The Brave Ones by Salil Tripathi

This piece is an edited extract from The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy, Aleph, 2014.


Pakistani soldiers raped many women in Bangladesh during the nine months of the 1971 war. Numbers are impossible to ascertain. Some women were raped only once; many were raped repeatedly. Some were taken away to cantonments as sexual slaves. At the end of the war, there were 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war. The military crackdown lasted from 25 March to 16 December – 266 days.


How many of the affected women would report such rapes, knowing that in a conservative society they would have to carry the stigma and the backlash?


Thirteen women sat outside, waiting to meet me. The women were older than I was – the youngest  in her mid-fifties, the oldest in her late sixties. In 1971, they were between fifteen and thirty. One wore the burkha; the rest were in saris, covering their heads with their pallus. Some wore the teep, or bindi on their foreheads. They looked at me with great curiosity. Later, I was told they had rarely been interviewed by a man. They stared at my laptop, listened to me intently as I explained in my elementary Bengali what my purpose was.


Most women I interviewed had no problem talking about the day itself – who was at home, how many soldiers came, how they behaved, who they beat up, how they were pushed and knocked down. But after that, without fail, the women paused. And virtually every woman said, ‘And then I fainted,’ a euphemism many rape survivors use, regardless of the context in which they had suffered violence. The rape itself had become part of the subconscious; she had become unconscious. Their faces were still at that time, staring back at me, revealing no emotions. It is only later that some of the women broke down, reflecting on the miserable conditions in which they lived.


I felt like a voyeur, an intruder, indeed, a violator. I explained my purpose. I told them I wanted to hear what happened to their village in 1971, and what had happened to them. I wanted to know what they felt then, and how they feel now. I wanted to hear their stories; I wanted to learn from their experiences—most of all, I wanted to understand how they coped, what gave them their strength. And I wanted them to know that I could not promise any help. Non-government organisations had made visits in the past. Some had promised jobs, a few had said income support would be possible. But this did not always happen. I was in no position to make any grand promises. I said I would listen to their stories, and tell my readers what had happened to them. My aim was to convey their pain to my readers so that they could understand what happened, and they could take steps to make sure that nobody has to go through such pain again.


I want the soldiers caught; I want them tried.
SB heard gunshots one night at 3 am. The army had come to the railway station. She did not know that, and she left her home to catch the train, but she could not get in. She realised that the Pakistani army had come on that train and they were killing the people who were trying to come onboard. She kept low and walked away. The army was busy burning houses and killing people.


Her older sister was pregnant, so she took her to a pineapple plantation where they could hide. SB herself wasn’t married and she was menstruating. They managed to avoid the army that night. Her father had decided that she should marry her cousin, because they were told the army was taking away all the women who did not have husbands. She was to marry a cousin who was suffering from tuberculosis.


In May, the army came again. They went into hiding again – she along with her child, her parents and sister. The child cried, and the Pakistani army followed the sound and came to where they were. They pointed their gun as if they were going to shoot the child. Her neighbour was a Razakar named B. He told the soldiers that their family was a bunch of cowards and they should let them be. The troops left.


SB’s family had a false sense of security because B had intervened. But the next day the soldiers came in the afternoon.They were burning houses. The family hid in a shed. They decided not to run because they thought they’d get shot. Her father sat at the door, smoking a hookah. Her brothers were keen to fight but they did not have any weapons. Her sister carried her child out of the cot when the soldiers entered the house and pulled her hair. They raped her and beat her up. She bled – she had just had a child – and collapsed and died.They poked their gun at her mother.They collected all the young women of her family. One sister was so scared she urinated and the soldiers laughed.


And then they came for her. She had been hiding behind a door but they saw her and took her.The women were all raped, one after another. Some were raped several times by different soldiers. One of her sisters-in-law also died.


SB got a few jobs after the war was over. Her husband initially did not want to take her back, but eventually he did. One day Mujib came to their village. The women who were raped carried a banner, calling themselves birangonas1. Mujib turned towards them and said: ‘I am your father; I will accept you.’


After the war, the freedom fighters looked for B, but he was hiding in the neighbouring village. He died a natural death many years later.


