The Killing Field of 1971
The rampage of the Pakistan Army and the savage cruelty its rank and file unleashed through the length and breadth of Bangladesh in those harrowing nine months in 1971 can perhaps never be captured well enough by words or photographs. Everyone who lived through those traumatic times have memories engraved in their minds that are indelible. Together, these sketches form a myriad of experiences that constantly reminds us of the painful birth of Bangladesh.
The killing of innocent civilians that the Pakistan Army started on March 25 in Dhaka continued unabated in most district headquarters and subdivisions in Bangladesh through the rest of March and April. The killing, which went by the label of "cleansing operation", also included one Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO), a Deputy Commissioner, a Superintendent of Police, a Civil Surgeon and countless police and other officers during the mad frenzy of the operation.
For some fortuitous reasons, the Munshigonj sub-division of Dhaka (now a district) was spared the dreaded "cleansing operation" initially, but not the rivers surrounding it. As SDO of Munshigonj at the time, I would watch with horror floating corpses in the Sitalakhya and Dhaleswari rivers, which were daily dumped on the rivers by the perpetrators of the "cleansing operation". My encounters with these ghastly scenes mostly occurred when I had to navigate the corpse-filled rivers to attend meetings in Dhaka. However, it was not until May that I would have to witness an actual senseless killing.
A contingent of the Pakistan Army arrived in Munshiganj in late May. It was a rainy day when the army company led by a Major arrived in Munshiganj. I was away in Dhaka attending a weekly meeting with the Deputy Commissioner A.T.M. Shamsul Huq. In the meeting I was informed that the army had reached Munshiganj and that I was wanted there. With more than trepidation in my heart I rushed back to Munshiganj in my motor launch to face a very deserted town. All shops had closed their doors, and the shop keepers had gone into hiding. In those days Munshiganj did not have any automobiles, only rickshaws plied the streets. Those also had vanished from the streets.
I walked to the police station, where I was told an army Commander was holding court. Accompanying him was the Superintendent of Police of Dhaka (Mr. E.A. Choudhury who later became Inspector General of Police). The army Commander introduced himself to me. He was Major Salam from the Frontier Force Regiment--a tall, gaunt man of about 45 or so. With glasses on, he had a deceptive appearance of a schoolteacher. His second in command was a captain--Captain Afridi--probably in his late twenties, with cold, piercing eyes set on a very rugged and ruthless face.
Major Salam told me that his mission in Munshiganj was restoration of "peace and normalcy", and seeking out "miscreants". He asked that I go with him in his "peace" initiatives to the interior, starting the following day. I was glad that he did not put me under arrest or make a summary end to my young life right there.
The target of the "peace" initiative the following day was Serajdikhan, a neighbouring thana, which, like any other thana in the sub-division, had to be accessed by motor launch. On a cloudy morning we reached Serajdikhan, and after alighting from the motor launch we walked to the police station, which was already notified about the army's visit. A very nervous officer-in-charge greeted the army officers focusing all his attention on the Major and the Captain who were followed by an army platoon. I saw a small contingent of curious villagers at a distance, watching the army. As soon as the army reached the police station, the soldiers took positions around the building as though they were about to defend an impending attack. With the army poised at defending positions with guns pointed outward, the small group of people ran helter- skelter away from the thana.
Major Salam told the police inspector his objectives, "to restore peace and normalcy, and catch miscreants". The Inspector said that he had no trouble in his area, and that he knew of no miscreants. This obviously did not satisfy Major Salam. He pointed at the automatic rifle of Captain Afridi, and reminded a twice nervous inspector that this gun had ended the lives of two dozen miscreants, a few of whom were police officers. He asked the inspector to provide names of miscreants who the army would hound out to restore peace and normalcy. The Major expected some names in the near future, at least before he left Munshiganj.
As the meeting was in progress in the thana building, I saw a bearded young man stopped at the gate, about 100 yards from the building, by the police guard on duty. Apparently, the young man was trying to say something. Major Salam witnessed the scene and asked his havildar to fetch the poor man from the gate. When he was brought into the building I realised from the way he looked and behaved that the man was mentally unsound. When asked what he wanted, he replied in unintelligible moans and grunts. The Major asked that the man be strip-searched. A soldier did that and brought out some coins, a dirty handkerchief and a small pen knife. The pen knife proved to be the young man's undoing. "This is a dangerous weapon," the Major declared, and ordered that the young man be put under arrest. The hapless man was hauled away and put in the locker.
Had this been the end of this story, I would have walked today with a better feeling for the Major and for myself. At the conclusion of the session with the police inspector, the Major declared the mission to be over for the day. I thought that the Major would leave behind the crazy young man in the thana and let the police handle him. Instead, the Major asked the Captain to take the prisoner with him in the motor boat to Munshiganj. I feared that this could mean that the young man would be the twentieth victim of Captain Afridi's gun. I plucked up some courage, and suggested to the Major that perhaps the man should be left behind with the police since carrying a mad man in a boat might not be a good idea. "In that case, we are not taking him with us," the Major announced, and beckoned the havildar. He leaned on one side and whispered in the havildar's ears. The havildar nodded and walked away. He went inside the locker, brought out the young man and escorted him to the back of the building. A couple of minutes later, I heard two gun shots. The havildar reappeared, saluted the Major and said, "Sir, the job is done".
"Let's go," the Major declared to his troops.
I did not have either the courage or the mind to look back. I simply followed the Major and his troops to the boat, trembling with the terrible knowledge that I had personally witnessed a cruel senseless, killing--an incident that epitomised the Pak army's brutality of 1971.
(The writer is a former civil servant who currently works for an international organisation in the US.)