Rubina Khalid Sattar
Sun Dec 12 2021 05:00:00 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)
My father was a Major in the Pakistan Army Education Corp during 1971. We were living in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. I remember following the election campaigns and vote counts for different political parties on television. I remember my parents' excitement as they stood in line among West Pakistanis to vote for the Awami League and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. My mother looked worried, and my father was optimistic and jubilant.
On August 1, 1972, months after Bangladesh was formed, our family of six, along with 500 armed force officers and families were taken to Prison Camps in Bannu, in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. This was because we had opted to go to Bangladesh. We left behind our childhood friends, home, car, and other accumulated household items and reached Bannu Cantonment.
We were in Bannu for over five months. There my father, along with other parents, formed a school, called Probashi Biddaloy (overseas school) consisting of grades one through twelve. Us students were taught by parents and other university students. We were lucky in that we were taught Bangla by someone with a master's in Bangla, Geography by a lady with a master's in Geography, Arithmetic and Algebra by a physician and respected mathematician.
Everything was made unnecessarily difficult. None of the teachers let us hide under the cover of not knowing Bangla; there were no sympathies that it was harder for us, compared to the Bangla medium students. Their expectations of us were based on our performance. Any linguistic challenges that we had, had to be fixed by us with the help of our parents. My siblings and I spoke Bangla but could not read or write in Bangla. We had been to English missionary schools and were fluent in English and Urdu. We had to copy all subject books by hand, making the learning curve exponentially high. Needless to say, our Bangla handwriting improved overnight.
In the winter months, we sat on the grass for our lessons on sunny days; when it rained we quickly ran indoors to all the parents who opened the doors to their homes for us. In the summer months, we had makeshift school benches put together by a plank of wood, sitting on top of two brick pillars. Our writing surface was another such contraption, though a bit higher. We would move our benches depending on the season and time of day. It seemed like a lot of work, but we had fun and I don't remember missing our regular school furniture.
We made lots of friends and the bonds that grew from there and continued when we were moved to another camp, Mandi Bahauddin, in Punjab where we stayed for another ten months. We had to buy our groceries from a commissary store within the barbed-wire enclosed compound. Our parents were paid half their government salaries and had to pay whatever the asking price was asked for at the store. For all of us there, we had a common goal and objective – to go to Bangladesh. Despite the proximity and barbed wire fence, the thought of Bangladesh made it easier for all of us.
Speaking for myself, I think we learned to adjust to the changing circumstances very well. Later, whatever life sprung on us did not seem like an insurmountable obstacle. We learned that anything could be overcome with focus. Of course, our parents tried to make our lives easier and not let their fear and despair influence us. Another byproduct of that time, personally, has been that I seem to do well in chaotic and uncertain circumstances, perhaps because everything comes down to the bottom line. Priorities are few and I only think of the essentials, not sweating the little stuff.
We were about three thousand people together in Mandi Bahauddin. More than 45 years have gone by. Even so, whenever we come across friends and adults from prison camp days, we meet as if the intervening years never happened and bask in each other's love and affection, remembering the joys and hardships from our shared time together.
We were taken to a hill for firing practice. After the 28th day of camp firing, we celebrated until midnight. Some of us danced with the instructors on their shoulders. The following day a commission rank army officer gave us a gorgeous farewell with 50 taka each.
We were sent to a camp in West Bengal, where we stayed for 10 days. We were overjoyed to know that we were going back to our motherland. Two buses carried us to the border. We were unfed and tired but well-equipped. We walked during the night and stopped by day.
There were three camp locations—Chitalmari, Khalispur, and Dhapakhel. Our captain, Tajul Islam, took his quarters at Khalispur. I was entrusted with planning, operating, and rationing as part of the intelligence branch. We rested one day, then prepared for an operation with our weapons. We ran about two and a half miles and took position on the south bank of the Kachua Canal. There was heavy firing. Enemies countered the attack. Eventually, they stopped firing and retreated.
Bagerhat stands on the Bhairab river. It was the headquarters for Razakars and the Punjabi police. On several occasions, we crossed the river by boat and caused heavy casualties. We returned safe and sound every time. Once, we were able to shoot the Razakar leader but he was taken to a military hospital, escaping death narrowly. We carried on an operation to a building where a chairman lived on the bank of the Baleshwari river. He lived in a well-guarded building surrounded by thick walls. At the dead of night, we took positions around the building and fired. They fired back. Some of us jumped the wall and almost broke into the main building. The other Razakars nearby were quickly informed. We were losing. Two of our freedom fighters were shot dead. Towards the end of the mission, the Razakars took shelter in buildings in the town and didn’t come out.
We won on December 16, 1971, Victory Day, following the surrender of the occupation army. We couldn’t go home to Bagerhat right away, but when we did we were given a gorgeous reception, one that is still fresh in our memories.