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The Spirit of 1971: The Massacre

  • Published at 08:57 am April 21st, 2021
Nusrat Rabbee
The author with her parents: Dr Fazle Rabbee and Dr Jahan Ara Rabbee


Note: We introduce this column, which will be published in monthly instalments throughout the year, to mark the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence. This is the 2nd instalment.


West Pakistan had begun destroying East Pakistan in a full-scale genocide campaign on March 25. My mother remembered that the Bangladesh flag was still flying on our rooftop. She was annoyed; my father immediately went to the roof and took it down.

That morning, I got the idea to start writing in an unused diary. We had barely finished breakfast when I started writing. When the constant gunfire appeared to ease, Indian radio indicated there would be a new country, Bangladesh. We didn’t even have an armed resistance movement at that time. Dacca Betar (now Dhaka Betar), clearly taken over by the West Pakistani army, asked people to obey the martial law.

There was no way for us to get a clear picture of the savagery committed by the Pakistanis since we had been stuck at home under strict curfew. Only later would we learn that all the death and destruction caused by the massacre on the first night of Operation Searchlight meant there was no prospect of further negotiations between Yahya and Sheikh Mujib. In fact, my father told us that Sheikh Mujib had been arrested overnight and taken to the cantonment. We said a prayer for our dear leader. 

During the first night of the crackdown, we would later learn, the Pakistani army started pillaging Dacca University, East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) headquarters in Pilkhana, Rajarbag police lines, and the Hindu-dominated areas. Major General Rao Farman of the Pakistani army was the leader of the initial barbaric attack. 

March 26 remains hazy in my memory. Like everyone else, we were caught in the cross hairs of a genocide. Even though we had anticipated brutal treatment from the West Pakistan government and army, it was quite another thing to be actually thrown into the middle of a massacre. 

Also Read: The Spirit of 1971: March 25

After breakfast, my father received news that the Pakistani army was continuing the slaughter at Dacca University in broad daylight, lining up students, professors, and workers, and executing them. This was happening in student dorms e.g. Zahirul Haque Hall (then Iqbal Hall), Jagannath Hall (dorm for many Hindu students), Salimullah Muslim Hall, Rokeya Hall (dorm for female students), and nearby faculty housings where teachers lived with their families. It seems ironic that the most civilized and humane of intelligentsia were being destroyed by the most savage of the Pakistani army.

They dug mass graves and dumped the bodies into them.

It took me many years to piece together the chronology of events to make sense of that traumatic period. Much later, news reports confirmed that no fewer than 7,000 lives were lost on March 25. I would also later discover that Yahya, the liar that he was,  went back to Pakistan that night and told the unsuspecting people of the West Pakistan that Mujib had committed treason. Their shock-and-awe campaign of terror almost destroyed us but, as before, they underestimated our strength, resilience, and intellect.

We later learned the Pakistani army shelled newspaper offices, and that yet another targeted massacre took place on March 26. With the help of Biharis, the army killed hundreds of Hindus in Shankharibazaar, which was part of old Dhaka. The occupation army shelled their houses and looted their possessions, then rounded up all the residents and shot them to death. 

In the early evening, with the lights off, we tuned in to Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, a clandestine radio station located in Kalurghat of Chattogram that supported the freedom struggle. Listening, we discovered that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman sent a telegram declaring the independence of Bangladesh.

My father was now chain smoking and pacing the balconies of our house, going up and down the stairs all day, trying to figure out what was about to happen, and where and how we should prepare. It was already apparent that the Pakistani army was looking for Liberation War supporters and sympathisers to arrest and kill and it was not safe at all for my father—an outspoken and renowned physician, intellectual, and activist—to remain waiting in his residence. 

A Pakistan Army tank near DU on March 26, 1971 that shelled the student dorms PHOTO: liberationwarbangladesh.org

The Shankharibazaar massacre began just as we were going to bed. The screams of people and the smell of burning flesh reached our house. All this, accompanied by the flaming orange glow in the sky, cast the deadliest scene I’d ever encountered in my life. 

We ran downstairs and took shelter there from the bullets and bombs. That night, there was so much fear in our house that I vomited when we finally settled downstairs on a mass bed that had been made up on the floor for us. The following day, I woke up with a fever.    

On March 27, the Pakistani army finally lifted the curfew. My parents left me in the care of my elder sister and brother and drove to the hospital. Abba had asked for an ambulance from the hospital to accompany their car. At least three to four hours passed before they came back. Immediately upon arriving home, my father went into the bathroom and started vomiting. My mother went in the bathroom to help him. When she came out, she checked my temperature but my fever had subsided. My mother was strong, but she needed medicine to soothe her nerves. My father could not eat lunch that day because they had seen hundreds and hundreds of slaughtered bodies lying in the streets of their once-beloved city. The bodies had already started decomposing and the stench permeated the air.

When my father arrived in Dhaka Medical College (DMC), he learned several of his colleagues from the university had been shot. They were either killed or gravely injured. Hundreds, if not thousands, had just been brought in and needed immediate medical attention. 

The situation was so dire that it was unlike anything anybody had expected. A high-ranking West Pakistani official, who was the head of Internal Medicine and Cardiology, asked my father if he would sign the death certificates of the thousands who lay in the morgue. My father refused. In the hospital, he saw Dr Joytirmoy Guhathakurtha, Professor of Bengali literature of DU, who had sustained bullet injuries and was waiting to be treated.  

Dhaka had been turned upside down, like a scene from hell, and everyone was in a state of shock. We needed direction, something from Sheikh Mujib to make sense of it all and to tell us how to proceed. The whole nation was dumbfounded.

 Dr Nusrat Rabbee is a biostatistical leader in the pharmaceutical industry. She holds a PhD from Harvard University. She is a writer on the 1971 War History of Bangladesh.


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