Who am I, if not the war you fought?

I always sought out what it is that ties Bangladeshis together. In my few sheltered years of living, I’ve decided it was the war. 

Art by Bipasha Chakraborty

Content warning: this piece discusses war and violence.

Growing up in Dhaka, traveling to my parents’ villages down south and up north, seeing my very palpable privilege compared to those who had none beyond the freedom to exist, I always sought out what it is that ties Bangladeshis together, amongst the disparities that can all too easily split us into different planes of existence entirely. In my few sheltered years of living, I’ve decided it was the war. 

My father — then a young man my age, studying engineering — left for his village with his friends by command of his movement leader, Faizul Akbar, asking them to rest and return on March 25th. In the morning hours of the 25th, as the friends walked just a few steps from his home, my grandmother called from behind, pleading, “Khalid, don’t go back to Dhaka right now, at least not tonight, I won’t object to you going tomorrow.” My father listened to her, as he always does. 

That night, March 25, 1971, West Pakistan (now Pakistan) conducted Operation Searchlight, massacring students in the same hall in which my father would have slept in that night, hunting down intellectuals — scientists, authors, playwrights, poets, artists, mathematicians — all in an attempt to curb the freedom movement propelled by Bangabandhu, the then newly elected majority leader of Pakistan. 

So it began, a war spanning ten months until Pakistan surrendered on December 16th of the same year. Within those ten months, bodies were strewn about the streets, bodies of sons shot in front of their mothers, daughters assaulted and slaughtered, dried blood staining dirt roads and alleyways as children flitted around, their eyes seeing what they could not comprehend, trying to find their parents again. My father, his brothers, cousins and friends trained, fought, made bombs to blow up railway tracks. Anything they could do to fight back, to fight for our language, our freedom, and independence. The bloodshed remains contested everywhere but in Bangladesh, a country where those who had witnessed it firsthand can attest to the genocide, words that seem to fall on deaf ears still. But not mine, and not any Bangladeshi child born after the war. 

“I was watching a test match between Pakistan and England at Dhaka Stadium… But in no time, the whole stadium went into flames amid the loud ‘Joy Bangla’ slogan… I came out of the stadium to see the entire Gulistan area on fire.” 

Learning about the war and why we fought, celebrating Victory Day, memorizing songs and poems composed with the names of our freedom fighters, mourning on February 21: the day the Pakistani army riddled the bodies of students protesting their right to speak Bangla with lead — was the norm in school. It was never intensely graphic, rather simply truthful. In fact, I was so proud. So proud that my father fought in the war, so proud that we won. I am still so proud. 

I would watch the clock, waiting for it to reach 5pm, and run behind the door to our apartment. When my father rang the bell, I’d open the door slowly, hiding myself behind it. My father, feigning shock, would exclaim “Hey! Who opened the door?!”, that was my cue to jump out and yell “Me! Baba, it was me!”, and run into his open arms. Those mornings would begin with my mom cooking breakfast and making freshly squeezed orange juice. It would end with me and my little sister playing fairies and reading books to sleep after a heavy dinner, sharing secrets past bedtime. I lived a life where you would have never known what my family had been through if you didn’t ask. There was the unrelenting silent guilt.

“Dhaka became the city of fire and smoke.” 

The pressure was always there, alongside the fascination. I had dug myself into a cycle; asking my father to tell me stories of the war, playing it again in my head, then feeling guilty for being so useless. There was the unspoken obligation to never forget, never let my family down, and always do the best I can at university so I can come back and change everything for the better. I felt a strong sense of responsibility to make something good out of the hell my people had gone through, that with my privilege I should create something bigger, better, for the country the one my dad had fought for 50 years ago– when he was the same age that I am now. 

“We all went to Dhaka University’s Arts Faculty building to join a meeting of all students. There, in a very large gathering where anger and violence was evident in everybody’s face, it was resolved that there is no chance for the Bengalis within the framework of Pakistan, and that a liberation of the country is the only solution.” 

The pressure was always there, maybe in my own mind, but as a child, it drove me to a point I can only call madness; sleepless nights, crying to my dad. I still think about it everyday. Is that a part of generational trauma? Seeing the poverty around me? The impact the war has left on our economy? The psyche of my people? The broken infrastructure the government is in perpetual debt to rebuild? The constant race to claim our intellectual property that has been stolen?

Is this propaganda? No. When atrocities are committed to such extremes that the truth appears as a sensationalized abstract in history, it becomes a coping mechanism, perhaps even denial. This is a part of my guilt, obsessively watching videos on Youtube about the war, reading comments of another country taking all the credit, or Pakistanis denying the numbers or actions entirely. We were the victors. How is it that even now we cannot write our own history, the truth, from archives of evidence? How is it that we can be so forgotten? How is it that nobody knows? There’s the guilt. Perhaps I could change all that. If I write about it enough, talk about it enough, read about it enough, people will understand and fully acknowledge it. Is it propaganda if it is a silenced truth we are trying to scream out loud?

“First and foremost was to read the book on guerilla warfare where the tactics of the Albanian urban war against imperialist rulers were described. Then there was this book written by the topmost guerilla of the day, Che Guevara. [We] also decided to collect books on manufacturing molotov cocktails… while reading those books, we also started collecting ingredients to manufacture…” 

Yet, maybe it is not my responsibility. The war has been fought, I was born in a free country with my own free will. I was born into a family that could support my every whim… but maybe that is the true guilt. The guilt of existing without having to fight like my father did before me, the guilt of having everything that others built before me, while having nothing of their own. And there lies the guilt of not earning this. Then there is the guilt of dwelling on this at all; isn’t this what the war was for? So that the future generations could live free? Without a thought of losing your life at the hands of an oppressive power? Is thinking about all of this guilt disrespectful given everything else I could be making of my life instead? I don’t know. At least now you know my train of thought. Obsessive thoughts.

“Incidentally, my room was the lab for these experiments.” 

The war, the guilt, has simply become a part of who I am.

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