Chapter 9 of Totten, Parsons & Charny’s book Century of Genocide is dedicated to Bangladesh.
But my earliest realization of the horrors that had been inflicted on the people of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1971 came through two poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
Stay Away from Me (Bangladesh I)
How can I embellish this carnival of slaughter,
how decorate this massacre?
Whose attention could my lamenting blood attract?
There’s almost no blood in my rawboned body
and what’s left
isn’t enough to burn as oil in the lamp,
not enough to fill a wineglass.
It can feed no fire,
extinguish no thirst.
There’s a poverty of blood in my ravaged body—
a terrible poison now runs in it.
If you pierce my veins, each drop will foam
as venom at the cobra’s fangs.
Each drop is the anguished longing of ages’
the burning seal of a rage hushed up for years.
Beware of me. My body is a river of poison.
Stay away from me. My body is a parched log in the desert.
If you burn it, you won’t see the cypress or the jasmine,
but my bones blossoming like thorns in the cactus.
If you throw it in the forests,
instead of morning perfumes, you’ll scatter
the dust of my seared soul.
So stay away from me. Because I’m thirsting for blood.
This is how my sorrow became visible:
its dust, piling up for years in my heart,
finally reached my eyes,
the bitterness now so clear that
I had to listen when my friends
told me to wash my eyes with blood.
Everything at once was tangled in blood—
each face, each idol, red everywhere.
Blood swept over the sun, washing away its gold.
The moon erupted with blood, its silver extinguished.
The sky promised a morning of blood,
and the night wept only blood.
The trees hardened into crimson pillars.
All flowers filled their eyes with blood.
And every glance was an arrow,
each pierced image blood. This blood
–a river crying out for martyrs—
flows on its longing. And in sorrow, in rage, in love.
Let it flow. Should it be dammed up,
there will only be hatred cloaked in colors of death.
Don’t let this happen, my friends,
bring all my tears back instead,
a flood to fill my dust-filled eyes,
to wash this blood forever from my eyes.
(Translations by Agha Shahid Ali, from his book The Rebel’s Silhouette)
These poems, when I first came across them in the early 1980s, cut past all the obfuscations and euphemisms that until then had been used by Pakistanis to speak about the 1971 conflict. More than any official history book, these words revealed how a nation inflicted such deep and inexcusable suffering on to its own body politic. And much of it on the basic of vanity and bigotry.
It is estimated that nearly 3 million East Pakistanis were killed in a 9 month period. Over 10 million were displaced because of the mayhem created by members of Pakistan’s military and political establishment. The East Pakistani’s crime was a determined, non-violent political movement to claim their rightful place at the head of the Pakistani government.
The 1970s elections had been fairly and overwhelmingly won by the then province of East Pakistan. But handing the levers of power to a people spoken about it the lowest and most rascists terms by the members of West Paksitan’s elite was unthinkable.
A genocidal campaign to break them was more palatable.
And it was a campaign carried out with the encouragement and support of that ‘liberal, democratic’ leader, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In his excellent memoir Journey to Disillusionment, Sherbaz Khan Mazari reveals the inside story of this ambitious and ultimately flawed individual who not only precipitated 2 major wars, but began and sustained his career by getting in to bed with Pakistan’s military henchmen.
His later legacies would include the mutilation of Pakistan’s constitution in 1973 with the infusion of questionable, obscurantist and basically unjust ‘Islamic’ clauses and amendments that would lay the ground work for regional calls for ‘Sharia Law’, and are in fact the foundations for the recent crisis in Swat. But I will write more about Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his legacy in a separate post.
Pakistan has never formally acknowledged its crimes in Bangladesh, nor prosecuted any of those involved which includes some of the top member’s of the military brass and the political establishment On May 16th when the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister officially asked the Pakistani Government, through its Bangladesh High Commissioner, for an acknowledgment, prosecution and an apology, the Pakistani envoy responded by saying ‘Let bygones, be bygones’
Saiful Haq Omi is a young Bangladesh photographer. One of a new generation of amazingly talented photographers emerging from that country. In fact, I can’t stop talking about photographers like Shehzad Noorani and Munem Wasif and others that this often forgotten country has managed to unleash onto the world stage. They are in my opinion amongst the very best working anywhere in the world today.
In a short email exchange, as I congratulated Saiful Haq on being a finalist for the prestigious Alexia Foundation Grant, (NOTE: he was also a finalist for the 2009 Aftermath Grant) I mentioned to him how much I would love to visit Bangladesh some day, and do some work there, as a small gesture of friendship and atonement for what I know has been a bloody, brutal and perhaps most painful to a new generation of Bangladeshis, an unacknowledged crime.
His response, as all Bangladeshis seem to respond when I raise this issue – with a combination of gentle humility and anxious openness was – and I quote:
I was born 10 years after the war ended, 1980. But I have carried war in my heart. Almost half of my family died , they were all killed. And if you come to my home , on the 26th of March- Our liberation day or on the 16th december , our victory day you would hear that someone still cries. And that is my mother who is crying.
I carry the war in my heart , I carry the war which I never saw, but I will carry till my last day. The War is Me!
Perhaps the Pakistani envoy would do well to remember that it is the victim that chooses to forgive, to decide whether a bygone is a bygone. The sheer arrogance, callousness and inhumane indifference exhibited by the ‘official’ voices of Pakistan is stagering if not outright criminal!
We lack processes for forgiveness. For a region that has seen so many genocidal massacres, I find it strange that we, the people of South Asia, have few if any processes for forgiveness. Sara Terry is an American photographer who has done extensive work on the aftermath of war. Her project on post-war Bosnia – Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace, remains for me one of the finest examples of photojournalism that i know of. More recently she has been involved in a brilliant and creative project documenting indigenous practices of reconciliation and forgiveness in the continent of Africa.
We would do well to learn from the Africans. I can’t wait to see the results of Sara’s work.
The outrageous dismissal of Bangladesh’s demand by the Pakistani foreign office – “let bygones be bygones” – is a shameful reflection of Pakistan’s constructed amnesia over the horrific actions of its Army and its political leadership. Not only has there never been a move on the part of the Pakistani state to apologize to Bangladesh, there has not been any sustained effort by citizens’ groups to pressure the government to publicly acknowledge the truth.
As Pakistanis, we find this unconscionable. We find it unconscionable that the Pakistani army raped, killed and pillaged our brothers and sisters in East Pakistan in 1971. We find it unconscionable that the Pakistani state has steadfastly refused to acknowledge these atrocities for the past 38 years, leave alone hold those responsible for them accountable as suggested by its own Chief Justice in the State commissioned inquiry. We reject the Pakistani state and army’s claim that these atrocities were committed in our name.
Its not much. But it is a start. I hope that the Bangladeshis will be patient as we work ourselves towards the truth. It is a lot to ask, perhaps unreasonably so of a people terribly wronged. But it may be the only thing that can offer the tears that eventually remove the dust from our blood filled eyes.