Bangladesh's long wait for justice

Culprits go unpunished for deaths of 3m people during struggle for independence.


    Bangladeshi authorities claim that three million people were killed, while a Pakistani
    government investigation put the figure as low as 26,000 civilian casualties

    He stood rigid like he had seen a ghost which he probably had. His face was expressionless, devoid of emotion, belying the inner turmoil that Tapan Kumar Das was obviously wrestling with.


    We stood at culvert number 337, one kilometre down the tracks from Saidpur railway station, a small Bangladesh town close to the Indian border.

    It was the first time 62-year-old Kumar Das had stood here since that day, June 13, 1971. Within a few minutes it all came flooding back to him. And the story he told me made me understand why he had never come back since.


    During the war of Liberation with Pakistan he was rounded up along with another 430 men women and children, all of them Hindus.

    Their captors were fellow Bengalis, but Muslim supporters of Pakistan who were fighting against secession.

    The train slowed to a halt, he told me, and then Hindus were brought out of the carriages.


    "Men with swords and knives were waiting," he said. "And they were crying 'help me help me, save me save me, oh god save me' but no one there, no one there. They killed us one by one. Only 21 people, 21 young men we jump from the train and narrowly escaped."


    Das said that Pakistani soldiers were waiting on the other side and opened fire as he and the 20 young men ran.

    Family lost

    He has never forgotten what happened, forgiven those who did it, nor travelled on a train since.


    Some things that happened are reminiscent of the Holocaust. This is a never ending list of atrocities, violence beyond imagination"

    Dr M.A Hasan,
    War Crimes Fact Finding Commission
    Das says he lost 13 members of his family that day including his father, elder brother, uncle and cousins, cut down by swords and bullets in a preplanned execution. 


    His story is but a small part of a greater picture of horror that happened during nine bloody months as the war of liberation was won with the help of India and the nation of Bangladesh came into being.


    But it came at a terrible cost.

    According to Bangladeshi activists up to three million people were killed by Pakistan and its local allies. Pakistan denies the allegations and claims just 25,000 people were killed.


    The full story of what happened those 37 years has largely been suppressed, in part by international manipulation during the Cold War era, and in part by delicate domestic politics and concerns.


    This could change however. There is a growing momentum within Bangladesh for pressure to get an international war crimes tribunal convened to try those accused.

    Evidence collected


    A group called the War Crimes Fact Finding Commission was started a few years ago to collate evidence.


    "Some things that happened are reminiscent of the Holocaust. This is a never ending list of atrocities, violence beyond imagination" said Dr. M.A Hasan one of the leading members of the commission.

    His brother was killed during the war and he has devoted 19 years of his life to the pursuit of justice.


    "We have tried for reconciliation. If the perpetrators, if they don't open their minds how can you forgive, how can we get dialogue," he said.

    "They need to open their minds and confront the truth or they should feel guilt and then the victim can say we push for reconciliation."


    There have been half hearted moves before to get justice but these all petered out.

    But this time however, there is added momentum with the backing of a group of formers senior military officers known as the Sector Commanders Forum.


    "We cannot have reconciliation without truth, we cannot base reconciliation on falsehood so we want the truth and truth can only come out through trial so we want the truth, we want the light, we want to come out of the darkness we are living today," A.K. Khandker, retired air vice-marshal, said. 


    He was a sector commander in the Pakistani army in 1971 and said he saw how civilians were brutally murdered.

    But Khandker says that he and other officers were spurred to join the calls for a tribunal because of what he calls "the denials and lies" being offered by some about what happened in 1971.

    War crimes 

    The Fact Finding commission has documented thousands of incidents of alleged war crimes, taken thousands of statements from survivors and eye witnesses and collected video and photographic evidence.

    It has resulted in a total of 1,600 people being official accused of war crimes. This number includes 456 Pakistani soldiers as well hundreds of locals who fought with Pakistan.


    Many members of Bangladesh's intellectual
    community were murdered
    These include some from major Bangladesh religious parties, some of whom have served in government as ministers. But the accusations are completely denied.


    Abdur Razzaq is a London trained barrister who is also assistant secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islam.


    He said: "These are mere allegations. The onus is on them to prove these allegations. As far as we are concerned it was a political decision, we have never been involved with any of those crimes.

    "Yes we supported Pakistan but we are not involved with any of the crimes - rape, murder or looting, and no one has bee convicted."


    Up until recently, there was little to show for that dark period; a few monuments but no official museum. It has been left to a few private individuals to start their own Museum of the War of Liberation, containing memorabilia from that period including human skulls and bones of victims.


    Akku Chowdhury is trustee of the museum.


    "There were people didn't know about the liberation war, they didn't even know about the genocide because there was a systematic policy of erasing that part of history after 1975," he tod Al Jazeera.

    "So due to that vacuum we decided to start this museum so that at least we could show to the new generation how the nation was born, what price we had to pay for this flag, for this independence."

    Rape allegations


    There are many examples of the human price that was paid.

    Hasina Begum remembers 1971. She says she was wounded by Pakistani soldiers who shot dead her mother and then smashed her two young brothers into a wall until dead.


    The Pakistani soldiers were like devils.
    I only survived because I played dead"
    "As they burst into our room my father said 'it is the end of the universe' and we started to read the Quran" she said while wiping tears from her eye.

    "The Pakistani soldiers were like devils. I only survived because I played dead."


    It is claimed that 450,000 women were raped during the nine months of hostilities.

    Some committed suicide, others had abortions. Those who gave birth gave their babies up for adoption in countries like Canada and the United States. Few received any counselling or help. Some were even shunned by the conservative society.


    That is what happened to Butul Rani. She says she was taken to Dhaka prison by Pakistani soldiers and was raped twice in three days. She was 13 years old.

    "If I had a weapon I could have killed them" she said.

    "Every human being has got some dignity and after I was raped my dignity was destroyed. Many people said unkind things after the incident."


    It is clear that a growing number of people feel the dignity of Bangladesh has suffered because no has been held accountable for what happened all those years ago.

    UN tribunal

    The only way for the damage to be repaired is for a United Nations tribunal to be convened.


    A.K. Khandker, a former air vice-marchal, agrees.


    "If the United Nations is involved for this trial, the trial will carry credibility and second thing that once the United Nations is involved no political party coming into power will be able to stop it or cancel it," he said.


    That has happened in the past but the momentum this time may be too much for any political party to stop. 


    "Those who are responsible for killing three million people should be behind bars," Shahriar Kabir, a writer and journalist, said.

    "The important thing is criminals should face the trial, they should be punished so that such crimes cannot be repeated."


    But, standing on the railway tracks at Saidpur, Tapad Kumar Das, fears that justice may be put off once more.

    "They must come before the law," he said almost pleading. "Justice, yes justice. If not they will come again, they will organise and come again. No doubt".


    Before the UN can consider setting up war crimes tribunal there must first be an official request from the government.

    Bangladesh will not have a government to replace the current emergency caretaker administration until next January, but many parties are already indicating they will include the issue of a tribunal in their mandates.


    It is not certain if Bangladesh will get justice and its day in court. But until it does it will be difficult for many to move on, away from the memories of the terrible cost that was paid for the birth of a nation.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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