Published: Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Forced labor and Syedpur Airport construction

Syedpur Airport and runway constructed by Bengalis who were forced to provide labor in 1971. Photo: Lt. Col. (Retd.) Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir, Bir Protik

Syedpur Airport and runway constructed by Bengalis who were forced to provide labor in 1971. Photo: Lt. Col. (Retd.) Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir, Bir Protik

Forced labor is any compulsory labor service particularly those demanded by a dominant military force on prisoners of war, detainees or conquered civilian population. In 1971, after Pakistan Army moved in force in Syedpur and surrounding villages, they were given reception and congratulated by the non-Bengali population for capturing Syedpur and for conducting massacre on Bengali population.
Pakistan Army and their collaborators who were mainly non-Bengalis in Syedpur used fear and threat on the Bengali population. The Bengalis were interned in the town area of Syedpur.
Pakistan Army undertook a project in Syedpur in which they planned to use the Bengali population of Syedpur town and nearby villages as forced laborers. They planned to construct a large airport in Syedpur. There was an existing airport in Lalmonirhat and another abandoned airport in Thakurgaon. They considered Syedpur to be a safe place to construct an airport as the non Bengali population of Syedpur was totally in their support. They planned to construct a large runway so that large air crafts with troops and arms could land in Syedpur for supporting the operations of Pakistan Army in north Bangladesh. Their decision was also influenced by the fact that the ferry route across Jamuna River was insecure as Mukti Bahini guerillas were frequently conducting operations and causing casualties in the river.
23 Infantry Brigade of Pakistan Army was given responsibility to construct the airport. Army decided to construct the airport by using Bengalis as forced laborers. They brought about three thousand people from Syedpur town, Hazarihat, Motlabari, Kamarpur, Laxmanpur, Kashirampur, Shonara and other places of North Bengal. They examined the three thousand persons and out of them selected eight hundred younger and stronger people and interned them by force into three educational institutions namely Syedpur High School, Syedpur Darul Wulum Madrassa and Syedpur Technical School.
The detainees were threatened that they would have to work in the Syedpur airport and anyone who tried to escape would face death. Every morning at 8 o’clock about 35-40 trucks used to line up in front of the three concentration camps. The trucks were of military and civilian models. With every truck they used armed soldiers and non-Bengalis to guard the laborers. The detainees used to be ordered to mount the trucks. If anyone delayed in mounting the truck, they used to be kicked and whipped. This was a common scenario every morning. The trucks used to drive the people to the airport area. After disembarking, the detainees had to dig the earth, break the stones, carry the earth and the stones and construct the airport runway. Through out the day they had to work in extreme heat. In return at mid-day they used to be given a hard bread and water. The bread was so hard that it could not be chewed. The detainees used to dip the bread in water and eat it. Under such brutal condition many detainees used to fall sick or even faint. If anyone fell down, he used to be beaten by whips mainly carried by the non-Bengalis. The non-Bengalis used to discuss and point at the sick workers and say that it was no point keeping them there and their name was to be put in the Kharcha Khata (Note book of expandable) indicating that they would be killed. Many of the sick were carried away and they never returned. If any detainees argued or tried to run away he used to be carried by truck to Syedpur cantonment never to return. Out of fear the people kept working inspite of their sickness and tiredness.
Escaping from the airport site or from the living quarter was impossible as both the places were guarded by soldiers with weapons. Among the non-Bengalis who tortured the interns’ maximum were Jahan, Ejahar, Matin, Hashmi, Qaiyum, Sultan Khan, Mojahar, Ismail, Mohiuddin, Kalua Dhopi, Swampad, etc.
Some of the detainees who survived later are Moinul, Enamul, Mahbub, Shahidul, Ziaul Huq, Wadud, Kashem Ali Mollick, Kasoruddin, Abdus Sattar, Abdur Rashid, Mizanul Huq, etc.
Pakistani officers who were in charge of the airport project were Major Javed, Captain Gul, Subeder Fateh Khan. Capt. Gul used to be seen with a revolver in his hand threatening to kill the detainees. Subder Fateh Khan used to beat the detainees with whip even if they fell sick or became unconscious.
Some of the detainees who were killed in the airport area were Mansur Ali, Gomiruddin, Abdul Gafur, Abdus Samad, Sultan, Kalam, Hishabuddin, Rafiqullah, Bechu Miah, Abdul Motaleb, Rajob Ali, Afzal, Hatem Ali, Shahadat Hossain, Mofiz Uddin, Abdul Kalam, Jamir Uddin.. Rest of the names could not be obtained. It is known from local people that out of eight hundred detainees about 350 died while working in the airport.
The work in Syedpur airport started in June, 1971 and continued till November, 1971. The runway was completed. After November, 1971, when the possibility of a major war was predicted by Pakistan Army, they stopped further work in the airport area. Pakistan Army named the airport “Zum Zum” after the name of the Holy water from the Holy well of Mekkah. But it is unfortunate to remember that so many innocent people in this airport had died begging for water.
On 16 December, 1971, Pakistan Army surrendered to the joint forces of Indian Army and Mukti Bahini and the place of surrender was decided to be the Syedpur airport. 23 Brigade Commander Brigadier Iqbal Shafi and his officers and men stood in line in the runway preparing to surrender. Pakistan Army’s 25 Punjab, 48 Punjab, 8 Punjab, 26 Frontier Force regiments and 83 Mujahid battalion were all lined up. Among them the 26 Frontier Force Regiment who was involved in supervision of forced labor in the same airport.
The 26 Frontier Force Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Hakeem Arshad Qureshi in his book “The 1971 Indo-Pak War: A Soldier’s Narrative” writes that they had to surrender in the airport which they (soldiers of 26 Frontier Force Regiment) built on self help basis. This was a statement far from truth. The airport was never built by 26 Frontier Force Regiment soldiers. 26 Frontier Force Regiment was mainly deployed in full strength in Dinajpur area during 1971. It was the interned Bengalis who constructed the airport as forced laborers.
When the time for surrender came, Lt. Col. Hakeem Arshad Qureshi shouted ‘Zamin Fung’ (ground arms) and the surrender was complete. The officers and men of Pakistan Army collectively performed the shameful act in the airport where they had killed so many. They did not lay down their lives but only their arms in the line of duty.
Hardly anyone of new generation of Bangladesh knows as to how Syedpur airport was constructed.

The writer is a Freedom Fighter.