When I first visited Shohagpur 15 years ago, few knew its name. I stayed the night in a windowless room in Sherpur. I felt I had a date with history. It had become known due to the efforts of Farida Akhter of UBINIG who had organised the first congregation of women freedom fighters. She had told me that the 15 volumes of documents we had worked on for almost 8 years had neglected the role of women.
At that time I had sort of agreed but it’s also true that we didn’t understand what a historical role was. Ours was largely a narrative of the war, rather than the people, and we focused a lot more on the official and formal narratives. Inevitably, the role of women was left out because women were not part of governments, of official efforts, or warring soldiers.
In a way, they had been made invisible by the very definition of war itself. I had reacted sharply examining my own understanding and increasingly turned towards understanding a more informal narrative of history. And that’s where Shohagpur came in. BBC had commissioned a series on “Women and war in 1971.” I was on assignment.
It was 10th of Srabon 1971.
“I came out and saw the army. They wanted to go inside. I put my hands up like this and said there was no one inside. They flung me away into the yard and dragged my husband and son outside. They shot them both right there, there.”
“They killed every male in the village, every male. When the army was gone, there was not a single man left to bury the dead. We had to drag the bodies ourselves and bury them. Without a bath, without a shroud, I put them into one single hole I had dug myself. Not a grave but a hole. No janaza, no kafon, no washing of the dead but only the earth to cover their blood and the body. Nothing else.”
They call Shohagpur the Bewas’ (widows’) village.
Ancient wooden chairs from ramshackle homes were pulled out to make the visiting sahebs more comfortable. The signs of wretched poverty were everywhere. Memories of death and hunger come out like a hurrying train.
On the 10th of Srabon, the army had come and attacked the village without any warning. No rounding up, no questioning, no identification, just shooting to kill. It came swiftly, suddenly, as if the angels of death had no time for the niceties of murder. The villagers had walked out of their dilapidated homes at dawn and the efficient soldiers of Pakistan quickly finished them off.
As I heard them and almost forced myself to stare at their faces as they talked, I wondered how they could find this almost hidden village in the high monsoon of 1971, when nearly 30 years later, even I had found it so difficult to locate?
Why this non-descript village?
In that year it had become a village without men. Children had grown up without fathers in Shohagpur to become labourers who worked in other people’s field. They had lost their possessions to law, custom, and ultimately force.
“Life took our men away, our land away, our peace away. We only have our bodies left.”
There were many questions about that place that had been left unanswered. I had seen them framed against the past, but the palpable hunger and ruinous lives of today led by most of the poor are as much a result of our own deeds. We continued to destroy what the Pakistani army had begun on a rainy morning many monsoons ago.
But their life lasted longer than the war, and after 1971 we devastated whatever was left. Brutality was only half the tale, betrayal told the rest.
“I have lived next to their graves all my life. I shall never leave here. They lie buried together. I shall not leave this place even if I starve. This is where my place is. This is where I am.”
Death holds a greater grip on them than life itself.
If the burial of the dead in Shohagpur, done by the grieving women was an incomplete, botched, makeshift affair, there was nothing disorganised about their starving. Alekjan Begum had stood near a mound housing some of her dead and suddenly began to weep about the memories of starving. She described what foods the foodless of rural Bengal eat. Roots, plants, berries, wild vegetables … things I didn’t want to learn. They scared me.
“For days, we ate them, for days we had no rice … Days after days of banana shoot gruels … ate them … ate them … ate …”
Just as there is something deeply violating about burying the dead improperly without ritual baths, prayers, and shrouds, there is something equally violent about eating roots, plants, and banana gruel to fend off starvation. It doesn’t just touch the body, it rapes the soul.
Everyone in the village told me about Kader daktar. He was the local quack or the healer of Shohagpur. Along with a few of that village, they would prey on the refugees passing through to India. A lot of the loot was stored in one of the huts of that village. Few or almost none knew, but some did. One night, somebody broke into that hut and helped himself to the stuff.
The villagers told me that once the theft was discovered an enraged Kader went to the army post miles away and told them that Shohagpur was a Muktibahini training camp. Nestled against the border, it made eminent sense to the Pakistani army. They mounted an early morning raid.
“They killed only the men, the ‘Muktis.’ ” Kader had managed to convince the Pakistani army that the harmless farmers and kamlas were Muktis in their minds, to die at Pakistani hands, the villagers said.
No mercy was shown to people who were killed on the false charge of being Muktis. Years later, they still insisted they were not fighters. Many of them ran away to India that night but didn’t like the refugee camps. Soon, they returned to their broken homes, their unkempt graves, their hunger.
Kader had two associates — Sona Miyan and Moyna Miyan — and though they moved away to other areas – Haluaghat – after 1971, they were never tried. They have been consumed by the anonymity of such endless processions of facilitators of mass murder.
If one noticed anything in particular, it was the lack of anger or rage. Years of endless hunger and half-fed bellies had taught them some plain truths. And hopelessness. And resignation. And the flame of revenge was blown away by the winds of despair.
The memories of the war of 1971 in some cases have become a source of privilege. People remember to gain something. The significant social groups have days dedicated to them but no one has a day to remember the helpless, anonymous victims of 1971. The poor and the wretched have not only been forgotten, but like the dead of Shohagpur, buried without proper dignity.
We can do that, we can remember them with the honour that the forgotten dead always deserve.
Afsan Chowdhury is a columnist.