dark, cloudy, fearful night - heavy with silence. There were around 40 people scattered over our four storey house in Chittagong, lying on blankets or just on the bare floor. Not even the sound of a breath could be heard. All you could see in the darkness were the burning ends of the cigarettes some of the men were smoking. A few of us were sleeping on the floor of my bedroom - Minu Apa,
Jinnu, Ranu with her baby, my two daughters and I. Near my head, my husband Dr Shafi was on the bed with my youngest daughter.
The only thing I could hear that night was the rat-a-tat-tat of rifles and machine guns, and our neighbourhood dog’s occasional bark. I was feeling incredibly restless. The army had occupied the court building and DC hall that was to the east of my house that day. The bodies were just lying there - including that of Awami League leader Akhtaruzzaman Babu’s younger brother Bashruzzaman, who had visited us that very afternoon and was shot on his way back. The Goalpara Hindu slum behind our house had been burned to the ground by non-Bengalis - their cheers of ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ poisoning the air of Enayet Bazar.
I had not heard from Belal bhai and others since the bombing of the Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra transmitter at Kalurghat on March 30. The first plan of the Betarhad been initiated at our house by Belal Mohammad Abdullah Al-Faruk, Abul Kashem Shondip, Kazi Habibur Rahman and Rezaul Karim, and until the bombing, they used our residence to carry out this work. My younger brother Ehsan, my husband and I were all involved in these efforts. But now, Shadhin Bangla Betar was silent.
I couldn’t sleep at all. I went to him (my husband). He was still smoking a cigarette. I placed my hand lightly on his head and he said in a startled voice, why aren’t you asleep? When I said I couldn’t sleep, he said - lie down, close your eyes. Sleep will come.
I saw a dream that night. I was in the middle of a desert, without any of my family but with many other travellers, walking in a straight line across the sand. The sun was burning on my back and I was dying of thirst. Suddenly a tremendous noise shook us from our sleep - the children started crying. It was 7am. Someone brought news that the army was firing from a cannon they had set up at Biponi Bitan.
I helplessly looked towards Dr Shafi. He was smoking a cigarette and frowning, his eyes closed. I could tell he was deep in thought. I interrupted, saying “there is still time. Let us go away from here.”
He replied - “why are you afraid? Insha’Allah nothing will happen.”
He said these comforting words with such confidence. He made all of us feel a little less scared.
I went and stood at the window of Dr Shafi’s dental chamber, located at the front of the house. What I saw made my blood run cold - an elderly man and a teenager were pulling a thelagari covered in tarpaulin with great effort. From it, trails of blood were trickling down to the road below. A pickup van with soldiers followed behind.
My head started to spin and I had to hold on to the window grill. I called for Dr Shafi, and he came behind me and put his hand on my back, asking “what’s wrong?” I couldn’t speak. I only pointed to the scene outside, hid my face on his chest and burst into tears. He lovingly held me, saying “you are scared of this? Think of what is happening in Vietnam.”
His words made me shiver. Were we going to turn into Vietnam too? “You never know.”
Ehsan - my only little brother
I wiped my tears and stopped in front of Ehsan’s room. He was sitting on the jainamaj and reciting the durud in a soft, sweet voice. Ever since he was little, he had been a soft, patient and peaceful child. We lost our father when he was less than three years old. In 1971, he was a final year student at Chittagong University. He was quiet anyway, and the state of the country had made him quieter.
At the breakfast table, Dr Shafi said “People have made a mistake by abandoning the city. It will be difficult to get rid of the Pakistanis this way.” I told him that if people didn’t flee, they would be gotten rid of.
He said, “Are you crazy Doll? (My nickname is Dolly and he would affectionately call me that). It’s not so easy to kill 7.5 crore people.” His casual tone annoyed me. I pointed out that they had been killing people all night, and easily enough.
“Let them do it. How many can they kill?” I was shocked. What on earth was the man saying? I spoke harshly - “You’re insane! You can see the bloodshed, and you still insist on risking our lives and staying here. Think of what we are hiding upstairs - how reckless you have been!”
He nodded his head but said nothing. But later on when I told him of my dream, he had an unexpected reaction. He thought it was a sign that the country would be liberated soon and we would go on Hajj.
I asked in despair if we would live to see that happen. He said - “Why not? Of course we will live. You’ll see, we will be independent soon.”
They came for him
Out of nowhere, I heard the stomping of boots. A jeep and lorry pulled up in front and soldiers burst into our living room. They started to search the house. My seven children were bawling in a corner, and one of the soldiers put his hand on my daughter’s hair and said “there’s no reason to be scared baby, you are my child too.” (in Urdu). This reassured me ever so slightly - after all they must be husbands and fathers too; maybe they were not as cruel as I imagined.
They asked Dr Shafi to come outside. I ran to the window to get a glimpse of him, and saw two soldiers climbing the stairs of my neighbour’s house. Their barking dog was quickly silenced with a bullet - they laughed and went on their way. Kedara Babu and his family had gone, but the priest at the temple stayed back. He was sobbing at the feet of one of the soldiers. A violent kick threw him back, and another soldier pulled the trigger - the elderly man writhed in pain and became still. I stifled a screamed as another pair of laughing soldiers escorted Dr Shafi into their jeep. His face was white as a sheet.
