Karuna Begum: An extraordinary freedom fighter
In 1971, hundreds, perhaps thousands of women joined the war of Bangladesh's liberation, some of them participating in active combat in the frontlines alongside their male compatriots. Karuna Begun was one such freedom fighter. Born on April 2, 1953 in the Patarchar village under Muladi Thana at Barisal, Karuna Begum was the daughter of Shah Ali Ahmed Khondokar, a soldier in the Pakistan army. After his retirement in 1960, he served as the Office Superintendent at the Dhaka Engineering Institute.
Karuna was a very lively and curious child and well loved by her family. Coincidentally, she attended the Patarchar Primary School where Mohiuddin Jahangir also studied in a class above her. For his remarkable bravery in 1971, “Birsreshtho”, Bangladesh's highest gallantry award, was conferred on him.
Karuna lost her mother when she was in class five. At the age of fifteen, when she was a student of Muladi Mahmudjan High School, she was married to Shahidul Hasan Chunnu. Shahidul was then a soldier in the East Pakistan Rifles (EPR), but soon he retired to become a teacher at Kazirchar Maddhomik Viddyalay. Like millions of others, he too listened to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's historic speech on March 7, where Bangabandhu urged Bengalis to start preparing for defending themselves against the onslaught of the Pakistan army. On March 26, as the news of the Pakistan army's attack against the Bengalis spread, Shahidul who was well trained as a soldier organized and trained the youth of his village and also collected as many arms as possible from nearby police stations and Ansar units.
Shahidul and his team started conducting operations against the Pakistan army and their collaborators in and around Muladi area. While conducting an operation against the Pakistan army and their local collaborators at Nandirbazar near Muladi in early September 1971, Shahidul and two of his fellow freedom fighters were wounded, captured and tortured by the enemies. When news of their capture reached Karuna, she rushed to the spot with her three-year old son Manna. As she watched helplessly, the Pakistan army took the three freedom fighters near the Jayanti River bank, shot them dead and threw their bodies in the river.
The untimely and gruesome death of her husband was a huge shock to Karuna. Since then, she and her family lived in a constant state of fear, being aware that they could be targeted at any time by the Pakistan army. Devastated, frightened and yet angry, Karuna finally decided that she wanted to complete the task her husband had taken on; so she enlisted as a freedom fighter in the liberation struggle when she was only nineteen years old.
Leaving Manna in her in-laws' care, she set out for the freedom fighters' camp in Nolchira under Gournadi Thana. She approached the camp in the dead of the night and met with Kutubuddin, one of the camp commanders. Kutubuddin was a few years senior to Karuna in both Patarchar Primary School and Muladi High School, and he had also heard about the tragic death of Shahidul at the hands of the Pakistan army. Surprised at her arrival, initially he tried to persuade her to leave, arguing that the all-male camp was no place for a woman, and she would not be able to stay amongst them and conduct military operations. After a long exhausting argument, Karuna left but returned the next evening dressed in men's clothes with her hair cut short. Karuna made Kutubuddin promise that no one in the camp should know she was a woman, and persuaded him to accept her as one of his trainees. She began training with her unit the very next day, learning how to use grenades, sten-guns, rifles and other forms of explosives. Her dexterity, daring and focus quickly earned her both acceptance and respect amongst her peers.
Once she completed her training, Karuna began actively participating in guerrilla operations in the various areas of Barisal including Bamrail, Kashimabad, Batajor, Nandirbazar and Torki. She was also charged with the responsibility of gathering intelligence for her unit. Karuna's courage in the battlefield and her accuracy in using hand grenades in the battlefield were remarkable. During the attack on the Kashimabad Pakistani position near the bridge area, Karuna was seen crawling to the Pakistani bunker, deftly throwing hand grenades and quickly withdrawing to safety. Her role in this battle played a crucial role in gaining a decisive victory for her unit. Karuna was also sent to Barisal town where she threw a grenade on a moving truck of Pakistan army in front of Barisal Medical College. Similarly on November 6, when the freedom fighters attacked Pakistani position at Bamrail, Karuna again attacked using grenades on the Pakistani bunker with incredible accuracy. In each and every one of these operations, Karuna always volunteered to be a fore-runnner. She always tried to set good example and lead from the front. She became a very essential member of the group of freedom fighters.
