Read time: 26 mins

The Golden Land that Bled to Death

An Excerpt from a War Diary from the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War

by Anwar Shahid Khan
15 June 2021

Translated from Urdu to English by Taimoor Shahid 

Translator’s note

Translating a war diary poses unique rhetorical challenges: the voice changes, the tense shifts, the narrative breaks, information is sometimes incomplete and is not always logically organized—such is the nature of quickly jotting down what one can during war. How then does one balance the archival historical truth-value of such prose with the readability of narrative? It becomes even more difficult when there are at least three editions of the diary made at different historical times: the notes as they were originally inscribed on different physical materials—in different diaries, on scraps of collected paper, etc.; an edition a year later that adds some context and information to the entries, making them more readable; and then retrospective edits in text by the author thirty-forty years later.

While the choices were hard, I decided to maintain the integrity of the diary without burdening the English reader too much with lack of information or structure. For example, I did not re-arrange sentences even if they were choppy, though I broke them down into separate paragraphs (unlike in the original) so it reads better. Similarly, I chose to translate from the second edition which sparingly added minor clarifying details to the original entries, making them more accessible without burdening them with retrospective additions and subtractions that the author chose to undertake several decades later. I tried to maintain his voice as it was during the war to retain its narrative urgency as well as its historical truth. Nevertheless, I tried to idiomatically temper the emotionality of his voice at some places to match the (in)capacity of English to carry sentiment: what feels emotionally charged in Urdu is easily translated into sentimentality in English. Such an idiomatic shift may sound less emotionally effective in Urdu if literally translated back from the English translation, but I chose what was rhetorically most eloquent and affective in English. Yet, in other places I maintained the original shifts in tenses within paragraphs and sometimes even within sentences. Such shifts are common to Urdu but English finds them hard to digest; I tried with this choice to translate the uncertainty running through the diary which would’ve been lost if I ironed out the tenses.

In short, the translation is a dance of choices made in either direction—tending closer to Urdu idiom in some instances, and to the principles of English rhetoric in another—a fine balance poised on the fulcrum of affective accuracy, which is also the balance pole used in this performance.

* ‘Army’ in the text refers to Pakistan Army. See glossary.


 

The Golden Land that Bled to Death

 

28 March 1971

A loud roar on the megaphone suddenly woke me. A voice, announcing that the curfew which was to end at seven am would now continue. And a little later…bang…bang…bang…a few gunshots nearby. We went outside to see but we couldn’t figure out anything. Children’s faces were pale with fright. Then we heard more shots fired one after another, followed by the sound of crossfire.

Suddenly, a blast shook the ground. Help Ya Allah! the heart cried. It seemed like the Army was shelling Police Lines. My heart sank with every subsequent blast. The sound of automatic gunfire filled the air. A bullet could also be heard here and there. It seemed like a full-blown combat. A hundred questions flooded our minds.

Tahir, the gardener, brought news in the afternoon that a column of smoke was rising from Police Lines. Imdad’s younger sister panicked on hearing this; I distracted her with a game of Ludo. Tahir came with more news after some time: the East Pakistan Rifles has attacked the Army and has destroyed most of its vehicles. The EPR is also using cannons. But no one believed this.

We tried to forget everything and began playing a game of Court Piece to distract ourselves. But no sooner had we started than we saw all our neighbours fleeing. When we asked them why, they said that the military is moving this way, setting houses on fire in its wake.

We were alarmed to hear that. It was nerve-wracking news, and even Uncle panicked. ‘I am not as worried about my life as about your aunty and sisters. If the soldiers humiliate the women in any way, that would be the end of my life,’ he said. ‘Inshallah nothing like that would happen,’ I tried to reassure him. Then Imdad took me to another room. ‘I hadn’t even seen the dawn of my life, […] bhai, and it’s already setting,’ he said ‘I can see death before me, and I’m ready to die.’ I reassured him too and tried to raise everyone’s spirits.

I was silently computing all possibilities in my mind and assessing all our options. I was sure that being from West Pakistan, especially from Lahore, I’d be able to protect the lives and honour of Imdad’s family. Their lives were dearer to me than my own right now. I offered Maghrib prayers and begged Allah for courage and patience, and for help to succeed in this trial. When I finished my prayers, I saw Imdad praying with his sisters in the other room. He was leading the prayers. When they finished praying, all of them raised their hands to beg God for mercy. It was a heart-wrenching sight.

