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A nightmare

by M B Naqvi, 30 December 2006

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Forum Magazine, December 2006

It is a nightmare I acquired on May 3, 1971, when, as a guest of the Pakistan army, I visited Jagannath Hall, Dhaka University. It had been cleaned up for our benefit, I learnt. What I saw has been indelibly imprinted on parts of my conscience, sub-conscience, and maybe also my unconscious.

There were three of us who went there to see what had happened on that fateful night between March 25 and 26 that year. A big shell hole in the outer wall of the Jagannath Hall greeted us. I went inside and saw a sight I have not forgotten even in minor details.

My original conception was that the Pakistan army had indiscriminately shot and killed God knows how many students in those halls that night. I went there 43 days after the event and the places had been washed. The vertical part of the staircases carried tell-tale spots and discolourings, showing that the dead bodies had been dragged down with blood still oozing out of them. There were even a few bits of human bodies — hair, fingers, ears, noses, etc — sticking to the vertical spaces, while the horizontal steps had been cleared, though they all had darks spots of blood still visible.

In Jagannath Hall there was general and indiscriminate shooting and killing for a start. This took place in at least one bathroom. The walls were pock-marked by bullet holes. Pieces of human anatomy had stuck to the wall and were still there. Sometimes a part of a nose was sticking here and elsewhere there were fingers and what must have been pieces of flesh and skin. There were plenty of signs from where the dead bodies had been pulled out of the bathroom. Apparently the students had initially taken refuge in the place.

But the main conclusion one has drawn from the killings that took place was that most of them took place in individual rooms. Despite the washing, there were plenty of loose sheets of paper, diaries, pieces of exam papers, pages of books. One saw a few letters written in Bengali and a few in English. They appeared to be some from sweethearts and some from parents.

But the horrible conclusion that one had to draw was that no one was killed at random. Most of the shooting that took place must have been inside the room. Apparently, the boys were terrorized to an extreme degree and were totally docile. It appears that each student was killed by a separate soldier and probably at one precise time, perhaps on a command.

There was a distinct pattern. A window-pane was broken in exactly one place in all the rooms through which the rifles must have been thrust into the room. It must have been that each had been asked earlier to sit on the bed with his face facing the wall. There was a distinctive arch of bullet marks on the wall at a place above the bed where the head should have been. Another piece of evidence was a dark spot on the floor in virtually the same place in all the rooms where the blood must have collected and congealed. True, it had been washed, but the blood was still visible and in the round shape of a pool.

It does seem that they were shot together at one and the same time, otherwise some would have got out or tried to run or something, and the bullet marks would be at different places in the room. In all the rooms that one saw, the pattern was the same: a certain windowpane was broken, an arch of bullet holes on the wall behind the bed and the blood mark on the floor. These told their own grisly story.

Would the detailing of this horrible sight lift a certain weight off my chest? This nightmare wakes me up at night frequently. It is one of the painful memories of 1971 that I still carry.

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