From the clutch of death to the war for freedom

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Submitted by himika64 on Tue, 23/10/2012 - 11:40pm
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This is 3rd in the series of translation of witness accounts collected in the book 1971: Dreadful Experiences. When translating I often feel at loss for proper adjectives in English that could do justice in describing the heinous atrocities these hyenas wearing Pak army uniform or calling themselves rajakar or "friend" committed. If the reader can think of more appropriate language that can help portray the intensity of the truth, please suggest. It will be much appreciated.

From the clutch of death to the war for freedom

Imam-Uz-Zaman

Colonel Imam-Uz-Zaman, Bir Bikram
Bgora cantonment, Bogra.

Ever since Sheikh Mujib’s famous speech on the 7th of March, the situation inside the cantonment was changing continuously. In light of the non-cooperation movement and mass uprising, Pakistani army officers started to get suspicious about us (Bangalis). We could tell---they were looking at us with hatred. They were sensing something sinister was about to happen, and they were getting ready for it. Brigade commander Brigadier Iqbal Shafi would often have secret meetings with all of the Unit commanders. None of the Bangali officers were ever called to these meeting. Inside the cantonment, preparations for ‘something’ were going on, preparations such as getting out on a short notice, “Stand-to”, “ Alarm drill”, increasing the cantonment security, etc. A few of the Bangali officers sensed what was going to happen, but the conversation was only limited to a few of us. I was only 6 months into the service, a second lieutenant of 53rd field regiment artillery stationed in Comilla Cantonment. Our regiment was constituted almost entirely of Punjabi officers and soldiers. There were only six Bangalis: three officers and three clerks. The other two officers besides me were Capt. A.L.A. Zaman and Capt. Nurul Islam. As the days passed, the situation became even dire. When ration supply to the cantonment was cut off, the Pakistanis were enraged. On the 23rd of March, when I was on the telephone duty, my unit leader Capt. Iftekhar suddenly entered the duty room and showed me a flag, “Look, I snatched it from a truck heading to Dhaka.” In great awe I looked at flag of my country for the first time. The situation got even worse and would culminate on that fateful night.

The morning of the 25th. I went to the office in the morning as usual. But something seemed abnormal. It seemed as if the whole unit was preparing for something. Everything was at the final stage of preparation. All the stalled cars were fixed and fueled up, all the jeeps were equipped and tested with wireless communication. I could not guess exactly what was going to happen when I saw all this. I thought, maybe the army was going through an I.S ( internal security) duty.

I returned to the mess at two o’clock after my duty was over. At four o’clock a runner came with a circular from the office. The order said that there is going to be a night parade and the whole regiment has to be present at five thirty in the afternoon. I caught a ride with another Bangali officer, Captain Nurul Islam on his motorcycle and reached the unit in time.

We joined the fall-in. Then the night parade started in our respective battery area. At night different artillery trainings including setting up the cannons took place. Usually the night parade ends at twelve o’clock midnight, but it was concluded by nine thirty that night. At ten o’clock all the officers of the regiment were to be present in the conference of the commanding officers. We quickly finished dinner to join the conference in the office. We were waiting outside for the commanding officers. The commanding officer came few minutes past ten. He hurriedly entered the office and called us in. Commanding officer Yakub Malik looked down at the ground and spoke:

“Curfew has been announced all over the country. Not only East Pakistan, but West Pakistan as well is under curfew. Bhutto and Mujib have been arrested. Now what I want from you is that all of you will go to Comilla town and carry out your duties. Whoever you see outside, shoot them. By morning, I want to see the Comilla town strewn with dead bodies. If you can do that, then by twelve o’clock tomorrow noon, the situation in the whole country will become quiet.”

