Facing Death: Moslema Khatun

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Submitted by himika64 on Thu, 13/09/2012 - 6:26am
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This is the second one in the series of the translation of the witness accounts presented in the book 1971:Dreadful experiences: edited by Rashid Haider. Since the last post, editor Rashid Haider and publisher Mafidul Haq has been contactd and they have given their blessings to this effort. Reader feedback on quality of the translation will be much appreciated. The target audience is non-Bangladeshis, so the translation has to be properly conveyed to them. Please encourage your non-Bangali friends to read it and communicate their feedback to the writer.

Facing Death

Moslema Khatun

Educator, Retired professor, English, Home economics college, Dhaka.

I woke up started around midnight. Bang! Bang! Intermittent gunshots were heard. Then incessant firing begun. Quickly I got off the bed and gathered the children in the middle of the dining room. What the hell! in a few moments the night turned into a horror. That was the dark night of 25th March, 1971. Different kinds of loud bangs were heard simultaneously. Kaboom! went the heavy bombs, Rat-tat-tat went the machines guns. Whooo-sh went something cutting through the thick air with a trailing sound. Something like firecrackers headed to the sky and lightened up the whole room through the glass on the doors and windows. Stray bullets were shooting at random direction. Any moment a bullet can come shattering through the glass and hit any one of us. Feeling lost, we took the children to the small space in front of the bathroom, which seemed a little safer place to be. My girls- Raj, Naj and Shan terrified, gathered close to their father. Shan was trembling with fear. Sakib- my son was hugging me. Firing was going on constantly. What a terrible noise that was!

Our Home Economics College was right next to the Dhaka university campus. Within the college campus was the student hostel and our, i.e. teacher’s resident building. It sounded like most of the gunshot sounds were coming from Iqbal Hall, Muhseen Hall and Shahid Minar. There were also guns firing from the opposite direction. In between the gunfire screams and howls were feeling the void. Everywhere the the glow of fire was omnipresent. Consequently the flame of the fire and the smoke become clear in all direction. It seemed as if the whole city was burning down. It seems this unbearable night would never end. Around dawn we heard an announcement on the micrphone- Martial Law has been proclaimed. Curfew is in place for indefinite time.

The night ended, but firing didn’t. What is happening, how is everyone, there was no way of knowing. Telephones were not working. When the day broke, one of our neighbor from second floor and another one from the third floor came down to talk, but went back upstairs soon. Everyone was awake the whole. Fear has a left its mark on everyone’s face. I turned on the radio only to hear a harsh voice announcing marshal law and curfew in Urdu and English. If anhone breaches the curfew and steps out they’ll be shot at sight. Even if there wasn’t a curfew, who’d dare going out? Intermittent gunfires could be heard continuously. Dogs were barking but no human voice could be heard outside. Fire was burning in front of New market, smokes covering the sky on that horizon. Slums outside the east wall of the college were also covered in fire and smoke. I couldn’t understand what was burning, or who was burning.

College gatekeeper Abed Ali came panting at one point to tell us that there were three or four people dead on the college ground. Last night when they were trying to escape from Iqbal hall, they were shot while climbing the college wall and they fell to their death. It felt awful hearing this but what could we do but keep quiet for the moment? Abed Ali returned a few moments later. He was really scared and told us that armed soldiers from the streets were strictly ordering to take down “the flag” from the roof, or they’ll shoot. I suddenly remembered that we had the Bangladeshi flag flown on the roof. What to do? Who would dare go up to the roof amidst all the gunfires. A few moments later I was surprised to find out that Mahfuz, a teenager of twelve or thirteen who stays in our house, has brought down the flag during a break in the gunfire. Thank God, he didn’t get shot.

The day grew longer. Nobody was hungry. But our cook Buddhu’s mom served some food and tea on table. My sister in law Najma and her four month old daughter Ragini were with us. Her husband, my brother in law works in Karachi. My niece, Khushumoni, daughter of my elder brother was also with us. She goes to this college and stays in this hostel, of which I am the hostel superintendent. As per Principal Hamida Khanam’s suggestion I had already closed the hostel and sent all the female students to their home. In this disastrous moment I thanked God that I listened to Hamida Madam’s suggestion.

