By Fatima Altaf
On December 16th, 1971, Bangladesh was born from the ashes of war and arose like a fiery phoenix, but this optimistic nationalism did not last long. Awami League, the new ruling party of Bangladesh, clashed with the Mukti Bahini, the Bengali guerilla fighters. The Mukti Bahini protested that politicians from Awami League did not contribute to Bangladesh’s fight but lived in luxury in Calcutta, India.
Two years later in 1974, Bangladesh suffered a famine, decimating the population further killing as many as 1.5 million people.
I stare at the picture in the browser on my computer. This must have been humiliating for Pakistan, I think. A.K.K Niazi, Pakistan’s army general, hunches over a white marble desk and signs a large document. A frown scars his face. Jagjit Singh, the Joint Commander of India and Bangladesh’s forces, clutches the paper and watches from under his green turban. On top of his turban, a medal protrudes like a diamond-encrusted jewel. Indian army men clamber around the desk and stare with anticipation.
I conducted an interview with Abdul Wahab Sumsud Zaman, the father of my Bengali friend Anika from high school. Mr. Zaman partook in the 1971 Pakistani Civil War as a member of the Mukti Bahini.
“I was 14 when the war broke out. My father was a wealthy politician and involved with the Awami League. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of Bangladesh, often came to our house. In March 1971, Rahman was arrested by the Pakistani government and taken to West Pakistan. My father escaped to India and I joined the Mukti Bahini in East Pakistan.”
“I became an informer for the Mukti Bahini, passing on vital information by spying on the Pakistani army’s movements in Dhaka and sending it to the guerilla soldiers who fought from the jungles. I knew things like how many army tanks were roaming the street or how many Pakistani soldiers were in the neighborhood. I knew of Mukti Bahini soldiers who carried handmade bombs in plastic bags on their backs and swam across channels in Dhaka to deliver them to the Mukti Bahini fighters.”
“I did get caught a few times by Pakistani soldiers in the street but, since I knew how to speak Urdu, I could get out of any situation. I would tell them ‘I am not Bengali’ and though they would try to force me to confess, my Urdu was good. That saved me I think…”
“I still have nightmares after seeing so many dead bodies in the streets. We slept in the day and stayed awake at night because the Pakistani army could raid our house at any moment. It was horrific. The Pakistani army killed so many innocent people. They raped women. They killed Bengali intellectuals — so many of our doctors, professors, and students. What breaks my heart is that it was Pakistani Muslims killing Bengali Muslims. ”
“Though not all Pakistanis were bad, especially the ones I grew up with. Since we were from a high-class family, we lived in an affluent Dhaka neighborhood with big bungalows and with many Pakistanis. Our Pakistani neighbors gave us tips on how to the Pakistani army harming our family. We had to tell the Pakistani soldiers that my father knew some of the leading Pakistani officers and to always speak in Urdu. Our Pakistani friends never ratted us out to the Pakistani soldiers. For that, I was grateful.”
“Life was difficult but became even more so after the war ended. We had our independence but the famine of 1974 set in and thousands of people died. The international community did not raise any awareness to help us, and sent very little aid. Nowadays, you have aid organizations that reach disaster areas in less than 24 hours, but in 1974 it was unorganized. It was one difficulty after another for the people of Bangladesh, but Bengalis are tough and resilient.”
The Liberation war ended with the defeat of Pakistan and General Niazi’s signature on the instrument of surrender. Yet problems continued in the new nation of Bangladesh. A destructive famine decimated the population. Power struggles erupted between the nationalist party and freedom fighters.
The birth of a new nation did not mean an instantaneous shift towards freedom, rights, and equality. But for many Bengalis, despite the struggle upon struggle, they finally found a place to call their own.
Sources“Lt-Gen. AAK Niazi, seated and signing surrender documents at the end of the Bangladesh War.” 17 Dec. 1971. IndiaToday.in. Web. 8 Apr. 2013. Quddus, Munir, and Charles Becker. “Speculative Price Bubbles in the Rice Market and the 1974 Bangladesh Famine.” Journal of Economic Development 25.2 (2000): 157. Zaman, Abdul Wahab Sumsud. Personal Interview. 22 Mar. 2013.