There are not many moments in one’s life that are truly and deeply felt – and clearly remembered. The night of Thursday, March 25, 1971 in Dhaka, was one of them – one of the most horrific and, at the same time, most galvanising moments in my career as a journalist.
Still today, 50 years later, the sounds and the images of that terrible night, and what I was to witness in the days that followed, are as clear now as they were then.
I was among some 50 foreign journalists confined to their hotel, the Intercontinental, late in the afternoon of March 25. Dhaka had been put under curfew and the inevitable was about to happen.
We had heard that President Yahya Khan had, without notice, flown back to West Pakistan late that afternoon. The talks between the political leaders of the two wings of Pakistan, supposedly meant to find a solution to the crisis in East Pakistan, had come to an abrupt end.
Soldiers were stopping anybody trying to leave the hotel at gunpoint and the city streets were slowly emptying as darkness fell. Some children started throwing together a makeshift barricade of tyres, tree stumps, concrete and old furniture across the road outside.
But shortly before 11 pm, I watched as the first convoys of Pakistani tanks and truck loads of soldiers drove into the city, relentless in their purpose, sweeping aside any barricades; and not long after midnight, from the roof top of the hotel, I could see flashes of gunfire and hear the sound of artillery and the vicious clatter of machine guns in and around Dhaka University.
By early morning, the sky was lit by the flames of fires that were now burning all around the city. And worse was to come.
Over the following days, when I had escaped the military net that had been thrown over the foreign journalists, I found the bodies of students who had been shot to death in their dormitories and outside on the campus grounds; the rickshaw pullers, bullet-ridden and bloodied, lying by the roadside; whole families burnt alive in their homes when their street had been sealed off and the houses torched; bazaars in the old city burnt to the ground. And I would see much more, awful as it was, that would help me evidence the cold-bloodied slaughter of civilians that had taken place on March 25 and March 26. This is what Pakistan had not wanted the journalists to see – and the world to witness. This is what they called “Operation Searchlight” – their code name for the massacres that they hoped would silence and crush the Bengali struggle for independence.
As the night of March 25 unfolded, I remember the anger I felt and my concern as to the safety of all those Bengalis: the politicians, journalists, lawyers and intellectuals who had helped me understand and report on the political turmoil of the past few weeks. No doubt they themselves would now be in danger.
And what had happened to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who I had heard give his historic speech on March 7 calling for the Bengali peoples’ struggle for independence to begin. Now, only 18 days later, it had.
Just after midnight, Bangabandhu told an aide that “if I go into hiding, they will burn down the whole of Dhaka to find me”, and then, shortly before 1 am, in what was to be his last phone call that night, “I expect to be arrested at any moment”. He said he had sent everybody away for their safety except for his bodyguard and three servants. But then, what had happened to him?
I remember the anger I felt when I saw West Pakistan’s Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the early hours of March 26, under protective guard in his Intercontinental hotel suite, slumped on a sofa, chain smoking and ashen faced, as if in fear of his life and clearly not really sure what would be the outcome of this so-called “Operation Searchlight”.
We know now that he knew what the military action was meant to achieve and was himself part of the planning. But he would not speak to me (though on his return to Pakistan he is reported to have told newsmen: “Thank God, Pakistan has been saved.”)
I remember the anger I felt when Major Siddique Salik, the Pakistan Army’s Public Relations Officer (and a senior officer in the Army’s Intelligence wing), came to the hotel on the afternoon of March 26 and said that all foreign journalists were to leave the country that night – clearly to prevent us from seeing and reporting on what had happened when the curfew would be lifted the next morning.
Not an order he said – but “for your own safety”. When I challenged him and asked if perhaps then I could stay, he said, with a threatening and somewhat sinister smile, “of course, if you want, but there will be a party for you.”.
So, I stayed. The truth of what had happened had to be told. That night I hid out behind the main air conditioning unit on the roof of the hotel until, late on the evening of March 26, I could see down below, from the roof, the foreign press corps being herded into army trucks and driven away to the airport.
I later found that Michel Laurent, a young French photographer, working for the AP, had also decided to risk staying and hidden himself in a hotel cupboard.
But our ability to escape the military net was made possible only by the courage and determination of the young Bengali workers in the hotel (the reception staff and cooks in the kitchen) who, without hesitation, and at great risk to their lives over the next three days, kept us safely hidden from the army. They were the ones too who helped us make a plan to get out into the city to see first-hand what had happened.
Late in the morning of Saturday, March 27, crammed into the back of an old baker’s van and wearing kurta-pyjamas, we set off to drive around the city.
The truth was indeed impossible to hide – and to be told by those who survived. At Dhaka University, I saw the bodies of some 30 students in and around Iqbal Hall; an art student was sprawled across his easel; bodies floated in a nearby lake; others near Jagannath Hall had been thrown into hastily dug graves and bulldozed over by a tank. Seven teachers had been gunned down in their quarters and a family of 12 killed in an outhouse. At least 200 students had died at the University – and other teachers, we were told, murdered in their homes.
In the sprawling, narrow streets of the old city – like Tanti Bazaar and Niar Bazaar – many areas had been burnt to the ground; people dragged from their houses and shot; a police inspector wandering among the ruins was looking for his constables: “I’ve found only 30 – all of them dead.”
At the Rajarbagh police lines tanks had been used to support troops firing incendiary rounds into the men’s sleeping quarters. More than 1,100 police were based here – many died.
And at Bangabandhu’s house in Dhanmondi, neighbours told me how at 1.10 am on the night of March 25, a tank, an armoured car and a truck load of soldiers had pulled up in front of the house:
“Sheikh you should come down,” an officer shouted in English. Bangabandhu replied: “I am ready, but there is no need to fire”. He was arrested and taken away and his bodyguard badly beaten for supposedly insulting the officer.
The house had been ransacked, the gates locked and the green, red and yellow flag of Bengali independence shot down. Little were those soldiers to know how soon it was to fly again.
When we eventually managed to get out of Dhaka, my story and the photographs of Michel did much to expose, for the first time, the truth of what had really happened that night.
The detail was all there, but I had also made a mistake. I surmised in my story that the terrible cost in terms of human lives – it is estimated some 7,000 in Dhaka alone – might bring an early end to the struggle for Bengali independence.
” We are fighting in the name of God and a United Pakistan”, one Punjabi officer had told me confidently. He was wrong. It was not enough. And how wrong I was as well to imagine the struggle might be over.
In fact, I had no need to look any further than at the courage and commitment of the hotel workers who had helped myself and Michel. I would have realised then that the strength and spirit of that struggle, the belief in freedom of the Bengali people, despite all that had happened on the night of Thursday, March 25, 1971, was still very much alive. This is what would ultimately ensure victory over Pakistan and, only nine months later, the independence of Bangladesh.
(British journalist Simon Dring was invited to UK Nirmul Committee’s event to observe Bangladesh Genocide Day on 25 March 2021. Unfortunately, as he was unable to attend, he sent the following article with audio recordings of his experience in Dhaka on that fateful night of 25 March 1971 to be read out and played at the meeting. The article was originally written for Daily Star Bangladesh)