F I C T I O N
23 November, Monday
I have not been attending breakfast with the men for ninety-three days. My night duties have kept me alert during the dark, and my days have become shorter. I’ve made a habit of looking forward to dawn, but I knew the moment I saw the Colonel’s body that there’d be no sleep for me today.
We found his body, and the ghastly smell that came from it, lying face down on the carpet in his room. My initial guess was a heart attack; the man was a fat pig. I saw the rope hanging down from the ceiling fan. No, he had the audacity to hang himself. The rope supported the body as best it could, before snapping at the noose and dropping the heavy burden. His bladder gave out due to the impact, leaving a pronounced stain on the carpet the Colonel had brought from Karachi.
Mitro bahini is breathing down on our necks. The colonel has pissed himself to death. We are losing the war.
24 November, Tuesday
We buried the Colonel on the camp premises. I had to convince Islamabad of the difficulties of sending his body to West Pakistan at the moment. Sylhet is a strange place. Even in late November, the humidity is draining us. And at this stage of the war, I have to deny the late Colonel the luxury.
I’ve written a letter to his wife explaining the situation and made promises to bring her husband’s remains back to her at our earliest convenience. I have not mentioned anything about the witch he wrote about in the suicide note we found.
I wonder how many martyrs soiled their pants in the face of martyrdom. I wonder how many of us will have to be buried in this wretched land.
25 November, Wednesday
Guerilla Bahini has made three raids last month. They are confident and reckless. The Indian army we understand. But how do you fight savages?
The witch story has been going around for some time, started even before the Colonel’s death. Apparently a couple of soldiers saw her too. I don’t have time for this.
28 November, Saturday
Seven soldiers tried to flee the camp after last night’s incident. They’ll face the firing squad tomorrow. I’m reluctant, but words travel fast. Just a censure won’t sit well with Islamabad.
I saw the soldier who was killed last night. A pathan, twenty-five years old and over six feet tall, thick as a bull. His eyes were taken out, his tongue and ears were cut out. Mukti bahini loves big showmanship. They’ll blow up a ship or set a truck on fire in the darkness of the night. Leaving one mutilated pathan behind would be a first.
The leader of the area’s Rajakar Bahini, I always forget his name, asked me if I believed in witches. I’d have killed him then and there if that son of a bitch wasn’t resourceful.
30 November, Monday
We drove through a village today, through the brilliant colours of burning houses. The place was fertile when I first came here. Nothing much left to plunder now, except a few old and little ones. Why haven’t they left? This land is not worth dying for. No land is. It’s just land. Why haven’t they run away or just bloody killed themselves?
I am not a monster. My men need something to restore their morale. I cannot do this without them. I cannot die here.
1 December, Tuesday
I went to meet Shefali a couple of hours ago. I can’t sleep anyway.
I had heard she came from a rich family but looking at her now, there was no way to tell. About thirty of them were kept inside a single room like a pile of dead bodies, and their faces merged into a hollowness that was too haunting to look at. I ordered a soldier to bring her outside so I could talk to her. The whole place reeked of sin and sickness.
She was given a chair to sit before me, and she sat with some effort: She’s pregnant.
“That used to be a classroom.” Those were her first words to me. “And yesterday a twelve-year-old girl miscarried there.”
Her Urdu was impeccable.
“What do you know about Gouri?”
She kept her eyes on mine for a long time. Beneath those red eyes, unkempt hair, torn clothes, and bruises, I believed there was once a beautiful woman. I lowered my gaze.
“She came here in a wedding dress,” Shefali said, “Your men killed her two weeks ago. And I hear she came back and killed the Colonel.”
So, she must’ve heard the guards talk.
“Is it true?” I asked.
She said I was crazy.
2 December, Wednesday
Another soldier was killed. Stabbed before being hung from a tree. I heard he had started spending the nights praying and the days chanting about a witch before he disappeared.
I’ve resumed my night duties again. Thankfully, there was some action tonight. The Rajakar, what’s his name, brought a Mukti his team had captured earlier today. Sixteen-year-old boy.
“What were you thinking, son?” I shot him in the leg twice. Was it the left leg or right?
3 December, Thursday
I met one of the soldiers who executed Gouri. All three went crazy, but he is the only one who hasn’t killed himself yet.
He swore he had shot her, and seen her body drown in the river. He saw her again the next night, in a bride’s dress, taller than any man, water dripping from her saree. She begged him for food. He turned back and ran. He swore she chased him. He felt her wet hand on his shoulder.
“Did the Colonel ask you about this?”
“Yes. He said we should’ve buried her.”
Selected portion from “The Forgotten Refugees” by Helena Kabir, published in the New York Wire on 4 July, 2002. Reprinted with Kabir’s permission.
It’s easy to lose your way in the Geneva camp, the largest refugee camp for Biharis in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It took the Wire team a little over an hour to locate the house of Abbas Ali in the middle of a labyrinth of dilapidated houses. Ali, our host, welcomed us in his one-room apartment which he shares with nine other Bihari men. The room has two windows looking out at the camp and a large thin mattress spread on the floor. Both the kitchen and the latrine, which are shared by twenty families, are somewhere outside not too far from each other.
