The Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 was perhaps one of the bloodiest independence battles ever. Over three million Bengalis were butchered in the fiercest military offensive since World War II. Operation Searchlight—the planned military pacification of Bengalis—is etched in notoriety and still sends shivers down the spine of those who witnessed it unfold. The post-Liberation War generation of Bangladesh grew up to stories that highlighted the brutalities of the nine-month long conflict and the country is largely bound by the horror and grief of the war. There’s no family in Bangladesh that has not been touched by the sacrifices of the Muktijoddhas (freedom fighters).
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But the one thing which is not heard as much as the passionate fighting that defeated the cruel Pakistan Army, were the rapes that took place during the war. Many academics say that it was the first time in history when rape was consciously applied as a strategy against the opponent, and was not a collateral damage of the war. While the role of the Bengali women as fighters in the war is highlighted, stories of the rape camps and war babies are never heard.
But truth needs to be unearthed and a Bangladeshi scholar has done just that to lift the shame from this part of the war as more from the present generation begin asking questions. The country owes a great deal to Bina D’Costa who had tracked down Australian physician Geoffrey Davis, flown to Dhaka by the UN and the International Planned Parenthood Federation. His task was to perform late abortions and facilitate large scale global adoption of the children of war born to Bangladeshi women.
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Davis died in 2008 and what he told D’Costa was published sometime back in a Bangladeshi magazine. The conversation is worth reading in entirety. Davis told stories of women tied to trees and gangraped by the Pakistani soldiers, and Al-Badr and Al-Shams. They were then dumped in mass graves. Davis said that the usual numbers of 2-4 lakh women raped are greatly inaccurate. But what he said is even more spine chilling: “Probably the numbers are very conservative compared with what they did. The descriptions of how they captured towns were very interesting. They’d keep the infantry back and put artillery ahead and they would shell the hospitals and schools. And that caused absolute chaos in the town. And then the infantry would go in and begin to segregate the women. Apart from little children, all those were sexually matured would be segregated. And then the women would be put in the compound under guard and made available to the troops. Some of the stories they told were appalling. Being raped again and again. A lot of them died in those [rape] camps. There was an air of disbelief about the whole thing. Nobody could credit that it really happened! But the evidence clearly showed that it did happen.”
After the war ended, Bangladesh’s first President, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who is often credited with single-handedly guiding the freedom struggle, labelled the rape survivors as Beeranganas or ‘war heroines’, to help them reintegrate into the society. They were even called up on stage and awarded for their bravery during the war. The idea hopelessly backfired. Their stigma was now out in the open. After being abused and impregnated by the Pak soldiers, they were now absolutely ostracised by the society. Many committed suicide or were killed by their husbands and in-laws. Many others murdered their half-Pakistani babies themselves. In fact, some women were so petrified to return to their homes after their captivity that they begged their Pak captors to take them back. They preferred to serve as sex slaves in Pakistan rather than face large scale social exclusion in Bangladesh. Years after the war was over, an NBC reporter found a ghetto, where Bangladeshi women raped and impregnated by Pak soldiers, stayed back till they delivered. Many of the women were in their early teens.
Image source: Talkative Pictures (Raghu Rai)
While much is written about the bloody fighting of the Muktijoddhas and the resistance they put up against Pak artillery, not much is said about the raped women. These wretched souls often took it upon themselves to spare their men folk the bullets of the Pak militia. Yet, even after four decades of Bangladesh’s independence, they continue their miserable decadence. D’Costa terms it as collective “historical amnesia.”
The Rome Statute, after the Bosnia War, officially recognised rape as a war weapon. Time has come for Bangladesh to get the rape crimes tried at the International Crimes Tribunal. The vibrant civil society movement, which Bangladesh boasts of, is unlikely to go anywhere if these women continue to live in misery.