3,000,000 people killed, 400,000 women raped, tens of thousands abducted, 43,000 who were girls at the time still missing. Global Human Rights Defence’s movie calls for justice.
by Marco Respinti
Its 50th anniversary in 2021 brought renewed attention on the genocide perpetrated in Bangladesh by the Pakistani Armed Forces and its allied Islamist local militias in 1971. “Bitter Winter” dedicated a series of eight articles to a tragedy that after more than a half century is still bleeding. Nirmal Rojario (also spelled Rozario and Rosario), a leader of the Bangladeshi Christian community and the acting president of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, explains why. “We are still asking for justice,” he says. “A genocide happened, yet there has not been any trial. So, we want a trial and justice and the attention of the international community.” For this reason, the brand-new documentary released on the subject by Global Human Rights Defence (GHRD), an NGO chaired in The Hague, The Netherlands, by Sradhanand Sital and directed by Lina Borchardt, is timely and important.
Rojario’s and other testimonials, intertwined to evocative as well as distressing credited footage from the archives of the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, are aptly caught on camera by directors Margaux Solinas and Martin Bertrand, resulting in the effective 41 minutes of “What Happened? The Liberation of Bangladesh.” The documentary premiered at the second edition of GHRD’s Human Rights Film Festival on June 30, 2023, in The Hague. Readers may easily understand why it was presented in an international event specifically dedicated to the discrimination and persecution of women in the world. The documentary was also the key feature of “The Forgotten Genocide: Bangladesh 1971,” an event hosted by the European People’s Party in the European Parliament in Brussels on July 3.
When Pakistan (at the time West Pakistan, where the central government resided) decided to ignore the result of the 1970 elections in at-the-time East Pakistan, and militarily moved to launch “Operation Searchlight,” Muktijuddho, or the Bangladesh Liberation War, or War of Independence, exploded. The Mukti Bahini, literally “Freedom Fighters” (a designation which became famous in the following years), or the Bangladeshi patriotic armed resistance, confronted the “Pak Army” (as it is commonly referred to) and Razakars,literally “volunteers.” The term originally designated one of the several paramilitary forces active on the ground. Eventually, it came to identify all the Islamist armed groups allied to the repressive machinery of (West) Pakistan, and later local quislings in general.
“The Pakistani military began a violent crackdown on Bengali opposition with the help of radical Islamist groups,” recounts Meghna Guhathakurta (also spelled Guha Tarkuta), former professor of International Relations at Dhaka University, today Executive Director at Research Initiatives, Bangladesh. 14-15 years old at the time, she is the daughter of Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta (1920‒1971), a provost at the Jagannath Hall of the University of Dhaka, a residence hall for minority students (Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and others). She saw her father mortally injured during a sweeping operation conducted by Pakistani soldiers on the very first night of the war, March 25, 1971. He passed away on the 30th. By then, the genocide of civilians had begun, lasting for the entire period of the war, nine months. Meghna and her remaining family were secretly sheltered by Catholic nuns of the Holy Cross School, who hid them behind fake European names to conceal their Hindu identity.
In 1971, Bengali Christians were around 300,000 (they are close to one million today). “In 1971, almost 1,700 Christians took directly part in the Liberation war as freedom fighters,” says Rojario in the documentary. Two priests (one of whom was American missionary Fr. William P. Evans, 1919‒1971, of the Congregation of the Holy Cross) and a nun were killed, “because they were helping the refugees and displaced people during the war.”
The fate of minorities was in fact particularly harsh. Satek, a youth leader and an activist in Rangamati, a town in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, comments: “The freedom fighters who fought against the Pakistani military fought for equality, social justice and human dignity,” but “after 50 years […] the indigenous peoples of this country did not get these things.” It is part and parcel of the forgotten genocide.
Yet the GHRD’s documentary makes it all clear. Pakistani Islamists tried to impose their despotic rule on what was to become Bangladesh. They were supported by local Bengali Islamists. They tried to completely erase the distinctive culture of the country by hunting those who spoke the forbidden Bangla language and trying to thrust Urdu on everyone. Their enemies were all those who did not accept a fanaticized version of Islam, be they Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, or of course less radical Muslims. All these people became refugees in their own land, obliged to leave their homes, which were often destroyed or set on fire (and they “took shelter in many church compounds,” Rojario adds.)
After five decades, Muntassir Mamoon, historian and journalist, appears still surprised on camera. “We didn’t think, let me tell you, frankly, that this sort of thing could happen.” He recalls seeing movies on the Jewish Holocaust, reading books, but he never thought it could happen in his own country. Yet, it did. Saleem Samad, then active in the Mukti Bahini’s intelligence and now a journalist, saw it happening: “They have gone through all the stages: in nine months they could organize events to erase the culture, the tradition… And rape was a weapon of war.”
Resounding high at GHRD’s Human Rights Film Festival, Women Edition, the words of Shireen Huq, a women rights activist and founder of Naripokkho, told all the horrors: “Nobody knows the actual figure of how many women suffered mass rape. […] And no government since independence has made a serious effort to do a census of how many people we lost.” She explains that rape was “so stigmatized” in Bangladeshi society, which blamed it on the victims, not the perpetrators, that it was deemed to bring dishonor to the victims’ families, community, and nation. For decades, this made very difficult for women to admit they had been raped. Only those who suffered severe injuries that could not be hidden, “as a result of being raped maybe multiple times,” brought their testimony to the light. Many never reported the rapes.
Through the mouth of Huq, the documentary narrates the story, which surfaced in 2011, of Jafeera Lohani of Sirajganj, a small town north of Dhaka, who died in 2021. For years she took care of twenty-one “biranganas,” with very few people knowing it. These are women who were raped by the Pakistani Army and the Razakars. “Birangana” is a title given to them as an official recognition on December 22, 1971, six days after the war had ended thanks to the intervention of the Indian Army on behalf of the Bengalis, granting them their right to their homeland and country. It means “war heroine.” The “biranganas” sacrificed themselves for their own people, not differently from freedom fighters who died in combat. Recently, the government granted them a monthly stipend, fair enough to survive, Samad adds.
“More than 3,000,000 estimated people were killed and more than 400,000 estimated Bengali women were raped in systematic genocide by Pakistani armed forces and pro-Islamist militias,” a black screen above a melancholic music at the end of GHRD’s documentary instructs the audience. “Tens of thousands were abducted as 43,000 girls, who were minors at the time, are still missing, according to the government. Widespread looting of private and public property was recorded; many temples and churches were destroyed. 10,000,000 fled to India as refugees, and half of the population of Bangladesh was internally displaced.”
The answer to why this new documentary was produced is easy. “For justice to be served, members of the Pakistani Army responsible for the atrocities must be tried at the International Criminal Court.” Then a voice-over on a calmed-down final frame of a big quiet river concludes: “Bangladesh will remain the state of Bengalis—not of Muslims, not of Hindus.”