Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Bloody Durbar

On that fateful Wednesday, Nadeet Haque, son of slain sector commander of the Bangladesh Rifles’ (BDR) Dhaka Battalion Col Mujibul Haque, was awakened by a loud thump on the door. “It was our waiter,” he says, “Who told me that a group of men in BDR fatigues were running towards our house.” Nadeet, who is doing his A’ Level as a private student, called his mother, who was in the gym; she advised him to lock himself up in their room. Mili Haque, Nadeet’s mother, was herself in grave danger. Another bunch of murderers were looking for her in every nook and cranny of the BDR compound. The guard of the gym locked Mili up and told the killers that no one was there.

Though her life was saved for the time being, her son, as the gunshots were becoming even louder, hid himself behind the compressor of the AC in the back veranda. “I found one of our maids hiding there,” he says, “In a few minutes I heard some footsteps and jumped onto the sunshade of the building. I clutched at her hand, trying to get her down to where I was. Later I let go of her because I realised that if tried further to get her to my side they would shoot at her.”

Hiding on the sunshade, Nadeet saw the killers set fire to his room to bring him out to kill him. “The fire was spreading fast, and within a few minutes it reached the sunshade. It was so smoky, I could not see anything properly, I had to get up and find a shelter. Some of the killers who were standing in a building construction site, noticed me. They sprayed a few rounds at me as I ran for safety. I am lucky that I am alive and talking to you,” he says in a voice choked with emotion. He broke the wirenet of the kitchen and went into a room in the house and hid himself along with two others under the bed. Shaken, Nadeet does not want to name these two BDR-men who saved his life; when a few jawans turned up again in search of him, these two men, who do menial labour in the house, told the killers that “Col sahib’s son” was not here.

General staff officer 1 (communication) of the BDR Lt Colonel Syed Kamruzzaman will never forget the last Darbar (durbar) of the BDR. The officer who had just taken part in the force’s annual parade a day ago was sitting in the spacious hall of the BDR when immediately after the Director General (DG) of the paramilitary started his speech a young man, without his cap and belt went up to the dais.

Throughout the DG’s speech, which was short-lived, there was commotion at the back of his audience. Some chanted slogans; some made catcalls. An officer and a non-commissioned officer jumped and accosted the young man in an attempt to stop him from reaching the DG. Shaken, the young man fell to the ground; while another man in BDR fatigues ran out of the Darbar. “Like magic, within a few seconds the whole darbar became empty,” says Lt Colonel Kamruzzaman. There were gunshots. At around 9:45 in the morning, a group of mutineers, wearing red bandanas, came up with guns and ordered the 12 officers present to come out and walk in a line led by the DG. "As the DG climbed down the stairs of darbar hall, one jawan sprayed him with bullets. Soon the other jawans there started firing on us," he says.

Lt Colonel Kamruzzaman is lucky, so is Major Munir, who no sooner had the firing begun jumped into a sewer manhole. "It was dark and full of a foul smell. I kept the lid closed and could hear gunshots. I stayed there without any food and light. I could not separate day from night," he says. The marauding bunch of killers did not spare women and children. They separated the women and children from the officers: women with young children in one group were confined in a room with a ceiling fan; women a little older were kept as a separate room with the batmen; the officers, who were not hiding, were held hostage separately. Kamrunnahar Shampa, wife of slain Major Maksudum, says, “The BDR jawans looted all my valuables, after I fled with my baby.” By the first night of the two-day mutiny, the murderers killed almost all the officers present in the compound. The barbarism was reminiscent of the genocide committed by the marauding Pakistani army, only this time the killers belong to the degenerate members of one of our security forces.

Mili Haque is a survivor of the mayhem. “Only that day he (Col Haque) told me that he had been neglecting us for his service to the nation. I can’t fathom how can the jawans have killed someone who has given the topmost priority to the well being of the nation and his soldiers,” she has told the media. She cannot figure out how her husband’s own troops could point their guns at Col Mujib, let alone kill him.

Not only residence of Col Haque, the BDR the killers also looted almost all the houses of the officers before setting them on fire. Some officers were killed in the most brutal way. After killing these brilliant sons and daughters of the soil, the killers dumped the corpses in a couple of mass graves; they dumped some bodies in the sewer, which carried the corpses to the dam near Keranaiganj.

As the mayhem was going on inside, army was rolled in to stop the murderers from coming out of Pilkhana, the BDR headquarters. The plan paid off; the murderers remained confined to the area. The negotiations ensued and the army waited patiently. As the negotiation with the Prime Minister ended, the government declared Prime Ministerial Amnesty to the mutineers. Brig. Gen. (retd) Shahedul Anam Khan, a national security expert, believes it was given on the spur of the moment, without taking into consideration of the ground realities. “In any case, amnesty can only be given for revolt, it can never be applicable to those who have committed murder, arson and other serious kind of atrocities,” he says.

