Memoirs of ‘71 by women: Much more than memories

Women's march with dummy rifles

The memoirs of ’71 are invaluable pieces of our history, firsthand accounts — unadulterated, unbiased, unafraid truth, as seen and lived by the authors themselves. In a country where the history of events, as recent as 1971, changes with the change of regime, the importance of true words cannot be overvalued. But, more than that, the memoirs of our liberation war has had greater impact on the readers and our society as a whole. Over the years these have become much more than memories, they became instruments to establish justice and lightening torch that guides the nation to trace the ideology out of which Bangladesh was born.

Among the hundreds of personal narratives of the events of ‘71, only a handful is by women. But it will not be an exaggeration to say that, of all the personal accounts of ‘71, it is those written by women that had greatest effect on subsequent events related to uphold the spirit of the war of independence.

Yet, the women who wrote the memoirs of ‘71 were mostly first time writers. Mothers, wives, sisters, daughters – with, in most cases, no literary experience and permanently devastated lives – wrote some of the most touching and effective memoirs of the most difficult event of our national life. They provided a firsthand account of the atrocities and brought to light the tragedy that ‘71 war was for them on a very personal level. I do not have the credentials to discuss the academic or literary value of these memoirs. But as a reader and a victim of the war, I know that they touched our hearts much more deeply than a fiction ever could. They spoke of their sorrow in simple words and those simple renditions were powerful enough to move us to tears and brought deep changes in the psyche of the nation.

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Indeed it was an act of bravery on the part of these women to publish their memoirs. I know firsthand how much pain these women had to relive again to give us a gift of a piece of our history. I know because I have seen my mother write her memoirs. My mother published her memoir about the abduction and brutal murder of my father martyred intellectual Dr. Abdul Alim Chaudhury titled ‘Ekattorer Shohid Dr. Alim Chaudhury’. In the memoir she painstakingly relived the events of ‘71 and wrote about the conspiracy that led to the abduction and murder of my father by al-Badrs. She also bravely discussed about the involvement in the process of my father’s self confessed abductor, the so-called ‘Mowlana’ Abdul Mannan, owner of the newspaper ‘Daily Inquilab’. This war criminal became a state minister during the rule of President Ziaur Rahman and a full minister at the time of President Hussein Md Ershad.

Therefore we can understand that it was an act of immeasurable courage on the part of these women to write about their experiences. The lives of these women were devastated by the events of ‘71, the perpetrators of the crime were alive, powerful and vindictive; state was on the side of the perpetrators. Still they dared. The memoirs are testament to the great character of these women as well as the strength they have shown in their struggle to survive. We must salute these women who dared to write their memoirs.

The effect of these simple narratives on the post-71 generation and the nation as a whole is also immeasurable. Like small waves culminating in a tsunami, these books have created waves of emotion in the heart of the people that has ended up in the demand and trial of war criminals. To understand the effects of the memoirs on the post-71 generation we must look back and take in to account the overall political atmosphere in which we, the post-’71 generation grew up. After the brutal murder of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, there was a political about-turn in government policy and ideology. At that time, repatriation of anti-liberation forces started. War criminals were repatriated and rehabilitated. They were even made ministers, prime ministers and president, including my father’s self-declared abductor.

At the time of the two military dictators-turned-politicians, the history of our Liberation War was reduced to just a paragraph in the textbooks, which started and ended with a hitherto unknown Major’s faint ‘short wave’ declaration of war. There was almost no discussion on history. Debate was a feared word. All we heard were whispers of despair.

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In those days of total blackout of information and distortion of history, Jahanara Imam’s book ‘Ekattorer Dinguli’ came as a flash of light guiding and showing us the path in front and became the beacon of hope that it still continues to be. Those heartfelt words of the mourning mother of a young hero of our war stimulated a resigned, unwilling generation to think, feel and love the country again. As tears rolled down from our eyes, the injustice of it all hit hard, passions raged and the hatred for the war criminals started to boil in the young generation’s heart. For the first time they came to feel the pain of the enormous human price that their previous generation paid for their freedom. In this potent ground, the issue of reinstation of war criminal Ghulam Azam’s nationality created the spark for a national movement, which eventually led to the demand for war criminals trial.

