The Days of War | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 24, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 24, 2018

The Days of War

This is an excerpt from the unpublished translation of Susmita Islam's memoir, My Days. Aamar Dinguli, the original book, was published by Bengal Publications Limited.

On March 1 at 1.00 pm when Yahya Khan declared on the radio that he was suspending the National Assembly session because of the situation, a fiery rebellion erupted everywhere immediately. A cricket match was going on at the stadium at the time and many people in the audience had radios with them. The game halted with Yahya Khan's speech and roaring slogans from the outraged public filled the air.

Sheikh Mujib had been in a meeting at Purbani Hotel with the presidium members since morning. He called a press conference to let reporters know that he was holding a meeting on March 7 at the Racecourse Maidan and calling a strike. By now, processions of the public had come and stationed themselves outside the hotel, shouting slogans.

University students at the Bot Tola announced to the assembled students that a meeting would be held at 3 pm. At the Institute, we heard Yahya's speech and were dumbfounded. Even as he spoke, students left the building in groups and headed to the Bot Tola.

I had never engaged in politics, but I felt a strong desire to attend the meeting at Paltan at 3 pm. I had no one to go with, however, so I stayed at home hoping to hear the news on the radio or TV. I was constantly worried about what would happen.

The strikes were on from March 1 from six in the morning to 2 pm, and angry slogans from different groups rang through the air. It was hard to sit quietly at home then. On March 3, there was a radio announcement from the government of a curfew to be in effect from 8 pm to 6 am the next morning. Instantly, with thunderous slogans, students and the general public came out in hordes, protesting the curfew by breaking it, and marching through the streets of Dhaka. The government didn't sit back quietly either. Shots were mercilessly fired on the unarmed public. The blood of these innocent patriots bathed the roads and turned them red. The government did not stop at curfews, though. Using the power of the 110th item of martial law, they banned the publication of all news, opinions, pictures that went against the unity and sovereignty of Pakistan, declaring that anyone found breaking this order would serve ten years in jail. The enraged public and students carried the bodies of the eight dead protesters through the streets of Dhaka and finally laid them down at the Shahid Minar. In one voice, they swore to realize the rights of East Bangla. The next day, funeral prayers were said at the Baitul Mukarram mosque for the eight protesters.

The meeting on March 7 was scheduled for 3 pm. Since it was so close to our home, we set out at 2 pm in Khuku's car intending to drive close to the Maidan, but we were flabbergasted. The entire area was flooded with people – most carried long bamboo poles or sticks. Even after we arrived, people kept pouring in. Seeing it was impossible to go on, we somehow parked the two cars opposite the Bangla Academy and sat down wherever we could. Sheikh Mujib arrived as scheduled and began his historic speech. This was the first time I heard him speak in person. What an incredibly animated voice he had – full of emotion and extreme strength! Each word he uttered touched the very souls of the people. It was a massive crowd but there was no disruption anywhere. Sheikh Mujib said, “We have given blood – we will give more!” and the crowd responded. “Make your home a fort – and be ready to fight with whatever you have!”

Whatever he said, the entire crowd seemed to be absorbing it with their entire beings. Finally, with Sheikh Mujib's mantra – “Our fight now is for freedom. Our fight now is for independence” – echoing in our ears and souls, each person at the meeting left with a vow, chanting “Joy Bangla!”

It was March 25. The word on the street was that Bhutto and Yahya had somehow managed to flee and Tikka Khan was a governor in name only. The Chief Justice had refused to swear him in, so despite his being the governor, he could only do his job as the martial law administrator. The roads were filled with rallies. Babli returned in the evening, tired after a day of singing and rehearsals. She asked for food as soon as she came in, then after freshening up and eating, she went to bed. I had sent the servant boy to buy something or the other. He returned, breathless, to report that the students had used large trees to barricade the Balaka Gate and Nilkhet area. Army vehicles were plying the streets. A shiver ran down my spine for fear of some unknown danger. Instructing everyone to eat quickly and go to bed, I came to my room, but I couldn't sleep – and neither did I want to turn on the lights.

I don't remember how late it was at that moment but suddenly my room and verandah were filled with sudden flashes of light and sounds of many machine guns and tanks blasting shells in the direction of Iqbal Hall. Like lightning, I glanced at the sleeping Babli and shook her awake, “Babli, wake up and get dressed quickly. Then go say your prayers.” Babli awoke but before she could say anything, there was the sound of machine guns and flashes of light from the mortars. I don't know what she thought of this but without another word, she changed her clothes and sat on the prayer mat to pray.

The whole night was rocked by the sound of machine guns, firing cannons, and intermittent flashes of blue light, and by the time they died down, dawn was approaching. I carefully peeped out from behind the little gap in the curtain on the window that looked out onto Jagannath Hall and the scene that met my eyes was hard to ever forget. I saw 8 or 10 young men lying on the compound facing our quarters. An arm or a leg quivered as a crow or two came to sit on them. That meant that as the army went into each room and killed the sleeping boys, these unfortunate ones had tried to escape. So they were brought out here on the field and killed by brush fire. Some of them were still alive so their bodies twitched now and then. Babli broke down when she saw this scene. I moved her away, but I continued to stare through that gap in the curtains. At one time, I saw a woman and a little girl, mugs of water in their hands, running as fast as they could from the other side of the field, where the washerman Mahadeb's quarters were, to the wounded boys. They gave them water and then ran back as fast as possible. Armed cars were patrolling the area and yet, how incredibly brave Mahadeb's wife was, that with her daughter, she repeatedly brought water to these unfortunate, dying youths. The very next day, the military gunned down a sleeping Mahadeb and the only son born to them after five daughters.

As time passed, the bodies began to grow still. The crows had flocked down on the bodies of these young men. I shook myself and got up.

Going upstairs, I peeped out from behind my bedroom window curtain towards Rokeya Hall and tried to see how things were. Suddenly, from the direction of Jagannath Hall, I saw two boys somehow cross the road and, in their bloody state, try to crawl over the covered drain towards Rokeya Hall. It was probably eleven in the morning then and light everywhere. Thinking of how bad their fate could be, I began to pray, unable to take my eyes off them. At one point, I couldn't see them anymore. I never found out whether they were able to reach a safe place.

The university area was quiet, except for the occasional sound of the patrolling armed cars. I had never experienced such a still, cold situation. I don't remember if I ate lunch or showered that day. The sight of the eight or ten young men's dead bodies covered now by crows nauseated me – I couldn't think of food or drink.

When morning arrived after the night of March 26, I heard muted voices in the compound downstairs. I instantly bounded out to the verandah to see Munier Chowdhury, Comptroller Masud Khan Shaheb, and a few others discussing something. My young servant boy was quite smart. I told him, “Run and find out what they're talking about.” He ran off immediately but what he reported on returning turned my blood cold. He said, “The Hindu professors in the quarters on the other side were shot by the military last night. Even today, the army is entering people's homes and killing the professors.”

Arifa Ghani Rahman is Associate Professor of English and Humanities at ULAB.

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