(Published in the Business Standard, November 24, 2014)
The Liberation War Museum of Bangladesh is situated in a quiet lane, away from Dhaka’s background traffic-jam roar, in a graceful two-storied whitewashed bungalow. It is a peaceful setting in which to try to understand history and the horrors of 1971.
The museum started only in 1996, with a few hand-curated exhibits. Over time, Mofidul Hoque and the other curators at the museum had put together a small but moving record of the genocide that accompanied Bangladesh’s birth as a nation. Many of us writers, in Dhaka for the Hay Festival, had found time to visit; Salil Tripathi, author of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, a non-fiction account of 1971 that includes many interviews with survivors, had told me that the museum should not be missed.
A man was thatching the roof of a small sitout in the courtyard, his movements expert and unhurried. As we moved through the house, each room opened up slowly, taking visitors from the history of this part of Bengal to the great protests that brought students and citizens out into the streets of Dhaka into the 1960s. Photographs of the war were in the last room of the ground floor; you ascended up a wooden staircase into the worst of the slaughter of 1971. The Liberation War Museum had collected over 14,000 memorabilia, Mr Hoque had written in a 2010 letter; what was on display was a fraction of the memories they had so painstakingly gathered.
I had just finished reading David Finkel’s moving and disconcerting Thank You For Your Service. Mr Finkel, one of The Washington Post‘s most meticulous reporters, had been embedded in Iraq in 2007, publishing his experiences in The Good Soldier (2009). Thank You For Your Service went deep into the trauma and struggles to adapt to life after war of the many United States veterans.
“Every war has its afterwar,” Mr Finkel had written, “and so it was with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some 500,000 mentally wounded American veterans. How to grasp the true size of such a number, and all of its implications, especially in a country that paid such scant attention to the wars in the first place? One way would be to imagine the five hundred thousand in total, perhaps as points on a map of America, all suddenly illuminated at once. The sight would be of a country glowing from coast to coast.”
That was one side of it; the other was the constant struggle – consistent for writers, archivists and historians across centuries – to convey what the victims and survivors of war had to grapple with. Despite his years of covering war as a correspondent, Mr Finkel wasn’t prepared for what he would encounter when he tried to track the “afterwar” and the lives of soldiers coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. He told the online magazine Guernica that he had few illusions about the impact of his book – he did not expect to be able to affect war policy, but he hoped to bring the suffering of the afterwar into the light.
In one of the most powerful chapters of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, Mr Tripathi went to speak to the biranganas, the women who had survived the war despite being raped and often tortured. He went in with many doubts: “Why would women want to open up their lives to me, a foreigner, an outsider, a man who came to visit them and asked questions, asking them to go over some of the most painful moments of their lives … And what would they get out of that exercise?”
His hope was to talk to the women, not as a voyeur, nor as someone promising “justice or an income”, just to listen with sympathy and empathy. He met 28 survivors, eventually, and wrote: “I decided to tell the story of each woman I met, because each experience taught me something new. It is easy to talk of a ‘quarter of a million rapes’ and think that each violent encounter was the same. It never is. I owed them the decency, the courtesy, of recognizing that.”
Ahead of me, two students spoke in Bangla, in low urgent murmurs. One boy was visibly disturbed. Why were they here, he asked repeatedly. The war was history. It was over. Was there any use in seeing these disturbing, shattering images of the dead, the dying, and those about to die? His monologue weaved ahead of me like a guide’s patter, filling the pause between each devastating story and the next – the two babies, turning to each other for comfort moments before their death, the coat taken off the body of a doctor murdered by the razakars, the torture ligatures on a student’s upraised hands. His friend listened, not saying anything, until the boy was finally silent; then he said in Bangla, but if we don’t know what they did, how will we prevent it from happening again?
They left, and I walked into the last room, coming face-to-face with a small collection of skulls and human bones, respectfully collected in a glass case. Nothing about the Liberation Museum was designed to shock, but the unexpectedness of this stopped me cold; perhaps it was also that there were only a few skulls, some bones, not the great charnel houses that pay silent witness to the killing fields of Cambodia. I turned away, held by that instinctive human fear of the dead.
And then something happened that I cannot explain. Perhaps it was the way the exhibits had been collected, the poignancy of the individual enamel tea cups or jackets, the shaving kits or the handwritten notes. The scale of what had happened in that old massacre began to sink into my brain: the immensity of the loss, the vast numbers of those whose lives had been winnowed in the slaughter, the high cost of every human conflict, then and now.
When I looked again at the grey bones, I did not see the anonymous dead; instead, I thought of the people they had once been, students making handwritten signs for the protests, rickshaw-pullers resting in the cool spaces of the evening, professors collecting their notes in preparation for a lecture at Dhaka University. Perhaps it was Mr Finkel’s words and Mr Tripathi’s writings, but the fear of the dead lifted and disappeared. The only thing I wanted to say to them was futile but also heartfelt: how sorry I was, that their lives had been cut short by horror and war, how I wished these evils would never happen again.