Many faces of war 1971


1971 is carved in my memory as a personal year of joy. The year I enjoyed being pregnant and feeling the thrill of a life growing inside me and then later in the year giving birth to my son.  For me 1971 brought significant and momentous changes to my life as a mother. For the Sri Lanka’s People’s Liberation Front, or Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), 1971 was a painful birth of a short lived youth rebellion. For millions in Bangladesh 1971 was a painful long labour for the birth of their nation.

On April 5, 1971, we had attended a faculty party at the Colombo University campus and the talk had turned to growing political unrest among the youth.  Some were concerned but others dismissed the rumours as nonsense. Coming home, the streets of Colombo was quiet.  Two cops stopped us and had a brief chat with us asking where we were going but it was a friendly chat – nothing to get alarmed about.

The same evening my father after a visit to Colombo had taken the last train to Hikkaduwa.  From the railway station, he had walked behind a young group of students with sports bags, and he thought they were a school cricket team returning after a match in Colombo. About an hour or so afterwards when my father heard gunfire, he and my brother-in-law had come out on to the porch to find out what was happening. They thought it was either a continuation of a local village conflict or the police setting off some hand bombs they had recovered from the local thugs. Only when a bullet whizzed past their heads did they scramble in to the house, and gather the family under the dining table.  This was the start of the JVP’s  1971 uprising and the attack on the Hikkaduwa police station.

We woke up in Colombo to a 24 hour curfew and listened avidly to the radio for news. There was no TV and no newspapers that day. The words insurgent and insurgency entered our vocabulary. The government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike gained control of all but a few remote areas within about two weeks but an estimated 15,000 insurgents- -many of them in their teens—died in the conflict.

While we in our little island state bounced back to a normal life after the insurgency, across the seas in then East Pakistan one of the bloodiest wars of this century was erupting.  April 1971 was the commencement of a mass human displacement hitherto unseen when 10 million refugees fled to India from then East Pakistan, trudging through monsoonal rains.

It was 40 years later that I discovered the full horror of the genocide of 1971, the pain and suffering of the refugees while working at Drik.  Today I watched my colleagues Reza and Mahbub carefully getting images of this period ready for the forthcoming exhibition “Many faces of war 1971.” I look at the decapitated heads and bodies in canals, the girl who has died of cholera, the little boy leading a street march who was gunned down a little while after the photo was taken, and wonder at how these images speak to us even though their voices are silenced for ever.

Drik has made several attempts to piece together the scattered history of 1971 with an initial publication on Bangladesh’s 25th anniversary in Drik’s 1996 calendar, an exhibition in the first Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography in 2000, followed by the publication of the book and a film on refugees in 2011, titled The Birth Pangs of a Nation.

This year Drik has commenced “Archiving 1971” a programme to collect oral, textual and visual resources to establish a one stop repository of the historical 1971 year of liberation for Bangladesh.

An outcome of the Archiving 1971 program is a photography exhibition at Suhrawardi Uddan, Dhaka (in front of Shikha Chironton) on 26 March 2012  at 11:00 am.

The exhibition will remain open to the public till 31 March, 2012.  Please join us if you are in Dhaka.

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