Ami Birangona Bolchi - I am the War Heroine Speaking

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In the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh, more than 3 million civilians were killed by Pakistani army and soldiers. A meticulously planned intellectual extermination was carried out where physicians, engineers, professors, bankers, movie directors, writers, journalists were targeted and killed. In addition approximately 500,000 women and girls were systematically raped with many of whom later killed. The idea was to destroy Bengalis and their aspiration to be an independent, secular nation. The world does not know the stunning magnitude of the atrocities of 1971. There are seven first hand narratives that exist in the book "Ami Birangona Bochi". I have translated the stories in English for the world audience.
--Nusrat Rabbee

I Am the War Heroine Speaking
By
 Dr. Nilima Ibrahim
(Translated by Dr. Nusrat Rabbee)

To the Father of the Nation, Banga Bhandu, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
To his wife, Begum Sheikh Fazilatunnesa Mujib
And
To the women who were abused, tortured, denigrated, and raped for the liberation of Bangladesh
And
Who by losing their husbands, children, parents, and dear ones, made the ultimate sacrifice,
I dedicate this book with the utmost respect

Chapter 1
Mrs. T. Neilson

Just like nature, human nature is also very diverse. In nature, sometimes there are flat lands covered with lush forest and in other places, there is barren desert where not a drop of water is found. On one side stand the Himalayas, the greatest mountain range of the world. On the other side flows the water of the great ocean. Somewhere on this earth it is the hot and humid summer and in another place, there is the cool wind of the fall or snowfall.

Sometimes I sit by myself and think that my life is also the same. Just like the diversity in nature, I’ve had love, affection, romance, hatred, shame, rage, and pity. I’ve been touched by everything in this life: sometimes a gentle touch, and at other times, the hardest blow. I never thought I would have the courage to express the depth of my feelings to another person. Since childhood I have never learned to express this courage. I have always repeated to myself that I am a girl, and I must tolerate everything. I’ve repeated this as often as the multiplication table. I will be tolerating everything like Mother Nature. There was only one way to protest, either through taking the test of fire like Sita, or by entering the underground. Sita was a goddess. But as a mere mortal, I could not do either of those two things. When I heard shame, shame, shame around me, when the leaders of my society and close relatives had said, “Why didn’t you die you wretched woman? Have you come back to murder us with this black face?” I could not tell them in return, “No, where did I get the chance to die? You couldn’t even make that happen for me. You didn’t extend a hand to keep me alive, nor did you help me to die. You couldn’t say these words through your mouth. Nor did you have the honest courage to turn these words into action. You never did have the courage, you don’t have this courage now, and you never will.”

I am not just surprised today, I’m filled with positive emotion that a woman, who is my mother’s age, has come forward and shown me so much compassion. But today, after 20 long years, I am standing on the present, resting firmly on my two feet. In fact I no longer have a lot of aspirations for the future. Using the strength of my determination and hatred, I have forgotten my tainted past. What I once was very proud of was also the object of shame, fear, and loathing by my family and society.

Oh, I am sorry. I forgot to introduce myself. These days I am under a lot of pressure from work. This has two advantages: I want to fill my present with my thoughts, feelings and abilities - so that the past cannot enter it through any cracks. I don’t want my present to be disturbed in any way. My name is Mrs. T. Neilson. My husband is a noted journalist and citizen of Denmark. I am also a citizen of Denmark. We have two children, Thomas and Nora. Why is my daughter called Nora? Most likely my mother-in- law thought of this name for my daughter when she saw me. Like her, even though Ibsen made women aware of their rights over a hundred years ago in her country, most western women have not yet been able to claim that right or that respect. But I hope Nora stands on top of her time and make Ibsen’s dream come true. Thomas is stubborn and bull headed like me; Nora is like her dad, she doesn’t heat up even when near the fire.

Author (1) : In 1978, Mrs. Haider came to Denmark. She was part of an organization that held a press conference in Copenhagen. My friend Allie, who is a well-known, feminist journalist, was also there. Since Neilson has experience working in Bangladesh, he repeatedly asked Mrs. Haider questions about the nine-month period of war before Bangladesh achieved its independence. Mrs. Haider was very highly educated, progressive, and well spoken. However, she did not answer Neilson’s questions directly. Instead she said, “There’s no democracy in my country, and so I cannot talk frankly with you. I hope you will forgive my discretion.” After the press conference had ended, Allie and Neilson spent a lot of time informally talking with Mrs. Haider. Allie was the editor of the organization that called the press conference.

I first met Mrs. T. Neilson in 1978 in Copenhagen at an evening dinner in Allie’s house. The International Alliance of Women had their meeting in Copenhagen that year. Padmini, the daughter of the co- president Laurel Casinada, was the president of the Denmark branch of the Alliance. It is at her request that I decided to go to Copenhagen. Padmini’s husband is Danish and a physician by profession. In addition, I knew some of the local members from before. By this time these professional acquaintances had turned into friendships. Allie was one of these friends. There were 25 to 30 people present at this evening dinner. Allie was very excited to introduce me to Mr. and Mrs. Neilson, even though I had met the couple earlier at the press conference and liked them a lot.

I felt suddenly startled as I was introduced to Mrs. Neilson. She was about thirty years old. She was exquisitely beautiful and possessed a remarkably well-toned body. She had curly, dark hair, which covered almost half her back. You don’t see hair that long in this part of the world. Mostly you see short hair. Just by hair alone, Mrs. Neilson caught everyone’s attention. She had a healthy olive skin tone like Latin Americans. I noticed that her eyes were dark like her hair. Her eyes seemed to be restless. Most likely her personality was a bit restless too. She went around the room talking with everyone. I could tell she had a joyous personality. I felt drawn to her for some reason. Somewhere, something was dancing around in my head. Did I know her from before? Have I seen her somewhere else? I must have seen her in Mexico last time since there was a large delegation was present from Denmark. As beautiful as she was, she was glancing back at me many times. Why? Did it show that I too was glancing frequently? Could she feel my eagerness to talk to her? She approached me. I smiled broadly and said, “You look so familiar to me. Where have I seen you before? I feel you know me too.” Mrs. Neilson laughingly said, “You’re not a world traveler, are you?” She smiled and said, “Maybe you saw me on the soil of Bangladesh.” Her eyes were smiling at me. “Really? Have you been to Bangladesh with Mr. Neilson?” She gave me a playful nudge and said, “People say you’re very knowledgeable. That you are a pundit, but very innocent like a child.” Suddenly she left my company and went to say hi to someone else. Our meeting came to an end for that day.

Later, I had the opportunity to talk about her a lot with Allie. Allie agreed with me. She was a very interesting and beautiful woman. No, she was not from Denmark. Maybe I was right; she was from Latin America, but she did not have a Latin American accent. Perhaps she was educated in Oxford or Cambridge. “But that was also not plausible”, said Allie, because she was a nurse, albeit a very skilled one. Allie agreed Mrs. T. Neilson lived in this society with high respect. Allie asked me, “Nila (2), what is it about Mrs. Neilson that you are so curious about?” I said, “Not much, Allie. I just liked her a lot.”
In 1985 I went to Denmark again. Allie came to the airport with Christine and Metta. This time we’re not staying at a hotel but in Metta’s house. During the ten days of my trip, Metta will stay at her father’s house. Metta is a lawyer and a member of the organization. She carries a cigar in her hand like Karen. I don’t know if you will agree or not, but cigar smoking women sometimes act like men. It was possible that I had come to a wrong conclusion in my mind. I remember the small, older women from the Mog tribe in Cox’s Bazar (south eastern end of Bangladesh, which borders the coast of the bay of Bengal) in Bangladesh who constantly smoke cigars. Anyway. Recently, Christine’s son got married. There was a lot of food, including roasted hen, beefsteak, and drinks, sitting in Metta’s fridge from the party. In the evening, after hearing that I had arrived, the Indian delegate members, Lakshmi, Ragu, Ramaya, came to visit me. Christine did not react positively about our guests’ impending arrival. Her face reminded me of a cloudy sky. She was barely talking to me now. Instead she was muttering under her breath that if she had known about this before she would have stayed at the hotel. I whispered in Christine’s ear, “Our guest, Lakshmi, is vegetarian. She doesn’t eat meat or fish.” Christine seemed relieved.