‘I want the soldiers caught. I want them tried,’ she said.


During that war, men fought with their guns; I fought with my honour.
SH was a fifteen-year-old orphan who lived with her uncle and had been married recently. She lived in fear after she heard Razakars and Pakistani soldiers taking eighty people to the river, lining them up in two rows of forty each, and then shooting them. One day there was a knock at her door and the man on the other side said he wanted water. She refused to come out of the house.


Her husband had seen the army coming and he escaped. The soldiers knocked down the door. There were thirteen of them. All of them raped SH, one after the other.


She never saw her husband again. After the war she tried to work as a domestic help, but only those who did not know of her rape let her work in their homes. Some years later she married an older man. He was already married, and he had heard her story. But he wanted a younger wife. He is now dead. She lives with her younger son who is a construction worker. Her older son left for Dhaka eight years ago and has not kept in touch with her after he found out what had happened to her.


‘I gave my honour for this country but there is no recognition,’ she told me. ‘Sheikh Mujib hugged me, but he is now killed. He did to me what a father would do for his daughter. People like you have come and interviewed me many times, but still I have received no justice. It always ends with just an interview. I want those men from Al-Badr and the Razakars to be tried. During that war, men fought with their guns; I fought with my honour.’


What would you like to do to the men who harmed you, I asked all of them when our conversations ended. At once, the women became animated and started speaking together.Trial, we want a trial, some said.We want those men punished, a couple of women said. They humiliated us. And one of them said quietly: ‘We want justice. We want trials of Razakars. They killed us like helpless birds.’


They then attacked me, but I fought back. I punched them, I kicked them. I was bleeding but I fought them. I was to give my life away, but not my respect.
DN remembers well the night about a dozen freedom fighters came to her father’s home. They were hungry, but the family did not have rice at home. She was twenty and pregnant. The freedom fighters planned to attack the Pakistani army the next morning.


Her husband left with the young men to hide their weapons by wrapping them in plastic and keeping them besides the river in the mud. DN was with her mother-in-law and her sister-in-law. Several Pakistani soldiers came and raped the sister-in-law first (she later committed suicide). ‘They then attacked me, but I fought back. I punched them, I kicked them. I was bleeding but I fought them. I was to give my life away, but not my respect. By that time my husband also came, and he too fought,’ she said.


‘The incident (as she refers to her rape) had already happened but I kept fighting them. Then I ran away to save my life. They were more powerful,’ she said. They left her husband nearly dead. He was in coma, and after the war, he died.


Her voice softened when I asked her the name of her sister-in-law. She no longer remembered her name; she had been married only recently. One of her sons works as a rickshaw driver. One daughter is a homemaker. Of all the women I spoke to, she received some direct benefit from the government. Hasina Wajed gave her 50,000 takas and 4 kathas land, which she has distributed among her children. She is on a list of freedom fighters and guards her photographs with Hasina carefully. She showed me fragile sheets with evidence of her suffering. ‘Bangladesh is free, but what about us? We did so much for Bangladesh. What did Bangladesh do for us?’


Other testimonies from Birangonas yielded the following statements:
They cut her breasts and destroyed her. She died.
I don’t remember what the three men did to me.
I felt helpless; nobody was around. My husband did not want me back.
They only raped the poor.
I pleaded with them to leave me alone, but they raped me.
Sometimes people called me a prostitute.

My husband was understanding. He knew I was alone, I was not protected, and I was violated. I had to save myself.




Salil Tripathi was born in Bombay and lives in London. He is contributing editor at Mint and Caravan. He has written for many newspapers and magazines around the world. In 2011 he was one of the recipients of the Bastiat Prize. In 1994, he was among the recipients of the Citibank Pan Asia Journalism Award. He is the author of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, Aleph, 2014 about the Bangladesh War and its aftermath, and Offence: The Hindu Case, Seagull, 2009 about Hindu nationalist assaults on freedom of expression. Tranquebar will publish his collection of travel essays in late 2015.


1Rape survivors are called birangonas, or brave ones, in Bangladesh – a name conferred upon them by the government, soon after independence, to recognise their suffering.