And then I fainted: Survivors remember rape during the Bangladesh War
In his book The Colonel Who Would Not Repent about the Bangladesh war and its legacy, Salil Tripathi devotes a chapter to the stories of the women who were raped during Bangladesh's freedom struggle.
by Salil Tripathi
Editor’s note: Rape has always been part of war. During the 1971 war that led to the birth of Bangladesh, rape was not just widespread but it was also systematic. Numbers are impossible to ascertain. Some were raped once, some multiple times, some made into sexual slaves. After the war, the government of Bangladesh called these women birangonas or the brave ones. But the honorific did not necessarily erase the stigma. In his book The Colonel Who Would Not Repent about the Bangladesh war and its legacy, Salil Tripathi devotes a chapter to the stories of the birangonas and their testimonies. Here is an excerpt.
In December 2012, on another visit to Bangladesh I went to Kumarkhali, a small town near Kushtia, where Sikha Saha runs the local branch of Nijera Kori (We Do It Ourselves), a women’s rights awareness group. Saha set up her centre in 1980 where she provides women training and education, particularly raising awareness, including dealing with violence and how to claim their rights. Some human rights lawyers represent them for free. I met more birangonas there.
‘We made this country free—and how do we live now?’
MK was nineteen and a mother of three children in 1971. She and her husband helped the freedom fighters by carrying their weapons. Her husband would take refugees or the freedom fighters to India in his boat; MK would cook for them.
From her window, MK could see what was happening in the street. One day in October, the army came to her village. She took her sons and escaped. When she heard that the army had left, she made her way back to her home. But she saw the military coming.
MK was sitting with her three-month-old son in her lap. The soldiers snatched away the child. They threatened to throw him away and MK pleaded with them for his life. Then two Razakars and the soldiers took her with them. Her mother fell at their feet, but they loaded their guns. They saw that they had a farm with goats and chickens, so they asked for eggs. Her mother was shaking with fear. The officers took MK away and set her home on fire.
At that time, her husband was looking after some Hindu families. The river behind his home was a busy route for freedom fighters, so the military always kept an eye on the riverfront. Her husband frequently helped freedom fighters—to flee, to hide, or to help take them across wherever they wished to go. He wanted to join them, but he had married recently and thought it would not be right for him to leave his wife alone.
His business was trading ilish, the traditional Bengali river fish. He would buy the fish from fishermen and sell it in the market. He was aware that a Shanti Committee, as pro-Pakistani local committees were known, was active in his village. He was quietly helping refugees who wanted to cross the river from the village to the other side and go to C’pur, across the River. ‘I would take 8-10 refugees at a time in my boat,’ he said.
Biharis had been burning homes in H’pur, and a friend told him to escape. He heard that Biharis were tying fishermen in their fishing nets and then burning them. ‘I was too scared to go back at such a time,’ he said.
On the day the army reached his home, her husband was at the river, buying fish. He heard sounds of shooting. A man whose son was a freedom fighter rushed to him, saying he must take him across the river so that he could hide. He took them across and helped them set up a camp.
When he returned to his shore, a cousin told him the news about the attack on his house. He rushed home and found MK lying unconscious. He comforted her. ‘I could understand what happened to her and accept it,’ he told me. ‘If I were in the house at that time, I know I would have been killed, so I have nothing more to say about what happened,’ he added. A school teacher in his village explained to him that whatever had happened was not MK’s fault. ‘Eventually he accepted everything,’ MK said.
In December, MK’s husband remembers seeing the sky filled with Indian planes, and then bombing at the Pakistani camp. ‘I felt very happy,’ he said. ‘We made this country free—and how do we live now? Nobody values us, no one honours us. We are made fun of,’ MK said.
‘They then attacked me, but I fought back. I punched them, I kicked them. I was bleeding but I fought them. I was to give my life away, but not my respect.’
