Few Days in March 1971

December 16, 2012 9:46 pm 66 comments __
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Saleem SamadBy  SALEEM SAMAD


It was early morning of March 23 in 1971. I was in my late teens. I was visibly moved by pro-independence students’ organization Chattra League being a witness to hoisting of Joy Bangla flag Paltan Maidan. I also dreamed of having one flag. Nobody could tell me where to find a Bangladesh revolution flag.

Nevertheless, charged with heart full of excitement I decided to share with my mother who is a practicing secular and believer of Bangalee nationalism. I moved from old city of Dhaka with bag full of grocery to Pallabi residential area, off Mirpur in north-east of Dhaka. Mirpur was dominated by Urdu-speaking people who fled India as refugee during the 1947 partition.

At Pallabi my mother was living with my younger brother and sister. The following day my brother Nasim managed independence flag (do not remember from where he got it). Immediately it was fluttering high on my mother’s house at a small intersection, overlooking from the area where thousands of Biharis, the Urdu-speaking Pakistanis) were housed.

On March 24 as advised by senior residents, we decided for a round-the-clock patrol, specially in vulnerable areas of Pallabi from where there is threats from Biharis. The volunteer patrols were armed with one air-gun, one .22 bore rifle, two shot guns and several wooden sticks.

In the afternoon, a large group of agitated and angry Biharis marched towards Pallabi to punish the Bangalees for hoisting the independence flag. Luck was for us, we were joined by several EPRTC (now BRTC, state run public transport) staffs. They also managed to get hold of couple of shot guns and enough ammos.

The Biharis armed with swords and spears cried “Allah-O-Akbar” and “Narai-takbir” turned violent and forcibly crossed the barricade erected to protect the Bangalees living in Pallabi. We had no other alternative but to open fire from the roof tops and high grounds chanting “Joy Bangla”. Several persons dropped on the ground screaming. Rest took a u-turn and took to their heels in fear of their lives.

The following day the Biharis chanting Islamic slogans paraded with six coffins, but did not dare to come near us, as we regrouped and charged with high moral. We could not understand how the six persons died. It could not confirm whether they died from our firing. Alas on the same night Operation Search Light commenced and everything was confusing for us. As we were too young to determine what would be next.

On the morning of March 26 most of the Bangalees escaped, specially those families who possessed weapons. They crossed the treacherous wetlands and went to Savar. The weapons were either hidden under the earth in their gardens or threw the weapons in the wetlands behind Pallabi. Of course the Joy Bangla flag was also removed and disposed off, fearing consequences awaiting our family and neighbours.

An era of silence! No news of what was happening. The most curious question was obviously what was the fate of Shiekh Mujib, the nationalist leader who called for the struggle for independence Bangladesh.

We could guess somewhat what was happening to fate of Bangalee nationalism after Pakistan military junta General Yahya Khan over Radio Pakistan’s broadcast. Hours after the speech of Yayha Khan, the Biharis in hundreds raided Pallabi looted all the 400 houses, burned them and slaughtered scores of Bangalee residents with swords and butchers knives.

My mother’s family including myself took refuge with a trusted neighbour. The neighbour used to address my mother, as sister and respected her. He spoke Urdu fluently with a Bihari accent. He was an immigrant from India and his features were of the Biharis.

Early next morning, I heard cry of help. I along with the neighbour’s son quickly went to the rooftop and keeping our heads down we witnessed the worst. The son of the night guard was lying on a pool of blood after his throat was slit with a butcher’s knife.

One after another Bangalees were brought to the marshy waterfront and killed like a sacrificial animal during Eid-ul Azha (Qurbani). The killing field was behind the house we took refuge.

Well my mother’s house was the first to be attacked, looted and set on fire. This killing spree, coupled with looting and burning continued until we were rescued and returned to my grandfather’s house in old Dhaka on March 27.

The vehicle carrying us had a small Pakistan flag fluttering tied on the side mirror was stopped several times by heavily armed troops manning check posts. As the driver was a Bihari, we (my mother, brother and sister) had no difficulty to reach old Dhaka safely.

While driving through the streets of Dhaka on March 27, I saw several bodies lying on the streets and footpath. Possibly killed on the first night of Operation Search Light. Most of the bodies I have seen were at Paltan, Gulistan, Nawabpur and Sadarghat areas.

The corpses were already swollen and all were wearing lungis (traditional wear of Bangalees) or barely naked. Which deemed to me was that, they were mostly homeless and was sleeping under the March sky. They were killed while sleeping on the side walks or trying to escape hearing of firing and shelling.

 (Saleem Samad is an award winning investigative journalist and an Ashoka Fellow. Presently he is news correspondent for All Headline News (AHN) and press watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières. Earlier he was correspondent for US magazine TIME and Daily TIMES, Pakistan. He studied journalism and media in Bangladesh and United States. He has co-authored several books on conflict resolution, security, Islamic terrorism, elective democracy and ethnicity. He is recipient of Hellman-Hammett Grants award by New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2005.)


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