A BOY’S MEMORY OF THE WAR – a recollection

Ekram Kabir

It’s the memory of a time of which I’m not expected to remember. It’s a tale of a time, I learnt much later in life, when Bangladesh was making lead headlines in the world media. It’s a tale of a glory to be remembered for the generations to come. It’s a tale of a failure when citizens got divided over the country’s independence.
It was nineteen seventy-one and I was a five-year-old boy, just promoted to class one from the infant stage.
It was a late spring day and I saw my father going out, with a shovel in his hand, to prevent the enemy from advancing towards the little town of Jhenidah. Our family lived in the cadet-college campus one-and-a-half miles north of Jhenidah town since my father was a teacher there. The news came that Pakistani army were approaching from the eastern side of the college. I didn’t know why. It was quite easy for them to attack from the south from Jessore cantonment.
An hour later, he came back, his clothes wet. He said the Pak army were firing machine guns and his shovel was no match against that kind of weapons. Fighting a regular army with a shovel? “Go jump in the lake,” said members of the Mukti Fauz who were actually resisting the army. My father literally did that. He hid himself under water of the canal that ran through the campus.
The next day, when the air raid began, he said we have to go to the college mosque because the planes would not bomb the mosque. When air raids stopped for a while, he sent my mother to the mosque with a group of his colleagues. He could have sent me and my three-year-old brother along with them. I don’t why he didn’t.
A little later, he started for the mosque holding our hands. It was a mile’s walk. Halfway to the mosque, the planes came back but they didn’t seem to have any intention to bomb on the campus. But every time a plane came overhead, our father ran to the roadside ditch and made us lie down like turtles.
I don’t remember when and how we left the mosque. The next day or probably the day after we were back in our house, and I heard my dad’s colleague, Ghulam Gilani Nazr Murshid, asking him to leave the campus.
But there was no way one could escape through the east, west or the south. For once, my father thought of heading towards Chuadanga where our village was located. He gave up the idea when he learnt we would have to pass by Jhenidah East Pakistan Rifles camp which, by then, was taken by the Pakistani army. He decided to head for Kushtia town where my maternal relations lived.
There was absolutely no transport on the road. Four of us got on a rickshaw with one suitcase and began our 28-mile journey towards Kushtia. There was another family who were going to Bheramara. I still wonder why these two rickshaw-pullers agreed to take us.
After traveling about eight miles, when we approached a place called Garaganj, we saw many army jeeps and trucks in the ditches. A little further, there was a big ditch. If I remember it properly, it was the size of half a cricket pitch. My father said it was actually a trap dug by the Mukti Bahini. This was how they stopped the Pak convoys going to Kushtia, my father described.
My father and his colleague along with two rickshaw-pullers carried the rickshaws over the ditch to the other side. Then, we started again.
I don’t remember how long it took us to reach Kushtia. But when we arrived there, it was a ghost town. And when we got to the house where my mother grew up, it was an empty, burnt. For quite some time, my father didn’t know what to do; where to go. In about twenty minutes while we were still wondering, my chhoto mama [youngest among maternal uncles], who had gone to war, arrived like a godsend. The next thing I knew that we were on a boat crossing the river Gorai going to Hatash Haripur the village adjacent to Shilaidah.
There they were the entire family of my Nana [maternal grandfather] at his village house. After coming through a ghost town, his house seemed like a haat [village market] to me.
I didn’t understand much of war except for Mukti Bahini rushing for shelter, occasional arrival of the EPR personnel, and remote sounds of gunshots and bombing. But I remember my mother crying all the time when father had to flee the village when razakars started to hunt him down. There was also one occasion when we had to evacuate Nana’s house and spend a night at place of man who was thief by profession.
Apart from that, as children, we were quite happy, since we were a big bunch with all the children gathered in one house. Most of the time, we played war games with wooden guns hand grenades. Our bigger cousins would be the sector commanders and Mukti Bahinis, making us either Pak army or the razakars. Sands and bushes by the bank of Garai were perfect battleground for us.
I, in fact everyone, got scared when the Indian army began air raid in early November. Everyone was also very happy to see the Indian air force in action. However, the elders started to run helter-skelter they were frantically looking for somebody who knew to draw the map of Bangladesh, for they wanted to hoist Bangladesh’s flag so that Indian pilots don’t bomb that place. The only person who knew how to draw the map was Nilu Apa daughter of my boro mama [eldest among my maternal uncles]. Nilu Apa drew the map on a yellow cloth and one of my aunties stitched the map as quickly as possible.
My Nana got the tallest bamboo from one of his gardens and lifted the flag on the roof of his two-story house. Surprisingly, this incident erased all marks of fear from the face of our elders who we saw very tense and terrified all through the war. And by then, father had come back and my Nana hid him inside a mosque for his safety. He also came out from his hideout when he understood that Bangladesh was winning the war.
There were many things during of war that I didn’t understand. But one thing that was clear to me, as my elders were saying, that we were emerging as an independent country.

This was written for Dhaka-based The Daily Star’s victory day special issue.

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