Published:  12:20 AM, 14 March 2019

Journey through a night of horror.... and a new dawn

Journey through a night of horror.... and a new dawn

May 16, 1972, my day of reckoning in life. A major milestone, and a day enshrined in memory. On this day, forty five years ago, I had embarked on an amazing journey from Dhaka. Little did I envision that this short flight would be the harbinger of many more journeys that would carry me in future, to 40 cities in 30 countries, across all six continents.

As a nervous teen, I had boarded a DC 6B aircraft of the newly born airline, Bangladesh Biman, destined for Calcutta, the grand city where my father and my grandfather had lived happily twenty five years earlier. I vividly remember this short, heartbreaking flight through the clusters of clouds. It was a metaphor. Of turbulence that would soon alter the course of my life and future.

Exactly 150 days earlier, on 16 December 1971, I recalled, I had witnessed a flight of eight IAF helicopters, making their way in the soft, mellow sunset, overflying the western limits of war-torn Dhaka. That evening, my city prided itself as the liberated capital of the independent, new and sovereign nation of Bangladesh.

A nation had been born from the ashes of genocide and war. The roar of MIGs, Hunters and Mirages flying just above the tree top levels, had died down. Our skies offered little or no resistance to the maelstrom of rapid IAF air power. And finally, the military siege of Dhaka, had ended after full 72 hours.

 Bombardments, periodic mortar and rocket fire, aimed at breaking the fighting morale of the city's defenders, finally took their toll. I could imagine a vanquished Pakistan army, clustered together for comfort, at the many cantonments and garrisons, seeking refuge along with their well wishers, collaborators and volunteers, called  'razakars'.

As the officers and soldiers of the vanquished army awaited their fate, more fully, prescribed and ratified in their terms of surrender, some few others also awaited a different, more sanguine and horrifying nemesis, outside their garrison strongholds and the theatre of war. On that fateful night, Pakistan had finally lost, in its brutal offensives, to subdue the Bengali nation. It marked the beginning of the greatest defeat of a Muslim nation in Islamic history.

In the closing moments of this 14-day war, my late father, Hafiz Ali Imam, made peace with himself.  He was a staunch believer in God, a dedicated follower of Sher -e-Bangla A K Fazlul Huq and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. Twenty three years earlier, as the Partition of India unfolded in 1947, Hafiz Saheb had decided to migrate to his newly adopted country called Pakistan.

 For a quarter century, he had worked hard to raise his seven children. He had patiently built a workshop in Dhaka's old town from scratch and expanded the facility, carving this into a manufacturing unit for kerosene stoves and gas lamps. East Bengal had traditionally welcomed people from all corners of India, Afghanistan and Persia. This small factory gathered roots. Hafiz Saheb had prospered in his country of adoption.

One year ago, from the day of my turbulent flight, on the fateful night of March 25, 1971, a fully charged mob of protesters marched near Rathkhola, Nawabpur Road, Dhaka.

Angrily, they raised slogans against Pakistani rulers. There was total discipline in the anger that was vented out, and complete unity in their chorus. Included in the thick crowd that marched with sticks and batons, were two close and childhood friends, my neighbor Irteza and myself. Both had joined this symbolic crowd that marched forward, with their bursts of slogans, at every beat, and in step with its powerful rhythm.

Rumors were trifle that night. The political talks had failed between the Bengali leadership and the Punjabi Army. I realized that somehow, on that spur of the moment, Pakistan had lost its relevance, as a nation, as a country or even as a sovereign entity.  I wondered if the news of the failing, crucial talks would engulf us  in a dark halo of dismay, to  further thrust us into an inferno of deep anguish and frustration.

Was this our breaking point?  I felt that the tipping moment of no return had arrived, when all negotiating parties parted from one another with their crushed egos. This had happened only a short while ago. What would this dark night lead us to?

An angry and excited group of protesters had hurriedly collected together, with broken furniture, bamboos and wooden planks, iron rods, metal scrap, used, discarded rubber tubes and tires, sections of a tree's fallen branches and more clutter from the streets.

