Flight to Freedom | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 11, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 11, 2018

Flight to Freedom

The nine-month struggle for our liberation saw endless dead, millions displaced, thousands lost, and countless enduring abject dishonour — and as ironic as it may sound, especially for a country that was formed under the banner of religion, the perpetrators were the very people we were told to be our brethren. For the people of the hitherto East Pakistan it was nine-months of terror. Yet, for a large segment of Bengalis residing in what was then West Pakistan, the fear was inexpressible. People and families who opted to return to the new country of Bangladesh, had to endure psychological trauma, scars that have not yet healed; for some they are wounds that still go deep. This week, Star Lifestyle presents the tale of Shabnam Chowdhury, then 18, and now a teacher of English literature and language. She was just like countless others, but her story is as relevant to us as that of any memoirs by any stalwarts who made history.

Memoirs of a Bengali stranded in Pakistan after the 1971 Liberation War

In the late sixties, my father was a professor working at The Forest Research Institute in Peshawar, as the head of the department of Medicinal Plants. Until the reign of terror that started in 1971, my three sisters and my parents had led a peaceful life of comfort, and luxury.

Overnight this rosy situation had changed and we were living a life in utter frustration and trepidation.  Time passed very slowly as life became increasingly difficult. We were forced into a situation where we had to be careful as to what we said or did. This was no longer our country.

A lot has been written about the War both home and abroad. What I want to share is how thousands of Bengalis, who were trapped in the then West Pakistan, passed their days in constant fear, without any idea of what the future held for them and almost in total isolation. Mentally and emotionally broken, hope was the only straw to cling upon.

 

1971: A LAND WE COULD ONCE CALL OUR OWN

The memories of that two and a half years are still quite vivid in my mind and thus I have tried to capture those unforgettable days of our lives and share it, as there were many thousands like us.

Actually we did not know till much later of all the atrocities being committed against the innocent and harmless citizens. We were presented with the impression that the army was trying to punish some rebels who had gone against the state. As the media in those days was not as liberal as now, we only knew what was being broadcasted to us on TV or printed in local newspapers.

Thanks to the radio channels like BBC, All India Radio, and Voice of America (VOA), we eventually did get to know the real picture, but everything was 'hush-hush' and we never said anything in public.

Slowly the Bengalis in West Pakistan became aliens. We could feel the change in the attitude of friends, classmates and acquaintances, and it worsened every day. The teachers in schools started being sarcastic too. Many West Pakistanis had lost their dear ones in Dhaka so they gave us strange looks as if somehow we were responsible for this.

Life was not the same as before, although we had not changed. We still belonged to the same country, but due to our mother tongue, now we were considered not only enemies of the state, but at times even our religious belief as Muslims were questioned.

For the first time in my life, I had the first hand experience of people of the same religion, 'brethren,' turn against each other.

In order to bring the cause of Bangladesh to the forefront, there were demonstrations across the world, and protests against the genocide going on in Bangladesh.

The people of West Pakistan however kept a blind eye to this. Everyone talked about how well the army was doing and how they were doing 'jihad' by saving Muslims from the 'kafirs.'

Life was seemingly normal but there was always a prevalent sense of hatred towards us, Bengalis; local people even started calling names in public places.

Imagine the trauma — surrounded by enemies, we had to hide our joy or express our delight over the news that the Mukti Bahini was gradually gaining control and there was hope that they could win. At that time there were a few lakh Bengalis living and working in West Pakistan, and my father was just one of them.

 

16 DECEMBER AND BEYOND...

THE TRAUMA CONTINUES

A few months after victory, all Bengali officers in the armed forces were sent to camps. And that was the time father got anxious. One day he came home and said that he had been summoned and asked whether he would stay in Pakistan, or return to Bangladesh instead.

As he opted for Bangladesh, he was suspended from his position as a professor. My mother was very anxious — under these dire straits we sisters had to prepare for our HSC and SSC examinations respectively. But father always tried to keep the morale high and cheered us on, saying that this was a good time to practice housekeeping. He even assigned one of us, each week, to take care of things like grocery, laundry, meals and so on.

One evening while we were seated around the dinner table, he told my mother and us four sisters that he had taken the decision to leave Peshawar. He was in London doing his doctorate degree in the early fifties and had seen and heard about the Civilian Camps. He had heard many horror stories there and from that experience he said he would not wait and let that happen to his family. He also explained to us that as it was not possible to just take a plane and go. We would have to think of the only alternative left — to go illegally, with the help of local pathans.