Earlier in the day, we couldn’t have even thought such violence would occur. But we had a hunch something was going to happen. Around ten or eleven on the earlier morning my brother in law Mujaddid visited us with his two friends. Moshiur Rahman, captain of P.I.A who also happened to be the brother of one of my sister in laws also stopped by around the same time. Captain Rahman came from Karachi to Dhaka for duty, but he had neither intention of doing his duty nor going back to Karachi. He often visited our place to discuss the political situation in the country with husband professor Noman. During today’s discussion at the tea table everybody was very worried and agitated. They were saying there is no hope of Mujib Iahia talk to be successful. They shared some more dire news before returning home.

After the sun set, Noman and Mujaddid took a stroll outside and came back gravely worried. They heard rumors that Iahia has secretly left for Pakistan and the army was deployed on the streets. Tanks are also coming. There was a dark vibe everywhere around the city. Mujaddid immeidately returned to the house in Green road where my mother in law lived with her younger sons. From the third floor staircase in our building we saw, angry mob and students cut down a huge tree between Ajimpur Conoly and our college to block the road. Besides they also created a barricade on the road to Nilkhet. There were shops on both sides of that road. In no time some brave boys dug deep holes from end to the other end of the road. We were very startled by all this happening and came downstairs to meet the neighbors. They were all very worried of what is going to happen, what lies in our fate.

We were trying to get some sleep despite the worries and uncertainty. But around twelve o’clock all hell broke loose. The night of the 25th passed and so did the day of 26th, but the firing didn’t stop when the next night came. The flames and smoke became even more visible at night. Something was running on the street with loud noises, probably tanks. Bullets broke through the third floor windows, so a scared Husna Banu Khanam and couple more people gathered at our drawing room downstairs with their children. A young boy who worked as a house servant on one of the third floor families came down sobbing. He went close to a window, when a bullet shot right past his ear and the sound of the bullet has deafened him temporarily. Someone tried consoling him- “ Don’t cry, the ringing will go away soon.” Husna Banu told us that in the evening a few sepoys entered her house and asked if there were any gold jewelries or watches. But she had hidden the valuables already.

At one time the gunfires were heard very close to our building. I felt deeply saddened to think of the unknown number of people being killed. Through the glass window we could see the light of the ‘Tracer bombs’ cutting through the dark of the night. Even the night was old, nobody could sleep. All of us were sitting hypnotized by the fear of death. Not a single light in the room, nor a sound- lest they find out there are so many of us are hiding in here. When Nazma’s baby was crying out, it was immediately pacified by putting a milk bottle to her mouth. Thus we spent another night in heart stopping terror.

The sun rose again. Strange! Along with the gunfires we could also hear the sound of Azan! Which made me think- maybe there maybe a few handful people still alive in Dhaka city. But what is this? Someone was loudly banging on our front door from the outside as if they’ll break it down any moment. As soon as I opened the door five or six Pak raiding soldiers rushed into our room. Their eyes were wild and fierce, face sweaty and cruel and reminding that they were killing people all through the night. All of us sat in the room as we were, only Noman stood up and walked to them like a machine- incase they ask something. One of them, who looked like officer came up to him and angrily asked in Urdu, “ Did you fire guns from here?” Noman swiftly answered in Urdu, “ No, no. We are teachers. Why would we be firing guns?” It was mistake to mention, “ teacher”. The officer got really enraged and shouted, “ Teacher? You are the ones who taught the students how to fire guns?” Then they checked out the rooms with their boots making loud noises on the ground. One of them suddenly asked if we had a gun in the house. My heart trembled. Yesterday Noman took apart his hunting rifle and wrapped it in rag clothes before hiding it at the bottom of the box. No, luckily they didn’t go near that box. It seemed like they were planning something else. I suddenly noticed that two soldiers were aiming at our heads and getting ready to fire. My head spun but I tried to stand up holding the edge of the table. Everyone was sitting there like living deads. Someone was mutterling “ La ilaha Illa Anta”. My eldest daughter was hugging all her siblings. A pale face with endless fear in her eyes. My heart broke. I couldn’t move. My limbs felt numb and everything was becoming black. For a moment my heart jerked out. I don’t know where I found the courage or the energy at the face of death. I sprinted at the speed of light and grabbed one rifle and started screaming like mad- “ No!no! Don’t shoot! We’ll give anything you want!” Noman also moved forward and tried to talk sense into them in Urdu. I haven’t noticed when or how I have already taken off the golden bangle on my hand and placed it on their gun. The bangle clanged on the floor and shone brightly. The officer indicated something to the soldiers wielding the guns. They maintained their aim but kept a close eye on us. Were they waiting for orders? At that same moment A jeep stopped outside. The officer went outside momentarily and returned to say something to the soldiers. I don’t how they got back to their good senses, but this time they lowered the gun and picked up the bangle. Did I gain back some of my common sense. I scrambled and gathered all jewelries and watches in front of them. Other women in the room also took off the jewelries they were wearing. They tied up all of it in a handkerchief. The officer said, “ We had orders to blow up this building and shoot you all. You are saved.”