These were ingredients for a bonfire that would glow on the faces of the soon to be first martyrs of the motherland. They would also  be the first responders to defend their homeland, and the first ones to lay down their lives --- an act of true patriotism and supreme sacrifice. All the clutter that was dumped on the road that night would prove to be strong barriers even for a fully mechanized, invading army.

The parapets of roofs alongside Dhaka's major thoroughfare were armed with bricks and rocks, for use against the fully trained army of a military junta, who were about to unleash a reign of terror, on orders and commands originating from distant Islamabad. We had hurriedly prepared ourselves for the worst, to offer the strongest form of resistance. I saw the high spirit of the masses and their disciplined unity under the mesmerizing leadership of Bangabandhu. The nation had risen, and each one in the crowd waited for his moment to lay down his precious life.

This was the moment of truth. The people of East Bengal had united together to change their destiny and part ways with Pakistan after twenty four turbulent years. In our deep spirited passion, we had forgotten about time. Irteza suddenly remembered he had forgotten to lock his main entrance door. He needed to return home. It was nearly 11:00 pm. hurriedly; we slipped out of protest lines, to turn into a by-lane taking us home.

No sooner we had reached home we heard the first cracks of fire power from automatic rifles and machine guns, followed by bursts of mortar fire, coming from armored vehicles that managed to reach the strategic corners of Dhaka city. Operation Searchlight, as we came to know, had taken control of our lives and our destinies. Thus began our night of horror.

The Pakistani army had molded themselves into a synchronized killing machine. No human gathering was spared. The agitators, the students, the doctors and those who were responsible for local enforcement of law and order, laid down their lives and met the same fate. Death and destruction. Total carnage. Dark plumes of smoke rose high in the sky, widespread across the city.

We mourned and we grieved. We called our gods for sustenance and mercy; to put an end to the human carnage and catastrophe. Genocide had revealed its hideous posture that fateful night.

The evil in the atmosphere could be touched. The carnage and mortar fire continued through the dark hours of the night. Sporadic cries of 'Joy Bangla', could be heard in the distance, till it was muffled in the thunder of firepower. This was the most inspiring slogan with its ability to unite us, engulf us, inspire us and pierce  through our hearts, to yield up for a cry for freedom.

Amidst the man-made thunder and uproar, all homes in this torn city mourned and grieved, as it became dark and darker. And the night's shadows extended themselves in savagery. We simply absorbed the night's horror. No words. No expressions. The infants looked at the elders, who in turn, looked back at their children in anguish and prayers. Let this long night be over. Let us welcome a new dawn. Let order prevail in the morning. Bless us with the gift of our lives, in a new land of liberty and calm.

Will this night of grave terror ever reach an end? Shall we see the light of another day? Or will history consume our lives and our aspirations, for us to become a soon to be forgotten part of the revolution, in our determination to win back our homeland and destiny from the enemy's clutches?

That night, rapidly moving armored vehicles, tanks and military Jeeps, fitted with machine guns, including extra large, loose and dangling ammunition belts, rolled speedily on the streets. Without discrimination, the trigger happy soldiers targeted the weak and the defenseless. They had strict orders to 'Shoot to kill'. Ruthlessly, with brute force. The Army jawans were told to butcher the 'Bengali' citizens, in the army's meticulously planned surgical strikes.

The official version of the military action was publicized through press briefings of the time. The ISPR of the ruling junta tried to bring about a futile sense of legitimacy of their action. All this was being done to uphold the 'integrity and solidarity of Pakistan'. A 'handful' number of people from East Pakistan',  stated the  brief, 'had  conspired with their misguided leadership, to break away from their sacred country, Pakistan'. Therefore, 'they deserved to be punished and severely dealt, with an iron hand'.

The ghastly night did not seem to end. In the eerie backdrop of gunfire from the assault rifles, we could also see flares illuminating portions of the Dhaka sky. In the darkest hours of this fateful night, there was a pause. Complete silence. During this interim silence, my father whispered in agony, 'This is it. This is the end ...of Pakistan. History has moved forward tonight....with ruthless ferocity. Our army has torn us apart'. There was a brief pause. Then, he continued 'This is a gruesome murder of innocent people. A massacre of grave proportions. The damage is irreversible'.

To be continued...

The writer is a former educator based in Chicago

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