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I was at Jagannath Hall

  • Published at 09:00 pm March 26th, 2017
I was at Jagannath Hall
“Am I really alive? My friends, my roommates, people whom I knew even yesterday are dead now. We picked up the dead bodies in the morning, dragged them into one place. Now they are dead... all of them... but I am alive. How is that possible?” For days these thoughts hau­nted me. I pinched myself to check if I was really alive. What had happened on that dreadful, dark night of March 25, 1971 in Dhaka city— particularly at Dhaka University and its dormitory, Jagannath Hall—makes me shiver to this day. It is not possible for me to write a proper description of the crazy sport of murder and torture the monsters of the Pakistan army had unleashed upon the unarmed students and respected teachers of Dhaka University. Words can never describe such brutality. But still, I have to try. The political environment was quite agitated since the beginning of February. The celebrations on February 21 that year revealed our strong desire to become an independent nation. We took an oath, iron-fisted, for our mother tongue and for our independence. The situation escalated after the National Assembly was postponed on March 1, 1971. The people were robbed of the right to form the government. Then Bangabandhu declared on March 7, “This time our struggle is for freedom, our struggle is for independence.” The country erupted in a month long wave of demonstrations, protests, and processions. The Students’ Union (BSU) activists played a crucial role in all this. Using dummy rifles, they started training for a “probable” war on the Dhaka University gymnasium grounds. Students were trained on how to fight against the enemy and how to survive under attack. I was also with a training group. Within a few days, the training was complete for the first batch. With three groups, one of which comprised of female students, we marched on to the streets. Those who were trained became trainers themselves for the students coming from other parts of Dhaka. Along with the rifle training, the student leaders also explained why we should be fighting, what we were fighting for, and what our goal was. 2 After March 7, students started to leave the dormitories of Dhaka University. On the morning of March 25, a Thursday, we had a regular training session on the gymnasium ground followed by a motivational talk at the auditorium that went past noon. In the afternoon, we brought out a procession from the Shaheed Minar. After the meeting, we all gathered at Balai’s canteen at the Science Annex building. During that meeting, Nurul Islam, president of the Students’ Union came and informed us, “The situation isn’t very well.” He told us to be careful and to gather at the Shaheed Minar the next day, March 26, at 6:30 in the morning. I used to stay in the South House of Jagannath Hall, room number 235. I was a little late returning to the dormitory that night; I fell asleep right after dinner. I woke up to a loud noise near my head. As soon as I was fully awake, I heard a rat-tat-tat-tat sound everywhere, interrupted only by a sky-splitting boom-boom sound at regular intervals. The old building was trembling under the sound of gunfire and shells from all around—it was as if the whole building would collapse at any moment. I had never heard such sounds of explosion or shooting. I panicked a bit being in such a situation for the first time in my life. I wasn’t sure of what to do. And then, I thought of Sushil. Sushil was a member of our Hall cabinet. He used to stay on the third floor, in the room next to the south side stairs. I started to crawl towards his room. I later heard that he had gone into the main building as soon as the firing started and the Pak Army killed him there. After I came out of my room, the sounds grew louder. Along with the terrifying sounds, you could see the explosions lighting up the sky. I crawled behind the low walls of the veranda towards the south stairs and climbed up the stairs to the third floor. As I came close to Sushil’s room, I could see a faint light inside, but the door was locked from the outside. Somebody heard my footstep and called out in a very low voice, “Who is it?” When I responded, they told me to climb to the roof of the building. A few students had already gathered there to take cover. But I didn’t stay with them. Selfishly, I decided to stay by myself. So I started crawling from there towards the north corner of the building. I left my flip-flops on the way, so that I would not make any sound. I was ducking very low behind the wall so I could avoid the bullets. When I was close to the bathroom in the north corner, I saw an electric heater lying there on the way. It was connected to a wall-outlet of a room. It might have not been turned on. But I didn’t take any chance and carefully avoided it to go into the toilet. Its location was such that I could look to the north-east and the west clearly. All the buildings, fields and streets—everything was dark. But I could still see that military personnel were searching out the students from each room with flashlights and then taking them to the Shaheed Minar to shoot them. Their death screams and the sounds of the bullets shattered the skies. If anyone tried to run, he was shot right there ... Some rooms were set on fire. At one point, I noticed that the tin-shed houses in front of the Assembly were burning. Some of the rooms in the North House were on fire as well. Somehow they were setting the second and third floor rooms on fire by shooting something through the windows.