They left with a thud. Outside the jeep started. Everyone inside the room stood up. We looked at each other with sad eyes as if silently asking- so we are not dead? There was tear in everyone’s eyes but there was no time to cry. Seemed like the curfew was lifted as we could hear people outside.We have to move from here right now, there is no other way to escape death. We soon left the place with our children to go to green road. We were carrying only a few things with us. Buddhu’s mom went on her own towards Kamrangirchar where her son lived. Mahfuz stayed with us. Two nights and a day we had spent amidst gunfires and killing. Everyone was devastated and weary. We don’t have the strength in our feet, yet we started walking with the children in our hands. On our right, we saw all the shops on the side of Nilkhet were demolished in the attack. A thought came to mind, On the night of 25th those who were stuck inside those shops, did any of them survive?

After walking a little I could see a few people on the streets. All of them were walking hurriedly with children in hand and boxes and loads on their shoulders. There was not a single rickshaw. One or two private car was racing past us. As we walked close the New market’s fresh produce area, we found it burnt and buried in ashes. Oh God, there are some dead bodies in those piles of ashes too. There were also dead bodies lying around on the sidewalk. Some kind heart has covered their faces with washcloths. I couldn’t even look at that direction and just moved forward. When we were near the DHaka college, we found Mujaddid scurrying towards us. I couldn’t hold back the tears as we saw him. His brother spoke up in a tired voice, “ We are completely destroyed, my brother.” Mujaddid Fought hard to hide his tears and grabbed the children’s hand. Another private car was going past us, which suddenly stopped and a relative of ours came down from the car to ask us, “ Where are you going? Get in the car, quick!” Without a word we rode the car to the house in Green road.

But Green road area didn’t seem entirely safe either. Army will be out as soon as the curfew starts. My mother in law suggested that going to the rural home seems to be the safest bet. So it was quickly decided that we’ll start for the village right then. We all tried to eat some snacks, but our throats were so dry, we couldn’t swallow anything. We drank a lot of water to get something in.

A little later my brother IBn MIjan came by with his car to look for our whereabouts. We stuffed ourselves in his car to reach Demra. We noticed that even in Demra there were Army soldiers giving round and keeping a watch over everything. Two of them came towards us. I heart started pounding already. We are in grave danger. They checked two or three of our bags. At last they reached for the bamboo basket. It had the baby milk, blankets and comforters and pieces of the gun wrapped in a blanket at the very bottom. They were flipping the blankets one by one. We were holding our breath. One more blanket before they find the gun. Sigh! They didn’t flip the last blanket and let us go. We breathed a sigh of relief and quickly gathered our things and moved away.

We saw people rushing to the village from the city after first chance they got to get out after being stuck in the curfew. With a few belongings and precious life on their hand, fear struck people were running. We walked some of the road, then rode a bus fully packed with human and finally reached the banks of river in Norshingdi at night. We took shelter in a house. We saw a lot of people who has fled from Dhaka also take refuge in that house. The next morning we took the waterways by launch to reach our village. A tiny village by the name of “Ulukandi” on the banks of the great Meghna river. Here is my in laws house. The house was almost deserted till this day. But now many came from Dhaka that quickly filled the house.


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