By Samiha SanjidaPrint | PDF
Content note: The following story contains depictions of explicit sexual violence, physical violence, and infanticide. If you are feeling activated or impacted please reach out to the Sexual Assault Centre of Brant 24-7 support line: 519.751.3471.
It is the year of 1971 in my dream, the year our small country by the coast raises arms against our oppressors.
The heat is just beginning to set into the air, the last chills of winter retreating with the clouds that cover the raging sun. Boshonto has arrived.
In this dream, I am young. Perhaps fourteen, or maybe more. It is hard to remember on even my best days. My mother has been dead for years, buried in a modest patch of land with the rest of her family.
At this time, we are still known as East Pakistan. We will not be known as that for much longer. Tensions rise like the humidity in the air. The steady rumble of discontent falls from every mouth.
“Smells like war,” Dada gripes. My father’s father is a bitter old man with more hatred for our Pakistani rulers than love for our Bengali community.
“Nothing will happen,” Baba reassures him. “People will always complain, but there will never be a change in our life,”
I nod along, placated just as Dada seems to be. Baba is an educated man; he will always know what is best. In my young mind, the only one more knowledgeable than my father is Allah himself.
The protests are the same as always.
The sun beats hot and heavy on my back as I hurry home from the bazaar. People crowd the streets and jostle each other, screaming about riots and blood and things I don’t understand. They will soon be known everywhere as the Mukti Bahini, the freedom fighters that fought tooth and nail for our country.
“Baba, what are they shouting about?”
He is silent for a long time before he turns to me. I cannot remember ever seeing my father so sad.
“War, Ma,” he whispers. “War is coming, and our people want blood,”
When I ask my friend Rasheed, he scoffs and explains to me the attacks the Pakistani military have been leading on cities. He is sixteen and full of patriotic hormones fueled by the tragedies around us.
“They are corrupt, Danya! They want to destroy us Bengalis because they believe we are impure!” he spits. “People are dying because Pakistan wants it so, and only the Mukti Bahini are brave enough to stop them.”
“What about Sheikh Mujib?” I ask. “Dada was ranting about something he said on the radio the other day,”
Rasheed’s lips curl up in a fearsome grin that makes me worry. He cackles with mirth, “Ah yes. We’re our own country now, Danya. Mujib himself said we could take up arms against these monsters, and that’s precisely what I will be doing.”
That is the last conversation I ever have with Rasheed.
It does not take long before Baba introduces me to his friend Abdul. He nervously explains that I will be staying with Abdul-Chacha’s family for a little while, just until things calm down around home.
Abdul-Chacha smiles grimly when he shakes my father’s hand and heads off to the morjid to pray as soon as I am dropped off at his home. His wife – “Call me Komola-Chachu!” – ushers me into their spare bedroom and tells me to get comfortable, fumbling with the mounds of fabric in her closet before she leaves me to get settled.
A week passes before Komola-Chachu sits beside me and tells me my father has been captured by the Pakistani military. She doesn’t need to explain further for me to realize I will never see him again.
When the militia come for us, my bones feel too heavy to run, but as soon as I feel their grimy fingers on me, I start to thrash.
“Shut up, you filthy girl!”
For my attempts, I receive a harsh slap to the face and the hand gripping my arm transfers to my hair. The pain that stings my scalp is nothing compared to what I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
They carry me out, struggling and thrashing, to a big military truck. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before. Filled to the brim with standing women; they are weeping and clutching to each other for dear life. Maybe somewhere in my mind I know what will happen to me, so I fight harder. I don’t stop until I am pressed into the mass of bodies.
“I’m sorry,” someone sobs. “I am so sorry, my child,”
We are taken to a camp, dragged to a tiny barrack and presented before a soldier; he looks no older than 19. He tells us to strip.
No one moves. His jaw twitches and he makes a quick motion with his hand. Immediately, I, along with a handful of other women, are dragged in front of him.
I watch my salwar kameez torn off my body and scream. I scream until my voice is hoarse; I scream until my captors press their hands around my neck to shut me up.
I pass out when I am first penetrated.
The next day, I am strapped naked to a banana tree and assaulted repeatedly. Blood runs down my legs like a river, mixing with the semen of these men whose faces I don’t remember.
In only a week, I witness the first girl of many to be strapped to the same banana tree and hacked to death. All because she refused to let the soldiers use her body as a toy.
It takes about two months for me to realize I am pregnant. The auntie next to me finally comments after weeks of morning sickness.
“Ma,” she says softly. “Do you know what is happening?”
My heart sinks.
When I go into labour, it is the worst pain I have ever experienced. Despite the myriad of women surrounding me, I feel only the cold ground and intense, unbearable pain. I pray to Allah that the soldier we’d managed to befriend – or at least gain the sympathy of – keeps his promise of claiming the child. If we’re lucky, it won’t be killed upon birth.
I clench my teeth around the wadded-up cloth in my mouth. I repent for all my sins then, all my ill wishes and silent curses. I beg for forgiveness.
Whether it be mercy or punishment, I am granted a small bundle. I say I don’t want to hold her, but the auntie who swaddled my child won’t take no for an answer.
“Name her,” I am told. I call her Oboni, named after my childhood friend. Named after simpler times. Nothing is simple about her.
I’m left alone with her, curled up in the back of the dirty barracks. Oboni attaches herself to my breast and I wince in pain. A wave of anger burns through me, something unlike I’ve ever known before.
I pry Oboni off my nipple, ignoring the painful ache it leaves me with.
My hands span her entire face, her body fits in the crook of my arm. She is so small. So weak. I close my fingers around her neck and find I can cover it completely. Oboni writhes in discomfort but doesn’t cry.
December 16th marks the day our country is freed. I’m carted back to Dhaka with the other women. The city no longer feels like my home. I spend weeks on the streets, being ushered from place to place, hoping for someone to recognize me.
We are shunned by our fellow countrymen, the Pakistanis’ intention. We are turned away from door after door, called shameless and harami. Silently, I agree.
Then one day, one of the doors opens to a familiar face. Dada stands in the opening, stooped over, face worn with lines. The reunion is not particularly teary or touching. I don’t talk about the past months and Dada doesn’t ask; I get the feeling he already knows.
I am arranged for marriage soon after that, given away because Dada can no longer care for me.
It takes four years before I will let my husband touch me. I lay frozen through it all.
Neeru is born in 1976. I try my best to raise her – to love her as I should have Oboni. I admit I don’t do the best job. By the time Neeru has her own daughter, our relationship is so strained she only visits for formalities.
I mention Oboni only in my addled state, when I am truly old and cannot understand what is real. Neeru drifts further every time.
“She would’ve been so pretty,” I whisper. We sit together, watching my granddaughter bumble around the room.
“She is pretty,” my daughter protests, scowling. “She is beautiful and I won’t let you–”
“Not her.” She is mistaken. “Your sister.”
Neeru sighs as if she’s fighting a losing battle, “Ma, I have no sister,”
“You did,” I answer. “A long time ago, you did.”
I tell her about the year of 1971, and I find for the first time, I awake from my slumber.