DN remembers well the night about a dozen freedom fighters came to her father’s home. They were hungry, but they did not have rice at home. She was twenty and pregnant. The freedom fighters had planned to attack the Pakistani army the next morning.
Her husband left with the young men to hide their weapons by wrapping them in plastic and keeping them besides the river in the mud. DN was with her mother-in-law and her sister-in-law. Several Pakistani soldiers came and raped the sister-in-law first (she later committed suicide). ‘They then attacked me, but I fought back. I punched them, I kicked them. I was bleeding but I fought them. I was to give my life away, but not my respect. By that time my husband also came, and he too fought,’ she said.
‘The incident (as she refers to her rape) had already happened but I kept fighting them. Then I ran away to save my life. They were more powerful,’ she said. They left her husband nearly dead. He was in coma, and after the war he died.
Her voice softened when I asked her the name of her sister-in-law. She no longer remembered her name; she had been married only recently. One of her sons works as a rickshaw driver. One daughter is a homemaker. Of all the women, she received some direct benefit from the government. Hasina Wajed gave her 50,000 takas and 4 kathas land, which she has distributed among her children. She is on a list of freedom fighters and guards her photographs with Hasina carefully. She showed me fragile sheets with evidence of her suffering. ‘Bangladesh is free, but what about us? We did so much for Bangladesh. What did Bangladesh do for us?’
I had asked simple questions to start with, asking them about their lives, how old they were in 1971, leading up to the day. I could then only ask ‘and then what happened?’ Many of the women were animated and friendly when they began speaking, but as our conversation entered the room, or the field, or the riverbed where they were attacked, their voice would get softer. There were often long pauses. Some looked down. Some stared back at me. Some said it, matter-of-factly, that they did not remember anything. And many used the euphemism that they had chosen to describe the rape—they had fainted. I did not probe further. It is only after I let them complete the sentences, the thoughts, it is only after they had let the memory of those soldiers and Razakars leave their minds, as they once left their rooms, that their faces became animated again. Some sobbed; some turned angrier in their tone.
In all this, they were generous to me. They willingly told me intimate, painful details of their lives, expecting nothing in return. I had promised to cover the costs of their journey from their villages and back, and the lunch that was provided. But I was not going to offer them any money to hear their stories. It would violate a specific journalistic ethic; it would also demean the value of what they told me—it was incalculable; it was impossible to assign a monetary value to their time, their trust, and their honesty.
And I decided to tell the story of each woman I met, because each experience taught me something new. It is easy to talk of ‘a quarter million rapes’ and think that each violent encounter was the same. It never is. Each story has a different background; each woman finds herself in the complex situation because of unique circumstances; and most important, the response of each woman is different. I owed them the decency, the courtesy, of recognising that and not to see them as an undifferentiated mass. The dilemma I had was whether to name them. Not naming them would perpetuate the idea that somehow there was some shame associated with what had happened, as though their name needed to be hidden. Naming them would respect their agency, their right—they hadn’t told me to anonymize them; by deciding for them, I would deny them their agency. I asked women’s rights activists and feminists—lawyers and academics advised me not to name them; journalists and writers, including a few feminists, suggested I should. Eventually I decided not to name them because as per the laws of the land where I was born—India—and the laws of the land where I live now—England—it is illegal to name a rape victim in a legal case. Indeed, some have gone on camera and given interviews, and I respect that. But they hadn’t told me if I could name them, and I didn’t think I had the right to decide that on their behalf—too many men have taken decisions on their behalf over the past forty years. I didn’t want to add another number to that.
The interviews were uncomfortable. Once the stories multiplied, and the scale of the horror became more vivid, I felt subdued and numb. By the time the interviews ended, I felt powerless and angry. Later that evening in Bogura, Shamuna and Farhana, who had travelled with me from Dhaka, decided to go for a walk along the river before meeting me for dinner. I was too distraught to go with them; too disturbed to enjoy the dinner later. I made my excuses and left early for bed.
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