Meanwhile, heard a rumour that the military has run out of ammo, and all the soldiers headed this way are now fleeing back to their camp. We learnt later that the rumour is false; the soldiers have returned to the barracks as planned. We couldn’t find out more about the situation. (We learnt later that they had cleared the area across from their barracks, cottages that could potentially be used as shelter by their opponents.)

 

29 March 1971

The strain is incessant. I can hardly bring myself to do anything. I don’t even feel like journalling.

There was a lot of uncertainty this morning, with numerous rumours going around. Heard one early morning that the EPR and the Police have routed the Army in a joint operation, and the city is now under the EPR’s control.

I was listening to news on the radio when a gentleman came and told us that the Police are distributing rifles and have called everyone capable of operating a gun to the station. Soon after the gardener brought news that all the sepoys at Police Lines have been killed. Their shroudless corpses are strewn everywhere, and people are running away with their rifles.

There was another rumour that all the inmates have escaped the jail.

No one believed the gardener, but soon it was confirmed that heavy shelling had destroyed Police Lines, and many policemen had been killed.

We decided to dig trenches lest we get caught in crossfire. My experience of the previous war proved useful. (I lived close to the Indian border at Lahore during the 1965 India-Pakistan war. The battle took place at the Bambanwala-Ravi-Bedian (BRB) canal at Jallo, which was just six miles from my house in Pakistan Mint Colony.)

There hasn’t been an announcement since morning, and we are uncertain about the state of the curfew.

Nizam brought news that the Army had also dug trenches and had set fire to the cottages around their location. ‘Their strength is reasonable,’ he said, ‘and must be around one thousand,’ he guessed.

The radio station is also in their control. Though it abruptly went off air in the afternoon. All India Radio reported in the evening that masses have attacked the Dhaka Radio Station and a bloody battle is taking place. (I learnt upon reaching Dhaka that this was false news cooked up by All India Radio, and the Dhaka Radio had gone off air due to a power failure.)

The BBC correspondent suspects that the news of Sheikh Mujib’s arrest is true.

About ten to twelve shots were fired today.

The news about EPR’s rebellion in Rajshahi proved to be false. The EPR is still with the Army.

I miss home sometimes but there’s no way back. The future seems utterly dark.

 

30 March 1971

It’s a struggle between life and death. Everything is uncertain. Death seems so close; at times I can hear its footsteps.

In addition to the Liberation Army, I now fear the thieves and dacoits who escaped the sub-jail today. Then there’s the biggest of all enemies that is always with you, closer than your own shadow…your stomach…hunger…If the situation remains the same, people will start dying of hunger very soon.

I woke up this morning with a torrent of frightening, painful truths. They stormed my thoughts as if already waiting for my mind’s window to open. My dreams were horrifying too, but they were just dreams after all.

Kalam sahib arrived early in the morning. He works for an insurance company. A discussion on the current affairs ensued immediately upon his arrival. He is an optimist by nature but also finds it expedient to be one in these circumstances. He thinks that the Army wouldn’t be able to fight for more than a few days and would ultimately have to surrender.

According to All India Radio, Chittagong, Jessore, Comilla, Rajshahi and Dinajpur have all been captured by the Liberation Army. People were always suspicious of news from All India Radio, but the quality of its reporting these days has diminished its credibility even more. Although the Army is not in full control of Rajshahi, it’s not under control of the Liberation Army either. There’s no doubt though that the Army is in bad shape in various districts of Rajshahi and has resorted to shelling as and when necessary.

Two jets flew over Rajshahi early in the morning. A few shops and offices that had reopened after a suspension in the curfew closed immediately after this episode.

Caravan upon caravan of people on rickshaws, on tongas and on foot are moving towards the villages from the city.

Today we learnt that amongst the many policemen killed by the Army’s shelling of Police Lines, the bodies of seventeen were recovered. They were buried after funeral prayers. The Army arrested an equal number of people but released them later after intervention by the deputy commissioner.

We learnt in the afternoon that the Liberation Army has captured one of the towns of Rajshahi District and is now moving towards the city. The police and the EPR are also with them.

