Friday 14 April 2023

‘We lay like corpses. Then the raping began’: 52 years on, Bangladesh’s rape camp survivors speak out

 It was the summer of 1971, and the distant murmurs of a war that began months earlier had made their way to Rajshahi in Bangladesh, across the north bank of the Padma River, to Noor Jahan’s door. The 14-year-old was playing in the courtyard with her little sister when a loud military truck came to a halt outside the family’s farmhouse.

Armed soldiers threw the two girls into the back of the truck, where they discovered several women sitting back to back with their hands tied. “They told us to look down and to remain silent,” recalls Jahan, now 65. The truck continued through the small town, making several stops; each time loading more women and girls into the back as if they were cattle. All the women were sobbing silently, Jahan describes, too afraid to make a sound.

“We had no idea where they were taking us. I watched from the corner of my eye as the marigold fields surrounding our home disappeared from sight,” says Jahan. “I remember clutching my sister’s hand tightly and being terrified the entire time. We had all heard about the Butcher of Bengal and his men.”

The Butcher of Bengal was the nickname given to Pakistan’s military commander, Gen Tikka Khan, notorious for overseeing Operation Searchlight, a murderous crackdown on Bengali separatists in what was then East Pakistan, which led to a genocidal crusade during the liberation war that followed.

But Jahan was about to become a victim of another brutal tactic of the Pakistani army. Alongside the killings, soldiers carried out a violent campaign of mass rape against Bengali women and girls, in what many historians believe amounted to a direct policy under Khan’s command to impregnate as many women as possible with “blood from the west”.

When the truck finally came to a stop, the girls found themselves in military barracks. The next few months were a blur for Jahan, who regularly passed out during her confinement. “We lay there like corpses, side by side. There were 20, maybe 30, of us confined to one room,” she recalls tearfully. “The only time we saw daylight was when the door creaked open and the soldiers marched in. Then the raping would begin.”

During the conflict that led to the birth of Bangladesh, military-style rape camps such as the one in which Jahan was held were set up across the country. Official estimates put the number of Bengali women raped at between 200,000 and 400,000, though even those numbers are considered conservative by some.

Though ethnic rape was feature of Partition years earlier, what Bengali women experienced was one of the first recorded examples of rape being used as a “consciously applied weapon of war” in the 20th century. But despite its shocking scale, little remains known about it outside the region.

Within Bangladesh, widespread stigma led to the women being ostracised by their communities, and their horrifying accounts were often suppressed by shame. Today, a plaque on the wall of the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka says it all: “There are not many records of this hidden suffering.” Yet in every corner of Bangladesh, there are survivors with terrifying testimonies.

In August 1971, Razia Begum had gone looking for her husband, Abu Sarkar, who had been missing for several days. She wandered anxiously through the abandoned streets of Tejturi Bazar in Dhaka, where Sarkar was a fruit seller, but he was nowhere to be found. Begum turned a corner, when she found herself face to face with a group of soldiers. She tried to run but was struck on the head with a rifle; a scar she still bears.

Begum was dragged to a nearby forest where she was raped repeatedly over a period of weeks. The soldiers were stationed close by and returned at different times of the day. “They tied me to a tree and took turns raping me during their breaks,” says Begum, now 78. After they were done with her, the soldiers threw Begum into a shallow ditch.

A passerby eventually found her and took her to a shelter, which Begum describes as a lost-and-found for women who were abducted during the war. Such makeshift shelters had been set up in districts across the region for the many women who had been abducted and abandoned miles from their home.

“Women didn’t often leave the house during that time, so many of us didn’t even know our proper addresses,” says Begum. Begum’s husband tried four different shelters before he found her and took her home. “I don’t like to think about what happened,” says Begum. “But after all these years, it has been difficult for me to forget. I still have nightmares.”

On 16 December 1971, the war came to an abrupt end. Although independence had been won, thousands of Bengali women, such as Jahan and Begum, would be rescued from shelters and rape camps across the country.

Maleka Khan, then secretary of the Bangladesh Girl Guides Association, was tasked with mobilising female volunteers to help with war recovery efforts. But after learning about the discovery of women who had been raped and held captive in underground bunkers near Jahangir Gate in Dhaka, Khan decided to lead the rescue mission herself.

When Khan arrived, she was shocked by what she saw. “There were women who were completely naked,” Khan, now 80, says. “They were abandoned in bunkers, where they had been kept and tortured during the war.” Khan bought the women clothes and, after helping them out, she describes carefully wrapping them in saris and blankets.

“They were in a state of shock and couldn’t speak,” says Khan. “Some had their hair chopped off, while others were heavily pregnant. There was an air of disbelief about the whole thing. It was all so horrific.”