I asked about Mrs. Neilson. Short answer, she is doing well. How is Allie? I guess I will see her again tomorrow. Christine asked if it was not enough to just spend the night talking to her? Christine was about two to four years younger than myself or of my same age. She loved me to death. She told me everything about her family, and seemed to get a lot of peace by venting. If I expressed an interest in another friend in front of her, she would get a bit jealous. Her favorite activity was to talk through the night (adda) (3) about everything and anything to me. We would go to the restaurant in the evening and order pizza. She arranged for Metta to leave her house for tens day in order to spend this happy time exclusively with me.
Mrs. Neilson was wearing a plaid Bavarian skirt with a bright red blouse when she rushed into the room to hug me. But I gave her the first kiss. She hesitated to kiss my face. The women’s congress was supposed to begin the next day. We came to register for the conference and look at our accommodations today, so that tomorrow we don’t have to waste time. There was a young, beautiful girl about five or six years old -- hanging on to Mrs. T. Neilson’s hand. Mrs. Neilson said, “This is my daughter, Nora.” Nora was not as extroverted as her mother. She said hi and immediately hid behind her mother. I asked how Thomas was. “Oh he is a young man now. Listen, this time you will keep one evening free for just us, please.” I asked, “Just you and me?” She said yes. “I have a lot to talk to you about!” The suspense was killing me. The next day it was decided that I would leave the conference and go straight to my place. I asked Mrs. Neilson to come over that night. She readily agreed.

I brought some food and fruits for the house. This way we wouldn’t need to go out to eat since I had a great deal to learn from her. For the last seven years I had been thinking about her. Last night after Christine left, I was looking at the star-studded sky. I was completely alone. I was thinking about my own country, I was thinking about the 1971 days of struggle.

I remembered when we moved forward as a nation with optimism and hope as tall as the mountain. Then one day all hope was extinguished when a great life was taken from us (4). Once again people lost their happiness and their dear ones. It seemed so many monsters had congregated around me these days putting on the masks of human faces. For the past ten years, I felt only my body was alive. My soul had died. I wondered at which bend of the journey of my life did I meet this foreign woman, Mrs. T. Neilson? My friend Shirley from Vancouver told me that we might have been sisters in past lives, Mrs. Neilson and I. That’s why even though we lived far apart, we were so drawn to each other! Shirley cultivated her spiritual side a lot. She was very wealthy, and yet there was not a trace of arrogance in her. She was full of patience and respect. Once a year she came to London and left a Christmas gift for me with my daughter who lived there. Is Mrs. Neilson someone like that? Suddenly, suddenly, a thousand watt bulb turned on in my head!! Oh my God, I remembered the Women’s Rehabilitation Center. I remembered a girl standing beside the entrance of the Operating Theater (5) at the clinic of the Women’s Rehabilitation Center in Dhanmondi, Dhaka: matted hair, pale, reddish lips, and wearing a plain white sari with red border (6) . Standing with absolutely no fear or hesitation. Her name was Tara. I had gone to this girl so many times to ask: where was she from, what happened to her, and got absolutely no response except yes or no. Whenever I asked her a question, she just came close and snuggled up to me - but didn’t say anything. I understood she wanted my touch, whether that was a maternal touch, or the touch of her country, I didn’t know.

Exactly at 7pm, the doorbell tang. I opened the door with a large grin, and wanted to say, “Hi, Mrs. Neilson.” But before I could say that, she jumped into my bosom with her hand holding a large bouquet of flowers. I gently closed the door and placed my hand on her hand. I stroked her back and kept on saying, “Please don’t cry. You are victorious today. Go wash your face and hands.” She got up. I got up to put out the snacks: cashew nuts and fried potatoes on the table.
Tara Bannerjee: Mrs. T. Neilson sat down neatly, took a drink of water and said, “Nila Apa, I recognized you from the first day. You also recognized me, didn’t you? My name is Tara, Tara Banerjee, do you remember?”

Author: “I don’t remember everything very clearly, but I do remember the name Tara”, I said. One day she told me that her older sister was darker, so her Dadi (7) called her sister Kali (the dark one). Her grandmother called her Tara, when she was born since she was fair. They had only one brother named Shyambha Prasad. This story revealed Tara’s Dadi was pretty religiously inclined. But today I am keeping quiet and listening. Today is her turn to tell her story. She said, “When you were talking to all your friends by first name, and you would call me Mrs. Neilson, I was always embarrassed. But I could never tell you my first name was Tara. I shouldn’t hesitate, but it is in my culture to be modest. I have lost everything. My nation, my ethnicity, my religion, country, and I still haven’t been able to discard my cultural and religious influences completely.”

Tara Banerjee: In 1971, I was in Rajshahi (চাল্লু right before the Liberation War started. My father worked as a doctor right outside the city in a small town. He was a government employee at one time. After the 1952 Language Movement, my father left his job and went back to the town where he was born, bought a sizeable amount of land, and built a small house for us. My mother’s dreams were fulfilled because now she could have her own garden. By this time, Dadi had passed away. My elder sister Kali got married and went to live with her husband in Calcutta, a neighboring city in India. My brother was preparing to appear in his last examination at the medical college. However the non-cooperation movement by Bangladeshi citizens against the oppressive Pakistani government came to head at that time and derailed the institutions from administering examinations on schedule. My mother was disheartened by the fact that my brother might not be able to appear in his last exam. But my father actually seemed happy for reasons I did not understand. Baba (9) used to come back late from work. My mother would be anxious and complain about his late returns. Baba smiled and replied, “Didn’t you hear the call to resistance made by Banga Bandhu, Sheikh Mujib? He said, “Whatever you have, in any way you can, participate in the non-cooperation, resistance movement against the Pakistan government?” “Yes I have heard it,” my mother would reply, “but what are you jumping into this movement with?” Baba replied, “I have a son, I have a daughter, and I have you. I have two hands.” But at nighttime, Baba (9) did not sleep restfully. Any little sound would wake him up. He would walk up and down the balcony. Did he see any ominous sign? I don’t know. He never let us know.

By middle of March 1971, there were already some scattered incidents of violence reported in our area. We believed, however, that everyone was well united in our town. We were confident we would be able to fight back if we were to be beset by enemies. Then along came the black night of March 25th tearing down this tremendous confidence and changing our destiny. There was a curfew the next day, but I saw several men circling our house. My mother was praying to the Hindu gods to calm down her anxiety. Baba was pacing restlessly. We were holed up in our place like rats on March 26th. On March 27th, as soon as evening descended, we got ready to go to our village home and grabbed our handbags. But no car or rickshaws were to be found anywhere. Suddenly, the local town chairman’s jeep came around and stopped in front of our house. They asked my father to come and join them in the jeep. “Doctor, please come with us,” they addressed my dad. “Where are you headed anyway? Come with us and we will take you wherever you need to go.” Since Baba refused to go with them, four or five men came inside the house and pulled me into the jeep. There was no sound of gunfire anywhere. The jeep took off and I didn’t know whether they took my father or mother later, or killed them. The jeep sped forward with me to an unknown destination. For some time, I must have lost consciousness. When I woke up I realized I was in the police station, and in front of me was an army officer. He talked with me politely. I said they brought me by force from my father and mother. The officer laughed and said, “That’s for your own safety.” I saw two to three other girls my age crying, sometimes screaming. They were scolded if they screamed. Couple of hot cups of tea arrived, and even some bread and a few bananas. Nila Apa, that scene is still crystal clear to me as if it was happening right now. The officer was happy that I could speak in English with my small town accent. We spent that whole day in the police station.

As evening descended the town chairman stopped by the station once more. I understood everything but still got down to the floor and held his feet. I appealed, “Uncle, please take me to my Baba. You have known me since I was a little girl. I have played with your daughter Sultana together and went to school together. Please take pity on me.” He pushed me aside and quickly left the station. I knew he left me as a sacrifice to be devoured by these monsters. I witnessed how in a moment a man can turn into a monster. I did not see another human being again until after December 16, when Bangladesh was liberated.