Then the commanding officer pointed at us, the three Bangali officers and said, “ You East Pakistanis need not go to Comilla town. As an East Pakistani, it wouldn’t be a pleasant order to follow. I would rather give you some internal responsibilities. For now, go and wait in the office of the Quarter master, I’ll give you directions later”. At this time, East Pakistani Permanent Officer Bihari Captain Sageer Ahmad Siddiqui raised his hand and asked, “ What am I to do, sir?” “ You can stay with them”- said the commanding officer. The conference was over. As we came out of the conference we noticed that the Pakistani officers were hurrying to get their personal weapons from the armory. Within moments they left with the trucks full of soldiers that were waiting for them. Only the Commanding Officer Adjutant and a few clerks stayed behind to guard the fort. However, all of them were armed. Following the Commanding Officer’s order, the three of us and Bihari officer Capt. Siddiqui sat in the office of the quarter master. After a while Punjabi N.C.O Nayek Afzal came and locked us in the room from the outside. We grew suspicious. We discussed among ourselves, “Are we getting arrested?” Capt. Zaman and Capt. Siddiqui said, “the soldiers are excited. By keeping us locked, the Commanding Officer is probably making sure we are safe.” Captain Nurul Islam and I were discussing our next moves between ourselves in a hushed voice. We didn't really trust Capt. Zaman as he was very pro-Pakistan. At midnight, the lights went out. A few moments of silence followed. Then we heard two gunshots about three hundred yards from us. Captain Nurul Islam whispered in my ears, “ They must be killing Bangalis.” We could not know for certain what was happening then.

The regimental control radio set was in the room right behind us.. We could hear the radio operator clearly from this room. We could clearly hear the conversations going on with different sub-units in parts of the city. At one stage we heard the operator asking- have you arrested Delta Charlie and Siera Papa? The answer was, “no, they escaped.” The operator said, “Imam’s (leader) orders are to capture them and bring them back to the cantonment by the break of dawn.” The other side replied, “OK”. Hearing this we got even more suspicious. I asked Captain Nurul Islam, “ Why do they want to arrest the D.C and the S.P?” Nothing was clear to us. We couldn’t figure out which way the situation was heading or what should we do. We spent the night dozing on and off in the dark. At the break of dawn we saw through the glass door, the Mercedes Benz of Comilla’s D.C and the jeep of the S.P. were brought in the cantonment with an army jeep cordon. In the open jeep at the front Captain Bokhari was standing with a Chinese sub-machine gun in his hand. These two civilian officers were locked up in the corner room of our office building.

The morning of the 26th. The situation looked quite normal. Around seven the Commanding Officer opened the door. He ordered Captain Zaman to help Captian Iftekhar disarm the Bangali policemen under Police law. Captain Zaman immediately left us. Then came Adjutant captain Aosaf Ahmad. He told us to stay in that room until further orders. Arrangements were made to bring our beds and personal belongings into the room. We would have to ask the guard even if we want to go to toilet- only then the guard would open the door, such were his orders. Within an hour three beds were brought in. The office table of the quartermaster was pushed next to the window to set up the three beds along the wall. Our personal clothes and shaving kits were brought in from the mess. We freshened ourselves up and tried to habituate ourselves with the situation. Around 8.30 a.m. the Punjabi mess waiter brought us breakfast. We spent the whole day in captivity. The afternoon was almost gone when I saw through the glass door that Capt. Bokhari returned with a truck full of arrested civilians. No sooner had the truck stopped then the soldiers jumped on them. They dragged the captives off the truck and started beating them mercilessly. The soldiers were screaming in Urdu,”Ye sab Jasus hay” ( They are all spies). The Commanding Officer came to the spot and ordered, “ Beat them to death!” The massacre continued on two or three more trucks full of people. Slowly the darkness of the night covered the world while we still remained captive in that small room. After dinner we thought of trying to get some sleep. But the sentry notified us that we have to keep the light on in the room. We figured, they were trying to make sure that we would not escape in the dark. Because with the lights on we could be clearly watched through the glass.