Even though the government’s approach of negotiating with the mutineers has saved many lives, it has also brought into light the other possible option the government could have taken. “The government’s steps have not caused any further loss of life. There is always the temptation to think that if something could have been done, instantly perhaps…yes I agree, the government could have gone for a swift sharp action to surprise the mutineers, the rebel elements, who were not large in number,” Anam says.

He believes that there was a possibility of reducing the mutineers. The former Brigadier General says, “I do not know why it was not done… there may be some tactical problems such as the problem of the built-up area in the BDR Headquarters. There were a large number of families who were eventually saved who would have been killed had the mutineers got a whiff that there was an offensive. The government chose a path that saved more bloodshed.

All the imponderables! In hindsight you can ask why it was not done, but what if the action would have resulted in more bloodshed; in that case we would have asked the government why it had taken action without going for negotiations. There are always two sides to an issue.”

What would Brig Gen (retired) Anam, a brilliant commander in his prime, have done in such a situation? “If I came to know that some of my officers were in danger, I would have moved a company or two, would have gone for commando style operations, which would send the mutineers in several directions and split them apart. It might have been successful or it might not have, one cannot tell. I would not have waited; I would have gone for it. If I came to know that my officers were treated in such a way, I would not have been able to stand still. I would have relied on the element of surprise; being an infantryman I would have gone the whole hog. Everybody does not have to agree with me. There are so many other factors here-- this is my personal opinion,” he answers.

Syed Ashraful Islam, the Local Government Minister and spokesperson, has a different opinion. He says, “The prime minister sent out the troops no sooner had she got the news. But it takes time for the army to reach a certain place. Whatever happened in Peelkhana had happened before the army members had reached the scene. After that, our main concern was the safety of the hostages. The standoff was resolved quickly considering the security of the people in general apart from the BDR members.”

To avert what it says a humanitarian disaster, the government opted for a political settlement. The Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gave a speech, which warned the murderers of disastrous consequences if they did not give up arms and freed the hostages. The PM’s speech, along with the arrival of the tanks led by 9th Division of the army forced the killers to laid down their arms. Though most BDR members surrendered to the Home Minister, some of the killers have managed to flee. “Most of them crossed the perimeter wall near Hajaribagh, where the road leads to Kamrangirchar while the other path goes to Gabtali and Rayerbazaar,” says an officer of the Rapid Action Battalion, which has arrested some BDR-men.

Lieutenant-General Harunur Rashid, a valiant freedom fighter and former army chief, says the mutiny was well orchestrated and it had little to do with the working conditions in the barracks. “There is the first soldier who wanted to start the killing; as he failed a second group turned up. There has even been a third batch of killers. The red clothes that they have used is not a part of their uniform, which shows that the killers have planned the event before,” Lt Gen Harun says.

In fact, the way some of the murderers have melted into the thin air on the night of last Friday supports Lt Gen Harun’s observation. “Not only that,” says an officer of the Rab who wants to remain anonymous, “Their escape plan has been done meticulously. They have used chairs to climb the wall near Hajaribagh. All of them have followed the same pattern. The three graves that the killers have dug are all evenly squared; so neatly the whole affair of killing and dumping has been done tells us that a group of people has orchestrated the massacre long ago. We are trying to pinpoint exactly where the plans were done and we have so far come across the area near 36 Rifles Battalion, which we think have been used to hatch the conspiracy.” He has also said that to do their killing smoothly the murderers wore red, yellow and blue vests. Some killers also fled with a procession that came near the Gate 5 of the Pilkhana. On the first day of the carnage the gate remained unguarded amidst intermittent shelling of the degenerate jawans. Some of these disgruntled mutineers abandoned their weapons in different areas of the compound; some, it is widely believed that, have carried small firearms with them. Some of these disgruntled mutineers abandoned their weapons in different areas of the compound.

Lt Col Shams, a survivor of the massacre, has said on Bangladesh Television that in the morning of the mutiny he saw arms being unloaded from an ash pick-up van while he was hiding. LT Gen Harun points out that the ammos used in the first attack do not match the ammos issued for the day’s duty. “The ammunition fired by the killers is much more than the ammunition issued for routine duties. It suggests that extra ammunition has been collected beforehand from some sources. We do not know where the rest of the ammos that they have used have come from,” Lt Gen Harun says.

The armoury, from where the weapons have been looted, is a heavily guarded affair. There are ironed collapsible gates, which are locked with two padlocks. All the rifles are on rifle racks and each and every one of them are chained to each other. Ammunition are kept in a different room, one has to go to a separate room to get them. There is a strip or magazine inside the ammunition box made of steel. Even the fastest loader will have to spend 10 minutes to get and load the ammo. The promptness with which the mutineers have turned up with automatic weapons also suggests that they have planned the massacre long ago.

“Immediately after the first bullet was fired at the Darbar Hall, a group of armed killers surrounded the family accommodations, which also shows previous planning,” Let Gen Harun says.

