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A time of war and a time to heal

  • Published at 02:20 am December 16th, 2018
Newsweek cover from
A Newsweek cover from 1971, displayed at Liberation War Museum Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Is reconciliation ever possible between warring sides?

Is shared humanity and reconciliation possible among erstwhile perpetrators and victims of the 1971 war of Bangladesh? I have found myself asking this since writing my book Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971 (Duke 2011). Unlike many who take solace in their grief by blaming “the enemy other” for the bloody violence of the 1971 war, I have found in the space of the unforgettable memories of 1971 a possible site for healing through reconciliation and creating a new Muslim way of living in peace in the subcontinent. Forgiveness, I must admit upfront, is not easy nor a tool by itself for justice to end the trauma of the past. However, because forgiveness is a demanding plea for expressing our humanity, it can be an illuminative pathway for transformative change. 

I have been persuaded to think this way by those who told stories of violence, loss, and recovery of humanity in a war, who represented the ruthlessness of their actions, but continued to search within themselves, and who thus show the healing power of human memory in process - not memory that is inscribed in museums or made into political rhetoric by the state, but memory that is in the heart. The heart-memory is the unforgettable memory of humanity. When states censor peoples’ memories perpetrators become imprisoned by their own unspeakable inhumanity, while victims never properly process their traumas. For reconciliation to begin, we need to pay attention to the human voice of people’s heart memories.

The loss of humanity and legitimization of violence in 1971

Through the method of oral history, I probed this voice by investigating the memories of victims’ and perpetrators’ of the 1971 war. I had discussions with more than 250 survivors in Bangladesh and over 100 perpetrators shared their memories of violence in Pakistan. A common and shared memory, particularly of perpetrators, was the experience of fighting a destructive war in which they lost nation as well as their human self. The memories of human loss are explained as the destruction of insainiyat (Urdu) or manabikata (Bangla) which can be loosely translated into English as ‘humaneity’. Perpetrators cling to the hope of renewal and possible reconciliation even now. 

The war of 1971 is another episode of liberation and freedom in the subcontinent; 1947 and Partition was the first collective moment to end colonialism. The people in East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) who questioned the continued “colonization” of the West Pakistani of East Pakistan was brutally dealt with in 1971 by the Pakistan Army, beginning with Operation Searchlight on March 25. Thereafter, for nearly nine months the Pakistan Army and their collaborators led a violent campaign to end the “revolt of the Bengalis”. At the end of the war millions were dislocated, several hundred thousands were killed, orphaned and raped. The violence was brutal and inhuman; many claim it was a genocide. Questioning what motivated the perpetrators of Pakistan to commit violence against helpless men, women and children in the war forced many in present-day Pakistan to reflect on structures, ideologies, and powerful institutions that legitimized violence. In probing these memories, we confront the abstract concept of nationalism as the propelling force. People destroyed their co-citizens, neighbours, friends, coworkers, even family members, who were deemed “enemy.” To grasp this loss of humaneity, the heart memories of both victims and perpetrators are critical for understanding the meaning of sacrifice on behalf of the nation as well as raising the question of ethical responsibility to one another now.

Yet victims’ and perpetrators’ memories are kept secret, guarded in fear of exposure. People fear unleashing memories would be like a Pandora’s box, letting out more misery than healing. Thus, the moral dilemma is an “imprisoned” memory of the loss of humaneity that cannot be articulated publicly. Yet, today, in unexpected places, buried under the debris of war violence, in perpetrators’ memories, I found a faint, yet, resilient human voice, refusing to die a silent death. I want to share this voice of humaneity of 1971, drawing attention to interdependent human relationships and potential for reconciliation amongst the people of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh for peace. 

Recognising the self as a perpetrator of violence

During discussions with a variety of perpetrators, I found that most of them were able to distinguish between the repulsive violence they were involved in and what it did to them. Their uncertain and selective memory made me wonder of the struggle of the men with their past. Their sense of humaneity must be interpreted to make sense of what happened to them and others during a disastrous war. I am not suggesting that we condone their actions, rather I am engaging the intimate sphere of the struggle of perpetrators’ conflicting emotions and the devastating actions that led to the loss of insaniyat to understand how these painful memories can engender reconciliation in post-conflict societies of the subcontinent.