Although it was not common, such arrangements were not unheard of in the Bengali community stranded in Pakistan post 1971. For a given sum of money, the pathans would take families across the border to Kabul, and this could only be done in secret. If caught, the only place one could image themselves being ending up was the Peshawar Central Jail. In fact there were many who did get caught and ended up there.

 

THE PLAN

Meticulous planning began from that night. First, we had to decide on what to take and what to leave behind. We were told to take only five suitcases for the six of us.

The second critical step was to exercise caution at every stage involved in the great escape to Kabul. We could only hope that once we were safe in Afghanistan, we could seek help from the Indian embassy and return home.

We had heard stories of people forced to travel on trucks, huddled under huge baskets of fruits. In the final stage of our own escape, my two youngest sisters had to sit together on one mule.

We had such beloved memories attached to all of our belongings — our books, our toys, our clothes; it was so difficult to choose what to take and what to leave behind. My father consoled us by saying he would donate all our beloved books to the jail as he figured that would help cheer up the prisoners.

 

THE ESCAPE

The scariest part was the Torkham Border Check Post, positioned along the ancient and famous Khyber Pass.

We decided not to go by this route as my father was a well known face, being a frequent visitor to those parts. We had to take the “Smuggler's Route” through which goods were smuggled in and out of Pakistan for centuries.

 

20 April, 1973

Pakistan Forest Institute,

Peshawar

3PM

A bright sunny Friday afternoon; it was rather quiet as it always was during this time of the day. The silence being broken by the lively chirping of sparrows, busy collecting straw for their nests, and occasional barking of street dogs basking in the sun.

Time came to a standstill as the clock struck 3.

This was the time picked by the people who would smuggle us out of Pakistan; we later learned that this was the time when duty guards changed shifts. The whole campus was full of these armed guards, responsible to keep an eye on the Bengalis. Being a Friday, there would be fewer people around as they would be resting after the Friday, Jummah prayers.

Time stood still, as everyone's eyes were on the clock on the wall, it seemed we were waiting since an eternity….and then the sound of a car engine was heard and there was an exchange of glances among us.

So the time had come!

The moment that everyone had been dreading was here at last and from here on, there was no looking back. It wasn't easy to leave, we had spent eight years in this house, and this was our home.

As we looked around — the furniture was still there, the TV, the curtains, beds, chairs, tables, crockery, everything. Yet, if we looked carefully some of the walls looked bare, the books were nowhere to be seen.

It seemed like we were glued to the ground! What to do?

Finally, Abba said we had to leave. We walked out as if in a trance. The car had driven all the way to the back of the house. The trunk was opened, suitcases were quickly thrown in. Doors opened and closed within seconds and we were all in. For the past week we had rehearsed this scene time and again, one by one each one of us would get in the car covering ourselves in chaddars...even Abba.

With hearts pounding, we left the safety of our home and stepped into 'Unknown   Territory.' Fifteen minutes later we got out again and were ushered into another car. That was for security in case someone had followed us.

The car drove fast and within ten minutes we had left the city and were in No Man's Land —  here there was no law! This part was ruled by the Pashto speaking tribal Pathans, neither the Pakistanis nor the Afghans. In a wink of an eye we had turned traitors from honest, respectable and law abiding citizens. If caught now, jail term would be our destiny!

All around us was barren land with wild grass growing a lot like the prairies in the so called Wild West. Far away there seemed to be a stone hut surrounded by a solid wall of stones. And that is where the car stopped and we were taken indoors.

As was the custom there, we were not surprised to see only men folk; the women observed strict 'purdah'. All of us, except my father went inside the house and were amazed to see all the women come forward in welcoming us, leaving whatever chore they were doing. We were deeply touched by this, and we sat on the “charpai” and introduced ourselves.

By the end of the day we were quite comfortable. The young girls were shy at first then slowly started to talk. An elderly lady came forward and told us that she knew we had left everything, and had taken this route so that we could go to our motherland.

She consoled us and told us not to worry and everything would be alright once we reached our homeland.

They were kind enough to prepared rice, just because that was our staple. There was goat milk yoghurt and despite the awkward smell, we drank up, in respect to their hospitality.

That night we could hardly sleep, thinking of all that could have happened. My father being the only male was most worried, and at times I think my mother became the stronger and braver of the two.

Our parents hardly slept but we did get some rest, sleeping on the charpais with only three pillows and not very clean sheets. Our eyes opened at the crack of dawn at the sound of birds and the roosters crowing.

 

OUR JOURNEY TO FREEDOM

The evening was specially selected as this was a moonless night, with us making full use of the darkness. Going outside and looking at the purple mountain range, it was hard to believe that we would be crossing over to the other side before dawn. The mountains seemed so far away and steep. The day passed by very slowly, and finally it was time to say good bye to our hosts.

