Azgar Ali was not worried when the war broke out. Theirs was a quaint little village hiding by the slopes near the Garo Hills. It took two days for Dhaka to show its face in their village in any of its form and shape—be it that of newspapers, goods or people. The only train station was twenty kilometers away and the only highway that connected them with the rest of the country was so far that even the bordering country India seemed nearby in comparison. Azgar Ali, therefore, was convinced of the Pakistani Army's ignorance of their existence.
His was an extended family consisted of his three brothers, their wives and their seven children, his own wife, and his three daughters. The brothers lived in separate houses, built in a semi circle around a big courtyard. Standing at the center of the courtyard, the big mango tree worked as a compass for the house. The gated entrance was at its north; the kitchen in the east corner, and the barn was in the west, right by the fodder house. Every morning, Azgar Ali sat with his brothers on the wooden bench under the tree and smoked hookah, and his wife stayed busy assisting her sisters-in law in the kitchen. It was one such morning—while enjoying his regular hookah—Azgar Ali declared Nalitabari as the safest place on earth. “After all,” he said in his usual cheerful voice, “who in their right mind will attack a small village of no importance?”
Azgar Ali's wife however seemed unsure.
“Are you sure it won't reach us?” she asked her husband that night. “Then why does everyone look so scared?”
“The war will come nowhere near us,” said Azgar Ali, in a confident voice and went to sleep right away.
But Halima stayed awake. She had this lump of some inexplicable fear growing in her gut since morning. It sat right on her throat, blocking her windpipe and causing her to gasp for breath. Her three daughters were in their late teens and the boys in their household were not old enough to join the war. A simple and honest farmer, her husband would cringe even at the idea of killing a rat. She did not know what got him into talking like a confident protector of the family—as if he had fought countless battles; as if he was the bravest prophet whose words were sure to work like talismans. Halima stepped out to go to the kitchen to get a drink of water. Her kerosene lantern generated a soft flickering light, like a firefly. In its dim light, she saw the stooping silhouette of the big mango tree, blending softly with the rectangular outline of the open kitchen door. Halima startled. She remembered locking the door herself. Halima picked up a sturdy bamboo stick before entering the kitchen.
To her relief, the kitchen looked the way she had left it: clean and organized. As she approached to pour some water from a pitcher, Halimasaw a dozen shadows, glued on the floor, like hunched back statues.
“Don't scream,” said one of them. “We're freedom fighters, and we need your help. We are being chased by the enemy.”
Azgar Ali could not believe what he saw: twelve young men, in their early twenties—most of them severely wounded—shivering in cold, not in cowardice. Halima—with the help of her sisters-in-law—nursed the wounded ones, prepared food, and made beds for them in the fodder house by the barn. “No one will look for you there,” she said in a comforting voice, “now eat your meal and get some sleep.”
“We won't stay here long,” said Nazmul, the leader of the group. “We'll leave as soon as we can.”
“You aren't going anywhere,” Halima said in a firm voice. “Are they?” She asked her husband.
“Of course, not! They'll stay as long as they need!” Azgar Ali said firmly.
“What if the military comes looking for them? What if our families are in danger?” the younger brothers asked.
“Nothing will happen to any of us. The Army will never come here.”
Azgar Ali's house gained a new life after that night. The brothers went quieter than usual and secretly sought help from local doctors for their wounded visitors. Halima looked after her guests, while her sisters-in-law took charge of cooking and cleaning. The children spent most of their time in the fodder house, listening to the heroic tales of braveries and deaths. And once the stories were done, they ran to their parents to excitingly recreate those battlefields in their own words.
“Baba, did you know Nazmul bhaiya's group is responsible for last week's explosion that destroyed the big bridge?” Lila asked eagerly. “Because they've destroyed the bridge, the army trucks won't come here anymore.”
“But didn't they say they were chased down by the enemy?” Azgar Ali asked his daughter.
“Yes, but they smartly dodged them and left behind no trace! They ran for hours, taking turns in carrying the wounded ones, and until they had no strength left.”
“They really have no strength left,” murmured Azgar Ali. Two of them needed immediate medical care. And he was not sure how long he could keep them hidden. The changing time had turned too many people into foes of freedom.
Azgar Ali's second daughter Mila brought the news of hope. “Baba, you know who they're waiting for?”
“Mahmud, their leader. A medical student and a ferocious freedom fighter,” said Mila.
“Under Mahmud's command, they destroyed the Madhupur Bridge,” Lila added, “and fought successfully against the enemy soldiers.”
“And once Mahmud arrives, they'll attack the enemy camp by the border,” said Shila—the youngest of his daughters.
Intrigued by his family's resolute faith in a mysterious man, Azgar Ali went to see Nazmul.
“Why is everyone rejoicing in false hope? he asked. “Who is coming?”
“Mahmud. Our leader. And Hamid. Wahed. Saleh. And Hashem. They're all coming.”
“How'd they know where to find you?”
“They could have known it by now—had we left them the message at the stationmaster's house—three days ago. It's too late now. Our mission will fail.” Nazmul sighed.
“It's never too late. I'll be your messenger!” Azgar Ali declared.
But Halima vehemently objected to his decision.
“I don't have a good feeling about this,” she said, “I'm scared.”
“You? Scared?” Azgar Ali laughed.
“Don't go,“ Halima said earnestly.
“Don't worry. I'll be back soon.”
Feeling cheerful, Azgar Ali left his house to fulfill his task as a messenger of hope.
The journey back was smooth and quiet. Too quiet. The empty roads and paddy fields by the roadside and the lakes and ponds yonder—all stayed quiet, as if dead. Even the homebound birds flew in silence. All the houses stood still in the dark—as if no humans ever lived there. Only Azgar Ali's house had light and sound and voice and crowd. The main gate was destroyed and the house was still burning. Every door of every room was broken. The kitchen was thrashed. The fodder house was demolished. The big mango tree had people hanging in its branches, like withered leaves. Azgar Ali's brothers. Devoured bodies of women and girls were piled up like naked firewood. Azgar Ali's wife and daughters and sister-in-law. Little children lay on the ground like wax dolls. Azgar Ali's nephews.
“Where are my freedom fighters?” Azgar Ali ran from one room to another, screaming, “where are my freedom fighters? Nazmul . . . where is Nazmul?”
Nazmul was turned into a tree. His body, stuck to the ground with a sharp bamboo pole, stood like a sturdy trunk of a banyan tree. And by his feet, lay eleven other bodies—like a pile of dry leaves fallen from that tree.
“They have killed my freedom fighters! They have killed my freedom fighters!”
Azgar Ali stormed out of the house in utter frenzy. He kept running in the direction of nowhere—to be away from a house that had killed the protectors of its hope, the destroyers of its sorrows.
DEDICATION: Dr. Abdullah Al Mahmud, Bir Protik. My uncle, my freedom fighter.
Fayeza Hasanat teaches at the University of Central Florida. Her translation of Neelima Ibrahim’s Ami Birangana Bolchhi (A War Heroine I Speak) was published in 2017.