None of the men I interviewed in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India spoke in the first person as a rapist, killer, plunderer, and looter, who terrorized civilians, killed innocent children and raped helpless women. Recognition of the self as a perpetrator is a long and torturous task that is not admissible even to themselves. Many made sense of the violence as a “duty” they performed to “protect their watan [country]… and bring the place under control.” 

Yet, I encountered a few who bore the guilt of their actions and had the rare capacity to speak about it. These men represented themselves as reduced human beings, having lost their insaniyat in war. They privately recalled acts of violence and in some instances admitted that their “niyat [intentions] was not right in Bangal.” An intriguing topic many raised was the subject of conscience (zameer). The admission of a troubled conscience allowed perpetrators to move from the state of denial to acceptance of the atrocities that they committed. In the prisoner-of-war camps in India where the surrendered Pakistan army was incarcerated, some perpetrators surrendered to their conscience. 

As one Pakistani officer put it, “There we thought more about our family, children, and the future. We tried to think about the past and the atrocities,” which offered him and many others with a motivating reason to account for their actions. They turned to the Qur’an to find the language of repentance, became religious, and were able to discuss their crimes. Some even “acknowledged what they did was wrong.” “Atoning for their sins,” as many now confess, became the primary concern as well as an anxiety. They “turned to God for forgiveness because they could not see a way out otherwise.” Admitting to war crimes requires incredible courage. Soldiers had to cast off their masks to deal with their fallen humaneity. These decomposed memories of degradation, I realized, may actually serve as the site for reconciliation by speaking truth to power, which I hope my readers will appreciate.

‘Is this what a human being does to another human being?’

Not all was blood and gore in memory though. Occasionally, I heard redeeming stories of compassion between victims and perpetrators. An ordinary soldier Muhammad had joined the Pakistan Army because that was the only source of employment available to him. He was sent to East Pakistan in April 1971. In one of the railway towns where he went to save the “Biharis from being butchered by the Bengalis” he fought hard for one day and night. At the end of the bloody fighting when he looked around, he said, “I saw the whole place was strewn with bodies. There were decapitated bodies, heads without bodies, dismembered arms and legs littered all around. Dogs and vultures were roaming and fighting over them. I thought, ‘he was a human like me. Is this what a human being does to another human being?’ I thought and felt sick because I was a part of it. Insaniyat had died,” he mourned. 

Likewise in Bangladesh, a decorated military officer told me a curious tale of his humanizing encounter. After killing a Pakistani soldier and ordering his men to drag the body to their camp, the local village people “flocked to see the dead Pakistani [and] hurled abuses calling the dead man a ‘monster,’ ‘demon,’ some spat on him, some kicked his body.” Unnerved by this lack of “basic human decency” against the deceased, the Bengali officer buried the dead man with his own hands. The memory of that incident still haunts him, because he “did not mark the grave of the soldier”, he remembered. “No one in his family will ever know where he is buried, they cannot visit his grave, offer prayers, there is no closure for them,” he said with regret. There is no closure for him either.

Several other Pakistani and Bengali soldiers told me stories of 1971 that presented a confusing picture of their relationship with the enemy, who emerged as human in their eyes. The dead are a part of their lives now, unforgettable but unreachable “fellow sufferers.”

Listening to the spoken and unspoken, audible and inaudible narratives of victims and perpetrators can enable acknowledgement of the crimes and open space for apologies that are due. Victims can give or withhold forgiveness, it is their prerogative, but engaging people to take stock of what happened in 1971 and coming to terms with it can shift power away from impersonal structures, like the state, and empower people through intersubjective exchanges. What must matter in the end is the peoples’ capacity to provide a new epistemological transformation pioneering a new possibility for interconnected and interdependent humanity in Bangladesh and Pakistan. 

This is important for me as a historian because I am aware of the positive and negative power of history. 1971 history must do more than register guilt, grief, anger, hatefulness or remorse. No matter which side we take, we cannot deny the war violence; the task of reconciliation lies beyond it in the redeeming capacity of people’s heart memories. It is the struggle of human memory against the forgetting of our human identity that is critical for the future of the Muslim condition and peace in South Asia. 

The author is Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies and Professor of History, Arizona State University, and author of Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971. She can be reached at [email protected]

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