‘WHERE are Barkat and Salaam’s graves, Bhaiya?’ Iqbal had asked me when we first met. I didn’t know. It was 1994. He was 10, I was 39. Back in 1971, as a fifteen year old, I had felt the warm flush of victory as I held a Pakistani Light Machine Gun in my hand. I hadn’t really won it in battle, and had only recovered it from a burning military truck. But the joy was as great. That was the time when a rickshaw walla had refused to take my fare, because he had heard me greet a friend with ‘Joy Bangla’ (freedom for Bengal, the 1971 slogan symbolising freedom from Pakistani rule). Things had changed, and the promise of freedom in our own land had slowly been eroded by politicians and military rulers who have lived off our dreams. Each time we became skeptical, each time we sniffed that something other than ‘Shonar Bangla (Golden Bengal)’ was in their minds, they led us on with vitriolic rhetoric. Eventually, as on that day in 1994, I too had forgotten. I didn’t know where Salaam and Barkat’s graves were. I had never heard of Dhirendranath Datta. More importantly, I had stopped caring. But Iqbal remembered. Born long after Salaam and Barkat’s bodies had merged with the soil, Iqbal knew only of this great battle that we had fought. Though the heroes had changed depending upon who ruled the country at any particular time. Salaam and Barkat were beyond dispute. They were not a threat to anyone. They didn’t apply for a trade license, or bid for a government tender. It was safe for the history books to remember them. Remembering Hindus or paharis or biranganas (women who had been raped by the Pakistani army), was a bit more problematic.
My search for the other heroes, the ones with cameras, began in 1994. After Iqbal reminded me of what I had forgotten. It was in the Paris office of Sipa that Goksin Sipahioglou, excited by my presence, ran down the stairs and brought back with him an armload of slide folders. It took a while for it to sink in. These were the first colour photographs of the Muktijudhdho that I had ever seen. We had heard that some of these photographs had been published. But our only source of news in 1971 was Shadhin Bangla Radio. It talked of the sacrifice of our freedom fighters, of how they were fearless against enormous odds. Of their glory in battle. M R Akhtar Mukul in ‘Chorompotro’ was the one voice we longed for. We chuckled as he talked of the plight of the Pakistanis. His wry but animated voice, muffled by the blanket we hid under, and barely audible in the turned down volume of the transistor radio, gave us hope, and kept us going through the dark nine months.
It was the photographs by the famous Iranian photojournalist Abbas, that Goksin had brought for me. Later that month, in the back garden of a house in Arle, I met the legendary British war photographer Don McCullin. Don was excited about the show I wanted to do, and unhesitatingly agreed to give us pictures. I found Abbas, at a beach near Manila, quite by accident. Both of us had been following the golden late afternoon light in a summer evening in Manila beach. He too was excited and wanted to be part of the show. Michele Stephenson and I had been in the same jury of World Press Photo on two occasions, and I had plenty of time to tell her about my plans. She invited me to New York and arranged for me to go through the archives of Time magazine where she was the photo editor. It was in the basement of the Time Life Building in the Avenue of the Americas, that I came across the daily bulletins that the reporters had sent in.
Memories flooded through my mind as I remembered those harrowing days and nights. I remembered the screams of people being burned alive as the flamethrowers belched fire at the Holiday office near the Hotel Intercontinental. Most of the people who died were those who slept in the streets and the slum dwellers around the office of the newspaper. Those who tried to escape the fire ran into a hail of machinegun bullets. My father, mother, Babu bhai and I, watched quietly from our verandah in Nasheman on New Elephant Road. My dad had suffered from Hindu bhodrolok prejudice in the pre-partition days, and had never supported the break-up of Pakistan. We would have great fights at home, we, the younger ones, wanting independence, Dad’s generation feeling things could be patched up. That was the night Dad said it was all over. No longer could we ever be one Pakistan.
I excitedly went through the reams of paper. Each scrap of news had meaning for me. I could relate to the bulletins. I remembered the horror of those nights. As I thumbed through a tattered red diary, the skimpy notes of a photojournalist as he traveled through Jessore, I was reminded of Alan Ginsberg’s poem, ‘Jessore Road’. It was David Burnett’s diary. Several years later as David and I met in Amsterdam in yet another World Press Jury, I told him where his diary was. In Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, Delhi, and so many other cities have I picked up the scraps of evidence that would help me piece this jigsaw together.
My visit to the London of Magnum, the legendary photo agency that Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Capa and their friends had set up, yielded an unexpected surprise. There were two small versions of the original Bangladeshi flag (the one with the map), hanging from the ceiling. Chris Boot the director, and later one of the first tutors of Pathshala our media school, told me that they had been salvaged from the trunk of one of their photograsphers, Marilyn Silverstone. She had been so affected by our war of liberation that she gave up photography to join an ashram in Nepal and had never returned. The flags had been given to her by the muktis (Bangladeshi freedom fighters). Marilyn had photographed artwork produced by traumatised children in the refugee camps. Chris had given me one of the two flags. It still hangs on the old Drik building in Dhanmondi where Pathshala now holds its classes. Not everyone will realise the value of that map sewn carefully by the muktis onto the green and red that we hold so dear. As has happened with so much that relates to 1971, the flag that Magnum had, has since been lost.
It was in Paris that I spoke excitedly of my plans to Robert Pledge, the president of Contact Press Images. Robert shared my enthusiasm for the project, but I still harried him with my feverish frenzy. We mustn’t wait. We had to do it now. It still took over six years. But in these years we made the most incredible discoveries. The stories, the images, the people we come across, made up the life of our exhibition. It was the war veterans, the women and men in the villages of Bangladesh, who had fought the war, the forgotten heroes with their untold stories, those who were killed and maimed, and the biranganas, that our show was dedicated to. It marked the opening of the first festival of photography in Asia. Chobi Mela. The tenth version of the festival — now firmly established in the Asian media and cultural calendar — approaches, but the festival must not become a nostalgic trip for us to romanticise upon. It needs to be a call for action.
While the war has become political capital for so many, and fortunes have been built through exploiting the war, we need to remember that so many ordinary Bangladeshi men and women had sacrificed so much to hold on to the cherished hope of freedom. Freedom of expression, freedom to question, freedom to challenge the official versions of history, are elusive in today’s Bangladesh. A nation that shed so much blood for the right to speak its own language, brutally suppresses the rights of some of its own citizens to speak theirs. A people that rose against the military might of one of the biggest armies in the world, is now weighed down by its own army, one that rapes and kills its own people with abandon. Our festivals and our celebrations must be for Iqbal and his friends to know that Barkat and Salaam, were more than simply names in our history books.
Shahidul Alam is a photographer, writer and curator.