The officer took me inside the jeep. He showed a lot of interest in me. After the jeep travelled a certain distance, he started to tell stories about his military bravado. Not one word would enter my head. Suddenly, I jumped from the moving jeep. The officer was in the driving seat, and I was next to him. Behind us, seated, were two Jawaans (10) . I must have instantly lost consciousness. When I awakened, I saw my head was wrapped in a bandage and I was lying in a hospital cot. It was a small hospital. I got a lot of care, but all the employees were male. They had brought in a village girl by force just to assist me in a few physical necessities. The girl was crying the entire time. In the evening the officer left. Before he left, he was addressing me by honey and darling and said Khodahafez (11) . I lay in bed three days, and then I sat up. I knew I was feeling better. We had the ingrained cultural value that a mule or an ox could not be sacrificed to the gods if it had an imperfection. I was now ready to be sacrificed. It was a Bangali officer who inflicted intense physical torture and abuse on me during the first day. I lost my voice from the shock of the trauma. Since I was already ill, my head was not working properly. I could not fight back. I became the victim of a monster whose eyes were filled with greed and lust. That night, so many people attacked my body. I could not tell you how many, except there were probably six to seven men. In the morning, the Pakistani officer came in and saw me in this condition and got very excited. He even beat up a few people. Then he took me to the jeep again, and we went to the third destination. I took the hand of the officer and said, “Please save me. Now, let me go. You are my brother. I have an elder brother your age.” Suddenly, he became enraged and changed from a gentleman to a monster. His eyes lit up in anger. With his left hand he grabbed my hair and said, “Tell me, where is your brother?” I didn’t know where my brother was. Then he spat on my face and scolded me in words I didn’t even recognize. I sat there in stillness. I sat there like a still mass with no feelings or emotions. For many days my head didn’t work at all. I ate as if I was a machine. And I got passed around to so many men and simply put up with their rape and sodomy. When I could, I bit my lips with my teeth and screamed, “Joy Bangla .” (12) I got spat on or kicked most of the time for saying this. Where I grew up in the village, there was a saying that the soul of a female is just like that of a cat or the tortoise. No matter how much you torture, it still lives. It doesn’t die. I doubt any males would survive the torture that my female counterparts and I have survived on the way to death. But there’s a reason behind this. The females who were being tortured in the war were an essential element for these monsters to survive the war. We were the comfort women. So no matter how much they tortured us, they kept us alive in flesh and blood so they could use us. There were about eight to ten girls at this place where they kept me. Their ages ranged from thirteen to thirty years or even higher. They were all from the village. There was one educated girl from town. I got a chance to talk to her a little bit. She was older than me, very beautiful.

She was apparently a senior at Rajshahi University. Her two brothers were in the army. I’m sure that by this time they had joined the freedom fighters of Bangladesh. She put her hand on my head and said, “Please keep yourself alive in some way. We will be victorious.” It is from her that I first heard this was July. I could not believe I had survived this hell for four months. Bhagavan (13), for how many days will the war go on? These animals didn’t look a bit discouraged or weak. That same evening, the university student was taken away from us, probably as a sacrifice to another big Pakistani army general.

We were not allowed to wear regular clothes, like a sari or a scarf to cover ourselves. Apparently, in another rape camp, one girl committed suicide by hanging from the ceiling using her sari. We were dressed in tattered Lungis (14) and blouse. Sometimes they would go to the markets and get new clothes in bulk and come back and throw the clothes to us one by one like we were animals. You know how people give clothing to beggars at the time of Durga Puja (Hindu festival) or Eid (Muslim festival)? When I would get the clothes thrown like this at me, tears would well up in my eyes. I would remember Baba. Baba would always ask me on special festivals, “Daughter what kind of sari will you take on this occasion? I would say, “Whatever you give me, Baba.” With affection he would put his hand on my head and say, “No matter which man’s house you go to as a wife, that house will be filled with peace and happiness.” Baba, did you know that your daughter was not born to go to any man’s house as a wife? Her birth moment was the unluckiest of all? That she is cursed? That she is a gypsy woman?

Suddenly, one day, I wondered how I would look after all this torture and abuse? There was no mirror here, nor were there any glass windows or doors in case we committed suicide. What they didn’t know was that I was keeping my abused and disrespected body alive with a lot of love and tenderness so that I could take revenge. You know that man that I used to call uncle and who was the town chairman? Do you know what will I do to him when I get out? I wonder where my beloved Shaman is now. Shaman appeared in the final examination in engineering college right before March 25th, when the war started. He was waiting in Dhaka for his results to be published. Is he dead, or is he alive? Since he was male, he was most likely dead. I had so many fantasies around Shaman. He was so handsome and his body so muscular. He was very shy. When everybody was present, he would barely speak with me. His sister, Kajali used to go to the same school as me. She used to say, “Do you know that my brother loves you?” Upon hearing this, my ears would turn bright red. Little beads of sweat would form on my forehead. It’s amazing what human beings plan, and what becomes of their real lives! Where was Shyamal now? Was he dead or alive? Maybe he has joined the freedom fighters to resist the Pakistani army invasion. His elder sister, brother in law, father, and mother were all in India. He will be all right.

I suddenly laughed at myself and wondered about the futility of thinking about Shyamal still. I was suddenly awakened from my daze by the yell from Moti Mia (Mr. Moti). Moti Mia was supplying us with food and other essentials. Sometimes he delivered some news in an indirect language. He always gave the date and time under the guise of being meticulous. Mr. Moti informed us this was now September. There were three more months to go in this year. The Pakistani generals would not be here any longer than this. Yes, they would return back to their country to their wife and kids after winning the war. I understood that my freedom was imminent because these days, outside the rape camp, I could hear loud sounds of gunfire and bomb explosions.

The officers and soldiers who came to this camp somehow seemed very anxious and fearful. Sometimes news in Bangla would float to my ears. No, not from Dhaka or Rajshahi (the town where Tara was from) radio stations, but the accent is from west Bengal, from Akashbani (Bangla news chronicle from radio station located in west Bengal, India). Somebody put on a voice like an actor and delivered the news on the radio station. As soon as the news was over, the Razakars (15) in the camp would start denouncing the radio program with obscenities. I actually prayed to Bhagavan so that my little soul could survive until victory day. I would bite my lips and pronounce “Joy Bangla” (16) under my breath. Suddenly the next day, a girl died amongst us. She was pregnant. From the early morning, she was hemorrhaging profusely. She banged on her door and screamed a lot for help, but nobody came forward. Nobody understood what was going on completely. Her name was Moina (black bird). She was about fifteen. She threw about her arms and legs like a slaughtered animal for a while, and then slowly succumbed to sleep. Her face turned blue after she died. An elderly woman called Sufia’s Ma (mother of Sufia) (17) came and wrapped her in a small blanket since the army officers never gave us sheets. That evening they came to take Moina’s body away. There was an uncomfortable numbness that settled inside of me. It seemed that even these monsters were running out of their need for females. That means they could kill us. I was feeling a lot of discomfort in my chest. I said, “I can’t take this pain any more, God. We have all been through so much. Please lift me up, Bhagavan, please liberate me.” But I never prayed to be dead. I only wanted and prayed so I could live.

The sound of guns and bombs were gradually decreasing. It was quite chilly now. I grabbed a small blanket that was available and wrapped it around my body. One day, as dawn broke, it seemed unusually quiet and silent. Sufia’s Ma spoke up, “Have the bastards run away?” Suddenly her words gave my body incredible strength. I got up and started to bang on the door. I started to yell. Suddenly I heard, “Joy Bangla!” Joy Banga Bandhu (hail to the friend of Bengal, Mr. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of Bangladesh). I could not believe what I heard. I never even spoke to Sufia’s Ma during all these months, and yet today, I flung my two arms around her like my own mother and started to cry. I don’t think I cried since March 27th, when I was kidnapped, until this moment. Suddenly our door flung open. We were all scared and entered back into our room. The men who came did not seem to be gentlemen. Sufia’s Ma stepped forward and talked with them. They said they were freedom fighters, but I didn’t believe them, seeing the way they were looking at us. At that very moment, a jeep pulled up, and in a very loud voice the passengers yelled, “Joy Bangla!” We also screamed spontaneously, “Joy Bangla!” Descending from the jeep came three men wearing Khaki uniforms and another seven to eight men wearing Lungi (traditional Bangla male wear) tank tops and pants. Everybody had guns in their hands. Their leader came forward. I was so scared that I retreated to a very dark corner. I was instantly transported to the scene of March 27th when I was abducted. One of the men in uniform understood that I was very scared. He approached me and spoke to me in the gentlest of ways, “Aiye ”…(18) I don’t know what happened to me. I gave out an intense scream and fell to the ground. Later I heard the men who liberated us were indeed both Bangla freedom fighters and the Indian army (19). From the nearby village, the men brought us clothes so we could cover ourselves. Since I was unconscious from that point onwards, they delivered me directly to the nearby hospital in their jeep.