The Army has confined itself to guarding the radio station, the telegraph office, the telephone exchange and the power station. Their morale appears to be high. They have further strengthened their position after taking a granary into their control.

There are rumours that the Army is in terrible shape in Pabna and that it might fall under the Liberation Army’s control very soon.

All India Radio reported in the evening that Dhaka University has been bombed. According to estimates, around fifty professors have been killed. A hospital has also been bombed. According to Radio Australia, General Tikka Khan has died after suffering injuries.

Listening to All India Radio news broadcast right now. Fierce fighting taking place for control of Dhaka Airport and the Cantonment, it reports. India is trying its best to take full advantage of the situation.

A Red Cross airplane is due to land in Dhaka tomorrow.

Uncle collected both of his rifles from the police station today, but we heard a new announcement that the rifles must be returned to the police again.

The sweeper resumed his duty this morning. Two of his companions had been killed, which is why he hadn’t come for the last two days, he told us.

The situation is so uncertain one can’t tell what will happen tomorrow. Both sides will try to win at all cost. And the result…? When life becomes so cheap, it loses its value completely…

Hearing rumours all day is taxing. My nerves can’t take it for too long and my head starts hurting before nightfall.

 

31 March 1971

The night passed. When I opened my eyes in the morning, I found Imdad listening to BBC radio. It wasn’t time yet for the news bulletin, and the station was playing an English folk song. The simplicity of a village melody felt soothing in an anxious time like this. I got up, washed myself and had breakfast. Since tea wasn’t yet ready, I left the dining table to join others. They were all listening to news on All India Radio. Shortly, Aunty brought me tea herself. I was overcome with gratitude. But the bitterness of fresh news dissolved in my mouth with tea.

Dhaka Radio was off air for several days. It has resumed its transmissions today. All India Radio had reported that the Liberation Army had captured Dhaka Radio, but Dhaka Radio clarified that the transmission lapse was due to a power failure.

All India Radio had also reported fierce fighting between Mujib’s supporters and the Army at Dhaka Airport and the Cantonment yesterday, but the planes flying from Dhaka roaming over Rajshahi told a different story.

All India Radio is reporting today that Sheikh Mujib’s supporters have captured Dhaka. No one is ready to believe this either. However, correspondents from Yugoslavia and Telegraph London have verified that the university’s halls have been shelled.

People are leaving for the villages in the thousands.

There’s also news of fighting at Kushtia, Comilla and Chittagong and of planes bombing various locations.

Some people are calling this uprising a mutiny. But I am in a fix. Should I call it a mutiny or merely a reaction to the oppressive exploitation of the past 24 years? When I look back at history, I find that this piece of land played a key role in the creation of Pakistan. Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister of Pakistan, whose mother tongue was Urdu and who belonged to Karnal, Panipat, was elected to the Legislative Assembly on a Muslim League ticket from Dhaka. Who can forget the achievements of Fazlul Haq, the Lion of Bengal, who has to his credit the honour of presenting the Pakistan Resolution at the historic meeting of the Muslim League in Lahore? I think of the volunteers who walked all the way from here to Punjab, the Frontier Province and Kashmir to participate in the movement of Syed Ahmed Shaheed. I recall the war against Indian aggression just a few years ago in 1965, in which the Bengal Regiment fought bravely and won the highest number of medals. The spirit and enthusiasm of the people from East Pakistan was no less than West Pakistanis’ during that war. I think…and am left flabbergasted. At what a strange crossroads of history we stand.

Radio Australia just reported that the Pakistan Army has overcome initial resistance and is in full control of all the major cities of East Pakistan including Dhaka. The bulletin had just finished when we heard chopper blades slicing the air. We came out and saw a helicopter of Pakistan Air Force flying quite high. It circled around slowly, then landed at the Army’s camp. Immediately a rumour spread that the helicopter has brought several soldiers and many ammo boxes.

Heard another rumour that the Liberation Army has captured Pabna and that the Pakistan Army has left the battlefield. Like many others rumours, this too was hard to believe.

Pakistan Army soldiers do not come out of their camp in Rajshahi all day and spend most of their time in trenches. None of the rumours were verified until evening, though one thing is certain: the Army has been confined to its camp in Rajshahi. And if even one section of the Liberation Army manages to organize here, it would be difficult for the Pakistan Army to handle it.