None of us had ever been on a horse except Abba; my heart was pounding, our parents understood the apprehension. We rode mules and not horses; the only relief was that there were some local guides with us.

We were slowly going towards the mighty Karakorum Range. The closer we got, the more Herculean task the whole affair seemed. Before the ascent, we were instructed not to utter a word, even if we were questioned.

Imagine our mental condition-- only faith in God helped us to maintain composure. We got used to the slow repetitive motion along the narrow paths, and could see that we were going up and up. Far away, flickers of light were visible, and suddenly my mule started going in a different direction, and I faced the danger of being left behind! Apparently, the donkey was heading home.

As we ascended we could not help being amazed at the mules and their expertise in climbing and sense of direction. The animals and the attendants were at home now and went along the narrow winding path very confidently. They did not seem to need any light and only once in a while did the attendants light the torch to see ahead. There were other people going along too, and every time that happened, we were almost scared to death.

As everyone here carried a gun, and were trained to “shoot to kill,” it was pretty scary. It took a very long time and finally we reached the peak and there was a huge sigh of relief.

As we started our downwards journey I could not help admiring our guides. These pathans with their integrity, honesty, religious bond and faith in God were truly remarkable people. Here we were completely at their mercy, but for some strange reasons, we did trust them or we would not be here. I had always known how everyone made fun of them, saying that they were foolish, simple and ignorant-- still living and following a lifestyle of a hundred years ago. I personally had a completely different view of them. I felt their values were above reproach as they clearly had virtues like love and kindness and they had real respect for women as they were 'mothers.' The only bond we had with them was religion, and to them we were their brethren and they proved the strength of their belief.

As the clock ticked away, we started seeing faint lights in the eastern sky and soon the sky was red— one of my most memorable sun rises. Finally, we reach plain ground. There came a time when they told us to get down from the mules, gently, they warned us. The ordeal was over. We almost jumped down and to our surprise could not stand up as our legs were fatigued and our muscles excruciatingly painful.

Abba suddenly became sick and we were all worried. But Amma took the reins, and we sat on the ground under a tree, drank water and rested for a while. Suddenly, a car arrived from nowhere and we were told that this car would take us to Kabul.

We had at last crossed the border, no check post, no passport or visa!

 

ALIENS IN FAMILIAR LANDS

We were free and I cannot express in words how that felt. It was like a dream. As we looked around the roads leading to Kabul, it was the same winding road, few cars, buses and trucks as we had seen in many hill stations of Pakistan.

We were really enjoying the comforts of a motor car. What a change after being on a mule for twelve hours.

By the time we had reached the Indian Embassy, our bodies could not bear it any longer.

We had to register there as Bangladeshi citizens. They gave instructions to the driver to take us to a hotel where they were keeping all the hundreds of Bengalis escaping everyday from Pakistan.

It was a most ordinary looking building. As we got out we were taken to a room; this was where we would be staying for the next fortnight. We looked around and saw our five suitcases, which were all we had, having left behind everything else. There were three charpais with mattresses and sheets.

We all wanted to wash up so we went outside to look for the washroom, and met another Bengali who welcomed us and then showed us the washroom at the end of the corridor. We looked at each other in complete shock as we were used to bathrooms attached to our bedrooms and this was something new. Then came the real shock when he explained that there were only two washrooms that were shared by about thirty people!

We were exhausted. Gathering the last of our strength somehow, we ate the vegetable daal and tandoori roti, served in the room, and went off to sleep.

In the evening we went out of the room and got acquainted with the other occupants, there were families like ours in every room.

Once again we were among complete strangers but there was an invisible bond between us, which grew stronger in the two weeks that we spent there. It was a strange life, for once there was no work, no school-- it was like a vacation and it was like one big family. The elders would sit and talk most of the time, while the young boys and girls would get together and go for walks, we played games — '20 questions' where one would think about a personality and the others guessed who it possibly could be.

As most of the time was spent talking we got to know each other pretty well. At times we would wonder as to when will we would be able to start a normal life again. We were also getting tired of the same three meals every day.

Kabul was a much more modern city than Peshawar, where we had come from. The first thing that caught our eye was the freedom of women — who wore skirts, had short hair, and were driving cars.

All this was so new for us. The young people wore western clothes, there were lots of cars on the roads and there were some big shops. The first time that I had ever been to a department store was in Kabul, where every floor had different kinds of products. The people were very courteous and friendly.

We didn't know 'Dari,' the Afghani version of Persian, so we used a lot of sign language. Hindi was quite well understood by the young group thanks to Hindi movies. We watched a couple of movies together among which the most memorable, Bobby, was a super-hit at that time.