When I had awakened, I found myself in a small hospital. From the people in the hospital I understood that I was still in north Bengal. I asked someone exactly what town I was in. I think I heard Ishwardi (a district also in northern Bengal). Since I endured unimaginable torture and pain for so many days, my head did not work properly. I did tell people repeatedly that I wanted to go to my father. But when they asked me my father’s name, I just could not recall. I just sat there and kept crying. It seemed I had lost part of my memory. As a result, I was directly transported to the capital city of Dhaka, which helped quite a lot in the end. Most likely I flew in a helicopter. Once in Dhaka I regained my consciousness. I realized I was in the women’s ward of the main Dhaka medical college hospital. I looked all around me and realized that I had never seen so many people. I could not tell what time it was, but they were delivering the afternoon meals. I got mine also. A nurse helped me. I washed my face and pulled the plate of rice towards me, but tears rolled down my cheeks and fell down on my plate of rice. The nurse put her hand on my back and gave me a lot of affection. She sat there with me so I could eat. I don’t know if I had ever encountered such terrific hunger. It was as if I never tasted rice and curry before. It was like heaven in my mouth. I felt like I survived! What I did not know is how many deaths would still await me. After being there for three or four days, the doctor informed me that I was pregnant. They asked me where I wanted to go. I bit my lips and said I had no one. I told them to make the same arrangements as they had made for other destitute girls. The female attending physician asked if I really had no relatives. I shook my head. She somehow understood.

After about a month, I was transferred to the Women’s Rehabilitation Center in Dhanmondi, Dhaka and I saw you (Dr. N. Ibrahim) many times. When I was being treated at the Medical College, a steady crowd of curious men and women came to see me as a war affected woman, as a spectacle. We were on display. When I asked about these people, I found out they came to see women like me. The nurse there explained everything to me in great detail. The new prime minister (Banga Bandhu) has announced that the women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for Bangladesh will be addressed as war heroines (Birangana was the title given to us) (21). I thanked and blessed the prime minister from my heart. I am a war heroine. I could not believe I had been given such high respect. I felt honored. But why were my eyes still filled with tears and why couldn’t I stop them? I was so eager to see Baba and wanted to know their news. I missed my home! But I could not find someone trustworthy whom I could request to help me track my family down. Finally, I gave Baba’s address to Mrs. Mushfequa Mahmud, the executive officer of the Rehabilitation Center. I kept on waiting and looked at the street everyday thinking, “At any moment, Baba will race up the street to see me.” But days went by, and then weeks.

I got the news that Baba was busy reconstructing the house that was damaged in the war. He would come in a few days. I could only utter in response, “Baba, you too!” When I now see any visitors, I just leave their company. Finally I met a female, Polish physician and I asked her to teach me some crafts or skills. She was simply delighted to teach me. So I gave up all my worries and started to work with her in full force.

In the meantime, my abortion was arranged. With a strong heart, I got prepared for this procedure. I finally understood my place in this society and in my family. Nila Apa (20), you have seen how all the girls simply resisted getting an abortion. Each girl wanted to keep her baby. Women have a tremendous weakness because every woman has an innate desire to be a mother at least once in their life. But where will I go with this child? Do you remember Marjina? She used to wear a frock and was only 15 years old. She was like me and had a son. She did not want the son to be taken away overseas. She used to scream every time she saw you, thinking you would take her son away. In the end, they did forcibly send her son away to some other country for adoption. You didn’t come around anymore after that, Nila Apa! Why, Nila Apa? Was it too hard for you to face Marjina? Dr. Ibrahim lowered her head and said, “One of the toughest things in life was to send away Marjina’s son to Sweden. It was the most painful thing. I talked with the Prime Minister, Banga Bandhu, and he said, “Nila Apa, you must send away all those children who have no identity of their fathers. The child of a human being must grow up with the respect of a human being. Besides, I don’t want that polluted blood in this country.” Many people tried to tell Banga Bandhu that those children would be converted into Christianity when they are adopted abroad. But Banga Bandhu was unmoved. Tara knew her plight and prepared to fight in this world all alone.

Suddenly one day, Baba arrived. Baba looked like he had aged many years. He held me tight in a strong grip and burst into tears. I remembered that about seven or eight of us went to see Banga Bandhu in his executive office one day not too long before. The trip was arranged through the Rehabilitation Center. Our tears flowed on the chest of the prime minister that day. He said, “You are like my daughters. You have given the most precious thing for the liberation of this country. You are the highest heroines in my book. I am here, don’t worry about anything.” That day I really felt I had nothing to worry about. Banga Bandhu was behind us. But somehow I could not put my head and shed my tears as freely on my father’s bosom. Baba’s hand on my head did not relieve my anxiety. I raised my face to his and I asked him, “Baba, should I go home with you now? I have to tell the office that I am leaving.” Baba stopped and hesitated, and then said, “No, my sweet, I cannot take you today. The house is being rebuilt. Your mother’s brother is visiting at the house now. Tomorrow your sister Kali and her husband will come to visit. When they all leave I will come and get you.” Softly I let go of my father’s arm. “That’s okay, Baba. Don’t come again. “No, no,” said Baba in hesitation. He gave me a bag of fruits. I didn’t want to touch it, but I didn’t want to become a laughing object by throwing it away either. Baba came again, but never offered to take me home. Even my big brother came from Calcutta with a new sari. And my old heartthrob Shyamal? He also came to see the war heroine that I became. One thing that my brother said that my father could not bring himself to tell me, “We will drop by and see you whenever we can. But please don’t suddenly come home. You will shame us.” The muscles of my face were so tense I couldn’t move my jaw. My brother noticed and quickly added, “Please don’t send any letters to our address either. We are doing well you know. I’ve got a new job, and we got some money from the government to build a new house. The money was given to the family for you. We added an extension to the house.” I got up and turned away from my brother. I never looked at him again. The next time I saw my brother, I was no longer the hapless, destitute, and bad luck Tara. I was a proud Mrs. T. Neilson.

Author: My lips were parched. I filled Tara’s glass of water and started drinking out of mine. I didn’t have to ask her to start again; she took a brief pause and started once more. I had an intense feeling of hatred and anger simultaneously working inside of me. It’s hatred that kills humanity.

Tara: Marjina told me that her husband received some money from the government because of what she went through during the war. Did my father and brother also receive payments from the government for the loss of my virginity and my rape pregnancy? They repaired the house and added a second story as an extension. How will they live in that house? Didn’t they feel the presence of an eighteen-year-old girl called Tara whose spirit was mixed with every particle of that house? Crazy, but when I would close my eyes, I would instantly see the rain washed Kadam flower tree in the west corner. In the summertime, the smell of the Malda mango tree (22) was still vivid to me. No, reality was very hard. I was a war heroine. I must stand on my own two feet. The female Polish doctor who freed me from the grip of my snakelike pregnancy, and under whom I had been working for six months was my benefactor. I appealed to her for help. Could she help me in any way to go abroad? If I could not go outside of Bangladesh, I would die. This society would not accept me here. I explained to her how my family had acted towards me. She was speechless. The pain in her face drenched her beauty for several moments. She pulled me towards her and put her hand on my head. She said, “Don’t lose hope and courage. You are a freedom fighter. What you don’t know is how many young men have taken a bed in the Hospital for the Disabled for the rest of their lives. My child, I will try to help you.” With slightly tired feet, she walked away. I watched her sari- clad, lean body gradually disappear into the room of the chairman. I understood that whatever I had to do must be done through her. I had to do it fast because the international humanitarian team at the Women’s Rehabilitation Center would not be here for more than four months. All the abortion patients had been helped. Now only the patients who were giving birth remained in the hospital. The local doctors would help them.