We tried to distract ourselves in the evening by playing games on the lawn as usual. After Maghrib prayers, we put some chairs on the lawn and sat there awhile telling each other jokes and tales. No one seemed bothered by the death hiding in wooden boxes stored just a couple of miles away.

Morale is key. Instead of dying with fear, trembling, it’s better to keep one’s morale high and fight the situation with firm resolve.

 

2 April 1971

Couldn’t write yesterday’s entry. Didn’t have the time. It was April 1 and we were almost fooled. There was a rumour the day before yesterday that the Liberation Army was planning a grand attack against the Pakistan Army. The rumour spread like wildfire yesterday. Everyone was saying, ‘Flee! The attack can begin any moment.’ But where could we go? From the frying pan into the fire?

We eventually decided to take shelter at the house of Qayyum—a gardener in Uncle’s office—whose village is three miles away. I’ve read about funny tricks of fate in storybooks, but right now we were ourselves characters in such a tale. The luggage was packed in no time.

Imdad didn’t want to leave. He said we can all go but he’d stay behind. Tears rolled from Aunty’s eyes on hearing this. ‘What is the point of being safe if I have to be without you?’ she said. ‘If we are to die, we will die together, so we too will stay,’ she declared.

Imdad melted on hearing this and agreed to leave. But soon after, Uncle declared he’d stay back to look after the house. Aunty teared up again, and it was eventually decided that whatever we do we would do it together.

As per plan, Mushtaq sahib, our next-door neighbour who had resolved to join us with his family, left for Qayyum’s village in his jeep. Since our jeep was out of order, we too were going to ride in Mushtaq sahib’s jeep when it returned. But soon after Mushtaq sahib left, we saw a few Army jeeps speeding in the same direction. Mushtaq sahib would not send his jeep back under these circumstances, we assumed.

Kalam sahib came over in the meantime. He thought it unwise to leave at this time. The rumour about the attack on the Army could be false, he said. After a brief discussion, everyone agreed with him. Meanwhile, Qayyum brought news that Mushtaq sahib’s jeep has broken down. Through him, we conveyed to Mushtaq sahib our decision to stay back. After some time, Mushtaq sahib returned too. He and his family had to spend these four-five hours under a mango tree because many of Qayyum’s relatives had already gathered in his house. We thanked God we were saved from unnecessary trouble.

Since the situation is now more precarious, Bilal and I decided to keep watch at night. We went to bed early in the evening to wake up later that night.

We woke up at two. Took a round around the house. And bucked up Tahir, Ali and Nizam, servants whom Uncle had already asked to keep watch. They were in high spirits to find us with them.

Suddenly firing started somewhere in the west. It gained momentum with every minute. The sound of machine gun fire and mortar followed. It seemed liked a fierce battle was going on. We climbed the roof to look around but couldn’t ascertain anything. Everyone surmised that it was a border skirmish between the Pakistan Army and the Indian forces; the Indian border was only four-five miles away. Fierce fighting continued all night.

We learnt next morning that the Army had attacked the rebel EPR forces approaching from Nawab Ganj. We heard in the evening that the EPR was advancing from all directions to surround and cordon off the Army.

 

3 April 1971

A powerful blast woke us up around one in the morning. We stepped out of our rooms rubbing our eyes. It seemed that the Pakistan Army was using heavy artillery to attack the EPR, firing a couple of shells after regular intervals. The flash from the shell flares was lighting up the whole sky. Since the army camp was not too far, the house shook with every shell they fired, and the windows clattered. The shelling continued till dawn.

In the morning we learnt that the EPR is advancing on Nohata Road, which joins Rajshahi to Nawab Ganj, its border town. EPR forces in Nawab Ganj have rebelled and are now moving towards Rajshahi. They have ordered everyone on Nohata Road to vacate their houses.

Our residence was also on Nohata Road. We decided to vacate it immediately. But where could we go? Initially we decided to seek refuge in the city, at the residence of a doctor friend of Kalam sahib’s. But later Uncle changed his mind, and we shifted to Mateen sahib’s house. He was one of Uncle’s friends and a government official in a high post. Kalam sahib, however, went to his doctor friend’s place.