Asma, my last interviewee, told me that I had to interview a man named Abbas Ali. Ali and his stories from the Liberation War are well known in this camp. When I saw Ali for the first time, he was alone in the room, talking to himself aloud. He stood up to greet us and told a little boy to bring tea for everyone. I asked him to introduce himself. He said he was probably fifty years old.
Ali’s stories are, to put it politely, strange.
“I was seventeen years old when I fled the massacre. They were killing and raping anyone who spoke Urdu. I ran for three days with five other men before getting on a northbound truck. That was after they burnt down the house with my family in it.”
“How did you end up in Sylhet?”
“Do you want that story or the story of the witch?”
Months after his escape from the massacre in Chittagong, from July to December in 1971, Ali found himself with the Rajakar Bahini in Sylhet, a paramilitary force consisting mostly Bangali and a few Bihari men. The Rajakars were notorious for their crimes against non-combatants in 1971.
“So, during your time with Rajakar Bahini…”
“I wasn’t with Rajakar Bahini. I cooked for them. I was a cook,” Ali interrupted me, with visible unease looming over his face. “Please write that in your article.”
“Okay. So, during your time as a cook for the Rajakar Bahini, you claim to have encountered something extraordinary. Can you tell us about that?”
“We had a Colonel. Fat as a pig. The Pakistani government claims he was killed by an Indian air strike like the rest of them. That’s not true. He had killed himself, pissed all over himself and everything. There was a proper military funeral for him. I think his grave is still there. The Bangalis have probably mistaken it for one of their own. Poor Colonel.”
Military jeeps patrolled the nearby villages at least twice a week. These were mostly attempts to let the locals know that they were being watched. Sometimes the soldiers, accompanied by an officer would stop in a neighbourhood for routine inspections.
“Sometimes they’ll come back with women. The camp had a separate section where they kept them. Later on, another place had to be arranged for all the pregnant ones. No one really talked about this in the camp, and what happened inside was anybody’s guess. I saw trucks with dead bodies leaving the camp sometimes as frequently as every fourth day.”
Ali took a pause. I heard the laughter of children playing outside.
“Can I ask you a question?” Ali said. “Do you believe that after fighting and dying to protect your country, you’ll go to hell for having sex with an unhappy peasant woman?”
“Actually, if there’s hell, yes.”
“You don’t believe in hell? Aren’t you lucky!” The little boy came in with tea for all of us.
“The Colonel had left a note. He wrote that a woman named Gouri told him to do it. We all thought he had gone crazy, or that he didn’t want anyone to know he was a coward who knew he’d lost the war. But the three soldiers who killed Gouri and threw her body into the river a week before didn’t. They had been talking about seeing a woman walking in the dark.
“There were four people to cook for the entire camp, so we worked all night to bring the men breakfast on time. That night I opened the kitchen at two in the morning to do some cleaning before the senior cooks arrived. I saw her clearly. Standing in the middle of the kitchen. She was taller than I’d remembered her. Her hair was unkempt. She was dressed like a bride. I stood there with a half-burnt candle in my hand. Frozen. She ran up to me. I saw blood on her mouth, and her eyes were as pale as pale could be. “Food,” she said to me.
“Later I heard from others that I ran out of the kitchen screaming. They found me unconscious half a mile from the camp. The Major came to see me after I was brought back. He threatened to shoot me if I spread that bullshit among the soldiers.
“The next morning, we found the body of one of the soldiers who’d killed Gouri. The whole camp panicked at the sight of his mutilated face. No man could have done such a thing. A few days later another soldier hanged himself from a tree. That’s when I fled.”
“Have you seen her after that?”
Ali took his time to answer this question. His face reddened. I handed him a handkerchief and he wiped his eyes. “She’s listening. She’s sitting right over there.” He pointed his finger at a corner of the room. I looked and saw nothing but a plastic chair.
Ali walked us to our car, offered us lunch but we had to refuse because of our schedule. “How did you know how tall she was?” I asked him before getting inside the car.
“I don’t follow.”
“You said she was taller than you’d remembered. But you worked in the kitchen, right?”
He said goodbye and headed back to the camp. I kept looking at him. He was talking to someone who wasn’t there.
I’ve received the news of your son’s graduation. Please congratulate him on grandpa’s behalf. I’m fine. Suffering from a few old man things, but I kind of enjoy being old.
An American called yesterday and asked for an interview. He wants to publish a story on me and my work in Bangladesh. You wouldn’t remember. It was ’72 and your mom and I had just welcomed you into the world. God! That makes you forty-five now!
How much do you think I should say, Thomasin? I’ve never talked about these things in front of you kids. But when you start wearing adult diapers, you start thinking about things that will die with you. Things that are far more important than yourself.
