Monday, December 17, 2007

Are their wounds any different?

Are their wounds any different?
Sanam Amin
Source: New Age
December 16, 2007

Sanam Amin meets eight birangana women – victims of rape, abuse and physical torture by the Pakistani forces in 1971 and discovers how the treatment by their own people after the war has left bigger scars than the ones left by the occupying forces

‘Am I not your mother?’ asks Hasna Begum, smiling and reaching out to the young man before her, one of the volunteers for the cultural programme held at the Liberation War Museum. He bends his head towards her, almost reverential. ‘Of course you are. You are all our mothers.’

Hasna is one of the eight women who have come from various parts of Sirajganj to Dhaka for a three-day visit. ‘Many more of us wanted to come,’ says another one of the eight, Rohima. ‘Eleven more. There used to be even more, but so many of them died.’

They have all come to tell and retell their stories, which in fact is just one long story. During the war of liberation, these women were some of the thousands of women who were raped, beaten, burned by Pakistani soldiers, some dragged off to the soldiers’ camps. Some saw their families killed right before their eyes. And their plight did not end with independence.

‘Their husbands left them. They weren’t allowed to stay where they used to; they were driven out. They had to search for refuge in all sorts of places. For so long they did not open their mouths. They did not see themselves as part of the war. They went through such atrocities but after the war they were treated as though it was their fault,’ says Safina Lohani, executive director of Sirajganj Uttaran Mohila Sangstha (SUMS), a non-governmental organisation.

Right after the war, under government directives, Lohani, along with a few others went out to search for these women and rehabilitate them. ‘Many were pregnant when we reached them, some of them had infants in their laps,’ she recalls. ‘They survived somehow, they made their living in a small way by sewing and weaving taat. We told them, “You too are muktijoddha, you should be honoured in the same way. Come out before everyone and demand your rights.” But when Bangabandhu was assassinated, we were back to square one. I was the only one to go back to these women then. Since then they have been to many places, many programmes. They felt they should open their mouths, speak out against those who took their dreams away. And to seek some form of justice.’

In her novel Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, Susan Brownmiller wrote that ‘[r]ape in Bangladesh had hardly been restricted to beauty. Girls of eight and grandmothers of seventy-five had been sexually assaulted... Pakistani soldiers had not only violated Bengali women on the spot; they abducted tens of hundreds and held them by force in their military barracks for nightly use. Some women may have been raped as many as eighty times in a night.’ She compared the 1971 events in Bangladesh to the Japanese rapes in Nanjing and German rapes in Russia during World War II.

Statistics vary from 200,000, 300,000 to possibly 400,000 women raped in just those nine months. Brownmiller notes that ‘rape, abduction and forcible prostitution during the nine-month war proved to be only the first round of humiliation for the Bengali women. Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman’s declaration that victims of rape were national heroines was the opening shot of an ill-starred campaign to reintegrate them into society — by smoothing the way for a return to their husbands or by finding bridegrooms for the unmarried [or widowed] ones from among his Mukti Bahini freedom fighters. The “marry them off” campaign never got off the ground. Few prospective bridegrooms stepped forward, and those who did made it plain that they expected the government, as father figure, to present them with handsome dowries.’

Of so many thousands, SUMS and Lohani’s efforts reached about 30. The eight that came to visit Dhaka this week were some of the youngest raped during the war, such as Rahela. Rahela does not know her age today, but she remembers certain exact figures. ‘I was thirteen years and seven months old when I was married off. I was fourteen years and three months old when the war started. When the army men came to our village,’ she specifies. At the suggestion that she must be fifty, Rahela brightens. ‘Yes, I am fifty. And my brother, my older brother, he is fifty-three. We were five brothers and sisters. He and I are the only ones left alive. They killed my other siblings.’

‘I was so beautiful then, you wouldn’t believe it. I had such long hair, up to here.’ Rahela gestures towards her waist. She closes her eyes for a few moments and continues speaking. ‘I was so frightened when they came. They grabbed me, pulled out my sari. So many of them. They nearly killed me too. Here, I have a stab mark right here,’ she says, fiercely pointing right below her right breast. ‘A scar right here, this big.’ She opens her palm wide. ‘This big.’

Their stories echo each other. ‘At three am a military car came to our village,’ recalls Asiya. ‘We fled to the next village and we stayed there for some time. My husband started a store, a small shop for things. But then the military took my husband.’ She pauses and swallows hard. ‘After independence my husband came back, but he heard what happened from our relatives. I was left alone.’

Hasna Begum was five months pregnant when the military came. ‘There was burning everywhere, killing everywhere. I had to hold my mouth from screaming.

We fled but we were caught by the military procession. The rajakars asked where we were going. They tortured us. I had a child in my lap, a child in my womb. I was just crying, “Look, baba, you are my baba, you could be my child.”’

‘People ran, cows ran, fled with everything they had, with their cows,’ remembers Shurja Begum. ‘The military set fire to everything. We were about 14 people fleeing together. Everything, our homes were all burning. When we came back nearly two months later there was nothing left. Nothing. There were some baskets of eilish maach, they were burnt too, the fish were charred. Sultan, my brother was a muktijodhha. We stayed there and whenever the military came we ran. Allah, the shooting that started. We all dived into the pond water to save ourselves. Everything burned. No trees or anything left. Koran Sharifs also burned.’

Her narrative is erratic, going back and forth from the burnings, the killings and the fifteen days she was kept in a military camp. ‘I had five brothers and sisters. Again the military came and we fled. We saw them go by, laughing. My father, my brother, my husband, all gone.’

‘Mine is a dukkher itihaash,’ Shurja says of her own story. ‘My brother was shot; I saw the bullet go through the front of his head. My husband was shot. My sister and my cousin, my aunt’s daughter, they were dragged out in front of my mother. Killed in front of my mother. My head was cracked but I lived. They are dead. They are gone.’

Bahatun, a shrivelled old woman, was set on fire once her rape and torture was over. She seems aged beyond her years and is bent in half. She cannot stand straight nor walk normally, but hobble forward with her head just inches from the ground. But she, like the other seven, are happy to be where they are. They call Safina Lohani ‘Amma’ and dote on her daughters and grandchild, confide in her like children.
‘We first met her after independence. She came to us, told us that we would be looked after. That we were not forgotten,’ recalls Rahela.

‘You are muktijodhha,’ Lohani reminds them over and over again. ‘Is it any fault of yours? No. My husband has wounds from the war. Are your wounds any different?’

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