That period in the 90’s and the subsequent years, saw the publication of a number of memoirs from the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of ’71 martyrs and heroes. In English we got translation of books by — Jahanara Imam (Of Blood and Fire : The Untold Story of Bangladesh War of Independence, 1998), Begum Mustari Shafi (Bleeding Heart-Memories of Bangladesh Liberation Struggle, 2010), Farida Huq (Journey through 1971- My Story, 2004), Helen Quader (Life under Captivity in Pakistan – 1971, 2007), Panna Kaiser (Freedom Struggle – A Prologue and Epilogue, 1999) etc. Apart from these originals and English translations there are significant memoirs in Bengali by Shyamoli Nasreen Chowdhury, Bashanti Guha Thakurta, Shahida Begum, Simin Hossain Rimi, Sarah Banu Suchi, Shirin Akhter, Rabeya Khatun, Amina Mahmud, Kazi Nurunnahar Begum, Ayesha Zebin Asha, Khurshid Jahan Begum, Nargis Islam Nazma, Nazneen Sultana Nina, Nazma Arefin, Nurunnesa Chowdhury, Lily Ara Rahman, Begum Noorjahan, Mitali Hossain, Rokeya Choudhury, Shamsun Nahar Zaman, Shamsunnahar Aziz, Hazera Begum, Hosne Ara Azad, Hena Das and many others.

Dr. Neelima Ibrahim’s ‘Ami Birangona Bolchi’, a collection of heart wrenching narratives of rape victims, made tremendous impact. This book brought to light the most neglected but most tragic, most horrific event of our Liberation War — the systematic and widespread rape and torture of women. Excerpts of this book have been translated into English by Dr. Nusrat Rabbi, herself the daughter of martyred intellectual Dr. Fazle Rabbi. Unfortunately the translated version has not been published yet but the translated text can be read online in the blog by journalist Anushey Hossain. I believe the need to translate books like this cannot be overemphasised. We can see a deplorable tendency abroad to downplay the atrocities and war crimes committed by the Pakistani Army and their collaborators during the war. Reading these stories makes one realise how true they are, how widespread these occurrences were and how deplorable it is to question the number of such cases. It makes you realise that one such tragic event is one too many and the criminals, whether Bangladeshi or Pakistani, should have been brought to justice.

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Bangladesh, although late, has started the process of bringing the war criminals to trial. Pakistan, of course, still chooses to be in a state of denial and seems to opt to remain silent with the motto of ‘ignorance is bliss’ about their country’s most humiliating defeat and their army’s most deplorable human rights abuse. What Pakistan fails to realise that this denial to acknowledge the truth about their army’s role in ‘71 has given birth to the culture of impunity in their own country. This, in turn, has given their army the audacity to turn on their own people time and time again.

One of the pioneering collection of memoirs came from Bangla Academy, edited and complied by Rashid Haider, titled ‘Smrity Ekattor’ where a considerable number of narratives were written by women. He subsequently edited and published similar collection of memoirs titled ‘1971- Voyaboho Oviggota’ and ‘Khunje Phiri’. The later one is collection of memories of children of the victims, some whom were older and had seen their fathers being killed, while others had expressed how it feels like to have an empty frame hanging from the wall where a father’s picture should have been. But mostly the children wrote how it felt to be forgotten, ignored and wronged by the very state for which their fathers sacrificed their lives, how traumatic and tragic it was to see their father’s killers become the beneficiary of  independent state.

The greatest effect of these narratives of ‘71, was to rekindle the memories of the people at a time when there was, as I would like to call it ‘a state sponsored collective amnesia’ regarding the events and human toll of the war of ‘71. And then, in time these memoirs became the source generating overwhelming support for the trial of war criminals.