I’m trusting you with the story of Gouri. This is the only story I won’t give the American. I don’t know why, but please do this for your old man. Keep this story somewhere safe.
I was asked to help the Bangladesh government get rid of some twenty thousand babies. There was nothing. No equipment, medicine, or transportation. I wrote letters to the government asking for supplies. They gave me a jeep and a driver. That’s all they had. I wrote to the UN and the IPPF — the organisations I represented, and they promised to help. But thousands of unwanted babies were about to be born. We needed helicopters to travel to remote areas, sterilizers to reuse the equipment, and almost everything else. But the UN bureaucracy was costing us time we couldn’t afford.
I performed five late-term abortions a day on an average, using my own equipment, technique, and lots of improvisation. Sometimes it’d be too late, I had to convince the mothers to have the babies and leave them for adoption. They just wouldn’t listen. Western newspapers were publishing stories of suicides across the country. I believe a lot of those cases were not suicides, but local abortion techniques that went wrong.
My workload was overwhelming. I was training the local nurses and performing at the same time for five days at a makeshift hospital, then moved to another and repeated. The hospitals were in horrible confusion. There were times I wanted to leave the hospital quietly in the night and never come back. But I found myself returning to dead fetuses and their maimed mothers every next morning. I lost all sense of time, couldn’t remember the faces of the women I had operated on. But how can I forget Gouri?
I remember the day she arrived at the hospital, with dried blood and bruises on her face, blisters on her feet. She was thin as a matchstick. “What’s your story?” I asked her like I asked everyone.
She was fifteen years old, and had travelled for two months to reach a clinic in Dhaka. She had been raped and then abducted by Pakistani soldiers on her wedding night. She was one of the ten girls who were kept exclusively for the camp commander whom she described as an angry obese man. But the soldiers still took her out of her cell each night, unbeknownst to the commander.
She recalled being hungry all the time. They were given food once every four days. Her child was so malnourished I couldn’t believe a seven-month-old fetus could look like that. Add to that her journey to Dhaka on foot. She was stronger than she looked.
She told me about a pathan soldier named Abbas Ali. Young, nineteen or twenty years old. I haven’t heard of a crueller man. He used to urinate on their food before passing the plates in the cell. No one was allowed to beat the ten women in Gouri’s cell, so Abbas got creative. He made them stand on their feet for whole nights, watch as others were violated and tortured, bury the ones who were killed.
She asked the commander to take her to Pakistan with him. He beat her with the back of his rifle, and that night three soldiers were ordered to execute her.
They took her out of the camp. The plan was to shoot her near the river and throw her body in it. She remembered it was a moonlit night, and the soldiers walked her through her abandoned neighbourhood. “I was glad that I could see the place one last time. I was thankful for that,” she said. By the river where she stood, she saw the darkness where her in-law’s house was supposed to be. The river reeked of dead bodies.
“Drink,” said one of the soldiers. “Drink as if it’s the last time.” They burst into laughter. She knelt down and drank. She didn’t know she was so thirsty. The water was cold. It’s winter — she realised, as if her body, which was numb for so long, had become alive once again. She could see her reflection in the river. She shivered, and how much she loved that feeling! She wanted to live.
“God! She looks like a witch,” one of them said. “Is she going to come back to haunt every father of that child in her belly?” More laughter. “Enough, witch. Get up now. Get up.”
The first two soldiers started walking back to the camp after raping her. “Be quick,” they said to the third one. She lay there in the mud, gazing at the moon.
The soldier pulled her up. She couldn’t stand, her legs were shaking. “Stand up!” A hand slapped her in the face. She stood up, kept her eyes on the ground. She shivered.
“Can you run?” he said.
She remembered running and running for a long time, through abandoned villages, through burnt houses, through skeletons of dogs and men, fearing a gunshot that was never fired. It was the longest moonlit night, and she feared the sun would rise and expose her.
“It was Abbas Ali,” she said.
Gouri stayed for two days at the hospital. She gave me the name of her village before she left, and invited me to meet her in-laws after I was done there. I wasn’t done for three more months. I’d lost count of how many abortions I performed. An associate said it could be one thousand. I said okay.
I went back to Bangladesh again in 1996. There were no signs of war in her village. I had to spend only fifteen minutes looking for Gouri. My interpreter, a colleague who kindly volunteered, informed me after talking to the villagers that Gouri took her life after the war.
“Is that the same person? It can’t be.” But it was her. I knew it was her. She came back to them and they killed her.
I feel guilty. For all those hundreds of faces I don’t remember. I believe with some effort I could have. They are lost forever, Thomasin. The heroes made it into the history books, and Gouris found a home in the mud and the rivers. I saw them, I knew their stories. I should’ve kept a journal.
I saw her the other night. Standing in the front porch, wearing a bright red dress. It was a bridal dress, I think. She smiled at me.
Don’t worry. I haven’t gone crazy. I’m sure it’s just another old man thing.
Nayeem Ehtesham loves to read and believes his degree in computer science has helped him write funny stories using his computer.