The Uncertain Journey - Tahmina Zaman

যাযাবর ব্যাকপ্যাকার's picture
Submitted by Jajabor.Backpacker on Fri, 17/01/2014 - 8:32pm

The Uncertain Journey

- Tahmina Zaman
Educator; Story writer; Assistant Professor, Home Economics College, Dhaka
Current Location: Syracuse, New York, USA

It was well past sunset, but we hadn't realized it, since all the doors and windows were shut tight. A bunch of us were confined under a bed since earlier in the day. This was the beginning of April, 1971, we were surrounded by death.

The sunny, beautiful afternoon turned into a horrific evening as several Sabre Jets were flying over us. Till then we had no idea what was about to happen. I was just about to feed my 8 month old baby. After feeding him a few teaspoons of milk, I was about to give him some more, and then…my hand shook fiercely and the spoon dropped. A terrible noise broke out that shook the entire house. The tin walls of the house rattled loudly. All of us in that room were stunned. No one made a peep of a sound, there was only fear and anxiety in our eyes. What was about to happen? The scared little baby in my arms buried his face in my chest.

We were staying at my aunt's place in the village of Nabinagar. As soon as the noises outside started to subside a little, my aunt called out to us to go and take shelter in her room. That particular room was towards the back of the house. It was a good distance from the tree-lined street. It did not draw attention easily from outside, hence was much safer.

I was paralyzed with fear, I felt as if I had lost even the courage to cross the courtyard and make it to my aunt's room. I looked up at the sky through the window just once. The vast, open sky was reassuring me…do not be afraid. Yet fear had engulfed me, I could not look up again. What if someone saw me? What if splinters came through the window and hit me?

Perhaps a few minutes had passed, and then we heard that roaring sound again - the horrendous, loud, terrifying sound that was completely foreign to us. It sounded like the catastrophic roar of bombs - never ending roars. It was impossible to remain composed hiding under the bed, neither did it feel safe. With quite an effort, I took a deep breath, and ran for the next room. Everyone was hiding under the bed in that room as well. I joined them too. I held my baby close and started to pray.

The deafening noise outside kept increasing- it was an unbearable situation. At the same time, it sounded like hail was hitting the house from all around, as well as the roof. Were they dropping bombs all around us? Were the splinters from the bombs chasing us? No way of knowing for sure. In such catastrophic circumstances, any strange noise, loud or not, added to the horrific environment. We did not know what else could happen. Our ears were ringing from all the loud noise. We were afraid of getting hit by something any moment. I hid my boy under myself and hunched over him to protect him with my own body. This way, if an attack came, I would bear the brunt, at least my baby would be spared.

The noises did not stop; they kept on going…relentlessly. It was unsettling. We all started to get increasingly exhausted. My baby was so scared; he threw up all over the floor under the bed. Whatever little milk I had given him was out of his stomach… but there was nothing I could do. We all kept hunching over on the floor in that vomit.

The Sabre Jets were still flying overhead, making a dreadful noise. It felt as if the jets were diving down near the trees around the house, then disappearing up in the sky again, trying to terrorize us. Were they looking for this particular house? It was a possibility! My cousin was the Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) 1 of Brahmanbaria. But in their eyes he was a 'traitor'; that was their common impression about the government employees. My husband, the SDO of Kishoreganj, was also a 'traitor'. Did they know we had fled and come here to seek refuge?

The noises outside were starting to die down. We were all still under the bed. We couldn't summon the courage to come out. What if we get out and see that the (Pakistani) military had come down from their planes and were standing at our door? What if they descended in parachutes and started searching every house? What if they cross the river by launch from the nearby harbor and surround the house? I could not think anymore.

Again we heard noises. Now it was the wailing from all around us… heart wrenching cries! The intensity of their cries ripped through my heart. But what could I do? For a moment I wished if only I could just hold my baby close and fly away like a bird, somewhere safe, where these horrendous sounds would not haunt us anymore.

We were all lying there motionless. Then we heard someone at the front door saying, “Open the door; open the door". In that time of mortal danger, the sound of a human voice pushed us further into the grips of death instead of awakening us. My aunt only raised her right hand index finger and put it over her lips, signaling us to keep quiet.

Again that voice, "Open the door". But who was going to go check and see who had come at a time like this, who will open the door! My cousin Kabir had just completed his Matriculation exam; my younger brother Eeku was also very young. They were both lying under the bed, scared to death! If someone went, it would have to be one of them. No, there was no need, who knew what the man’s intentions were!

I was contemplating such possibilities when my aunt suddenly said, "What if it is Jahangir?" Jahangir lived four miles away in a village called Kanikara. Why would he risk coming here under such dangerous circumstances, and how would he come? We could do nothing but wait in silence - giving my aunt some time to attempt at recognizing the voice outside.

We were all quiet as before, then the man at the door called again: "Open the door". Finally, we had to open the door. My aunt had guessed right; Jahangir bhai was standing at the door.