One of our friends in Peshawar had given us the phone numbers of their family members in Kabul so we decided to visit them after making appointments. We were so impressed with these people. They truly exhibited the long gone tradition of believing that 'guests are sent from heaven.'

The whole family was there to welcome us in the sitting room. Everyone sat as long as we were there (we found it rather strange as there was very little conversation — they did not speak English or Urdu, and we could not speak Dari! It was mostly gestures with a little mixture of English, Pashto, and Urdu.

From the eldest member in the family to the young teenage school children — all were there. They were all very western in their ways of clothing, food, and table manners. The thing that I will never forget is that not only did they get the taxi for our return to the hotel but also paid the taxi driver, that's how well mannered these Afghan people were!

Today, whenever I see clips of war-torn Kabul, and suffering of the people my mind goes back to April 1973,  when I was there, and my heart breaks to see the fate of this  great city, which  once was a beautiful metropolis.

It was in same place where people fear to tread now, but more than thirty years ago we had found freedom, security and peace, leaving behind not only all our worldly belongings but also our identity as Pakistanis, in search of a new one passionate one, Bangladeshi.

This is where we had found sanctuary, therefore Kabul will always be special to me. This is true for thousands of Bengalis who went through Afghanistan between 1972 and 1974.

Days passed by, soon ten days had gone and we learnt that we would be leaving in a day or two for New Delhi. We had made good friends with whom I still have remained in contact. In spite of the fact that we were cooped up in one room with so many people sharing one washroom, where we could take a bath only once a week — just the fact that we were safe and free was enough.

Even the hotel people became friendly and there were tearful goodbyes. Finally, we were off to the airport and on board Ariana Airlines, to Delhi.

The flight was chartered and we were all going home.

At the airport there were placards carried by the people of the Bangladesh High Commission. They put us all in buses and took us to another hotel. There were tears in everyone's eyes as we thanked them for everything and also the Indian Government for keeping us in Kabul and taking care of us.

We were served, 'daal bhaat'  and never have I seen people appreciating this simple  meal the way we all did that night. We stayed for two days and then again we were put on a train to Kolkata.

We were aboard a three tier train, and it was arranged that there would be one family with small babies and one with grownups, so we had to share with this young couple. Throughout the next 40 long hours, the babies were crying, the train was slow and stopped at every station.

By now I think all of us were also quite stressed and everyone was edgy. We climbed to the top to sleep during the night and travelled across the countryside and were relieved to reach Howrah Railway Junction— Kolkata's famous station.

My father was quite at home as this is where he studied in the '40s at the Calcutta University. We went to the hotel, and two days later, we were scheduled to reach Dum Dum airport, to board for our final destination— Dhaka. Between Peshawar and Dhaka, 26 days had passed.

 

EPILOGUE

It has been over 40 years since I decided to write about our Great Escape, it is perhaps impossible for someone who did not experience the horrors that stranded Bengalis endured, that my father, a professor at a university, felt safer to be smuggled to another country rather than staying in Pakistan with his wife and four daughters. The long hazardous journey was across unknown frontiers and great risks were involved, but thank God, at the end we all feel it was one worth taking.

I finished writing this account a few years ago and now thanks to Prima, my daughter, I am submitting the complete version to share with others. Maybe some reader will come out and tell his or her story of their unforgettable journey to freedom.

Our experience as stranded Bengalis, and the events that followed till we reached Dhaka taught us some valuable lessons in life.

The material things —which we are now so dependent on— are unnecessary. The most important thing in life is life itself; it is to be shared with people you love, your family and friends. And to have faith in The Almighty. 

Although almost five decades have passed, I finally penned my words primarily because I always wanted to tell the world about the inhabitants of the Frontier Province of Pakistan, Pathans as we know them. Irrespective of what the world might say, I respect and am eternally grateful to them for helping us— signs of true brotherhood in humanity and religion. We desperately needed their help, and without them escaping from Pakistan would not have been possible.

Secondly, I wanted to write about the Afghans, another great race. I wanted to acknowledge how kind and hospitable they were to the Bangladeshis. Without their support, thousands of people like us could not have reached our motherland.

Today, when I see the suffering of these people it breaks my heart. I have been fortunate to have seen them in their glory days. I firmly believe that they have had more than their share of misfortune, and I eagerly await the day when all their perils are over.

I must also express my heartfelt gratitude to the people of India and the Indian Government, as without their help it would have been impossible.

And lastly, I wanted my children and especially my two grandchildren — Ilana and Ishad, to know about my perilous journey from me, and also be able to read about it...when I am gone.

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