Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, December 16, 2004





Too little too late

By Solitary Snipar

15th of December, 2004. The place: one of the many identical footpaths all over the capital of Bangladesh. It could be outside the station, outside some park, or some big mosque. It could be any place where one did not need links to get into. It could be any one of those many places where the homeless spend their nights, in cold enough to freeze people to death, or in rain that soaked them like plastic bags floating around in the busy streets of the city.

An old, frail woman lay in one corner of this footpath, trying to cover herself as much as possible in a torn and tattered shawl not remotely sufficient to keep off the cold. She was looking up at the sky. It seemed to her that rain was imminent this night, or the next morning. She recalled of the times when they always welcomed heavy rain. Heavy rain meant puddles of water and mud and wet swamps all over the countryside things that terribly slowed down the killer Pakistani Army. Even violent tides were welcome. While the brave sons of this land somehow managed to toil in their dinghy boats, the Pakistanis had a lot of trouble coping with the wild rivers. She recalled how one of her brother's friends had once boasted, "we will never drown no matter how wild the river. We are fighting for the motherland, and the mother shall never fail to take care of the son."

What had changed in the years from then on? Why was not the mother extending her caring arms to her helpless children anymore? Rain today was a nightmare. It meant a major part of the city drowned in flood waters. It meant a halt in the daily lives of people, for many of whom a day without work was synonymous to a day without food. God knows what the condition was like in the countryside, in the dear village where she had spent the longer part of her life until she had to leave in search of a better, or at least less painful, life.

Thirty three years ago, and yet she remembered each and every detail as if it were yesterday. Her father had been a farmer in their village, with no interest whatsoever in the political conditions of the country. He held the view that no matter who the ruler was, not much changed in the life of the country peasant, and thus it was just better to keep their head down and go on with their daily lives. However, when the stream of people from the big cities began taking refuge in their small village, horrible stories began to spread around about what the Pakistanis were doing all over the country. They had met many people who had drifted away from their family, unaware whether they were even alive. They had met several more who had witnessed the murder of their nearest and dearest in front of their very eyes, somehow escaping the same fate themselves.

One day, rumours spread of the military approaching their village. Within days, the non-Muslims had evacuated their home of decades, leaving behind jobs, businesses, property and above all memories all for the basic need of survival. Her father had changed his opinion of the politics in the country by that time. He wanted his only son, her younger brother Khaleq to go into the war. He did not hesitate for once to send off his only son to join the freedom fighters. The condition of the country did not permit the old farmer to look after his own ends. The man had nothing else in life, but he had enough honor to know what was needed of him. He blessed Khaleq, praying that he return as a valiant winner on a free land. His prayers had apparently not been heard. Her brother had never returned. His body had never been found. A teenager brave enough to join a war would never have the good fortune of having someone stand by his grave. No one would ever visit his grave on special occasions. No floral wreaths for him, either. His dead body had simply provided a day's meal to who knows what animal.

Before the auspicious day of victory came, they all had to deal with terrible losses. One dull afternoon, two young men boys really came to their abode with the news of her brother's demise. Khaleq had been badly injured during an attack on the military camp in the next village. But he had not asked for help, nor shown any signs of weakness. Hurt and dying, he had kept shooting back at the enemy, delaying their advance so that his fellow soldiers could retreat to safety. They were not sure what had happened to him eventually. He could have been captured alive, or may have perished while fighting back.

The death of her brother had brought forth other misfortunes. One of Khaleq's classmates in school had opted to join the peace committee. He had never been fond of Khaleq and his friends, and his demise finally gave the coward enough courage to direct the army to their home. It was a dark night when the army marched towards their quaint little home. Minutes later, their house had been burnt down to ashes. Her parents were shot as she looked on in horror from behind a nearby bush. Since then it had been months of running from one village to another, hiding herself and yet helping the freedom fighters every now and then in any way she could. On the glorious morning of 16th December, she had been down with terrible fever, but had never known such euphoria as she had felt when given the news of victory.

Thinking of those days tired her. It made her heart ache. Something must have gone terribly wrong. This was not the country her little brother had died for. This was not the dream her poor father had always had. This was not the reason why she spent months in fear and agony. In those months of running and hiding, she had always seen compassion in people's attitudes. People had always given her shelter and food, treating her like a kin despite knowing the dangers of being caught harboring a stranger. Today, on a free land, she often went without food for days on end. How was this freedom better than those nine months of hellfire and brimstones?

But tomorrow morning would hopefully be different. That very evening, a group of people had approached her. They said they were from some national daily, and were eager to tell her story to the people. Not just that, for the first time since the liberation, someone seemed eager to help her in some way. One member of the group, a lanky young teenager, almost had tears in his eyes as he said, "your brother died to give us a land of our own. Your parents died so that our generation could live with honor. The least we can do to repay such heavy debts is to ensure that you get to live with some dignity. We heard about you from a young lad who sleeps here at times, and we have been looking for you ever since. We will come back tomorrow morning, and take you some place more comfortable. Just spend one more night here, and we promise we will be here as early tomorrow morning as possible, as soon as we have made all the arrangements that need to be made."

And thus they had left. Would they really come back? She thought so. There was something in that lad's eyes that reassured her of the basic good of human nature. They would come back. They would give her food, clothes and a place to call home. For the first time in thirty-three years, a place to call home. Engaged in these pleasant thoughts, she went off to sleep, a smile of the corner of her lips.

The next morning, the teenage kid with dreamy eyes did come back to find the old lady. He found her right where they had left her last evening. The cold was excruciating. He kneeled down beside her, gratified that he was finally about to have the opportunity to do something for this lady.

Moments later, the kid was back up on his feet. His eyes looked glassy, his mouth wide-open. It looked as if he was about to cry, but did not know how to go about it. This lady, who had lost all she had known and loved in the war, was about to know comfort and security after so long… and yet fate had taken her away on the very day her life was about to change. A symbol of the sacrifice some people made for our freedom, lying dead here in the footpath. The date? 16th December 2004.


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