The War That Time Forgot

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The Bangladesh war was one of the 20th century’s bloodiest, yet outside the region, little is known about it. Now, 37 years on, an exhibition records the painful birth of a nation.

Tahmima Anam report

Victorious Muktis returning home. Entrance to Rivington Place Gallery. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Visitors at Rivington Place during the private view on 3rd April 2008. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had called for Bangalis to resist with whatever they had, and people responded. Jalaluddin Haider. Autograph ABP/Drik/Majority World

 

Students preparing for war in 1970. Rashid Talukder /Autograph ABP/Drik/Majority World
A refugee camp at Barasat, Choudda Pargana, India, in 1971. Abdul Hamid Raihan/Autograph ABP/Drik/Majority World

In December 1971, in the midst of their celebrations at the end of the war for independence from Pakistan, the people of Bangladesh began to reckon with the human cost of their new nation. As they took account of what they had won and what they had lost, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the independence movement leader who became the first prime minister of Bangladesh, urged his people to embrace the many thousands of women who had been raped by Pakistani soldiers. He gave the women a title – birangona, brave women – seeking both to exalt them as war heroes and erase the shame of their violation.

The contradiction between exalting and forgetting persists in Bangladesh, where the war remains a contested space, still charged 37 years later with an emotional and psychological intensity that brings to life William Faulkner’s words “The past is never dead, it is not even past”.

One of the estimated 400,000 birangona, meaning ‘brave women’, who were raped during the war. Naib Uddin Ahmed/Autograph ABP/Drik/Majority World

Yet these complexities are captured in a photograph taken by Naib Uddin Ahmed of a woman – one of the birangona – obscuring her face by clutching a thick mass of her own hair. This is just one of many haunting images that make up Bangladesh 1971, a new photographic exhibition at the Rivington Place public gallery in Shoreditch, east London, and which contribute to its powerful visual retelling of the story of this war.

A Mukti Bahini fighter carries a comrade injured in the fight against the Pakistani army. Naib Uddin Ahmed/Autograph ABP/Drik/Majority World

It was one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century, and yet it is a largely unacknowledged event: outside Bangladesh there is little awareness of the campaign of violence on the part of the Pakistani army as the Bengali people of the then East Pakistan sought to achieve political sovereignty.

A Mukti Bahini training camp. Begart Institute/Autograph ABP/Drik/Majority World

In this exhibition, all but one of the photographers are Bangladeshi; most were amateur photographers at the time, men who happened to be holding a camera when they found themselves caught up in the war. For almost two decades, Shahidul Alam – director of the Drik picture library in Dhaka and a curator of the current exhibition along with Mark Sealy, director of photographic agency Autograph ABP – has made it his mission to collect these photos, visiting the photographers in their homes and saving their negatives. By highlighting the images taken by these accidental archivists, the curators have created an intimate, reflexive portrait of the war, ranging from photographs that are well known to others that have never been seen in public.

Soldiers smuggle grenades in a basket covered with water hyacinth, 1971. Mohammad Shafi/Autograph ABP/Drik/Majority World
A child leads a street procession during the mass revolt of 1969. The boy was killed shortly after the photograph was taken. Rashid Talukder /Autograph ABP/Drik/Majority World
The artists’ society with the letters Sha Dhi Na Ta independence – protest at the postponement of the National Assembly meeting in March 1971. ? Rashid Talukder /Autograph ABP/Drik/Majority World

The exhibition consists of more than 100 images organised in loose chronology, beginning with the first stirrings of nationalism and resistance to Pakistani occupation. The ebullient spirit of 1969-70, when war was imminent, is captured most powerfully by Rashid Talukdar’s image of a young boy, no older than 10, leading a street march. The boy is obviously poor (he marches in bare feet) but his mouth is formed in an ecstatic shout as he leads the procession of men behind him, as though for those few minutes, it is his war, his people, his country.

The collection includes many iconic, even universal, images of war: Abdul Hamid Raihan’s image of two children staring into the distance, a carpet of missiles scattered at their feet; Mohammed Shafi’s portrait of a freedom fighter – a boy who could be from anywhere – reveals a young man’s tenderness and fear apparent despite his attempt at studied resolve. Other images reveal the horror of this war with haunting specificity. On the night of December 14, knowing they were about to lose the war, the Pakistani army and its local paramilitary allies massacred the future doctors, teachers, lawyers, and writers of Bangladesh in an effort to cripple the new nation. The bodies were not found until after independence, when a mass grave was discovered in the city. One photograph of the massacre stands out: a face surrounded by submerged bricks and covered in a thin sheen of mud. The face is ghostlike, other-worldly, and the aesthetic intensity of the image serves to underscore the almost unfathomable brutality of the act.
Bangladesh 1971 also presents a complex portrait of the slaughter.

One photograph shows a uniformed man circled by a large crowd, stabbing a civilian with a bayonet; the caption tells us that it is not a Pakistani soldier but a Bengali one, attacking a local man who has collaborated with the army. At Alam’s first exhibition of war photos in Bangladesh, the government requested that he remove this image, in which the roles of victim and perpetrator are reversed. His refusal led to the exhibition being shown at a private gallery rather than at the National Museum.

There are other complex figures, most notably Sheikh Mujib. Revered throughout the independence struggle as the father of the nation, then brutally assassinated in 1975, Mujib left a legacy that is continually being reassessed, not least because his daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, is a prominent Bangladeshi politician. Naib Uddin Ahmed’s photograph of Mujib returning to Dhaka in January 1972 (he had been in prison in Pakistan throughout the war) emphasises the passion he inspired in his followers, as his procession is surrounded by thousands of cheering citizens of the newborn country. But the most touching portrait of Mujib is one where he is shown embracing his daughter, the young Hasina. He glows with pride, and she with love. It’s a reminder that behind every political execution – and south Asia has had its share – is the death of a loved one.

It is in its attempt to challenge our expectations that the exhibition is most successful. In the flagship piece, displayed against the window of Rivington Place, a group of women march in perfect formation through the middle of a busy road, rifles cupped in the palms of their hands. Another photograph is a seemingly idyllic image of two women wading through a pond with a basket of flowers. But the caption reads: “During the liberation war, female freedom fighters would smuggle grenades in baskets covered with water hyacinth.” Scenes like this were common during the independence movement: many young women were given informal military training; in the villages, especially among the Adivasi hill people, women smuggled arms to the front lines of the resistance. Bringing these images to light in this setting challenges our notions of women’s political participation in a country like Bangladesh. And as Londoners walk past Rivington Place, perhaps they will find a new window into the history of their neighbours on Brick Lane, a visual testament to the trauma and hope of independence.
Bangladesh 1971 is at Rivington Place, London EC2A 3BA, until May 31. Info: +44 (0)20-7749 1240.
In pictures: the Bangladesh 1971 Gallery

This article appeared in on on p12 of the section. It was last updated at 02:07 on April 10 2008.
Time Magazine article:
Time Magazine photo gallery:
Historic news clip about killings in Khulna
Death by firing squad in Dhaka University
Indian news clip

Bangladesh 1971

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They had risked all to hold on to this moment in history. The scarred negatives, hidden from the military, wrapped in old cloth, buried underground, also bore the wounds of war. These photographers were the only soldiers who preserved tangible memories, a contested memory that politicians fight over, in their battle for supremacy. These faded images, war weary, bloodied in battle, provide the only record of what was witnessed. Nearly four decades later, they speak.
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Women marching in the streets of Dhaka. 1971. ? Rashid Talukder/Drik/Majority World
A photographic exhibition and film season that focuses on one of South Asia?s most significant political events: the foundation of Bangladesh as an independent state.
pakistani-soldiers-surrendering-aftab-ahmed-1161.jpg Pakistani soldiers surrendering on the 16th December 1971. ? Aftab Ahmed/Drik/Majority World
The Bangladesh war of independence in 1971 was one of the bloodiest conflicts in living memory. In an attempt to crush forces seeking independence for what was then East Pakistan, the West Pakistani military regime unleashed a systematic campaign of violence that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Bangalis. Many of the photographs from the unique collection of the Drik archives will be shown in the UK for the first time.

dismembered-head-in-rayerbajar-rashid-talukder-1111.jpg Dismembered head at the Rayerbajar Killing Fields where intellectuals were slaughtered on the 14th December 1971 ? Rashid Talukder/Drik/Majority World
victorious-muktis-returning-home-523.jpgVictorious Mukti Bahini returning home at the end of the war. ? Jalaluddin Haider/Drik/Majority World
mujib-returns-to-bangladesh.jpg Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on his return to Bangladesh from Pakistan. 10th January 1972 ? Rashid Talukder/Drik/Majority World
In 266 days Bangali, hill people and Adivasi resistance fighters and their allies defeated the military forces of Pakistan. The result was the birth of a new nation – Bangladesh – and the dismemberment of Pakistan.
It was only after the 16th of December 1971 when Pakistani troops surrendered in East Pakistan, that Bangladeshis began to realise the scale of the atrocities committed during the previous nine months.
children-and-shells.jpg Children amidst shells. ? Abdul Hamid Raihan/Drik/Majority World
1971 was a year of national and international crisis in South Asia. The history of Bangladesh is implicitly tied to the partition of India in 1947 and therefore the tragic events of 1971 are linked to Britain?s colonial past. For Bangladesh, ravaged by the war and subsequent political turmoil, it has been a difficult task to reconstruct its own history. It is only during the last few years that this important Bangladeshi photographic history has begun to emerge.
Now decades after the war, Autograph ABP in collaboration with Drik presents a historical photographic overview of Bangladesh 1971 at Rivington Place.
Project Description
A major documentary photographic exhibition of primarily Bangladeshi photographers that focuses on the independence struggle in 1971. The exhibition is produced in partnership with Shahidul Alam, Director of Drik, a media activist and journalist from Bangladesh. This will be the first comprehensive review in the UK of one of the most important conflicts in modern history. It is recognised that over a million people died in 266 days during the struggle for an independent Bangladesh.
UK partner Autograph ABP. Curator Mark Sealy, director of Autograph ABP.
Exhibition open to public April 4th ? 31st May 2008
Press View – Both curators will be available to meet the press 11.30am ? 1pm April 3rd
The exhibition is accompanied by the Bangladesh 1971 Film Season throughout April 2008 in partnership with Rich Mix and The Rainbow Film Society. Please see attached document for full details.
For further information or images, contact Indra Khanna 020 7749 1261 or David A Bailey 020 7749 1264.
Autograph ABP, Rivington Place, London EC2A 3BA.
Notes:
VENUE
Rivington Place
off Rivington Street
London EC2A 3BA
020 7749 1240
April 4th ? 31st May 2008
Open Tuesday – Friday 11am – 6pm
Saturday 12pm – 6pm
Entry is free. Venue is wheelchair accessible.
? Shahidul Alam: Curator, photographer, activist. Gallery Talk (in Bengali) 2pm April 5th
? Mark Sealy: Director of Autograph ABP. Gallery Talk (in English) 6.30pm April 17th
? Many other talks and events to be confirmed
? Bangladesh 1971 Film Season throughout April 2008 in partnership with Rich Mix and The Rainbow Film Society
? Special screening of documentaries and artists? films at Rivington Place to be announced
Photographers included in the exhibition: Abdul Hamid Raihan, Aftab Ahmed, BegArt Collection, Golam Mawla, Jalaluddin Haider, Mohammad Shafi , Naib Uddin Ahmed, Rashid Talukder, Sayeeda Khanom and Bal Krishnan.
—–
press-release-bangladesh-1971.doc

1971 as I saw it

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Thirty five year ago, even longer perhaps, just a camera in hand, they had gone out to bring back a fragment of living history. Today, those photographs join them in protest. Peering through the crisp pages of the newly printed history books, they remind us, ?No, that wasn?t the way it was. I know. I bear witness.?
The black and white 120 negatives, carefully wrapped in flimsy polythene, stashed away in a damp gamcha, have almost faded. The emulsion eaten away by fungus, scratched a hundred times in their tortuous journey, yellowed with age, they bear little resemblance to the shiny negatives in the modern archives of big name agencies. They too are war weary, bloodied in battle.
So many have sweet talked these negatives away. The government, the intellectuals, the publishers, so many. Some never came back. No one offered a sheet of black and white paper in return. Few gave credits. The ones who risked their lives to preserve the memories of our language movement, have never been remembered in the awards given that day.
35 years ago, they fought for freedom. They didn?t all carry guns, some made bread, some gave shelter, some took photographs.
mukti.jpg
(c) Abdul Hamid Raihan
Abdul Hamid Raihan is one such photographer. A.S.M. Rezaur Rahman came upon him through a small interview on television. Unlike many other photographers, Raihan had preserved his negatives. And unlike many researchers, Reza had doggedly pursued. The exhibition, ?1971, as I saw it? is not a record of momentous events, but a rare glimpse of what everyday people might have witnessed under occupation and through victory.press-release-english-bangla.doc
——
Autograph ABP presents: The John La Rose Talk Series
Documentary Photography & Social Change: Mark Sealy in conversation with Lyndall Stein and Shahidul Alam at Amnesty International UK
Amnesty International UK
The Human Rights Action Centre
17 ? 25 New Inn Yard
London EC2A 3EA
6.30pm ? 8.00pm 29th March 2007, Phone +44(0)20 7033 1500, Nearest Tube: Old Street, Moorgate & Liverpool Street
In an age where our daily lives have been saturated by images of globalization there has been a revolt by NGO?s and arts organisations who are beginning to forge links and alliances to explore new ways of using visual culture to discuss issues that address a human rights agenda in the 21st century. It is in this context that Mark Sealy the Director of Autograph ABP will explore a conversation that looks specifically at the role photography has played in helping to bring global human rights issues to a wider constituency.
Student in Prison Van
A student screams out to friends from a police van at Jagannath Hall, Dhaka University, after a police raid. 31 January 1996. (c) Shahidul Alam/Drik
—-
Meanwhile Bangladeshi photographers shine at the 3rd China International Press Photo (CHIPP) Contest held in Shanghai from March 21 to 25, 2007
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Former Pathshala student Munem Wasif, now working with www.driknews.com wins the bronze prize in the Daily Life category with a powerful piece showing modern forms of slavery, through his story on the workers in the tea gardens of Bangladesh.
Former student of Pathshala and University of Bolton and currently tutor of Pathshala – Andrew Biraj – wins the bronze prize in the Topical News category with his timely piece about the attempts by multinational companies to take over land of indigenous communities,
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while photographer Shafiqul Islam wins an honourable mention in the same category for his piece on police brutality against women. Biraj and Shafiq are both contributing photographers of DrikNews.
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Meanwhile on it?s independence day, Bangladesh moves towards the final eight in the ICC World Cup! However, while we celebrate these wins and the recent arrests of godfathers and the ongoing cleaning up operations, the new laws curbing public freedom continues to worry. The death of Garo activist Cholesh Ritchil (http://www.drishtipat.org/blog/2007/03/19/urgent-modhupur-eco-park-activist-killed-2/) in the hands of ?Joint Forces? makes us fearful of the consequences of absolute power.

The Month of Victory

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rayerbajar.jpg
14th December 1971. The stark dismembered face stared from the bricks in the Rayerbazar graveyard. It was a last ditch attempt by an occupation army to leave a nation they had been unable to subdue, crippled intellectually and culturally. Rashid Talukder?s iconic image was one of numerous outstanding photographs taken by Bangladesh?s best known photojournalist. The lifetime achievement award given to him was long overdue. Rashid Bhai joins other Bangladeshi photographers featured in the Festival of Photography in Asia Chobi Mela IV, whose images grace the much awaited Drik Calendar 2007.
Meanwhile a self appointed head of caretaker government chooses the month of our victory, to call in the military against the wishes of his own cabinet. Kudos to the caretaker advisers who chose to resign rather than going against the interests of the nation. Where ministers have shamelessly stayed on despite blatant exposures of corruption and malpractice, it is a rare example of self-respect.
The Drik calendar 2007 is in the press and is out next week when it will also be available on our website: http://www.drik.net/html/calendar.htm and in our online shopping mall: http://kiosk.mdlf.org/estore/publisher?id=21
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Autumn was unkind, rude and remorseful
Spring become unmerciful, rude and murderous
Butterflies don?t die, they don?t live either
Photo: Momena Jalil
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Dried Kash flowers at the bank of the Old Brahmaputra. “When I had my legs I could cross the river in one go.” Rajib. Bangladesh/Photo: Saiful Huq Omi.
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People fishing in a group using traditional techniques. The fishing usually takes place in the dry winter season. Wetlands of Bangladesh/Photo:Rashid Talukder.
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Enticing a prospective client. With roughly 25 customers needed for daily upkeep, competition is intense. Kandupatti brothel, Dhaka. Bangladesh/Photo: Shehzad Noorani.
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Every morning After Fazr, Keramat Ali sat here. His work ended at around 10 pm. After 22 years of service, he went back to his home town and his family. No pension and no savings/Photo: Syed Mahfuz Ali
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?Mama, take my picture,? my niece Pinki asked me. It was already nearing dusk. I held my breath with the aperture open just enough, and pressed the shutter/Photo: Sheikh Motiar Rahman
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Sheep head for shelter at the onset of a storm in the Himalayan range in the Yarlung Valley. Eastern Tibet. China/Photo: Shahidul Alam7-july.jpg
She migrated from the Northern district to Dhaka for livelihood. As a sand worker at Gabtoli, she works dawn to dusk for seventy taka. Bangladesh/Photo: Partha Prathim Sadhu
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Men saw a large tree trunk in the naked afternoon sun. They don?t pick leaves in the gardens. Kapai Garden, Lashkarpur Tea Estate. Bangladesh/Photo: Munem Wasif
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Traders import cows from India prior to the Muslim festival Eid Ul Azha. A cow falls in the water while being unloaded from a boat. Aricha. Bangladesh/Photo: Abir Abdullah
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?These are the shacks we live in ? we call them ?Tali? ? there are 1873 families living here at this moment.? Rohinga refugees from Myanmar. Teknaf. Bangladesh/Photo: Mahbub Alam Khan
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This is a Road I have been seeing for ages, while I have been happy, sad, upset, romantic, high, low & while growing up. It fills me with memories. They call it the VIP Road/Photo: Gazi Nafis Ahmed (Adnan)
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Dipa Thapa, 75, has two pet cats in Pashupati Bridhashram (an Old People?s Home). They are her only friends. Nepal/Shehab Uddin
In the countdown to the election the newly launched DrikNews, promises to challenge the stranglehold of western agencies AP, AFP and Reuters. www.driknews.com is the site to watch.
14th December 2006. Amsterdam

Midwife to a Bloody Birth

Portrait of Jahanara Imam at Shahbagh Square, who led the campaign for the trial of war criminals. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Portrait of Jahanara Imam at Shahbagh Square, who led the campaign for the trial of war criminals. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World



Keeping the door ajar, so she wouldn’t get accidentally locked out,
Amma stood waving at the doorstep of 1, Birkdale Road, long after the taxi was out of her view. I didn’t bring it up then, but as I headed for Heathrow, I remembered the stories about Jahanara Khala that Amma used to tell us. It was almost exactly nine years earlier, on our arrival in London, that Georgie had given us the news. Khala had been ill for a while, but her death was still sudden, and a blow to us all. This obituary was written for the Guardian. Continue reading “Midwife to a Bloody Birth”

From Seventh Fleet to Seventh Cavalry

Mowli. Until recently, she didn't know her original name was Mukti. Too dangerous a name to use in 1971. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

25th March 1971. My eldest niece had just been born the day before. It was a premature birth. Amma had found a Mariam flower and the flower had bloomed, heralding the birth. She had stayed behind at the clinic. We had felt something was afoot, and Babu Bhai and I went out to try and get mother and child back from Dr. Firoza Begum’s clinic in Dhanmondi. Our home might not have been safer, but at least we’d be together. Friends were building roadblocks in the streets by then, and let us through reluctantly, warning us that we had little time.
We went along the narrow road by Ramna Police station to Wireless Mor, it being too dangerous to go along the main road. I climbed over the barbed wires on the boundary walls to get to my sister’s flat, but my brother in law felt it was too dangerous to go out, so I turned back. By then the tanks were on the streets.
I had fallen asleep, but woke up to the sound of gunfire. The wide red arcs of tracer bullets had lit up the sky. The only tall building nearby was the Hotel Intercontinental, where the meetings between Mujib and Bhutto had taken place, and where the foreign journalists were staying. The slum next to the Sakura Hotel and the nearby\ newspaper office were ablaze. We could hear the screams. Those who were able to escape the fire, ran into the machine gun fire waiting outside.
Abba (my father), Babu Bhai and I watched in silence. We had argued with Abba about Pakistan, but he had been victimised as a Muslim in pre-partition India, and would not support what he saw as the break up of the nation. That night he finally broke our silence by saying, “now there is no going back.”
We heard the gunshots all night, and there was a curfew the following day. Eventually when there was a small break in the curfew the day after, Abba went to get supplies, and Babu Bhai and I got my sister and her daughter to Nasheman, in Eskaton where we lived. We called her Mukti, meaning `freedom’. But relatives warned us that it was too dangerous to use that name, even if it was a nick name to be used only amongst ourselves. So Mukti became Mowli, and even after independence, the name stuck.
Twenty five years later in 1996, I tried to put together a collection of images of ’71 for our 1996 calendar. I am reminded of the introduction:
Drik calendar 1996, commemorating 25th anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh

[Twenty five year ago, even longer perhaps, just a camera in hand, they had gone out to bring back a fragment of living history. Today, those photographs join them in protest. Peering through the crisp pages of the newly printed history books, they remind us, “No, that wasn’t the way it was. I know. I bear witness.”
The black and white 120 negatives, carefully wrapped in flimsy polythene, stashed away in a damp gamcha, have almost faded. The emulsion eaten away by fungus, scratched a hundred times in their tortuous journey, yellowed with age, bear little resemblance to the shiny negatives in the modern archives of big name agencies. They too are war weary, bloodied in battle.
So many have sweet talked these negatives away. The government, the intellectuals, the publishers, so many. Some never came back. No one offered a sheet of black and white paper in return. Few gave credits. The ones who risked their lives to preserve the memories of our language movement, have never been remembered in the awards given on the 21st February, language day.
25 years ago, they fought for freedom. They didn’t all carry guns, some made bread, some gave shelter, some took photographs. This is just to remind us, that this Bangladesh belongs to them all.]
Drik Calendar 1996
Today, embedded photojournalists with digital cameras, give us images of yet another aggression. This time, from the other side of the gun. The 50 clause contract that gives them access to imperial military units, like the unwritten rules that allow them access to presidential pools, ensure that `free’ media remains loyal to the warmongers. Will we ever get to see the images taken by the Iraqi photographers? Will their negatives die the same death? Will those images, like the bombed ruins of a magnificent city, be the only tattered remains of an aggression that the world allowed to happen? In ’71, the Seventh Fleet was stationed in the Bay of Bengal. The Mukti’s were not deterred by this show of power. They won us our independence. Today, after 43 more US military interventions across the globe, it is the Seventh Cavalry that bombs Iraq. And our own government, forgetting the lessons of history, forgetting that they tried to kill our unborn nation, turns against the will of its people. Our own police turn against us in our anti war rallies, to protect the biggest aggressor in history. These negatives may not survive, but the collective memory of the people of the world will, and our children will confront us in years to come.
Shahidul Alam
Dhaka
26th March 2003
* A flower from Arab deserts, used during labour to predict the time of childbirth.
** A working man’s cloth of coarse cotton, used as padding when carrying weight, to carry food, and to wipe away sweat.

The War We Forgot

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Iqbal had asked me when we first met. ?Bhaiya, where are Barkat and Salaam?s graves?? I didn?t know. He was 10, I was 39. As a 15 year old in 1971, I had felt the warm flush of victory as I held a Pakistani Light Machine Gun in my hand. I hadn?t really won it in battle, but only recovered it from a burning military truck. But the joy was just as much. That was the time when a rickshaw wallah had refused to take my fare, because he had heard me greet a friend with ?Joy Bangla? (freedom for Bengal, the 1971 slogan symbolizing freedom from Pakistani rule). Things had changed, and the promise of our own land had slowly been eroded by politicians and military rulers who had lived off our dreams. Each time we became skeptical, each time we sniffed that something other than ?Shonar Bangla (Golden Bengal)? was in their minds, they led us on with vitriolic rhetoric. Eventually, as on that day in 1994, I too had forgotten. I didn?t know where Salaam and Barkat?s graves were. I had never heard of Dhirendranath Datta. More importantly, I didn?t care. But Iqbal did. Born long after Salaam and Barkat?s bodies had merged with the soil, Iqbal only knew of this great battle that we had fought. Though the heroes had changed depending upon who ruled the country at any particular time. Salaam and Barkat were beyond dispute. They were not a threat to anyone. They didn?t apply for a trade license, or bid for a government tender. It was safe for the history books to remember them. Remembering Hindus or women was a bit more problematic.
My search for these other heroes, the ones with cameras, began in 1994. After Iqbal reminded me that I had forgotten. It was in the Paris office of Sipa that Goksin Sipahioglou, excited at my presence ran down the stairs and brought back with him an armload of slide folders. It took a while for it to sink in. These were the first colour photographs of the Muktijudhdho that I had ever seen. We had heard that some of these photographs had been published. But our only source of news at that time was Shadhin Bangla Radio. It talked of the glory of our freedom fighters, of how they were fearless against enormous odds. Of their glory in battle. M R Akhtar Mukul in ?Chorompotro? was the one voice we longed for. We chuckled as he talked of the plight of the Pakistanis. His wry but animated voice, muffled by the blanket we hid under, and barely audible in the turned down volume of the transistor radio, gave us hope, and kept us going through the dark nine months.
It was Abbas? photographs that Goksin had brought for me. Later that month, in the back garden of a house in Arle, I met Don McCullin. Don was excited about the show I wanted to do, and unhesitatingly agreed to give us pictures. I found Abbas, at a beach near Manila, quite by accident. Both of us had been following the golden late afternoon light in a summer evening in Manila beach. Abbas too was excited. He wanted to be part of the show. Michele Stephenson and I had been in the same jury of World Press Photo on two occasions, and I had plenty of time to tell her about my plans. She invited me to New York and arranged for me to go through the archives of her magazine, Time. It was in the basement of the Time Life Building in the Avenue of the Americas, that I came across the daily bulletins that the reporters had sent in.
Memories flooded through my mind as I remembered those harrowing days and nights. I remembered the screams of people being burned alive as the flame throwers belched fire at the Holiday office near the Hotel Intercontinental.
Most of the people who died were the people who slept in the streets and the slum dwellers around the newspaper office. Those who chose to escape the fire ran into a hail of machinegun bullets. My father, mother, Babu bhai and I, watched quietly from our verandah in Nasheman on New Elephant Road. My dad had suffered from Hindu bhodrolok prejudice in the pre-partition days, and had never supported the break-up of Pakistan. And we would have great fights in the home, the younger ones wanting independence, Dad?s generation feeling things could be patched up. That was the night Dad said it was over. No longer could we ever be one Pakistan.
I excitedly went through the reams of paper. Each scrap of news had a meaning for me. I could relate to these news bulletins. I remembered the horror of those nights. As I thumbed through a tattered red diary, I noticed the skimpy notes of a photojournalist as he traveled through Jessore. I remembered Alan Ginsberg?s poem. It was David Burnett?s diary. Several years later as David and I met in Amsterdam in yet another World Press Jury, I told him where his diary was. In Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, Delhi, and so many other cities have I picked up the scraps of evidence that would help me piece this jigsaw together.
It was in Paris that I spoke excitedly of my plans to Robert Pledge, the president of Contact Press Images. Robert shared my enthusiasm for the project, but I harried him ?with? my feverish frenzy. We couldn?t wait, we had to do it now. That now has taken over six years. But in these years we have made the most amazing discoveries. The stories, the images, the people we have come across, make up the life of this exhibition. It is the war veterans, the men and the women in the villages of Bangladesh, who fought the war, the forgotten heroes with their untold stories, the men and women who were killed and maimed, the women who were raped that this show is dedicated to. It is not a nostalgic trip for us to romanticize upon. It is for Iqbal and his friends to know that Barkat and Salaam, were more than simply names in history books.
Shahidul Alam
November 2000. Dhaka