All of our non-Bengali neighbours who were around witnessed the scene from their windows. No one said a word. Yet I knew many of them were Dr Shafi’s patients.
I ran to Ehsan’s room and begged him to use the back gate and run away. He said, “Apa, calm down. Don’t lose your patience in such terrible times.”
But he returned
I dissolved into tears, pressing my children to me when Belu bhai came running - “Doctor bhai is back”. I stared at him uncomprehendingly and the children came dragging their father in. Dr Shafi put his hand on my head and asked me to stop crying, but the only thing I knew is that we could not stay in that house a minute longer. He gave me a wan smile, saying “Why are you getting so scared? Now that Allah has brought be back once, there is nothing to fear. Let me eat something.”
While eating, he told me how he was taken to the Circuit House and by a stroke of luck, he came acrossBrigadier General Mirza Aslam Beg, then CNC of Pakistan and a long-term patient of Dr Shafi’s. The General refused to believe any of the allegations and reprimanded the soldiers, asking them to escort Dr Shafi back to his home.
We decided to get away under cover of darkness, but before he even managed to finish his meal, the soldiers stormed back into our drawing room. This time, there were two officers.
“Who is Dr Shafi?”, they asked in English, and added in a harsher tone, “where is his wife? Bring her.”
I was stunned but spoke to them politely in Urdu. Their name tags said Major Z Bukhari and Major H Khan. We all sat down on our sofa. I had urged Ehsan already to use the back door and run away, but he came and stood beside me. Soldiers started to go through our house again.
Suddenly they asked, “ Who lives upstairs?” My heart stood still, but I explained as calmly as I could that our tenant had left for Karachi in February, and we didn’t have their keys. I could hear soldiers already trying to break the lock, and my strength started to ebb away. Chhatra Union leader Harun ur Rashid had hid cases of ammunition that was taken from the barracks - we were keeping them from the Mukti Bahini but no one else knew they were there. What would happen when they are found? All I could think of was that I was living the last few moments of my life.
Before I knew it, they were escorting Dr Shafi upstairs to explain what they had discovered. I grabbed Ehsan by the hands. This was his last chance - I begged him to use the back gate and get away. And for the first time in his life, he reacted angrily. “Stop acting crazy! It’s your madness that has put us in danger in the first place. Do you know the allegations are against you too? They will never let you go. And I’m supposed to leave you here and run away?”
Right then, Major Bukhari came down and said, “Mrs Shafi, your husband is making a mistake by lying. You are a very intelligent woman. I hope you won’t make the same mistake. Who put the ammunition there?”
I said I didn’t know. He gave a knowing laugh and asked “When did your tenant leave?”
I still feel amazed at how I suddenly mustered that courage, but I retorted strongly, “I am not lying. You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to.” He stared at me, then pointed to one of the cases of ammunition they were bringing downstairs. On it, in large red letters was a date - 27/3/1971. I couldn’t speak. Dr Shafi had just brought down a case, panting. I looked right at him, and he only muttered “unbelievable!” How could Harun Bhai have made this mistake?
I lost everything
They continued their questions. Who put the ammunition there? Where were they hiding? We knew nothing, but they seemed to know everything. They pulled out a photo of a protest organised by Mahila Parishad, where I could clearly be seen. They spoke of how we had hatched plans to start a secret radio here. And finally, they pulled out a written complaint made against us by our own neighbours. They also showed me the cover of the March edition of ‘Bandhobi’ (I had founded this monthly magazine and had been its editor for the last ten years) - it was a map of East Pakistan that was red with blood, with bayonets being charged on it.
They asked the three of us to go back to Circuit House with them. Most of the complaints were against me, so I begged them to let Dr Shafi and Ehsan go. The major replied that Dr Shafi must go because how could I have done all this without the encouragement of my husband? When I asked him why they were taking my brother too, he replied with a smile - “just because”.
My children were almost wild with tears by then but I didn’t look at anyone, I hugged them all and came outside. Ehsan had asked permission to go in and change his clothes, and he came out with drops of water on his face - I realised he had gone in for his Wudu.
Suddenly I heard one of them say - “Mrs Shafi, you can go back in. Your children are crying. But if you try and run away, we will kill your husband and brother and blow your house to bits.”
For the first time, I broke down in tears in front of them. It still makes me shiver to remember I forgot all fear and constraint and did such a thing - but I grabbed his hand and begged for the lives of my only brother and the father of my children.
The majors both promised me they would return. They say Pathan Punjabis don’t tell lies. I didn’t believe their words, but I think I saw a shade of relief on Dr Shafi’s face. His last words to me were - “Don’t worry about us Doll. Go back to the children. I’ll come home.”
Ehsan, my little brother, looked at me one last time before getting on the jeep. He was still as calm and patient as ever - his large, innocent eyes stayed on my face for as long as he could see me. Maybe he was still thinking then - who will look after my Apa? He waved goodbye. I kept standing there while they started the jeep. Dr Shafi raised his hand one last time and gestured for me to go inside.
Then, they were gone. Everything was taken away from me that day.
The above accounts are excerpts from the book "Shadhinota Amar Rokto Jhora Din" by Begum Mushtari Shafi. Translated by Shuprova Tasneem.