I put every ounce of energy I had into nursing. Whenever the doctor saw me, she encouraged me with a smiling face and praised my work to everyone in immeasurable ways. Then one day she told me she had arranged a scholarship for me to study nursing in Bulgaria. She gave me an application to fill out. The next day, she took me to see the chairman of her board, Honorable Justice Sobhan. She asked him for a recommendation. The chairman showed a lot of compassion towards me.

Suddenly one day she told me, “Tara, get ready quickly. You must come with me to the Health Ministry.” My limbs were trembling with excitement. That month I went outside twice. Once I went to see Banga Bandhu (father of the nation) in Gana Bhavan, the presidential residence, and this time to the Secretariat. I completed my interview. No matter what, I did not utter my father’s name.

The gentleman who interviewed me understood everything, even though in my application form I did put my father’s name down. When we came outside, the doctor held my hands firmly. I understood that my application was approved. Within a month, I got permission to leave the country. They would pay all expenses. Because I was one of the war affected women, I would get some additional benefits as well. One afternoon in the month of July, I took the few things I called my own and got into an Aeroflot (Russian airlines) flight. In my soul I uttered, “Joy Bangla - Joy Banga Bandhu.” Banga Bandhu, may I be able to maintain it with honor of the title of war heroine you bestowed on me. One day I will hold my head upright and walk into your chambers and give you salaam. No, I have kept my head upright and seen you many times, but I could not give you salaam (salute). At that time you were beyond me. “

Nila Apa, am I bothering you? Suddenly, I broke out of my spell, and I said, “No, no, no, keep talking. I have been listening so intently to your story that I feel I have also arrived with you in that same point in 1973.” Tara continued. I really liked Sofia (Bulgaria). It’s a beautiful country and the mannerism of its citizens was even more beautiful. They were hospitable, just like us. I also saw girls and boys from Bangladesh. A lot of them have come here because of their role in the 1971 war. As I got to know them more, I realized that they were sons and daughters of wealthy people, and they just took advantage of the war scholarships to come here to study. What was more disturbing was to actually see relatives of political leaders and their sons and daughters here. No one here was war affected like me, and I knew that those who were war affected in Bangladesh could not make their way here. All my gratitude goes to that Polish doctor. Nila Apa, have you all helped anyone like me to come abroad? With head bent, I told her the truth, “No, no one like that came to us for assistance.” Why? I remember you, Bashanti Di, Mrs. Mumtaj Begum, you were all part of the Board. Why didn’t you try to help us? “Tara”, I said, “they didn’t have the mental preparation to leave the country. Because they loved the land and the people, they wanted to stay there. They did not see the face of betrayal back then. Anyway, let’s talk about you.”

In about three months, a Bangla girl was after me. I don’t know how she found out, but the fact that I had not come from a normal family life must have been well understood from my behavior and lifestyle. In about three months I had not received a single letter. I avoided the topic if anybody asked where I was from. Therefore, I was not deemed as a good girl. My identity in the 1971 war spread throughout the institute from one or two people. The Bulgarian students never asked me about this, and showed extreme respect. I was involved in the 1971 war, and I took great pride in saying, “I’m a war heroine.” One day a Bangali boy told me that the girl who was after me was actually the daughter of someone who opposed the Bangla struggle for liberation (23). That is why she could not return to Bangladesh. Her father, after falsely registering himself and his family with Awami League (Banga Bandhu’s political party), ensured that the daughter would be sent here. The Bangali boy asked me if I noticed that the girl does not do any work in her classes. They would all go back to Bangladesh when the public sentiment against the few people who opposed the struggle for liberation died down. I was never mistreated or disrespected by the Bangali boys here.

The next year I saved up a few dollars and decided to see a couple of countries. One of my classmates was a girl from Denmark, and she invited me to visit her country. She said that without the passage money, I would not require anything more to visit her country. I could stay with her and her family.

I got excited about Dana’s invitation. In August 1974, I put my feet on the soil of Copenhagen with Dana. Her father came to pick us up from the airport. He filled Dana’s face with his kisses. He shook my hands and kissed me lightly. Mr. Harry was short, but very fit. He was almost bald, but he preserved a hint of his younger days in his reddish mustache. He came in a pickup van. Their hometown was 22 kilometers away from the city. Father and daughter kept talking nonstop in their language, which I did not understand. I looked outside and saw an unending blue sky, green pasture, and a few fly away birds like me.

I really loved the house. It was a two-story house. It was a concrete structure with a tiled, sloped roof like the ones in our country. The roof was made to withstand ice and snow, which made it suitable for this country. There was a room with low ceiling upstairs. There were two lightweight beds on either side of the room. Most likely this arrangement was made because I was visiting. The toilet was downstairs. There was quite a bit of land in front and on the sides. On the perimeter of the land there was a small shed. Anyway, we washed our hands and sat down for lunch. I think Dana’s mother was older than her father. The brother was sixteen years old, and another one was about four. Dana’s father was a banker and the mother was a schoolteacher. The older brother was to appear in his school finals, and the younger one was in kindergarten. The elder brother was probably William, and the younger one, Sally. Dana’s mother said, “My youngest son was actually born in your country. When we brought him back, he was only 17 days old. Isn’t that right?” She looked at her husband for acknowledgement. The meal was very simple. Bread, cabbage, a glass bowl filled with mashed potatoes, salad, and beefsteak on plates. Accompanying the meal was wine, but William and Sally were served milk. After the meal I took a little rest. Around five pm, Dana’s father awakened me. We were served tea and went out for a long drive. We went to a local club and listened to music in the evening. William played the guitar. We all danced, including Dana’s father and mother. I mastered dancing, within two months of being in Sofia. Dana’s father brought drinks for everybody, but Sally had orange juice and potato chips. One week went by very fast. One day an invitation came from your friend Allie’s house. I told you before, and you know it too, that Allie was a journalist. Dana’s family was somehow related to Allie’s family, but people in these countries did not keep minute calculations of pedigree like we do. Still, because of this, the connection between Allie and Dana’s family was quite intimate.