I have met Mateen sahib a couple of times before. A decent old fellow, he is a good man and also very learned. He had a room freed up for us in the northern part of his house. Our luggage, however, was placed in the drawing room. Now all of us were complete refugees.

Mateen sahib’s house was close to the jail. When I went out for a walk, I ran into a havaldar, a lower officer of the jail. He told me that some policemen in connivance with some jail wardens had conspired to revolt. They approached the high officials of the jail and demanded that they be provided with rifles, but the officials refused. They were very upset by this. Someone reported this incident to the Army, who immediately surrounded the jail and arrested the suspects. ‘I was one of those who got arrested,’ he said. ‘We thought that we would be put before the firing squad, but the major treated us very well and let us go after advice and counsel,’ he added. He was relieved and astonished at the major’s behavior.

Around three in the afternoon we heard the roaring of military jets. Chaos ensued. Everyone ran for shelter. I hid under a staircase. We thought the jets would bomb the area, but they only strafed EPR positions and returned. There were rumours the jets dropped napalm bombs, but they ultimately proved to be false.

 

4 April 1971

Intense firing woke everyone up at three in the morning. A machine gun appeared to be positioned very close to us. The deep dark of a cloudy night made the blasts even more terrifying.

A fierce battle continued all night. But when the sun rose it was all quiet, except the bang of a bullet fired here and there. We couldn’t find out anything about what happened last night; we received no information from any quarter.

The fighter planes attacked thrice today. Because the EPR’s positions were only three-four miles away—close to the Army camp—the jets dived down from just above our heads every time.

The children aren’t as scared any more. It has rather become a tamasha for them.

 

5 April 1971

Generally, the first group of fighter jets arrives at ten in the morning. Thus at around seven today, Imdad and I went to check on the house we had abandoned. There was hardly anyone in the city, except one or two people, who looked terrified. We managed to reach our destination somehow. There was no disturbance on the way.

Shakeel and Nikoo, the two servants, were both present at the house. They keep watch in the day and leave for their homes at night. There was firing all through the night yesterday, they told us. Aijaz also turned up meanwhile—he looks after Kalam sahib’s house. He told us that a shell exploded behind Kalam sahib’s house, and the boundary wall now has a crack. EPR soldiers passed by the house last night on their way to the city, he added. They are still hiding somewhere there. He guessed that bullets must have hit our house too, and after a bit of searching he found a bullet mark a few inches from Uncle’s bedroom window. Its location suggested it was fired by the EPR towards the Army.

Meanwhile, Tahir the gardener arrived. Bullets have also riddled the overseer’s house, he said.

We asked Nikoo to milk the cow and Shabbir to slaughter a few chickens and went to see the overseer’s house, which was only a few yards away. Tahir was right. Bursts of bullets had ripped the walls of the house. A papaya tree had fallen. And several bullets had hit the inner walls of the house through the windows. A shell must have exploded here too, I surmised.

When we returned, we saw a snake rustling outside the main door. We tried to kill it, but it slid into a hole. We collected the milk and the chickens and made our way back. I picked up some clothes from my stuff that I had left at the house along with Imdad’s. We had left in a hurry and had no time to take our things.

A thick column of smoke was rising from settlements nearby. Upon inquiring we learnt that the Army is burning down huts to keep the area around their camp clear.

We returned to Mateen sahib’s place safely. No sooner had we caught our breath than we heard a helicopter hovering above us, and along with it the shouts of children, ‘Jets are here, jets are here.’ The shouts of children brought everyone outside. The jets began their attack as usual and the helicopter landed at the Army camp. When it took off again, the jets also returned with it. The jets came again after that, twice, and returned after strafing each time.

Mateen sahib’s house is in a secluded and peaceful corner of the city. It’s less risky here and we feel relatively safe.

Just tuned the transistor to All India Radio for news. It’s reporting that planes have bombed Rajshahi Central Jail and it has been razed to the ground. I inadvertently looked through the open window and saw the tale of All India Radio’s lies inscribed on the tall black wall of the jail.