The next day was the 27th of March. In the morning everything looked pretty normal again. We spent the day observing the same heartbreaking scene of the brutal beatings and the deaths of Bangalis captured from the town. The next two days went by the same way. On the 29th of March around four o’clock we heard an earth-shattering sound of explosion from the back of our building. We heard that terrible sound repeatedly. Curious to know what was going on, we looked out the window to see what was going on. We saw that a few cannons were firing at the comilla town from the Mechanical Transport Park. A few light automatic guns were also being fired in every direction. We realised without a doubt that they had started to kill all the Bangali soldiers. As I saw through the window, the cannons were aimed at the Coatbari (Court Building) and the fourth East Bengal Line (local base of EPR, East Pakistan Rifles). The cannon fire and light gunfire continued. Along with the cannons I could hear the Chinese S.M.Gs, L.M.Gs, H.M.Gs and rifles firing repeatedly. Before the firing started, through the window, my eyes fell upon a few Bangali soldiers playing volleyball on the E.M.E workshop field. That very moment a platoon of Punjabi soldiers led by Brigade major Sultan unexpectedly attacked them and killed them on the playing fields. One or two that escaped were chased after. Through the front door I saw the Punjabi soldiers gather all the Bangali soldiers from different units with their hands up. Random gun fire was still going on.

Around half past four the Commanding Officer Lt. Colonel Yakub Malik ordered a sentry to open the door of the room we were held in and spoke to us, “Don’t worry. Rest assured. There are no charges against you. We are just following government orders. You can relax and rest.” We could still hear sporadic gunfire, but it seemed to be slowing down.

At half past eight at night, they gave us dinner and locked us up again. Worried to death, I could not sleep. I was quite sure that we would be killed any moment. On the other hand I was thinking, since we were still alive, maybe we survived this round. The night passed amid such confusion and stress.

Tuesday, March 30. Everything seemed normal. Breakfast was served on time. The Battery Habildar Major (Unit Corporal Major) stopped by once to ask whether I need anything. My personal batman (servant) also stopped by to ask about my well being. Captain Siddiqui requested permission to go home to see his wife. His request was rejected. Time was passing quietly. Nothing abnormal happened. Lunch was served and it tasted good, but the Punjabi waiter treated us rather rudely. His face clearly showed the signs of hatred.

After lunch we were lying down for a little rest. As per order we were always wearing our uniforms. But since no officers were visiting us, we had taken off our shoes, cap and belt. Comilla’s D.C and S.P. were held captive in the room at the end of the building and the room next to ours contained the three clerks from our unit.

At exactly four o’clock we were startled at the sound of cannon fire all around us. Light firearms were also being fired non-stop. We couldn't really figure out what was happening. Captain Siddiqui commented, “ It must be the 4th East bengal from Brahmanbaria attacking the cantonment”. As we were watching from the window, everyone was firing haphazardly. We even saw the office guards take positions. We saw the Adjutant Captain Aosaf Ahmed sprint towards the officer’s Mess across the office building with a group of soldiers. Within a few minutes he came back with the soldiers. About ten minutes later he ran past the locked door of our room towards the room where D.C and S.P were held captive with a pistol in his hand. Almost immediately we heard two gunshots fired in that room. Captain Nurul Islam spoke to me, “They just killed the D.C. and the S.P.” We clearly understood that the adjutant was the one who killed them. A few moments later Captain Nurul Islam shouted, “ Imam, look Kashem is pointing his rifle at us.” As we looked outside the back window, we saw Sepoy clerk Kashem was pointing his rifle at our window taking cover behind a sandbag and regimental Habildar Major was pointing fingers giving him instructions. I immediately told the other two officers that if anyone would come to kill us, we should make a plan where each of us was going to take a position in the room. Before anyone could say a word, I added,” I am going to stand next to door with my back against the wall”. As soon as I finished speaking we saw Subedar (Sergeant) Faiz Sultan, senior JCO of the headquarter battery, in full combat uniform standing before the locked door of our room. His face was emanating hatred with a ghoulish ferocity. He broke the glass door and pushed the muzzle of his gun through the hole in a firing position to shoot us. Before he could fire I leaned against the wall next to the door as pre-planned. I anticipated early on that subadar won’t be able to turn his muzzle 180 degree to shoot at me. Captain Nurul Islam in a last attempt to save his life, tried to say something at the hateful face of the Subedar, “Sub...” but before he could complete a word 8-10 bullets pierced his chest. When the bullets hissed past me as the gun was fired, it felt as if someone was pushing me downward with great force. Captain Nurul Islam folded his hand and fell flat on the ground.