Allie’s apartment was in Copenhagen. Dana drove their small family car to Allie’s. It was about seven PM. It seemed to me the sun was in the middle of the sky. It was just like it is in the afternoon. It’s as if the lights on this road were going to become the beacon of light in my life. Allie’s apartment was very small. As soon as you entered the apartment you could see the small sitting area. There were about four to five cushions, stools, and chairs. Then there was a dining room with a medium sized table. Around the table were six chairs. On the one side was the kitchen, with a stove, fridge, dishwasher, and washing machine. On the other side was a cupboard of pots and pans. On the left-hand side there wasn’t any door, but a thin curtain, and on the other side was the living room. A few people were chatting there. Upon seeing us, they put their glasses down. Allie introduced us. The first person was Allie’s husband, Hanson. The second was Christine, a lawyer. The third was a journalist, Neil. Did my hand tremble inside his hand? Or was it a reaction of my trembling heart?
We got home at about one am. I was thinking about the streets of Dhaka. It’s unthinkable to think about being out at 1 am. Last time I saw with my own eyes a gentleman being stabbed and his briefcase stolen in the broad daylight at 2 pm in Motijheel, Dhaka (commercial district). But I was thinking about 1974. Dhaka was not that violent anymore. Because I was quiet, Dana asked me, “Tara, didn’t you like this evening?” I touched her shoulder and said, “I haven’t spent such an enjoyable evening ever in my life!” Dana was overjoyed. “We have more good friends, but because it’s summer, many of them are away. But the lawyer that you met, I know she will drop by our house to see you again. Christine is involved in international social welfare organizations. She will want to know about Bangladesh and the status of women there, and I hope Neil will come out of his own interest.” “Why of his own interest?” I asked, and blushed terribly. I turned my face away in embarrassment. Dana laughed and said, “Now, you understand why I say his own interest”! The twenty days we spent was like a dream. It was as if I spent it with my own father, mother, brothers and sisters. One thing I noticed that most people have three to four children, and have adopted another child. And it was impossible to distinguish who was adopted, and who was biologically conceived. I was surprised to hear one woman singing the praise of her adopted son to Dana’s mother. In the morning Dana’s father took us back to the airport, this time accompanied by Dana’s mom. Neil came too, but didn’t say many words. He just said, “I will see you soon in Sofia.” He kissed Dana’s cheek, but simply held my hand. I looked back as long as I could. When I left Dhaka I had no tears in my eyes. Somehow all my feelings and emotions hit me today. Tears came down my face; tears of happiness. Dana’s parents hugged me and kissed me and told me to come again. “This is your house, so come when you have time.” Yes, today, that house is my house. Nila Apa, today that house is my father’s house. You have seen what kind of people they are. I have so much love for Sally. Sally is a college student now. One day he will come of age, have his own earnings, and get married to have a full and happy life. Apa, do you remember the nurses who went from here to Bangladesh and brought the children back here? Banga Bandhu’s decision to allow this was criticized so much at that time. He said that, “I don’t know who will have what religion, but I do know they will grow up like human beings abroad” You know, that’s why Sally knows he is Danish and he has the same rights as a citizen who is born here.
In July 1975, you came here on your way to Mexico. Padmini and you guys were part of the delegation there. I was already in Copenhagen. This came about because Neil tried very hard and got me a job in a big hospital in Copenhagen. I used to live in the dormitories for the nurses. On the weekends, I’d buy a few things and go visit Dana’s house in the country with her. I spent the whole day there, and in the evening Neil would drive me back. I went to the movies with him, to the operas, and whenever I could I would improve my Danish by practicing at home. It didn’t take too long to learn the language, but it took me a long time to study my profession. We decided that at the end of August that summer, we would get married. During this period, I went to Neil’s house many times. His father was a physician, and his mother just recently transitioned from a nurse to a midwife. This was not my country and that’s why nurses and midwives get a lot of respect in this society! Neil had an elder sister who moved to Australia after getting married. His younger brother was a doctor. I went to their house at will. I was one of them. After considering many things, his parents decided on August 16 to be our wedding date. In a grand celebration, on a moonlit night, I embarked on my wedding journey as a true war heroine. Suddenly I heard on the BBC radio program playing in the distance that Banga Bandhu was no more! He had been killed. I put my face in Neil’s chest and wept like a baby for the loss of my real father. Banga Bandhu put his hand on my head and said, “You are not a war heroine; you are my mother .” (24) I have never forgotten his face. I am the mother of Banga Bandhu (father of the nation), and this pride has made me victorious in my life’s struggles. I thought, no, I would no longer introduce myself as a Bangladeshi, since my father had been killed there.

Neil’s love and his family’s affection wiped away my past. In 1980, Neil suddenly proposed whether I would adopt a son with him. After applying to the social welfare department and much effort and elbow grease, we found Thomas. He was Irish. Both his parents were killed when a bomb exploded in their home during civil unrest. I didn’t know how he arrived in Denmark, but Neil’s mother informed us when she saw the baby in the hospital. The baby was not to be given up for adoption at this tender age. In Denmark you just cannot adopt a baby: a married couple has to live together, and have the financial resources to bring up a child. They needed letters of references for their characters from appropriate people. Neil and I arranged everything. We were finally approved to adopt Thomas. Neil was beaming with pride and pleasure after we got Thomas. I desired a daughter instead. I wanted to dress her up, give her affection, and raise her up just like I wanted to. My mother in law was pleased. After being with us, in only a few hours, Thomas made us all super busy. Neil had to go out many, many times to get the essentials for the baby. I had a language barrier with Thomas. The next day I took Thomas to the toy store, and then we went to buy chocolate. Within a moment we became good friends. Two years later, Neil got an invitation from New Delhi, India. He wanted to take Thomas and me with him. I agreed. Nobody would recognize me. I was wearing skirts, blouses, sometimes jeans now. I even looked different. I decided to go.

In 1982 I came to Delhi. With my entire being, I touched the country’s sky and wind. I arrived in Hotel Ashoka where we had a reservation. Neil had a meeting at 6PM in the hotel lounge. I called my sister in Calcutta. I said I brought my husband and my son. As soon as my sister heard that I married a foreigner, she ran to get her husband. Her husband could barely contain his interest and curiosity. If he could, he would reach out and grab me over the phone lines to their side. I said Neil’s conference is for three days and then he would head for Calcutta. They said to let them know of the flight number before arrival. I explained everything to Neil. Neil was very happy. He said this time he will be a Bangla son in law and go to his in-laws’ house. Neil could speak in broken Bangla. Thomas knew a few words in English. He has not been able to master anymore yet.

I bought a sari for my sister and a shawl for my brother in law from Delhi. I wanted to buy a white shawl for Baba, but didn’t in case I could not get it to him, it would make me feel sad. I didn’t know how old the kids of the family are anymore. That’s fine I told myself, because everything is available in Calcutta. This was the same sister I called from Poland. My sister said shame on you Tara and hung up the phone. No, my past was dead. My present is Mrs. T. Neilson.

My sister and brother in law were indeed at the airport. Didi (25) hugged me and burst into tears. Somehow there were no tears in my eyes. It’s as if I had exhausted my lifetime collection of tears already. I held my head straight and marched into their home in Bhavanipur. The flat was okay, but we decided to stay in a hotel and we made reservation from Delhi. Our hotel was on Park Street (a premiere location in Calcutta). I told my sister we would we staying at the hotel. Didi would not hear of it, but her husband understood. “They’re tired, let them go. Take rest and freshen up and come here for dinner tonight, and tomorrow morning as soon as you wake up, you will come to our home again.” Didi was upset. She pulled me aside in the room next door and said, “You’re very lucky to have a husband as handsome as Neil. Your son is also good looking. Won’t you go to Rajshahi?” My heart stopped. She said, “Yesterday I phoned Baba. He and Ma both asked you to go there repeatedly. They said there will be no troubles for you.” I thought her husband must have been laughing in his own mind, but nobody in that house had the guts to refuse my sister’s words. I took Baba’s phone number from Didi (25). I figured I would call him directly to assess the situation. I would not subject my husband, child, and myself to the abuse and neglect I had left behind.

The next morning I called Baba. Baba started howling and crying like a child. He just kept saying, “Please forgive me, my daughter.” I told him I would be in Dhaka within two days. I told him not to take the pain of coming to Dhaka, that I would call him when I was in Dhaka (Rajshahi is 197 km north of Dhaka ) (26). I asked Baba to give the phone to Ma. Ma took the phone and all I could hear was her crying incessantly. I explained everything to Neil. He of course had already made some programs in Dhaka since he had not returned to Dhaka since 1971. He agreed happily. At Dhaka airport there was Baba, Dada (28), and Dada’s eleven-year-old son, Joy. Dada’s in laws live in Dhaka. Even after being surrounded by so much warmth and welcoming, I refused to go to my Dada’s in-laws’ house. Neil had already made reservations at the Sheraton in Dhaka. We rested and had a good meal. I told my father to leave and go back to Rajshahi. I told him we would stay in Dhaka for a few days. Baba did not agree and said if he returned without me, then Ma will not allow him to get in the house. My relatives left the hotel for some time. In that time, Neil and I took a taxi and went to Savaar where the National Memorial for the 1971 war stands today. We paid our respect at the War Memorial and headed towards Road number 32 in Dhanmondi, Dhaka (29). Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Banga Bandhu, had returned to this residence from London. The house was under police surveillance, but they did allow people to enter. I thought to myself that on our way back, Neil should seek an appointment to see her and I would go with him. I also wanted to show Sheikh Hasina my son, Thomas. I would never forget that he was the son of the country of De Valera (30). He was also very stubborn. I took some dust from in front of the gate and put it on my forehead and Thomas’s. Neil put some dust on his forehead too. He had actually met Banga Bandhu and spoke with him some years back. That’s why he was quite emotional about this as well. I came back with a tired and exhausted body and got ready for my trip. This is the Rajshahi part of my trip, possibly the hardest test of fire in my life.

