A NATION DIVIDED
Peter R. Kann, in Wall Street Journal,
No Immediate Solution Seen ; Residents Barely Subsist ; Police State Grips Bengalis
'Problems ? There Are None'
The doctor sits behind a desk in his street-front office in an East Pakistani town, occasionally glancing out at the road lined with the charred debris and looted shells of shops and homes.
A vehicle with UNICEF markings on its doors but Faith armed West Pakistani soldiers inside cruises by. Otherwise, the street is all but deserted.
The doctor sits in his office only because he has been ordered to. His family is hiding in a village somewhere outside of town. He speaks in a whisper because any passerby could be an informer. At night, when the army goes knocking on doors, he lives with the fear that his name may be on one of its lists.
He whispers of recent events in this town : the streets littered with bloated and decomposing bodies ; the burning, looting and raping and the continuing terror. "We are afraid to speak the truth. Those who speak the truth are punished, and the only punishment is death," he says.
The doctor is an army veteran, which makes him a special
target for his former colleagues. But his real crime is being a Bengali in a
Causes washed away by blood
It is less than four months since the civil fighting in
The events fall into three stages.
The first was a Bengali political movement aimed at ending two
decades of economic and political exploitation by the West Pakistanis. It
culminated, in March elections in national political victory for the Bengali
Awami League and its platform of greater
The second stage was a fairy-tale few weeks in which the
Bengalis proclaimed and celebrated their independence. Some thousands of
Now the third stage
The third and present stage is army occupation-a terrorized
Bengali population being ruled by military force and crude police - state
Ten days of travelling across East
No solution. including independence, holds any bright hopes
Primitive conceptions of guilt
Poverty. ignorance and frustration have turned this conflict
The army kills Bengalis. The non-Bengali minority of about two million (commonly called Biharis) backs the army. So Bengalis kill Biharis. The army and the Biharis see this as ample reason to butcher more Bengalis. The Hindu minority of bout 10 million becomes a convenient army scapegoat, and even some Bengali Moslems can be persuaded to join in their salughter. Amid this chaos, various villages, gangs and individuals have been attacking each other for economic gain or to settle private scores.
These are the tales of some of the people encountered on a
A lawyer and his sons have been fortunate. When one asks a Bengali how he is these days. he replies, " I am alive." The lawyer and his sons not only are alive but are living in their own home. They are also hiding in their own home, for they leave it only rarely. " It is too easy to be arrested on the street ," the lawyer says, " A seven-year-old can point a finger at me and call me a miscreant, and I will be taken away."
Miscreant is the term the
It is evening, and the discussion is taking place in the lawyer's home. Before talking, he closes the wooden shutters on the windows. Then he has second thoughts-" someone who passes by may report a conspiracy "-and so the shutters are partly reopened.
They talk of " the troubles," of' how, when word of
the army's March 25 attack in
Relative to its actions elsewhere, the army, when it arrived, showed restraint. Most of the town remains undamaged, although much of it was looted by the army and its mobs. About half the population has returned and many shops have reopened, though not under former management. Hindu shopkeepers have disappeared, and Biharis and other army backers have taken over. And, as everywhere, the arrests continue.
Four Christian Bengalis are arrested by the army at a
roadblock. Not many buses travel
For Christians, No Beatings
They are taken to a military cantonment and beaten for several hours by interrogators who don't speak their language. A Westerner hears of their arrest and protests. So the matter comes to the attention of an army major, who summons the four Christians and offers apologies :" It is our policy not to beat Christians," he explains.
A shopkeeper, a thin Bengali with wirerimmed spectacles, glances out from his shop at two strangers walking down the deserted street. They enter the shop and inquire about "the troubles" in this town, The shopkeeper is visibly trembling " There is nothing I can say ", he replies. Then he glances again at the flattened buildings lining the main street and whispers, " Look around you." As the visitors leave, he adds, voice cracking, " I am ashamed I cannot ………….”
Further down the street a youth approaches. " The army destroyed our city. Many Bengalis are being arrested. They are being shot every night and thrown into the river. We no longer eat the fish from the river," he whispers.
The youth guides the strangers to the local hospital to talk to a surgeon. The surgeon is a Bengali but is employed by the government, which means he is particularly vulnerable. He is asked about killing in the city. " Killing ? What killing ? Killing by whom?" He is asked about general problems. " Problems? What problems ? There are no problems."
Belaboring the obvious
The visitors take their leave. Outside the hospital the youth whispers: " You have talked to the doctor, but I think he has concealed the truth. He is afraid." It is explaining the obvious.