You could see the blood flowing from his mouth. Within seconds he passed away. Captain Siddiqui was shot down in a similar fashion. Since it was not possible to shoot at me from his position, the Subedar probably went to get the keys to open the door. As a last resort to live, I hid under the bed. I pulled the bed cover all the way down to the floor so I could not be seen from the sides of the bed. The Subedar returned shortly, I heard him unlock the door. I covered my head and ears with my hands. When he walked up near to me I screamed as loud as I could. The Subedar stood next to me and without wasting a moment fired his small machine gun. As I heard the gunfire I kept screaming. When he fired the second time I stopped screaming and drew a long breath and went quiet and still. I did this intentionally. I was still in my senses. I felt that a good number of bullets hit me but I wasn’t dead yet. The Subedar though figured that I was dead and left me there. I carefully raised both hands. A bullet hit my right wrist. Another bullet hit my right eye and it was bleeding severely. I couldn’t see with my right eye. The third bullet went through my shirt grazing my back. I saw at least half a dozen bullet holes on the floor that missed me for a few inches. The concrete had ricocheted off the floor after the bullets and hit my face. As I looked up I saw many holes on the mattress from the bullets shot at me.

Only a few moments had passed, when I heard the sound of army boots coming towards this room. I decided to play dead. I exposed my wounds clearly for display, then smeared some blood from the puddle on the floor over my eyes and forehead. I then closed my eyes, held my breath and laid down like a stiff corpse. I recognized the voice, the adjutant has brought along Sepoy Akbar. They went to the other two dead bodies. Adjutant ordered the sepoy, “ Check koro in logoke - Check if they are dead”. Akbar relied, “Duno khatam ho gaya - These two have been finished”. Then the adjutant came next to my bed and ordered, “ Charpaya hotaho - Move the bed.” Akbar picked up the bed and moved it aside. I felt the adjutant lean over me to have a closer look and then said, “ Ei, iska upor charpaya rakh do - Put the bed back over this one.” When he was speaking, I could feel his hot breath on my skin. He probably ordered to put the bed back so that he wouldn’t have to see my horrible looking corpse. Once they confirmed all of us were dead they left the room. I relaxed and breathed a sigh of relief. I was under the bed, and with the bed cover drawn all the way to the floor, I couldn’t be seen from the outside. But I had no idea what to do the, so I just lied there. A few minutes later, I heard someone coming towards the room. Immediately I became a ‘corpse’ again. The stranger came close and yelled, “Colonel Yakub ne ye dekha hay - Has Cornel Yakub seen this?” I recognized the voice as Birgade Major Sultan. He came close to me, picked up the bed cover and threw it back down. “Bas, Sare Bangali khatam ho giya - Good, all the Bangalis are finished”, he said before walking out. I was able to relax once more. Approximately twenty minutes later someone else entered the room. I couldn’t recognize him. He searched all the cupboards and drawers, making a loud noise in the process. Then he kicked the dead bodies of Captain Nurul Islam and Captain Siddiqui before walking out.

Around six o’clock, when it was getting dark outside, a few soldiers stopped by the door to see our corpse. But they were not allowed inside the room. I heard their conversation. My Battery’s Habildar Major asked, “Imam Saab kitthe - where is Mr.Imam?” Someone replied, “Charpayaki thallo - Under the bed.” At this point the adjutant came by and shouted at them ordering them to leave the place. He then ordered the guard not to let anyone look at the bodies from outside. The guard replied that anyone could see the dead bodies through the glass - how was he supposed to stop them. The adjutant then ordered him to close the door and cover the glass with paper. Within moments I heard the door close, followed by the rustling sound of paper being glued to the door. I raised a corner of the bed sheet to see the silhouette of the sentry by the door and figured they got the white duplicating paper from the office to cover the window. The light was turned off, so the room was dark. There were sentries guarding the front door and the back window.