Baba was speaking nonstop on the way to Rajshahi. Joy (31) and Thomas were seated on either side of him. I thought that if I could name Thomas, I probably would name him Joy, and if he had been a girl, I would name him Joya. I was defeated there too because my mother in law had already announced the name of her granddaughter a priori her birth! She said Tara’s daughter would be named Nora. She would be as determined and freethinking as her mother. I could not reject either the emotion or the logic in my mother in law’s argument. I kept on staring at Baba. The train was speeding ahead. Baba was talking with Thomas, sometimes in English and sometimes in Bangla. Neil was speaking at a low voice with Dada. After ten long years, I seem to have returned to my childhood. My soul still went running around my house and neighborhood. Dada did something very smart; he did not inform anybody by which train we were arriving. I didn’t know whether he did this to save his own face, but I knew that Neil might not have liked excessive crowds and all the hoopla.

Very slowly I pushed open the front gate with my feet and entered the house ahead of everyone. The house was changed completely. The sign of improved economic wellbeing was present. It looked as though Baba had increased his attention to the gardens. The lilies and the orange blossoms were climbing up the trellis. I couldn’t look any more. My eyes were filled with tears. At the sound of the car, my mother came out. When I lowered my head for Pranam (touching feet for blessings, a prevalent custom of respect amongst Hindus), my Ma gave out a deep howl just like a childless mother. I took mother inside the house. Neil also lowered his head and tried to touch Ma’s feet. Ma hugged him and held his hands. She said, “May you live long my son.” From this point forward, all the love, care, attention, and affection were directed towards Thomas. Ma said, “Thomas does not look either like his father or mother.” That’s because he looks like his grandfather. “This makes sense,” she said. “There’s nothing like blood running through the generations.” I did not take away their pride because that was not my mission. My brother’s wife was about two years older than me. She had a very sweet face. I washed my face and hands, opened my bag, and gave everyone all the gifts I brought with me. Everyone was happy.

News spread around the neighborhood. The house became full of guests in no time. Neil shook hands with everybody and exchanged greetings, “How are you,” and, “Good,” etc. in Bangla. He was applauded many times for his effort. I pulled Dada aside and asked him to make arrangements for Neil to stay in a local hotel or rest house for two days. He was really suffering from all the heat and inconvenience. Dada understood. In an hour or so, Neil took his small, black travel bag and left for the hotel. I was reminded again that he was a journalist. He was not going to get peace unless he went around the town and talked to five or six people. Speaking of which, I did not find Thomas in the last hour anywhere. He was probably not even within the boundary of the house.

My sister in law kept asking me whether I wanted tea. I was about to explode from the extreme heat. Ma took me upstairs. She said, “Look, why did you send Neil to the hotel? I have arranged this room for you. It has an adjoining bathroom.” Suddenly I remembered that Baba said he received government assistance. That is how he had constructed the room upstairs. This was the price of my stolen dignity and femaleness. My jaw grew tense, but no, I had promised that I would never bring up my past again. That’s fine, if I had given so much of myself for the freedom of the country, then maybe my poor father deserved a bit of happiness. I remember an epic novel in Bangla. I forgave everybody today. I forgive you, Ma. Ma turned around and said, “Are you calling me?” “No”, I said “sometimes I just call you”. After sitting me down, Ma had so many things to say. She asked me if my husband knows all those things that happened to me. I said, don’t worry Ma. Your son in law, his Baba, Ma, and relatives, everybody knows everything. They all love me very much and respect me. They have incredibly huge hearts. If they did not have such generosity and open minds, they could not accept me. Ma was relieved. In the evening I asked Dada what happened to Maqbul (32), the chairman? I said Neil just wanted to talk to him once. Dada said he was no more. He was shot to death on December 18th by the Bangla freedom fighters. I heaved a big sigh of relief. At least there was some justice. But with a sad voice Dada said, “His son was still around and was following in his father’s footsteps. He was part of the Rehabilitation of the war collaborators. In a few days he might become a Minister or a Deputy Minister!

No, even though I had been exiled, the Razakars (33) and Al-Badars were not in exile. In fact they received medals and praise for torturing us and exterminating us. However I did not see that the country was doing poorly, especially with all the bustling streets and the shopping malls. I saw a lot of girls and women out shopping – a phenomenon I did not see before 1971. Baba said that after 3 million freedom fighters were killed, the women of their families were forced to come out and earn a living for survival. I thought that the liberation war against Pakistan made women’s emancipation easier, but the men seemed to be much weaker. Otherwise how could we have Razakars and former Al-badr members as Ministers or even Prime Ministers? I felt like the men were losing the competition with the women. The time just passed like a dream. Neil had a good time and Thomas had the time of his life. They had all the tropical fruits, mango snacks and molasses. Thomas went around the pond, the garden, my mother’s prayer room, and the kitchen. He saw a brand new world.

I told Baba earlier not to come back to Dhaka with us. I told him it was enough trouble to go to Dhaka to bring us here. I would not hear of his going back to Dhaka with us again. Neil spent most of his time at the local press club. But from his face I could see he had not found published news to his liking, or met anyone with whom he saw eye to eye. Before leaving, Dada and all the kids came to the station. Baba and Ma stood at the gate of the house. I bowed to give Pranam to Baba, but he cried aloud. I could barely hear the words he uttered except for one. Baba was asking for my forgiveness, but why? Should Baba have done something more? Even though the country became independent in a physical sense, its psyche was still unclean. Why after going halfway around the world I never met another war heroine? I screamed shame, shame, shame in my mind---not to myself, but to the diseased and unclean social value system of BangaIis. Social customs and rules are more important than fellow human beings to them!

Ma hugged me and put something in my hands. She said, “Give this to Thomas’s wife someday and tell them that it’s a gift from their grandmother.” She didn’t let me open my fist. I said, “Ma, why now? I will come again.” She said, “Yes, do come again. But this is the last time I will get to see you.” I think my soul was waiting just to see you, my daughter.” It was getting late. I briskly walked towards the car.

Before the car turned the corner I looked back to see Baba, Ma, our house, my childhood, the dreams of my youth and all that comprised of my birthplace. Somehow I could not think anymore. The entire way Thomas annoyed the two of us. Why were we going back? Why were we going to Copenhagen? Why didn’t we stay here with grandpa and grandma? Etc. Neil was very steady and spoke to Thomas calmly, “Don’t feel bad, we will come again.” I know that only Tara Banerjee will cry to come back. But Mrs. T. Neilson completely cut the umbilical cord in going back this time. Let me tell you why I am saying this, Nila Apa.

When I returned I thought I would be very depressed, but I gathered myself quite well. The only exception was that I finally opened my hands on the train back to Dhaka and saw that Ma has given her own gold chain for her grandson Thomas’s future wife. Since birth I have always seen this chain around my mom’s neck. I thought, really you cannot judge a person’s soul by what they do. It is amazing where Thomas was actually born, and where his grandmother has come from. My mother has left her most favorite thing in the world for her adopted grandson. Of course Thomas’s real identity is not just unknown to my family, but also to many of our acquaintances.
After some time, Nora was born. It seemed she bewitched my in-laws at birth. Many times they would arrive on Friday afternoon and only leave after Sunday dinner. Afterwards Nora herself would spend Friday through Monday with her paternal grandparents.

Now your life is fulfilled with husband, in laws, love, affection, workplace success, wealth, and reputation. You have nothing you want for. You can forget about everything and think of yourself as a completely happy and fulfilled woman. Why is there still a lack or restlessness, Tara? I asked Tara with deep curiosity. Late in the night looking at the tara filled sky, Tara seemed to get lost. After a little while Tara came back to life and said, “Apa, today our country is free. Some people have made it and others have perished. Some have become the highest of war heroes, some ministers and others ambassadors with much power and reputation. And me? I never wanted anything. I just wanted respect for my womanhood and shelter in the bosom of my country. But I have no identity in my own country. Tara Banerjee has died, but Mrs. T. Neilson and Thomas’ mother has gotten all the respect and dignity in my own country. Where am I to my own countrymen? I am hated, criticized, despised, and dead.