Brig Gen Anam thinks the Darbar mayhem was “pre-planned and all the so-called demands and grievances of the mutineers were excuses to draw public sympathy which the electronic media helped them gain by highlighting them.” He says that Bangladesh is no stranger to such incidents: “This is exactly what happened between November 3 and 7, 1975. Large-scale infiltration was carried inside the ranks, and these people went after the officers. But the causality then was nothing compared to what we have suffered on February 25.”

Major General (retired) Syed Mohammad Ibrahim, a security analyst, could not but agree: “It can’t be the brainchild of soldiers who have just passed their SSC or HSC exams and a bulk of whom remain busy in strenuous border duties. Outsiders from X or Y corner must have contacted insiders well in time keeping in view the BDR Week. As more and more events are being unfolded, it is displaying the involvement of matured conspirators. It is only a question of time and sincerity, both used intelligently, for the conspiracy to be laid bare in front of the nation,” he says on the last day of February.

The incident has shown, to a great extent, intelligence failure, which Brig Gen Anam calls an “unpardonable failure.” That the preparations of such an incident can go unnoticed by the agencies is surprising. “It is unbelievable how the agencies have failed to get an indication of what was afoot. The whole area must have been secured, covered, screened because of the PM’s visit the previous day. The idea is to keep such places under constant survey. I cannot see how the agencies did not see what was coming; I think there is a gross intelligence failure. The investigation will find out to what extent it failed, whether people were told about it at all or what was told about it.”

Meanwhile, the government has rightly declared that a fast-rack tribunal will be formed to bring the perpetrators of the BDR massacre to justice. Last Saturday, the Local Government Minister Syed Ashraful Islam has said that the law minister has already been instructed by the cabinet to form a special tribunal. "The law and the clauses under which perpetrators can be tried will be put before the cabinet and then a bill will be tabled in parliament to fast-track the trial process," he has told the media. "Every single one of those responsible will be put in the dock,” he has added.

In her speech to the parliament the Prime Minister has said, "I opted for talks to save lives, to save the officers and their families," she said refuting claims that not resorting to force was a tactical mistake. She has also said that she has sought the help of the US and UN to probe into the killing. The PM, who has to handle such a big crisis on the 50th day of her tenure, has taken some widespread measures. Her government has formed a probe committee ensuring representation of the army, air force, navy, police and Rab. In an oblique reference to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, she has told the parliament that they (the BNP-men) brought out processions in Hajaribagh and other areas surrounding Pilkhana to encourage the killers.

There is no doubt that the crisis has been one of the toughest challenges that any new elected would want to see itself embroiled into. Sadly, there is no instance in our history the probe into that such carnages have been done in a transparent manner; the incidents of November 3-7, 1977 the grenade attacks on the Awami League are only to name a few. We hope the BDR massacre will be an exception. Along with the entire nation we demand a neutral probe into the massacre, we also hope that the nation will be informed about the possible conspirators and their motives.

Given the nature of loss and the scale of brutality, our army, which was on duty during the crisis, has shown maximum restraint. No bullets were fired from their side, putting first priority on the safety of the women and children who were kept hostage inside. It only goes to the credit of the army that they have given peaceful resolution of the grave problem a chance. The government has started to probe into the carnage and we hope that the conspirators, along with the murderers, will be brought before justice. The brutality with which some of the brilliant officers of our armed forces and their family members have been treated cannot go unpunished. We do not have enough words to translate our anger and hatred to those who have committed one of the ghastliest crimes in the nation’s recent history. The blood of the martyrs of the Pilkhana massacre shall not go in vain.

It is time to remain united as a nation. “We love ourselves, we love our friends and family members. But more than them,” says Lt Gen Harun, “We love our nation. At a time of such grave crisis we should be united to safeguard our nation and its sovereignty.” He adds: “The pain that we are suffering should not deter us from safeguarding our country and putting the interest of it before everything. More then anyone else we love the country.”

On simply military terms, the loss for the army and the country is staggering. “The number of officers we have lost would be enough to man 8 to 10 regiments of the army,” he says. Even though no army in the world can stand such a massacre, Anam thinks, traumatised though its members are, “it is a disciplined force and is continuing to act in the highest traditions of professionalism.”

Besides the irreparable loss of life, which has given a big blow to our army and the country, the BDR, as a force, needs to be reconstructed. The mutiny has left our porous border unguarded and our nation’s security has remained under threat. This is the time to rise before the occasion and get united as a nation. It is only the united effort of everyone that can save our nation from this catastrophe.

Meanwhile, Nadeet Haque stares vacantly at the sky and remembers his father, who was the main brain behind the caretaker government’s Operation Dal-Bhat, which was the lifeline for the country’s poor. He says, “My father was a brave man, he worked really hard for the country. I do not know what has happened, I do not know how such an incident can happen.” Like the slain Colonel’s son, the entire nation anxiously waits to see the culprits of the BDR massacre to be brought before justice.