A Walk in the Valley of Death
Syed Munir Khasru
BDR Pilkhana used to be one of my favourite destinations in Dhaka. With its arching trees, boulevards forming a canopy of green, and the long road that winds its way through the enclave the sight itself was a treat. In no part of the city one would find in one place - gardens of rose and orchid, fields bordered with coconut trees, ponds with crystalline images, and an open sky that embraces the distant horizon on edges of the landscape. During my visits to Pilkhana to meet the late Director General (DG) of BDR, Major General Shakil Ahmed, in addition to the enlightening company of this fine gentleman, another lucrative treat was the scenic beauty of Pilkhana. These encounters led to many other friends in Pilkhana -- from Colonel Emdad to Captain Mazhar - all of whom are no more.
In my wildest nightmare did I ever imagine that this beloved place of fond memories would become the most dreaded place of horrific scenes? Could nature be so treacherous as to unleash savagery in the realm of such serenity? In celebration of nature, did I miss the shadows of death that were to unravel in the ominous future that was to come? So many “whys” in my mind as I slowly put my shaky steps into this forbidden land of death and cruelty, barbarism and insanity.
In the gate of Pilkhana, there is a crowd of loved ones waiting anxiously with the fleeting hope of knowing what probably is already known. Army jawans stand in vigil and at the entrance are two armoured personnel carriers which give you the first impression of something terrible must have gone wrong inside. As I walk down the roads, it is a barren and deserted land with only personnel from army, police, and fire service roaming around.
I go to Darbar Hall a place known because of social occasions, particularly wedding ceremonies. There is an eerie silence that pierces through the heart as I gaze at the stage where the DG and senior officers were seated. Crests and trophies, meant for the braves, proudly hold their names that still shine inspite of the gloom that looms large. Walls around bear marks of fatal bullets that put an end to so many illustrious lives who were confined within the walls of fatality. It is the same in the bathrooms bullet marks sprayed in glass and walls. Pieces of false ceilings had been removed by those who were trying to save their lives by climbing upwards and sheltering from the carnage below. Bullets were fired in false ceilings as well and there was no place to hide, nowhere to run.
A gentle breeze from nearby fields blows the curtains to break the suspense as I try to imagine the marching orders that officers had to take led by the DG. I don't want to imagine what followed next as described by the survivor Lieutenant Colonel Kamaruzzzman during his TV interview. Shakil Bhai was too dear a person, a friend, and a well-wisher for me to have the strength to think of anything else other than the smiling and charming army officer who would instantly befriend anybody. It is impossible to imagine the picture as he took those fatal steps from the stage trusting the mutineers who assured that “Nothing would happen Sir.” the trusted officers were literally invited into the orgy of killing that was unleashed. The stain of blood in the floor, partly jelled and partly blurred, make horrifying images. The red carpet meshes with the other red and assumes a darker shade, a shade not darker than the brutal acts themselves. I take one final look at the hall which held so many memorable events of friends and family, take a deep breath, and say to myself, “It will never be the same.”
I take a stroll through roads and see lids of manholes opened. There are coloured banners and festoons stating, “Welcome to Rifles Week 2009” what a welcome indeed and what a week to remember! I reach almost the end of Pilkhana and the killing field where officers were either shot or shot and put into mass graves. There are tents spread around edges of the field where the mutineers camped themselves. Tents display uniforms, boots, mirrors, clothes, sandals, and some newly bought items all left behind in a hurry as they fled the place after wreaking havoc on the nation. A putrid smell from graves, from where bodies have been removed, demonstrates the grotesque acts that were committed. The graves are shallow and small and not the kind of mass graves you would have imagined. In a hurry, the killers barely managed to dig the ground and dumped bodies and squeezed them in a tiny space before they could run.
Next, I go to the BDR mortuary. In one of the adjoining rooms, deep scars of blood spread all around. They had gathered a number of officers before the shooting spree which explains why the blood spilled so profusely. Also visible are traces of blood in floors where bodies subsequently have been dragged into. Flies roam around telling you of the recentness of events. In some corner rooms, there are BDR uniforms piled and thrown away by the deserters.
Officers' quarters give you the impression of a living graveyard as there is no soul around. Clothes put up for drying after laundry are still hanging from the ropes. In the car parking, some are burnt almost to ashes as a pack of dogs lick the car's body. It is too disgusting to think what might have happened to lure dogs into an otherwise lifeless object. Dogs stare at me and look confused. I slowly approach the cars as dogs move away to other side of fence from where they came to this no man's land. The car's interior has been so badly burnt that anything living thing inside must have evaporated. So unbelievably ghastly!
Apartment blocks bear the same sign of premeditation as selected apartments out of the whole block have been put into fire. So does houses of senior officers put into fire and looted mercilessly. DG's house has been sealed off but I have seen the drawing room where we used to have chats, the porch, the verandah, and the dining room. Cracked glasses, bloodied floors, twisted furniture, booted picture frames, emptied lockers, scattered sandals, broken trophies all bearing hallmarks of bites of unchained mad dogs let loose by some evil forces which only God knows from where they came. DG's Office has the same fate with an ironical poster still hanging that says, “Attitude is Everything”. A belief we both used to share and have written in our offices.
Gardens of roses for which Pilkhana is famous for is intact. So are orchids that lay line by line in different colours pink, white, yellow. Sometimes the DG used to take me on a walk in these gardens and would say, “Whenever I am too worried or upset, I take a stroll here and forget everything.” I wonder, had he been alive would this walk have sufficed to bear the grief he would have been struck with. How many gardens and how many walks would he have needed to bear with loss of so many of his colleagues? He can now walk and gaze in the gardens of heaven as long as he wants as time has ceased to function in the land of eternity.
As I leave the Valley of Death behind and think of the honour, respect, and gratitude that the nation has expressed for the martyrs who have been the bravest and finest in life and most loved and missed in death. For us left behind, when in a rainy day our gardens come into full life as rain drops and flower petals embrace each other in the tune of nature, we shall know that those above the sky, are smiling at us knowing what we are missing in the heavens even as our own tears and those of nature come together in lamenting the irreplaceable. To the valiant soldiers who paid the ultimate price for the nation a grateful salute from us all. May God be with you always as you find peace and home in His Kingdom of Eternity.
[The author is a Professor at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), University of Dhaka]
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