 

A note about the excerpt: 

This is an excerpt from the war diary of Shaakh (a pseudonym for Anwar Shahid Khan), a student from Lahore studying at Dhaka University in 1971. The diary is a record of the tumultuous events and their various narratives that he experienced during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 in the erstwhile East Pakistan. It begins with episodes from March 1971, when unrest that culminated in the war began in Dhaka and continues till the end of June 1971, when Shaakh was finally able to return to Lahore, in the then West Pakistan.

The diary traces Shaakh’s journey as a ‘Panjabi’ from West Pakistan in war-torn East Pakistan. Shaakh first fled from Dhaka to Rajshahi, where the family of a Bengali friend provided him shelter. But when the war spread to Rajshahi, they were forced to flee to the Indian refugee camp across the river Padma and then back to Rajshahi from the refugee camp itself.

All this while Shaakh maintained a diary in Urdu, his mother tongue, but also a dangerous language in the context of this war. A civil conflict with complex historical reasons, it was also heavily drawn along ethno-linguistic lines between the majority Bengali-speaking population of East Pakistan who rebelled and the Urdu/Panjabi-speaking West Pakistan. This was even more complicated by the perceived (and sometimes genuine) support for the Pakistani military operation by the Urdu-speaking minority population of East Pakistan, who suffered violence at the hands of the Liberation Army, from whom Shaakh also had to hide throughout the conflict. Maintaining a diary in Urdu in these circumstances was a sure give-away of his non-Bengaliness, a secret he and his Bengali hosts were at pains to keep. Yet, he continued to journal and bravely kept a record of killing, looting and arson but also bare life during war and the ways in which borders were created, navigated and transcended.

The diary was published in thirty serialized episodes in November 1971 in a special supplement of Daily Musawat, a leading Urdu newspaper published from Lahore, West Pakistan at that time, edited by leftist stalwarts like Hanif Ramay and Shafqat Tanvir Mirza. They warned Shaakh of the dire consequences of its publication in the circumstances of a war in which there was a news blackout from East Pakistan. Yet Shaakh wanted to do what seemed like the only ethical thing to do at that time: listen to the voice of his conscience and commit to truth. He had to go into hiding after the publication when his identity was revealed, and he and his family were socially castigated and their lives threatened with killing and arson, though they were lucky to escape such a fate. The Urdu diary was again published in book form in 1972 with the title Padma Surkh Hai, The Bloodied Padma (a major river of Bangladesh and the main distributary of the Ganges); however, it never saw distribution and sales. It has not been published since, though a Bangla translation was published from Dhaka as a book and as a special supplement in a leading Bangladeshi newspaper in 2013. An English translation is as yet unpublished, and this is the first time that an excerpt is being published anywhere.

The episodes excerpted here are an account of life in Rajshahi, a major city in the then East Pakistan located on the north bank of the river Padma bordering India. They narrate events of 28 March–5 April 1971, a few days before Shaakh and his hosts fled to the Indian refugee camp across the river Padma. These diary entries are a record of life in Rajshahi during Operation Searchlight—a planned military operation carried out by the Pakistan Army with the aim of eliminating Bengali nationalist movement in the major cities of the then East Pakistan—and show a glimpse of the uncertainty, volatility and trauma of the 1971 war as experienced by Shaakh and those around him.

 

 

#glossary

Glossary:

EPR: East Pakistan Rifles, the border security force of the then East Pakistan, whose members rebelled and turned against the Pakistan Army

Army, Military: Pakistan Army

Liberation Army: Mukti Bahini, the guerilla resistance movement comprised of East Pakistani military, paramilitary and civilians—mainly students of the university and colleges—during the war

Imdad: Pseudonym of Shaakh’s Bengali hostel-mate from the University of Dhaka, whose family hosted Shaakh during the war

Bilal: Pseudonym of Imdad’s younger brother

Uncle: Imdad’s father

Aunty: Imdad’s mother

Police Lines: Residential and official complex of police officers in Rajshahi


Return to the collection


Illustration by Rohini Mani

About the Author

Anwar Shahid Khan

Anwar Shahid Khan (b. 1949) is a Pakistani journalist who has worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for various Urdu newspapers and magazines in Pakistan for several decades. He continues to write columns for Daily Pakistan Lahore, Daily Mashriq Lahore and occasionally for other Urdu newspapers.

Related