By Adeeb Chowdhury
(originally published by the same author on The Women Chapter)
“I don’t exactly remember how many of them raped me that night—maybe six or seven, or maybe more.I fell on the ground and remained there like a mound of clay. I was nothing but an object. I had no heart, no mind, no soul. I clenched my teeth and whispered Joy Bangla while my body endured their cruelty. They kicked me and spat on me, and they bit me like hungry animals if they heard me chanting for the victory of my country.”
Such is the disheartening description in the Bengali book Ami BiringonaBolchi (I, the Heroine, Speaks) by Nilima Ibrahim. Such is the fate of 200,000 to 400,000 women and girls during the Bangladeshi Liberation War of 1971, spanning nine long and dreary months. Though eventually culminating in Bangladesh’s victory over the Pakistani military regime, the war has resulted in countless deaths, abuses, and stories of agony and molestation that remain undiscussed today. Stories that have been forgotten, shunned, avoided, concealed due to “controversial content”. As today is 26 March, the Independence Day of Bangladesh, let us set aside baseless social constructs and take a frank, sympathetic look at the mass rape and assault of countless women during these nine months.
Bangladesh has done very little to rehabilitate the several hundred thousand victims of rape during the Liberation War. This nation has often turned a blind eye to the disheveled, abused girl shivering helplessly in a puddle of her own blood and vomit, tossed dismissively to the side of the streets, her mind and body numb with pain, images of gleeful Pakistani soldiers flashing before her blank eyes, recalling what they did to her. Many people of this nation have failed to heed the strangled screams of women being seized and assaulted in their own homes, or the wails of the children of war who would be fated to be dismissed and discarded by society.
Throughout history, rape has often been used as a weapon in war—a tool of humiliation, subjugation, and exerting control over citizens. Women have borne the brunt of this horrifying practice, being targeted and abducted by opposing soldiers, often assaulted multiple times by multiple men within a single night. If they survived such abuse, these women usually did not receivesocial assistance and rehabilitation upon returning to their homes—no, instead they were cast aside and degraded by their own families, seen as “scarred” or “impure” due to being raped. And if this torture wasn’t enough, many victims of war-time rape would be impregnated and be forces to give birth; their children, too, would be branded “children of war” and would also be shunned in society and enshrouded in derogatory stigma.
During the 1971 Liberation War, the Pakistani forces led by General Tikka Khan (also known as the “butcher of Bengal”) used rape as a military tactic to demoralize and “punish” Bangladeshi villages and settlements.Wails of fright and agony echoed through normally tranquil villages as women were torn from their homes, assaulted in front their family’s eyes. Prisoner camps were established where abducted women would be herded and stored, awaiting either death, rape, or both. To get a glimpse of the abhorrent conditions within such camp, just know that numerous women committed suicide by hanging themselves with their own hair, wishing to escape the nightmare they were forced to endure.
Stories and firsthand accounts of this rape rampage across Bangladesh reflected the horrors of the abuses inflicted upon women and girls caught amid a vicious war. Pakistani forces were aided by Bihari and Bengali Razakar and al-Badr militiasas they marched through the nation, leaving heaps of bloody and mutilated bodies in their wake. Girls were “strapped to trees and gang-raped”, then hacked to death while still strapped to the tree. Soldiers barged into homes, hurled females into a room and took turns with her, leaving the bleeding and scarred victim on the cold floor.
If they survived and managed to return home, such women were greeted only with coldness and hostility. They were seen as “polluted” and of no value anymore. Such treatment forced victims to leave the arms of society and seek shelter in solitude. Official records show that approximately 25,000-70,000 pregnancies resulted from the mass rapes during the war.
The World Health Organization and International Planned Parenthood Federation, alongside national aid agencies, helped support rape victims and children of war during this trying time. The national leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman aimed to assist and elevate victims of war-time rape, honoring them with the title “biringona”, meaning “heroine.” However, these efforts often backfired, as this name became an insult and grew associated with the word “barangona”, meaning “prostitute.”
National efforts to apprehend the rapists have been sparse but moderately successful. In 2008, the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee identified 1,597 sexual assaulters during the war. The ICT (International Crimes Tribunal) have arrested and served justice to several war criminals notorious for torture and rape. Abul Kamal Azad, Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, and Abdul QuaderMolla are among those sentenced to death for war crimes.
The path to justice for the abused women of the 1971 Liberation War is a long, difficult, winding, and painful path. The destination may never be reached. But that only validates the immense efforts we must devote to seeking assistance for such victims and their children.
The wails and cries of the assaulted women continue echoing through Bangladesh, never to fade. The bloody handprints on filthy floors, the disfigured corpses scattered across villages, the whimpers and tears of young girls as they lie broken and beaten on streets—these are the remnants of the war that will forever be a part of this nation’s grievous history. But let them serve as reminders of the necessity of stepping up and taking action, reminders of the duty we have to protect fellow people from the claws of predators. And, as history has proven, humans tend to be the most fearsome predators of all.
But it takes humans, too, to confront such predators and take the first step on the long rough path to justice and safety. Let us be those humans.
About the Author
President and Senior Editor of the YIA
Adeeb is a student of William Carey Academy, currently in Class 10. He has served as a published writer for a range of magazines, blogs, and newspapers,such as The Daily Sun, The Daily Star, World Orphan Center, Bangladesh Study Forum, Women Chapter, Mukto-Mona (Free Mind), Shuddhashar Magazine, and as a former senior editor of The Bangladeshi Humanist. His interests include debating and Model United Nations (MUN), and is the Vice President and Co-Founder of the WCA-MUN Club as well as the Secretary-General and Event Director of the upcoming WCAMUN Conference.