I was thinking what I could do. I was afraid that when they would come to remove the dead bodies they would find me alive. So I decided that I had to escape. I had Allah (God) in my mind and kept reciting Surah (verses) from the Quran. I raised my hands to Allah and prayed to Him for saving my life. By that time I was determined to live. Around half past ten I heard the doors opening in the room next to ours. I heard chairs and table being moved around and something heavy being moved out. I figured that they were moving the bodies of the three clerks who were held captive in that room. Next they would come to our room. I shivered, but luckily nobody came yet. Time was passing by and random gunshots could be heard outside. I tilted my head a little to see Captain Nurul Islam’s body lying straight and stiff. The pungent smell of stale blood was all around me. My right wrist was still bleeding. I couldn’t see anything with my right eye and the left eye seemed to be getting worse as well. Surprisingly, even then I didn’t feel weak. On the contrary, I was feeling stronger as my wish to survive bolstered.

I decided that I must make a plan to escape. There was only one escape route, the back window. It didn’t have any grill on it and could be opened from the inside. But I still have to go past a guard positioned outside the doot. So I planned to creep up to the window, and jump out as soon as I opened the window. I would then run past the guard and zigzag my way across as fast as I could. Even if I hit any obstacle, I would find a way through. There was great risk in that plan. But if I stayed, death was imminent. When there is a slim chance of surviving, why not take it?

A long time had passed while I was making my plans. There was no sign of any attempt to move our bodies yet. Around midnight I finally decided to escape. But I couldn’t sum up the courage to stand up. I tried to get up but my weakness kept consuming all my energy and courage. Everytime I tried to stand up, I fell down. I was afraid, if I were too late they would come back to move the bodies and find me alive. So, I tried to stand up very slowly. I was wearing my uniform and shoes. I was being very careful so that there was no sound from my boot pin.. First I crawled out from under the bed in silence. Then I pushed myself up on my knees very slowly. I was doing all these very carefully not to make a sound. It took me nearly 15 minutes to get myself out from under the bed and stand up on my knees. I crawled on my knees very slowly to the office table. It had been moved close the window to make room for the beds. Very carefully I climbed on the table. I reached out to grab the handle and started opening the window. But then it got stuck somewhere. Submitting my fate to the mercy of God, I recited a few surahs (verses) again and then whispered “Allahu Akbar” (God is great!) to yank the window open with full force. The next moment I jumped out the window. I dropped on the ground close to the wall and saw a guard standing just a few yards from me. Without looking left or right I gathered all my energy and started to sprint. The sentry guard yelled out. I had not run 25 yards when he fired the first round of shots. I was running downslope - I stumbled and fell on my face. I hurt my face, elbow and knees and tore my clothes. But I jumped up immediately and kept running in my pre-planned direction. The guard kept shooting at me but soon he was out of bullets for his chinese rifles. Upon hearing his gunshots, all the other guards started firing their light firearms in random directions as well and soon there was gunfire all around the cantonment.

I kept on running. The speed I was running at then - I could never run that fast now. It was as if my strength had doubled at that moment. As I ran with all my might, I crossed the football field behind the battery office. Suddenly I realized that I had run along the main road and reached the gate of the workshop. As soon as I realized that I got off the main road and started running towards the slope of the hill on the north side. My intention was to hide myself under the trees and shrubs on the hill and to run north-east to cross Comilla-Brahmanbaria road. Shots were still being fired. I got tired after a while and resorted to walking. At that moment I heard some boots behind me and started walking faster. The soldiers were still far behind me, so I went a little further and threw my shirt away after taking out my wallet and identity card and tucking those in the back pocket of my trousers. I was wearing only a white undershirt. Thinking it might give away my location in the dark I took that one off too and kept moving ahead shirtless. At one point I reached the Brahmanbaria road. Now my main challenge was to cross the road. There was a huge searchlight flooding the area from the main gate of the combined military hospital. The road was brightly lit. Seeing no other way, I crawled like we used to do during night patrols to the side of the road. After checking left and right I ran across the open area. Once on the other side, I started to crawl again and reached the huts in the Tipra Bazar. All the huts in the Bazar were deserted. I wanted to leave the cantonment area after moving a little further. But a security perimeter had been set up all around the cantonment. I could hear the firing from the trenches and bunkers in front of me and could see the gun flashes in the dark. Once again, I lost all courage. It seemed impossible to pass that perimeter. There was a pond right next to me. I rolled down and hid myself in one corner of the pond. Losing all my spirit I lay in the mud. Time was quickly passing by. Aimless bullets flying everywhere. I thought, if I just lay there, I would be caught first thing in the morning. After about 20 minutes, I regained my lost spirit and energy and started moving forward again. As I crawled forward in that direction, the light from the petrol pump and the check post helped me identify which way was north-east. The whole paddy field was ready for harvest. Some places were muddy and full of water. The crops had grown quite tall by then. As I was moving along the paths along the borders of the field, I was hidden beneath the crops. It was quite impossible to find me. Besides I was moving almost silently. I kept looking behind as I moved forward. Once I saw a Dodge car was standing by the side of the road and pointing its strong headlight at the paddy field. Immediately I sank to the ground and started to crawl on my elbows. When I got tired from crawling I would stop to rest for a while before moving on. At one point I felt that a lot of mud had infected the wound on my right wrist. I cupped up some water from the paddy field to clean the wound and bandaged it with my handkerchief. Very patiently, I kept moving forward without looking left or right. After a while I felt the gunfire from the automatic weapons was coming from behind me. That meant I had crossed the security perimeter.