There was fear in Jahangir bhai's face and eyes. He looked pale, his hair in complete disarray. Out of breath, he entered the house. He lowered his voice and said that he had come to fetch us. He had heard rumors that the enemy forces were proceeding towards Bhairab to set up camps. The jets were sent to conduct a survey of the area, as well as to intimidate the locals. They can enter Nabinagar at any moment, via the river. My heart started to race. I hadn't even realized that my baby was lying motionless all this time in wet clothes. I wiped my tears and came out from under the bed with my son.

My aunt told us to get ready quickly. Staying there was not safe at anymore. Along with my younger sister, my cousin and her two little children, we all followed my aunt's instructions. We left the house immediately in whatever clothes we had on. As for spare clothes, we had a little sack that was hastily packed. My aunt, uncle, and Kabir stayed behind.

Dusk had just settled in by then in Nabinagar, it was dark all around us. Every now and then, we saw fireflies and heard jackals howling from far away. The path from the house to the river was eerie. We needed to walk without making much sound. But my flip-flops were digging into the sticky mud and hit the underside of my foot, making a noise every time I tried to take a step. I couldn't tell between water and mud in that darkness. Walking fast was the most important thing. We could hear the cries of people from the homes on the outskirts of the village. It felt as if the entire population was riding a wave of sound, mixed with cries, lamenting, and screams. Maybe some were dead, or injured; perhaps some were yet to return home.

Jahangir bhai did not say a word during the entire walk. Talking was prohibited. We were proceeding according to the instructions he had given us earlier. We would get on a boat after reaching the river. Then on to Kanikara.

Who Jahangir bhai was, what he did - I had no idea at the time. Yet he had risked his life, and made the dangerous journey to come and get us. We felt grateful. Later I came to know that he had never forgotten a favor my father had done him in the past. When he had heard that my father's children were in danger in Nabinagar, he came rushing from Kanikara. He had somehow escaped the firing of the Sabre jets and reached Nabinagar. My eyes were in tears out of immense respect for this man.

Jahangir bhai was prudent, he started to look for a boat. After a hard bargain he had managed to persuade a boatman who would take us from Nabinagar to Kanikara.

After reaching the river bank, we boarded a small boat. The boat started to move along very slowly, keeping close to the edge of the river bank. It was as if the paddle was hitting the darkness - nothing was visible. Far away in the darkness we saw flames lighting up the night like fireworks. Were they burning down the village?

Thinking about the people in that village, I felt a sense of emptiness within, brought on by sheer terror and fear. All I could do was to clutch my baby even tighter. None of us could say how long it took us to cross those four miles. It was only natural for us to have lost track of time in that terror.

While trying to get off the boat, I slipped. The boat was carrying more load than its capacity, therefore, wobbling dangerously the entire journey.

We had to walk a considerable distance on the aail2. Before, I used to enjoy the challenge and skill required to walk on an aail, but on that terrifying night, it was not fun at all.

At last we reached Kanikara. Almost all of us were up the entire night. Our eyes were heavy with sleep, but we could not fall asleep. At last, that grotesque night came to an end as the sun came up. I recalled that it was the 1st of Boishakh, the Bengali New Year - April 15 according to the Gregorian calendar. Like flashes of lightning, I wondered about my loved ones - where was my husband, where were my parents, my kith and kin? But above all, the sharp pang that I felt again and again was the thought of my baby, would he survive?

Two more nights passed like this. Next morning we were surprised to see Kabir! What was going on? As we all gathered around, Kabir told us that he had heard in Nabinagar bazaar that enemy soldiers might come to Kanikara and the surrounding villages any moment. Bhairab was already under seize. So my aunt sent him to tell us that we needed to move to another village as soon as possible.

We were all speechless. How long could we live on the run like this, in our own country, on our own soil? How much longer? Where could we run?


Translator: Nadiah Khalid


This is from the volunteer translation project of the book ১৯৭১: ভয়াবহ অভিজ্ঞতা (1971: Dreadful Experiences). The book is a collection of witness accounts of 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh, by the country's educationists, writers, professionals, freedom fighters to businessmen and housewives. The original book was edited by Rashid Haider and was first published by Mofidul Hoque of 'Jatiyo Shahitto Prakash' on the Victory Day of 1989.

This is the personal account of educator, writer, Tahmina Zaman, during April, 1971.

The translation initiative was taken with the goal to spread the stories of 1971, our Liberation War to the international audience. A very enthusiastic volunteer team of nearly 40 translators have participated in the project. This is an effort to collaborate the translations under the ব-ই (ebook) format in Sachalayatan: Online Writers' Community with the consent of the volunteers who have worked on the project.

Any suggestion regarding the translation will be appreciated in the comment section. We request the reader to share the post and help spread the stories of 1971. Thank you.

- Editors




  • 1. SDO: Sub-divisional Officer
  • 2. aail - narrow earthen ridges bordering the crop fields that are also used as walkways through the harvest.


অতিথি লেখক's picture

This article reminds me some lines of Allen Ginsberg Poem "September on Jessore Road" -

'millions of babies in pain
millions of mothers in rain
millions of brothers in woe
millions of children nowhere to go.'

যাযাবর ব্যাকপ্যাকার's picture

Thank you for reading. Do share the post and the rest of the articles in the series.

ঘুমের মাঝে স্বপ্ন দেখি না,
স্বপ্নরাই সব জাগিয়ে রাখে।

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