March 28, 1971, Kaptai, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh)
Mrs Samad ran. She ran like she had never run before. Barefoot. In a kaftan. Missing her bra. Eyes bloodshot. Hair undone. Ruffled. Flailing her arms. Crying hysterically.
She ran through a clearing in the woods that joined two clusters of bungalows in a remote hill station tucked away in the southeast corner of the eastern province of Pakistan. She wailed as she ran, and ran while she cried, and in the disposition of a fifty year old unfit and overweight Bengali housewife, gasped like a guppy pulled from water. But still she pushed herself. She had to warn the others. She just had to.
Her husband, Moin Samad – engineer by vocation, loving by nature – had gone to work earlier than usual that morning and was in the office building of the Kaptai hydroelectric dam complex. That is where the Pakistan Army first arrived – with their jeeps, their trucks, their guns, and their god awful mustaches. They dragged Bengali intellectuals out of their offices, clinics, schools, and homes – doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers, lawyers – all to be shot. Operation Searchlight, the Pakistan Army’s murderous rampage, an abject attempt of quashing the pro-democracy movement of Bengalis, had now reached the laid back hill-town of Kaptai. Mr Samad was one of the first ones taken by the jawans. As soon as soldiers left with their blindfolded prisoner, a clerk hiding in an office cabinet, at great personal risk, placed a phone call to Mrs Samad.
She ran out on impulse. Mourning would wait. It just had to.
Now Mrs. Samad was running up the hill, to the other bungalows, to save her friends’ spouses. It was just 7AM; she’d still catch some of them at home.
Oblivious of the blood dripping from her battered toes, disheveled hair, or the tears running down her face, she trotted on the path, running over little pebbles, squishing ants, and beetles, and worms, hopping over tree roots. Crying. Wailing. Flailing her arms. Uncontrollably.
Arriving at the first bungalow, she thumped on the door with such fury that the residents, a younger couple, came running and opened the door in a hurry. News of the crackdown and atrocities in the bigger cities had made it to Kaptai, and although they didn’t expect the Army here this soon, people were on the edge of their seats. The couple needed a good two seconds before they could recognize Mrs Samad in her present state, and while they paused dumbfound, she howled: ‘They took him! They took MOIN. The ARMY! They’ll be here any minute. They’re killing the men. Oh GOD they are killing our men! Oh GOD they will kill MOIN. The BASTARDS! FARUQ … GO! GO RIGHT NOW! SAVE YOURSELF!’
And blurting all that in less than ten seconds, Mrs. Samad ran to alert the three other bungalows in the cluster.
The couple stood at the door – still shocked. The man, survivor of a heart-attack two years ago, looked at his wife quizzically – unsure what to do. His hand, clutching the doorknob, provided much needed support to his weakened knees. She, with the greater presence of mind, darted, ran to her bedroom, and came back with a pair of his shoes and a handful of cash – not even bothering to count. She shoved the notes into his shirt pocket and pleaded him to go. It would be impossible for the entire family to endure the twenty-mile trek through the mountainous jungle to the Indian border. The babies wouldn’t be safe and would have to be carried all the way. They’d never make it. And after all, the Army seemed to be taking men only, leaving women and children alone so far – especially when it came to Muslim families. The husband, as much as he didn’t want to leave his family at risk, was left with little choice. With his PhD in Physics and being the principal of the local polytechnic, his name would surely be on the extermination list. Stay and die, or flee and hope for the best – those were his alternatives. He went inside for the last time, kissed his babies, and ran out – clambered up the slope behind the house and disappeared into the dense tropical foliage.
The young woman took a chair and smashed the glass doors of his gun cabinets and took out his hunting weapons, all nine of them. One at a time she threw them into the well in the back of the house. She dumped all the ammo too, ran back inside, took her children to the bedroom, and locked the door.