Out of excitement and enthusiasm I stood up and started running but suddenly fell into a hole. Getting up I started running again. But suddenly I realized that machinegun rounds that were coming from my back were whistling past me and hitting the bamboo grove on my right. Running like this didn’t seem safe. So I hit the ground and started crawling again. I tried to lift my left arm to look at the time on my watch. It was too dark to see anything. Besides, my right eye was still bleeding heavily. Through all that gunfire I reached the dam on the river Gomati. I crossed the dam without any resistance and breathed a sigh of relief. I was at a distance safe enough from the enemies firing range. However, the enemy position was only 400 yards behind. I walked through the sugarcane field by the river to reach its bank. But I got worried when I saw how wide the river was and doubted whether I would be able to cross it. Once I thought maybe I should walk along the bank to meet up with 4th East Bengal Regiment in BrahmanBaria. The next moment I thought, if I stayed on this side of the river, the Pakistanis would be able to find me in the morning. My plan was to go north east and reach the nearest Indian border. So once again I decided that I must cross the river. I picked a spot where the river was comparatively narrower. Although a little doubtful, I gathered all my courage and went down to the water wearing my pants and boots. Almost unconscious, I kept on swimming. After a few minutes, I felt the ground under my feet, meaning I had reached the other side. Breathing a sigh of relief, I walked up to the dam. I crossed the dam to step into a free area. This side of the river was outside the control of the Pakistani army. I generously thanked Allah, the most Merciful, for giving me a new life.

I was walking through marshes and paddy fields. I reached a village around four in the morning. Later I came to know that village was Vorasar, under Burichong Thana. I sat on the edge of a pond till day broke. At dawn a group of young men from the village surrounded me. Before I could tell them my story, they spoke, “We heard that the Pakistanis killed a lot of Bangali soldiers in the cantonment yesterday and the day before. Are you one of the few survivors?” The villagers swiftly took me to a house in the village. My wounds were washed and I was given clothes to wear. I was fed and provided medical treatment in the village. Abdul Hamid, a dedicated member of the volunteer corps took very special care of me. I was in that village till the 4th of April. Local political leaders advised me to go to India. They informed me that India was helping us greatly in the liberation war.

That same afternoon, per their advice, I started for India with a few political leaders. We reached India through the Motinagar B.S.F checkpost. There I met Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf. He had led the 4th East Bengal Regiment in a revolt in Brahmanbaria. On that day, he was planning to lead an attack in Comilla. Brigadier Khaled took me to the G.B. hospital in Agartala and I was admitted there. On the 11th of April, Major A.T.M Haider brought me to Sonamura (in India, across Comilla). Here I was given the command of a regular company. Brigadier Khaled gave me a map and explained the details of the plan to ambush the Pakistan Army on the Comilla-Chadpur Road. My wound had not yet healed completely. But despite that, I started with my company that same night. We crossed the border and reached our location near Lalmai the next afternoon. From there, I started another chapter of my adventures against the brutal Pakistan army. From the clutches of certain death, I had entered the battle for freedom.


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