I heard the Fajr Azaan—the first one followed by a few others from different directions. The call for prayer never sounded so mournful. At the sound of the Azaan, the shooting stopped. But only for a few seconds
Every now and then, I heard some strange sounds and saw balloon-like fireballs coming down from the sky. Some of them were green, some red. By the light of those fireballs, everything could be seen as clear as the day. In that light, I saw that there were hundreds of soldiers on the field of the North House. They were shooting at the Hall with heavy machine guns. On some of the roads, I saw several army jeeps scouting with their headlights turned off. Maybe they were checking whether everything was going according to plan, making sure the destruction and the killing went on smoothly. Suddenly I saw forty or fifty military personnel coming from the direction of Salimullah Hall towards the South House and breaking into the dining hall. They turned on the lights in the dining room and started shooting randomly. I could also hear the sound of things breaking. Some people screamed with their last breath and died. At one point they came out with the doorman of South House, Priyanath da, with a machine gun pointed at him. They forced him to open the main gate of the Hall. As they entered the premises, I could not see them anymore. All I could hear was gun shots, things getting shattered, and the death screams of the students. When I saw them entering the building, I slid out the window of the toilet and lay down on the window-sill of the third floor. There were a few Sal trees next to it. A branch of the Sal tree was hanging very close to the cornice. I thought for a moment that I would climb the tree. Then I decided not to. I dragged myself on my back towards the corner of the cornice and lay there, afraid to even breathe. I heard them climb up the stairs, from the first to the second to the third floor. I heard a few gunshots very close to where I was. Someone right on the opposite side of the wall next to my head was moaning. All I was thinking was that they would see me any moment and drag me out. But they did not see me. They went down the stairs and called out to somebody named “Farid”. A soldier responded and ran down. I waited a long time on the cornice. When I felt there were no more soldiers nearby, I again dragged myself to the window I had slid out through. On one hand there was the risk of rolling out and falling from the cornice, on the other hand there was the army. At last, very cautiously, I returned to the toilet. From there, I could see the road on the west, Salimullah Hall, the North House, and parts of the east. I watched the havoc wreaked by the military and counted the minutes before they would come and shoot me to death. At one point, I saw a fire burning in Salimullah Hall. Sometimes the northern and western sky would become red. They were probably setting fire somewhere over there. Houses were burning. Shops too, along with people inside. The rat-tat-tat and boom-boom sounds I heard right after I woke up hadn’t stopped for a second in all this time. In between the gunshots, I heard the screams of the innocent many times. The massacre by the army continued through the whole night. Eventually dawn broke. I heard the Fajr Azaan—the first one followed by a few others from different directions. The call for prayer never sounded so mournful. At the sound of the Azaan, the shooting stopped. But only for a few seconds. Around dawn, curfew was announced over the megaphone. I thought maybe the unnecessary killings would stop soon. But as sunlight filled the earth, I saw personnel drag out those who had been hiding at night and shoot them to death. I lowered my head and stayed in the latrine, hoping that they would not see me. Occasionally, I peeked to see what was going on. The day rolled on. There were fewer soldiers roaming around the North House and adjoining roads. I heard voices in a balcony somewhere nearby. When I was sure that the voices belonged to students, I stepped out of the toilet door. To my peril, I came face to face with a few students, and several soldiers standing at the top of the stairs with machine guns. The students were carrying a corpse downstairs and the soldiers were monitoring them. It was the body of the man they killed last night on the other side of the wall where I was lying down. It was none other than our beloved guard, a loyal old friend, Priyanath da. They had forced him to show every nook and corner of the building and then they killed him. This time there was no escape for me. The students hinted at me to help with the corpse. We carried his body down from the third floor and then through the south side gate to the north side of the Bank (the location where Sudhir’s canteen is situated now had a branch of the National Bank of Pakistan back then). A few other bodies from different rooms were piled up there. After a while, the Pakistani soldiers ordered us to sit down. I was there with a few other students, some gardeners, launderers, sweepers, and with the two sons of our guard Gayanath: Shankar and Dulal. We were sitting around the pile of bodies. The sweepers spoke in their own language and asked the personnel to let them go. They argued that they were not Bangalis and were therefore innocent. I don’t know if the soldiers bought it or not, but they were separated from us. One soldier guided them through the east side of the laundry, by the tennis court to the field of the North House. We figured that they would be set free. Then they ordered us to move the corpses. We were split into groups of twos. As each pair carried a body, two soldiers would guard them from the front and rear. We took the corpses past the east side gate using the road in front of the Assembly building. There was a huge tree next to the south side of the gate where we started piling up the bodies. Once we were done moving all the dead bodies we were allowed to rest under the tree. One of the soldiers even shared cigarettes with us and started smoking. Most of us were either sitting or lying down under the tree. I was leaning on the root of the tree. Right then, Shankar’s elder brother grasped one soldier’s feet and begged him to spare his life and let him go. This annoyed the soldier and he stomped and kicked him eight to ten times to get him off his leg. The other soldiers started to curse at us. Some of the words they used—I cannot even repeat them here. I couldn’t understand all they were saying, but the gist seemed to be, “You scoundrels! You are going to free Bangladesh!!?? Come on, let’s hear you shout out, ‘Joy Bangla’. We will see how Sheikh Mujib frees Bangladesh!”     (Truncated)
[Excerpted with permission from Bangladesh 1971: Dreadful Experiences, Published by Shahitya Prakash (February 2017), edited by Munawar Hafiz, Salwa Mostofa, Ashfaqur Rahman and Farhana Binte Sufi.  The original Bangla version was edited by Rashid Haider, 1989]   The writer was an activist of Bangladesh Communist Party. He died a few years ago.