At the edge of the Kaptai dam, a young Pakistani Captain sat inside his American-made jeep, idly smoking imported cigarettes, staring at his boots that rested on the dashboard; his mere presence ensuring that his men performed their task. Trucks and jeeps arrived with blindfolded prisoners. They were dragged half way down the dam structure, shot, and their bodies dumped into the river – theKarnaphuli – which makes its way to the town of Chittagong forty miles downriver. Chittagong! That’s where they declared independence. The bastards! The audacity of these Bengalis! Bullet-riddled bodies floating down the river would teach them to respect the Pakistan Army. Those bloody anarchist Bengalis who wouldn’t stop screaming for democracy! The bastards who thought that they could command the mighty Pakistan Army just by winning elections! Insolent bastards! Now the Army would teach them a lesson in obedience; once and for all. With their bayonets. Their guns. Their tanks. Mr. Nixon’s mighty America was behind them. Nobody could stop them now from quashing these insects. Those bastard Bengalis! They would pay dearly.
Five Bengali men were lined up against the railing half way down the dam wall. Some in work clothes; some still in their lungis (sarongs) – barely out of bed; hands tied behind their backs; blindfolded. Three were shot. Unceremoniously. The thundering sound of water rushing through the sixteen sluice gates below did a decent job of drowning out the crackling gunshots. Two jawans were alternating the odious task of pulling the trigger. On trying to shoot the fourth prisoner, one of the jawans was out of ammo. While he cursed himself, the other raised his weapon, pulled the trigger, but his carbine jammed. He fiddled with it but couldn’t even unclip the magazine. Damn those Chinese and their shitty weapons!
The Captain, observing the ineptitude of his men from the distance, grew impatient, pulled out his side-arm, a charcoal Colt .45, and walked over to the spot. The jawans – both fashioning waxed mustaches like the bumbling detective twins from the Tintin books – froze. They sucked in their protruding paunches and stuck out their chests, standing in a pool of fresh non-coagulated Bengali blood, staring into the horizon. Neither dared meet their superior’s eyes. The officer, visibly annoyed, slapped each once and called them gandus (Urdu for asshole). The jawans remained frozen – still staring at the horizon. But the fourth prisoner, amused, broke out in laughter. The Captain shot him through the heart. No cri de coeur. No last gasp. No commotion. No drama. The man slumped sideways and fell to his death. Not even a writhing limb or twitching toe. The jawans – still staring at the horizon – admired the power of the officer’s weapon and American technological superiority. Shabash.
The last standing prisoner was trembling, sweating profusely, chanting ‘Allah’ repeatedly, as if in a trance. The Captain raised his weapon with a degree of uncertainty, and then paused.
The officer’s voice wasn’t loud enough. He lowered his weapon, moved closer to the prisoner’s ear, and asked again – this time yelling loudly.
‘Professor Moin Samad?’
The prisoner had lost his voice and was now shaking vigorously. He desperately tried to nod but his nervous system was failing him. The Captain removed the prisoner’s blindfold, and shocked, turned to his men:
‘This man was my professor at Kakul (Pakistan Military Academy). Take him home and make sure he is unharmed.’
He was sweating buckets. His chest hurt. It felt like an elephant was stepping on his ribcage. It wasn’t quite as bad as two years ago when he had that heart attack. But it was still intolerable. He was unable to move any further. The stress was untenable for his weakened heart. With his shaking hands he was barely able to pop a couple of nitroglycerin tablets under his tongue. He clutched his chest, and wondered if he’d ever see his family again. Then he fainted.
He opened his eyes inside a small hut. He was lying on an uncomfortable floor that was made from uneven strips of bamboo. A mongoloid-looking little boy sat at his side – busy inspecting the contents of his wallet. The boy looked familiar. He could’ve sworn that he’d seen this face before. There was nothing much of value in the wallet so he just lay there; exhausted.
In a few minutes the family showed up. He knew these people. The boy’s father helped him sit up and lean against a bamboo pillar – sliding a little cushion behind his head. The mistress handed him a bowl of congee that was vile-smelling. God only knew what these savages ate. He’d heard stories that they’d even eat dog-vomit and pig entrails – raw! He overcame the foul odor and took a couple of mouthfuls. He readily felt better. The warm food did wonders for his weakened body and distraught soul. It was reassuring to be in the company of friends. He knew this tribe. He knew them from his hunting expeditions.