On receiving information, the camp commander Kutubuddin planned an attack on a steel-bodied launch of Pakistan army near Gournadi on November 15, 1971. While her unit positioned itself along the bank of the river, Karuna positioned herself in a bush ahead of others. When the launch loaded with Pakistani soldiers reached the bank of the river, Karuna swiftly threw two grenades into the launch. Simultaneously, her unit started firing on the enemy with their rifles and mortars. The launch was totally destroyed, the Pakistan army suffered heavy casualties and a significant setback in that operation.
Karuna's last battle was in Mahilara on November 21, 1971. The Pakistan army had a stronghold in Mahilara where they routinely brought civilians for imprisonment and torture. Karuna's unit planned an operation on the Mahilara camp. It was a moonlit night and visibility was quite clear. Under the cover of darkness, the freedom fighters took position on high ground adjacent to the bridge near the camp. From this position, Karuna was ordered to crawl up to a vantage point where she could have a clear view of the enemy position. Equipped with a sten-gun and two grenades, she first crawled to her location and on Kutubuddin's signal, threw the grenade towards enemy position. Immediately, heavy firing started from both the sides. Karuna joined in with her sten-gun. Within minutes however, she was shot in her right thigh. She managed to roll down the slope and screamed for help. Taking cover of the high ground ahead, a few of the freedom fighters dragged her to safety. To stop the heavy bleeding, they tied her thigh with a gamcha (thin towel). It was at that moment that her fellow freedom fighters realized that Karuna was a woman. Kutubuddin called off the operation, and they carried Karuna back to the camp.
Karuna's condition deteriorated quickly and she was in agonizing pain. It became clear that without medical assistance and surgery, she would not survive. Kutubuddin assigned a few freedom fighters to take her on a boat to the Barisal Sadar Hospital. The doctors and nurses worked around the clock to keep her alive, while taking precautions so that her identity would not be disclosed to the Pakistan army and their collaborators.
Finally after the victory on December 16, the doctors urged the freedom fighters to take Karuna to Dhaka Medical College Hospital for better treatment. But she continued to deteriorate. In a last attempt, the doctors sent her to Combined Medical Hospital (CMH) in Dhaka Cantonment. While in the CMH, she received a special visit from Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Colonel M.A.G. Osmani. It was a great honor for her.
The long treatment at the hospital saved Karuna's life, but it could not save her leg. For the rest of her life, she struggled with a permanent disability.
In February 1986, Karuna married freedom fighter Golam Mostofa Manik of Rakudia village under Babuganj thana of Barisal district. They had fought alongside each other in the same camp during the war. As her in-laws did not accept her because of her physical disability, Golam Mostafa and Karuna moved to Dhaka in search of a living. They struggled for years, and in 1996, the then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina allocated a small house at 144, Lalbag Road, Dhaka for Karuna and her family. They lived in the house for years, but could not ever afford to buy the house.
Karuna's health suffered over the years. In August 2008, Karuna was admitted to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, with the financial support of the Bangladesh Freedom Fighter Welfare Trust. Later she was taken to the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University Hospital where she was diagnosed for cancer.
A fighter to the last, Karuna fought against prejudice, poverty and cancer before she breathed her last on January 22, 2009. She left behind her husband and five children, who till today lead an impoverished life.
Karuna Begum's story of bravery and decisiveness to join the frontline of the Liberation War when she was widowed at the hands of the Pakistan army is a humbling reminder of how an ordinary human being is capable of extraordinary bravery. Defying society and social constraints, she demonstrated the possibility of what an indomitable spirit can achieve, and serves as a reminder that determination, passion and above all courage is not defined by gender nor by social circumstances. Karuna Begum was a woman ahead of her times, and stories of women freedom fighters like her who were at the forefront of the war and in other supporting roles, should serve as role models for young Bangladeshi women and men today.
Bangabandhu wrote the following letter to Karuna after he visited her in the hospital in 1972. This letter is treasured by the family members:
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Prime Minister & Defence Minister
Gano Bhaban, Dhaka
Dear Sister Karuna,
You have set a glorious example of patriotism, sacrifice and courage during our Liberation War. Your unconquerable spirit is a shining example of the best of what our country has to offer. Our nation is proud of you today. We, the people of Bangladesh are indebted to you forever.
On behalf of Government and the people of Bangladesh and on my own behalf, I am conveying a heartful of gratitude to you for your noble task.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman