Ahmed is a writer and translator. "Distances" was
first published in New Age, Independence Day Special,
26 March 2008.
I approach her, I feel numb. I feel speechless. I want to know
who she is. But I don’t know who to ask. How to ask.
photograph has always haunted me. I don’t remember when
I first saw it. Probably in a book of war photographs. And later
in the Muktijuddho Jadughar, where I have gone many a time with
relatives and friends, visiting from abroad.
was pulled out. Dragged out from the Pakistani army’s
bunker,’ said Naibuddin Ahmed, the photographer.
to Naibuddin Ahmed on Sunday night (March 23), over the telephone.
‘Why don’t you come and get a print? It’s
only an hour, or a one and a half hour’s drive.’
next morning Shahidul and I went off to Paril Noadha in Shingair,
Manikganj, to Naibuddin bhai’s idyllic home, where he
leads a retired life. Thirty-eight years later.
Pakistani army, he said, had camped at the Bangladesh Agricultural
University in Mymensingh. They had captured and occupied Mymensingh
on April 19. When the army left in December, when they were
forced to flee, people rushed to the BAU campus. Looting began,
army bunkers, storeroom, there was looting all around, everywhere.
Common people were looting, they were all over the place. ‘I
do not know whether it was from rage, or what…,’
he gently added.
when we heard the news, he said. Girls had been discovered in
the bunkers, which were next to the university guesthouse. He
went on, I went and found her, she was lying like that. People
were milling around her, they were in front of her, they were
behind her. I asked them to move, I made some space, and then
I took photographs. It was the twelfth of December, that was
the day Mymensingh became free. The Indian army had entered
the town, they had entered the campus, they had taken control.
I approached her, she seemed to be in a trance. There were others.
I heard eight to 10 girls had been found in the bunkers, some
had already left. I found her alone. She did not respond when
we called out. Her hands were raised. She was holding on to
the pole behind her. Was that all that was left, nothing
else to hold on to?
returned to Dhaka with the print. Naibuddin Bhai’s words
kept ringing in my ears. Of course, it was a tamasha, a spectacle,
he had said. There were people, both men and women who had come
in search of their daughters, and their sisters. But there were
onlookers, too. They had stood and stared. They did not share
their pain and suffering, their helplessness. They looked on
and thought the military has done it to them. Nothing left.
They are finished.
rape intimidates the enemy, says Sally J Scholz. It demoralizes
the enemy. It makes women pregnant, and thereby furthers the
cause of genocide. It tampers with the identity of the next
generation. It breaks up families. It disperses entire populations.
It drives a wedge between family members. It extends the oppressor’s
dominance into future generations.
context of war makes it different from peacetime rape. Although
there are, often enough, compelling links between the two. The
context of war alters perceptions. War turns rape into an act
of a state, nation, ethnic group, or people. Atrocities committed
by soldiers against unarmed civilians during wartime are always
considered to be state acts, the Pakistani state against the
Bengali peoples. Rape is an act of violence. It is an act of
power and domination, rather than an act of sex. Rape is a demonstration
of prowess, of male bonding, especially within the military.
War rape, at times, becomes an end in itself. It creates a war
within a war, by targeting all women simply because they are
LIVES, DISTANCED LIVES
Britain, you would never find such violent images in museums
or exhibitions. Generally speaking, no. Never, ever.’
David, my niece Sofia’s Scottish husband, and a journalist,
uttered these words slowly and thoughtfully, as we left the
Muktijuddho Jadughor. Of course wars were violent affairs, he
nodded in agreement, as I went on to ask which particular images
had reminded him of Britain’s rules of museum display.
Was it the photo of vultures eating human carcass? Was it photographs
of dead bodies half afloat in the water? Rayer Bazar intellectual
killings? Dead bodies of men, women and children struck down
by the December 1970 cyclone? Rape victims of 1971?
of the care with which images are graded in Britain, the consideration
that goes into classifying cinemas into those not suited for
viewing by children (above 12 years only, 15+ years).
violence is cloaked in many ways. War machines kill. I thought
of the care with which Blair had been sales agent to 72 Eurofighters
to Saudi Arabia. Of the appreciation showered on India for its
£1-billion order with British Aeropace for Hawk trainer
jets. An island of normalcy that outsources violence?
if violence sown elsewhere manages to come home, to find its
way onto TV channels? The chief military spokesman for coalition
forces in Iraq Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt had been asked
what if one comes across images of Iraqi civilians killed by
Americans on TV? ‘Change the channel,’ had been
whose lives are devastated by war struggle to reconstruct a
normal life after war. But recreating normal relationships is
not easy. Much less so, for women. Marium, the central character
in Shaheen Akhtar’s Talaash (novel), had been a rape camp
inmate during 1971. After liberation, and many episodes, Momtaz
marries her. He is a nouveau riche businessman, and amazingly
enough, not at all concerned about Marium’s wartime experience.
Momtaz does not worry about fathering children. Let us enjoy
life first, he says. But the act of enjoyment is fraught with
difficulties. If Momtaz holds her passionately, Marium’s
eyes float like a dead fish. She is ready. Too ready. She starts
breathing from her mouth. Her heart beats rapidly, like a mouse
caught in a rat-trap. In the beginning, Momtaz was not worried.
The women in the park would do the same, one hand outstretched
to take cash, while the other would part clothes while she lay
down. Petting, caressing were not required. The quicker the
better, especially before the police appeared. But this is home,
not a park. This is a conjugal bed, not one made of grass. Why
does Marium behave like a whore? Why does she never say ‘no’?
Why does she not take part? Why is she inert? Why does she act
surrendered, as if someone was holding a gun to her head, was
forcing her to have sex? Momtaz begins drinking heavily. He
wants to make his wife sexually active, he gradually turns into
a rapist. He is physically abusive. He starts to behave like
a member of the Pakistani army. The marriage does not survive.
fractures the lives of survivors, often in ways that cannot
be repaired. War rape creates a war within a war. It can outlive
war. Pre-war normalcy often eludes the survivors forever.
TO TRUTH, CLOSER TO FREEDOM
years on and I look at myself. I look at us women. I look at
our normal, peacetime lives. And I wonder, if justice had been
done, if the war criminals had been tried, if women had returned
to their families, to their parents, husbands, lovers, brothers,
if they did not have to go to Pakistan, or to brothels, or to
Mother Teresa’s in Kolkata, if those pregnant could have
their babies if they had wished, would my life, would our lives
have been differently normal? If justice had been done, would
the rape of hill women have been a necessary part of the military
occupation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts? Would the offenders
have enjoyed impunity? Would there not have been independent
judicial investigations? Would those guilty have gone unpunished?
Would the Chittagong Hill Tracts have been militarily occupied
we have been closer to freedom?
Down by Anita Roy
Shape of Rape in Pakistan by Muhktaran Mai
Feminisim and Modernity with Irshad Manji
Play in the Garbage Fields of the Lord by Anita Roy