After the meal, feeling stronger, he got up, thanked his hosts, and made his way to the door. It was just after dusk. In the dying light he saw the village ready for an exodus. The hogs were out of their pens and had been placed in harnesses like Santa’s reindeer. Chickens, their legs tied, were in crowded wicker baskets, sitting on their own poop, eating the fleas off each others’ feathers. Bags of different sizes and shapes were packed and lying everywhere. People were mostly sitting at the steps of their huts. The men smoked. The women combed each others’ hair and discussed their sex lives. The children were being children. Running around. Chasing each other. Laughing. Crying. Oblivious of the perils of Operation Searchlight.
At the bottom of the steps of the hut a makeshift stretcher was ready in the event they had to carry their Bengali friend – the snake-hunter. But he was now walking up and down the space between the two rows of huts.
In the distance a flashlight shone from the top of a hill. This was the signal from their sentry. The Army was coming this way. They would have to dismount from their jeeps and make their way to the village on foot. The hike would take at least three hours. Enough time for the tribe to safely get away to a friendly village that was on the Indian side.
The chief called out the evacuation orders and the entire village began to fall in place into a caravan.
The crowd cheered. The snake-hunter wept. Silently.
No one knew why.
Three open-top jeeps, each ferrying between four and five jawans, arrived at Mrs Samad’s housing colony. Groups of soldiers entered each bungalow and rampantly looted and ransacked them. By now, the surviving men had run away and most families had hid in the jungle or were trying to make their way to nearby tribal villages – any place where an encounter with murderous Pakistani soldiers was less likely.
At the residence of the first family warned by Mrs Samad, soldiers went amok – like a troupe of crazed baboons given large doses of caffeine, equipped with baseball bats, and set loose inside a Swarovski shop. They broke everything they couldn’t take with them – family pictures, flower vases, dishes, TVs, lamps – everything. A lifetime of accumulation reduced to rubble in less than a minute. One particularly surly jawan used the butt of his rifle to shatter bottles of liquor lined up on top of a buffet, and while at it he cursed non-Muslims for their nefarious habits; especially for polluting Pakistan – their sacred land. The pure land. The land that was to be for Muhammad’s followers. He wiped the alcohol-soaked rifle on the family’s sofa and in his anger smashed the glass top of the coffee table with his boot. He stabbed the sofa with his bayonet until all the fluff came out of the cushions.
Two jawans walked down the hallway – a trooper, veteran of the 1965 war with India, and a rookie. It was their turn to loot the bedrooms of this bungalow. That’s where one would find the jewelry, money, and watches. Valuables people left in a hurry to escape with their lives.
The jawans came upon a locked door. The younger of the two kicked the door down and they entered. Inside, they saw the frail frame of a petite woman, from behind, in a praying position; her body and her head covered by her sari, the rug pointing to the west – the direction of Kiblah (Mecca).
They ordered her to turn around but she didn’t oblige. They stepped closer and saw that she had in front of her, resting on a carved wooden bookstand, the Koran – which she was reciting feverishly – her head rocking back and forth. On her lap a months old baby fiddled with its own fingers. It turned its head and looked at the older Jawan with curious eyes and smiled. Under the woman’s left armpit was a toddler – a little girl with curly brown hair – cowering; trying her level best to dislodge her little brother from the safest place in the world.
‘Where is he?’ yelled the younger jawan.
He poked her with the muzzle threateningly and raised his voice.
‘WHERE IS HE?’
The woman looked up indignantly and replied, ‘He left.’
The younger jawan spat on the floor, inches from her prayer mat, and mocked – ‘Cowards these Bengalis. A bunch of cowards! The Captain was right; this mission will be over in a week. We will teach these bahenchots (sister-fuckers) not to fraternize with Hindus. We will kill them like dogs. All of them. Every single one. Bahenchots!’
And with that he trained his carbine at the infant on the young woman’s lap.
The older jawan pointed his own carbine at his comrade’s temple and said in a firm voice – ‘Leave these ones alone.’