The women were taken to safe houses provided by the government of the newly independent Bangladesh. In an effort to integrate rape survivors back into society, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of the nation, granted them the honorific of Birangona (war heroine) and established a rehabilitation programme for the women, of which Khan became executive director.

“It has been 52 years and we still haven’t received an apology from Pakistan for the horrendous war crimes it committed against the Bengali people,” says Saida Muna Tasneem, Bangladesh’s high commissioner to the UK.

Bangladesh has already succeeded in getting genocide recognition from the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention and Genocide Watch, and US Congress recently introduced a historic resolution recognising that a genocide occurred in 1971. The government is now lobbying for the UN and international community to recognise that a genocide was committed during the liberation war.

“Lack of recognition remains an open wound for the millions who were directly impacted by the atrocities that took place, many of whom are still alive today,” says Tasneem. “This dark chapter of history has been kept in the shadows for too long.” 


Wednesday 12 April 2023

‘We’d have died of hunger’: the charity kitchens feeding millions in Pakistan


There is a crowd outside the Khana Ghar food kitchen. Men wait patiently on one side as a group of women push forward, clutching photocopies of identity cards. “Every second day of Ramadan we give one-month’s food rations because we close our kitchen,” says Parveen Saeed.

“But we can only give one bag to one family, and we need their ID cards to check that, says Saeed, 63. “There are more and more mouths to feed than we can cope with.”

An older woman in traditional Pakistani dress in an office
Parveen Saeed, who started Khana Ghar 22 years ago. The banner commemorates her Pride of Performance award, Pakistan’s highest civil prize, which she received from President Arif Alvi in 2021. 

Saeed has been operating the kitchen in one of Karachi’s poorer districts for more than 20 years, and says she has never known it to be so busy. Pakistan is experiencing a series of crises that is pushing people to the brink.

Food and fuel prices, already on the rise before the Ukraine war began, have rocketed over the past year. The price of a kilo of flour has risen from 58 to 155 rupees (45p) since the start of 2022. Rice has more than doubled, while petrol has gone from 145 rupees a litre last year to 272 rupees now.

This is compounded by record inflation rates – surging in February to 31.5%, the highest in half a century. This week, the All Pakistan Textile Mills Association warned that the country’s textile industry is facing “imminent collapse” due to production cuts. About 7 million people have already lost their jobs in the sector since the Covid pandemic. Another 7 million jobs are at risk in the steel industry, where factories are closing as costs rise.

The World Food Programme predicts 5.1 million Pakistanis will be facing severe hunger by next week – an increase of 1.1 million people from the previous quarter.

In Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, the problems have brought long queues at food banks. Ahmed Edhi, from the Edhi Foundation, which has provided free meals for more than 40 years, says he is seeing “well-dressed men from offices” coming to the city’s centres.

These people are not beggars, they have become destitute. Where are the jobs?
Parveen Saeed, food kitchen manager
“These people are not beggars, they have become destitute,” says Saeed, as she points to the queue outside her kitchen in Taiser Town, Karachi. “Where are the jobs?”

Before Covid, meals for 6,000 people a day were provided here. The number rose to 7,000 during lockdowns, but in the past four months the figure has been 8,200.

“Food prices have hit the sky,” says Saeed, who charges three rupees (less than 1p) for a plate of curry and roti flatbread for those who can afford it, and gives it for free to those who cannot. Some days, she does not have enough. “It is heartbreaking as they have waited for a couple of hours, only to leave empty-handed.”

Pakistan’s political turmoil has diverted attention away from such daily issues. “Sadly, there is no conversation, no debate within political circles about how the daily wage-earner is feeding his family at a time when the prices of food have skyrocketed,” says Fawad Chaudhry, a minister in the previous Tehreek e Insaf government of Imran Khan.


Thursday 6 April 2023

Good deeds in Ramadan


During Ramadan, Allah, the most merciful, rewards those who remain on the path of truth. Therefore, reading the holy book of the Quran, performing good deeds, offering charity, reciting duas are highly recommended.

Abu Hurayrah told that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said:

“Every action a son of Adam does shall be multiplied—a good action by ten times its value, up to 700 times. Allah says: With the exception of fasting, which belongs to Me, and I reward it accordingly. For, one abandons his desire and food for My sake. There are two occasions of joy for a fasting person: one when he breaks his fast, and the other when he meets his Lord, and the (bad) breath (of a fasting person) is better in the sight of Allah than the fragrance of musk”.

– Al Bukhari

Further, Umm Saleem told that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said:

“(The performance of) `Umrah during Ramadan is equal (in reward) to performing Hajj with me”.

– Al Albani