Let me give a firsthand account of the impact of a mourning wife’s tearful words for her children, a book written with the intention of painting a father’s portrait in the empty canvas of the hearts of their daughters. My mother’s memoir was published in 1991, right after the fall of President Ershad’s regime. In President Ershad’s cabinet my father’s self-proclaimed abductor was a minister. The book caused the issue to come to the forefront again. The whispered despair became a loud voice protesting the betrayal going on for so long, since ‘75, against the country’s own birth history, against the martyrs and against the ideology for which 30 million people lost their lives. My mother was active on the streets demanding the trial of the war criminals as early as 1972. But the publication of the book made the issue a public demand for justice for us. The book has been quoted and referred to thousands of times since then. This year, in the trial of the war criminal and al-Badar high command Motiur Rahman Nizami, where my mother was a witness, the book was referred to a number of times. In my mother’s cross examination by the lawyers of the defendant, the book was read almost line by line from specific part. So we can see, these memoirs have become much more than personal accounts, they are burning evidence against the anti-liberation forces and war criminals and more importantly against the fundamentalist ideology and the parties like Jamaat-e-Islami, which propagate such hatred.

The importance of translation of these memoirs in English is of greater importance now than it ever was, because of the involvement of the international community in the debate over the war criminals trial process. The anti-liberation forces were the collaborators of the Pakistani regime before and during the war. Subsequently after the murder of the Father of the Nation in ‘75, they were reinstated back to power. So, they have always been more powerful politically and economically except from ‘71 to ‘75. Even internationally they are well connected. As they were in the government positions they developed and still maintain close communication with the administrations of Western governments, engaging lobbyists to convince the international community of their innocence during the genocide of ‘71. How can the struggling pro-liberation forces, whose only strength is moral strength of truth, be any match for them? Jamaat-e-Islami is spending millions of dollars on lawyers, academicians, politicians to lobby for them ever since the war crimes trial has begun, to discredit this trial for which the victims have waited 42 long years. As a result we see influential lawyers, statesmen voicing concern about the trial, thereby creating confusion and mistrust. What these international human rights activists do not realise is, in the name of human rights, how unjust they are acting to the victims. They overlook the fact that, for the victims of ‘71 war, this may be the only chance to get justice and that too, after a delay of 42 years, which in itself is a miscarriage of justice. In their zeal to ensure human rights of the criminals, we, as the victims, feel how easily they are trampling on our right to justice. Trying war criminals after 42 years is a tough job for any tribunal. Instead of helping and guiding the tribunal these communities are making it more difficult to carry out the justice process we deserve. At the same time with utter disbelief and deep pain in our hearts we see the publication of books that we, the victims of the war find absolutely disrespectful and biased, as that of Sharmila Bose’s ‘Dead Reckoning’. Why someone with no idea of the ground reality would be so utterly false, biased and cruel about tragic events the scar of which still bleeds in the hearts of millions, is beyond comprehension. And then, it makes you wonder what the motive behind is. This is again where the memoirs of ‘71 are invaluable. To counter the distortion of truth, the memoirs of the victims should be read and discussed not only in the country, but also in the greater international arena. Therefore, the need to write or translate these memoirs remain as high as ever.

The war of 1971 was a tragedy of epic proportion. Engraved in every page of history of those nine months are stories of unparallel patriotism, nationalism, gallantry, glory, love, sacrifice, pain — stories that dwarfs the plot of the best of the bestsellers. The memoirs by the women give the most accurate, most touching voice to the members of society who were the worst sufferers. Let them speak; let’s give voice to the silently suffering women by collecting and publishing their memoirs, before it is too late. Before all these feeble voices, that still remain, are extinguished by time once and for all. That would be such a national loss!

Gary J. Bass has rightly termed the genocide of 1971 of the Bangali people ‘the forgotten genocide’ in his book ‘The Blood Telegram, Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide’. Let us not forget the price our nation paid for our freedom. Let us not let the international community forget that. Let us collect the memoirs, publish them, translate them in different languages and let us spread them far and wide. We know how the diary of a little girl Anna Frank keeps on spreading the words of the holocaust from countries to countries, generations after generation. Why should a genocide of similar cruelty in our country be so easily forgotten? Let discussion ensue, researches done, so that no single ‘Sharmila Bose’ can do so much damage to our most treasured past ever again. Let the truth come out and be known to all. Let no other dictator ever again confuse us. Let no one ever again dare to try to erase the name of the Father of the Nation, the dreams of our martyrs, the ideologies of our fathers. Let these memoirs become part of the curriculum so that our children read and memorise them, so that they never betray their country like the war criminals did. Let the written words about the victims rekindle our memories generation after generation and guide our nation forever in the right path.

Source: Bd news24

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