And the soil of my country---I have lost that too. Today I am the citizen of Denmark. Nobody will say that I am Bengali. It took me two years to even tell you who I really was. Can you tell me why I have such hesitation and embarrassment? Can you tell me where I have made a mistake in living in my entire life? The fathers and brothers who could not protect me from the hands of the rapists are the ones passing judgments on me and telling me what constitutes an untouchable or an unacceptable lifestyle. I hate thinking about the beauty of the Danish social system. The person who accepted me with much affection was a foreigner. Nila Apa, when I was a little girl there was a lawyer who worked for the government next door. Often I would see a very young, pretty woman would come to that house all dressed up but her head was always covered. The eldest daughter of that house, Millie, was my friend. One day out of curiosity I asked her, “Who is that woman who comes to visit your house?” Millie said, “She is the wife of Shariat Ullah, a client of her father. A few rogues abducted her and returned her after four to five days. Her husband has sued the men who abducted and abused her.
I was shocked to hear this story. I said to Millie, “Where does she live?” Millie said, “Why, she lives in her husband’s house.” “Are you serious? Her husband has taken her back?” “Yes he has.” The young man told his wife that they are Muslims and in their religion one can marry a girl who is even sold in a market place. Her husband told her, “I have already committed a crime by not protecting you. How can I commit another crime by leaving you? I have no face to show Allah as it is. I must give you full respect as my wife”.

When I was in the Women’s Rehabilitation Center, I saw many husbands, brothers, and fathers who came from the Muslim society. But they never took their daughters or wives back with them. Even one army officer came. He actually participated as a freedom fighter, but he said he could give monthly allowance to his wife, but he would not be able to take her back to his home. Sometimes I think by this time he has become a General as a reward for his courage. And his wife, Sultana, is probably engaged in a struggle for life in some impoverished, slum neighborhood. I think back to Shariat Ullah next to Millie’s house in my neighborhood. Have all the Shariat Ullahs died in the freedom fight? Sometimes I think the Muslims have imitated the Hindus and become just like them! By trying to get more education and more culture, they have lost the basic humanity present in their religion. So their women have not found a way back to their homes, and women like Sultana never found husbands and children.

Suddenly Tara looked at her watch and said, “Oh my God. It’s now 3AM! You have to get to bed. I am so embarrassed that I have given you so much trouble.” I laughed and I said, “We never gave you what you deserved. You have the right to give me trouble.” Tara said, “No, but yes I do have to tell you the last word Nila Apa that I have told Neil that after I die, please do not take me to Bangladesh. You can physically give birth to a child, but unless you raise up the child with love and nurture her, you do not become a mother. I was born in Golden Bengal, but I was raised in the land of Denmark. But it is in that land that I will be at my last rest. If I return to my land of origin, I will be a negligible, unknown, and ignored woman. With every breath I curse the Bangla society for its low mindedness, disrespect to its women, and for insulting its citizens. There was only one man who was born in that country, who has blessed me with his affection and love. I am just an insignificant daughter of that man who has grown up without love, but you all have killed the father of our nation (Banga Bhandu) and the whole world is thinking of you all as betrayers, president murdering, greedy, and shameful people. In the world council, you have no seat.” Right there on the sofa, Tara held my two hands strongly and slowly lay down to sleep.
The next time I saw her was in the 90s. Thomas was a journalist, and Nora was on her way to become a doctor. Neil’s mother had died, but his father was still living. They were taking turns in looking after him. But Tara, the star, looked dim. Neil took me aside and confided in me. “I have taken her to see many doctors. Her body is well, but after my mother died, she is not the same inside anymore. She only speaks with Thomas, and the rest of us only get an answer if we ask a question. Nila, please try to talk to her and make her understand.” In the evening, Tara and I were sitting face to face. Suddenly she got up and jumped on me. “Why? Why? Why?” she asked, “Why will everyone else gain everything, and only I will lose? Why? Why, Nila Apa? Tell me, please.” I placed her head firmly on my bosom and slowly stroked it with my hand. After awhile she got up. She washed her face, made coffee, and brought it outside. Just like before, Tara’s face was lit up. The intensity of her eyes awakened my whole body and soul. Neil was absolutely right; she has been bleeding inside since she lost the woman that at once became her mother and mother-in-law. Even though she has tolerated a lot of pain and suffering thus far, it seems that she has reached close to her limit now.

Every year I get her New Years cards. Wish me well, Tara. In exchange I have the same desire for you. Please be well, be happy.

1 Author Dr. N. Ibrahim
2 Nila is abbreviation for the first name of the author Dr. Nilima Ibrahim

3 Adda – informal chit chat frequently carried late into the night
4 Banga Bhandu was assassinated by military officers on August 15, 1975.
Top members of Awami League, Sheikh Mujib’s political party, were assassinated in the military coup on August 15, 1975.

5 operating theater – operating room
6 White saris with red border – donated by the Indian government
7 Dadi – paternal grandmother
8 Rajshahi - a district in northern Bangladesh
9 Baba – father (Bangla word used by Hindus or Muslims); Banga Bandhu – title bestowed on Sheikh Mujib, the father of the nation
10 Jawan – Pakistani army soldier
11Khodahafez – goodbye in Muslim tradition
12 Joy Bangla - Long live Bangla; Victory to Bangladesh
13 Bhagavan – Supreme Spirit in Hindu tradition
14 Lungis – long skirts worn by men in Bengal especially in rural areas
15 Razakars – Bangali collaborators of the Pakistani army and soldiers (war co-conspirators with Pakistani army); traitors
16 Joy Bangla - Joy Bangla significance - Joy Bangla was the most popular slogan for victory of Bangladesh in
the 1971 war
17 Sufia’s Ma – mother of Sufia; a caretaker or maid
18 Please come here – in Hindi
19 The men who descended from the jeep were a mixture of Bangla freedom fighters and the Indian army who played a pivotal role in helping Bangladeshis win the war at the end. Hindi is the language spoken in India. On December 16, 1971, the Pakistani general surrendered to the Indian general and accepted defeat in the 1971 war.
20 Nila Apa – Many address Dr. N. Ibrahim, the author, as “sister Nila”, including Tara.
21 War heroine - birangana
22 Seed imported from Malda, India
23 Opposer of the war – Daughter of a Razakar
24In Bangla, it is a sign of utmost respect to call a woman of daughter age “mother.”

25 Didi means sister and is used by Bangla speaking Hindus. Apa is the word for sister used many Bangla speaking Muslims.
26 Rajshahi – Tara’s hometown in Bangladesh

28 Dada is the word for brother used by Bangla speaking Hindus.
29 This is the personal residence of Banga Bandhu. He lived in this house and was also killed in this house with most of his family.

30 Éamon de Valera was one of the dominant political figures in 20th century Ireland.
31Joy means victory in Bangla
32 Maqbull was the collaborator who pulled Tara and the other girls into the rape camp on March 27th, 1971

33 The war collaborators are known as the Razakars. These are Bangalis who helped Pakistanis in the massacre in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). Collaborators were hated throughout Bangladesh after the war, but no government has tried them in the court of law for charges of war crimes. In fact, they later went on to take influential political positions in the Bangladeshi government.

--Nusrat Rabbee (EarthVoyager)


Comments

প্রদীপ্ত's picture

অসাধারন একটি কাজ। ধন্যবাদ আপনাকে।

সজল's picture

That's a great initiative. I believe when "historian" like Shormila Bose tries to sell the world that nothing happened in 1971 and the Pakistani army that time did not do any beast like act, this kind of resource that can be readily presented in English will help us protect the history from distortion..

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মানুষ তার স্বপ্নের সমান বড়

শিশিরকণা's picture

গুরু গুরু চলুক

~!~ আমি তাকদুম তাকদুম বাজাই বাংলাদেশের ঢোল ~!~

M.I's picture

My heart has broken so many times while reading this and other accounts of the War. What is unforgivable is that all these years later, the social concept of 'shame' has not changed in the Bengali community whether Muslim or Hindu. Ashamed is what we should be for abandoning our mothers daughters and sisters for the terror they have suffered through no fault of their own. Makes me embarassed to be Bengali. May you find peace in your hearts someday.

অতিথি লেখক's picture

খুব ভালো একটা কাজ।
কেউ কি উনার (Mrs. T. Neilson) বর্তমান অবস্থা জানেন, সুযোগ পেলে একটা প্রণাম জানিয়ে আসতাম।

কুণ্ঠিত পান্থ

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