A professor and his student are talking about the prospects of
students returning to classes in early August, when the university is supposed
to reopen. They are pessimistic. Some students are hiding in their homes, others
have fled to outlying villages or to
The student, a girl, has a room in a house that overlooks an army interrogation center. " All day the students, young boys, are brought in and beatern," she says. " Three soldiers walk on them with boots. All night we hear the sereams. I cannot sleep. We cannot stand to see and hear these things."
" Our army had a good reputation, " the professor says. " We had a great army. But look what it has done. How can an army be great when it fights in an immoral cause?"
Two army majors are standing at a ferry landing on the east
bank of the
The majors are asked why so many Bengalis have fled,
particularly Hindus. The answer is imaginative. They say that in April, before
the army restored order, Hinuds told Moslems that the " holy Koran is just
an old book. So the Moslems came out of their homes to defend the holy Koran
and many Hindus fled." There has been much killing, the camel-corps major
grants. "The crocodiles have gotten fat," says the frogman, glancing
out at the
But all is returning to normal, they say, and the Bengali people aren't afraid of the army. A ferry is landing, and a group of Bengali labourers, recruited by the army to reopen a jute mill, edges past the majors in single file. Each of them bows his head in a subservient salute as he passes the officers.
Not all army officers are as sympathetic as these majors. Western residents of one town tell of an army captain approaching a young Hindu girl and telling her to feel the barrel of his gun. "You feel it is still warm," he said. "From killing Hindus," he added, laughing-but not joking.
An old Bihari who served as a bearer in the British Indian
army many years ago is now a waiter at a roadside hostel on the outskirts of a
town more than half destroyed. He supports the army and thus isn't afraid to
talk. He explains that for several April days, after the Awami League people
fled but before the army arrived, things were bad for the Biharis. Mobs of
Bengalis ran through the streets shouting (and he lapses into his old Indian-army
English), " Kill the
A Hindu, one of the richest and most respected men in his community before the fighting, was a philanthropist who had built schools, hospitals and irrigation systems for the predominantly Moslem peasants in his area. He considered himself fully Pakistani. Although a Bengali, he hadn't backed the Awami League but rather had supported the more conservative and even anti-Hindu Moslem League.
The hunter becomes the hunted
For nearly a month after the civil war began but before the army arrived in his area (and thus during the period Biharis were in danger from Bengalis), the Hindu sheltered two Biharis in his home. When mobs came looking for them he protected them. But, with the arrival of the army, roles reversed, and Bengalis -particularly Hindu Bengalis-became the hunted.
Hindu villages were burned by the army, and mobs were encouraged to plunder Hindu homes. Under army orders the local Hindu temple was smashed to the ground by men wielding sledgehammers.
The Hindu and his family fled to the village hut of a friend, where they have been hiding for more than two months. His first daylight emergence from this hiding place was for a rendezvous with two reporters. He walked across the rice paddies in the late afternoon, dressed as a peasant and shielding his face with a black umbrella.
He hadn't fled to
Only a few close friends know his hiding place. One of them is a Moslem League official, an influential man these days since many Moslem Leaguers are supporting the army. " He knows where I am hiding, but he dare not help me," the Hindu says. He believes that nearly all Moslem Bengalis sympathize with the Hindus. " But what can they do? They, too, are in danger and they are afraid."
All the Hindu's property is on an army list of " alien properties." In other areas it is called " enemy properties," but in either case it is scheduled to be confiscated and put up for auction. The Hindu talks much about losing his property-but the greater danger is losing his life.
" My Moslem friends tell me that Hindu bodies taken from the river are so disfigured from tortures that the faces cannot be identified," the Hindu says before picking up his umbrella and heading back across the fields to his hiding place.
A Headmaster Recites His Lesson
The travelers visit a town near the Indian border. One of the last towns to be retaken by the army, it is heavily damaged and is still largely deserted. Here the local peace commitee-a unit composed of some Biharis and conservative Bengali Moslem Leaguers who serve as the local eyes and ears of the army-assigns two youths to guide and shadow the visitors. " Come to the school and talk to the headmaster," they say.
The headmaster, a middle-aged Bengali, sits behind his desk. The reporters sit facing him. And standing behind the reporters, also facing the headmaster, are the young peace-committee shadows. In a faltering voice the headmaster begins to recite statistics of school enrollment, dates when schoolhouse cornerstones were laid-anything uncontroversial. At the end of each sentence he glances up, past the reporters, to the shadows, like a schoolboy reciting his lessons to a teacher with a stick.
How was the school damaged? the reporters ask. " There was some strafing," he mumbles. Then, looking up at the teen-age shadows, he hurriedly adds, " and may be it was damaged by miscreants."
As the reporters and their shadows leave, the professor mumbles, " We are trying to hold together," and then he stares down at the ground.
Peter R. Kann in wall Street Journal,
New York-July 23, 1971.