'The loss is never recoverable'

Morshed Ali Khan

For Sayeda Khair, the wife of martyred intellectual Dr Abul Khair of Dhaka University, not for a single day since she lost her husband 35 years ago has life looked full. "The loss is never recoverable," she says.

Sayeda vividly remembers the morning of December 14, 1971 when her beloved husband, a bright history professor, was bundled out of the teachers' quarters blindfolded with the very chador (shawl) he had hurriedly borrowed from her to open the main gate.

Before the very eyes of her children, about half a dozen armed men had entered the ground floor apartment. "I rushed out of the kitchen when I heard some people call out in clear Bangla, 'who is Dr Abul Khair?' says Sayeda sitting at the family's rented Dhanmondi accommodation.”One of the men pointed a gun at me and ordered me to go inside," she says.

Two of her sons, Reaz 10 and Kamrul 8, were playing with other children on the third floor apartment. As they looked out of the window they saw their father blindfolded and surrounded by several armed men. He was being led away towards the main gate where a microbus camouflaged with mud waited.

Dr Abul Khair's mutilated body was found gagged and blindfolded with the chador 21 days later at an abandoned brick kiln at Rayer Bazar. It was Sayeda's chador that led to his identity being established. On the same site at Rayer Bazar lay bodies of dozens of other intellectuals brutally slain in the same way.

Sensing imminent defeat in the hands of the freedom fighters and Indian army, fast converging on Dhaka, the Bangalee collaborators with the Pakistani invading forces, Jamaat e Islami, Razakars, Al Badr and Al Shams chalked out a blueprint to eliminate teachers, writers, doctors, engineers and other intellectuals. The alleged masterminds and architects of one of history's worst war crimes still roam free, some holding high positions in society. During the last 35 years there has never been any investigation into the brutal killings. No-one has lodged any case with any police station. Successive governments have conveniently ignored the pleas for justice of the aggrieved families.

Living in the Dhaka University campus during the War of Liberation brought fear to all. Dr Khair's family too had fearful time. In August 1971 Pakistani occupational army, in full combat gear raided several houses in the campus including that of Khair. They took away Dr Khair and told the family that he would be returned in due time. The army held him at an undisclosed place for over twenty days.

“Later we learnt that he was detained at a building at the Sangsad Bhaban area under interrogation,” Sayeda said. Widowed and with three sons and a daughter aged between two and ten years, life's struggle had just started for Sayeda. Like many other families of martyred teachers of Dhaka University she was suddenly faced with the harsh reality of life. Sayeda nonetheless vowed to educate her children. For the first few years the government gave her a meager benefit of TK 500 a month and allowed her to stay in the same apartment at the DU campus. The allowance was eventually raised to TK 2,000 a month. But 15 years after the death of Dr Khair the authorities abruptly stopped paying all allowances and asked the family to move out of the accommodation. Rashedul Islam, the youngest son of Abul Khair, works for an insurance company in the city. He talks of the embarrassment the family suffered at being asked to vacate the apartment within a month by the university authorities.

"After we were served with the notice to vacate, every time we met an university official we were asked how soon we were leaving and this was embarrassing," says Rashed.

Homira Yasmeen, the youngest child of the Khair family is mother to two children and a teacher by profession. Her husband, Dr Abu Sayeed M Ahmed is an architect and heads the department of architecture at the University of Asia Pacific. Yasmeen says that every year the university authorities observe the martyred intellectuals.

"But as children of martyrs we demand that the university
authorities institute a scholarship in the name of the martyred intellectuals of the university," Yasmeen says. She added that the authorities should also keep the university shut on December 14 to pay respect to its slain teachers.

The Khair family has suffered further ordeals. Two years ago Reazul Islam, the eldest son of the family, passed away in his sleep at the age of 43, leaving behind two children and a devastated family.

Sayeda's sadness for the loss of her husband deepened when sometime in the early nineties, officials from the national museum arrived at her doorstep. The officials convinced the family to hand over all memorabilia of her husband to the museum.

"They said they wanted to display his personal items at the museum and took away his camera, glasses, pens, suits, cufflinks, books and wristwatch, but later when I went to the museum there was nothing on display there that belonged to my husband," Sayeda says.

Kamrul Islam the eldest son of the family also works for an insurance company. He says that his father loved cooking at home and taking long drives in the family's Morris Minor. "He was so keen on cooking that when he returned to Dhaka from the USA after completing his PhD, he brought a pressure cooker with him," Kamrul says.

The indifference of the Dhaka University authorities towards the country's martyred intellectuals is nowhere more evident than the graveyard of the eleven martyrs buried by the mosque on campus. There is no sign of any of the graves of the martyrs. Visitors would never know that the men, who made the supreme sacrifice for our liberation, were buried there. A request by the martyrs' families to mark the graves individually was turned down by the university authorities.