A forgotten resting place and the two brothers

By Lt. Col. (Retd.) Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir on 26 March 2012

The writer is a Bir Protik, retired military officer, freedom fighter, recipient of Swadhinata Padak and researcher on the Liberation War

Article courtesy: The Daily Star (Bangladesh)

They are two brothers Afzal Hussain and Ahmad Hussain. When you meet them, you see the portrait of two 'Sharif' (gentle) and humble human beings. It was a cold late afternoon in Shillong. I was walking through the Moprem graveyard, which in the Khashia language means, “stone area.” At the far end of the graveyard, there was a large room, which my two elderly guides, the aforementioned brothers, pointed out to be the place where bodies of the deceased are bathed before the Janaza prayers.

As we walked through the silent graveyard, the brothers talked quietly about the history of this plot of land. In 1849, their forefather Goam Haider Molla had arrived to Cherapunji from West Bengal with commercial interests and within a short time had amassed a fortune. While initially the British had their headquarters in Cherapunji, they later moved it to Shillong. Golam Haider Molla subsequently also shifted his business, and began acquiring large properties there. In 1874, he generously donated this plot of land as a graveyard. Later, this graveyard became a Waqf property.

As we came near a long patch of land covered with wild flowers and grass, the Hussain brothers pointed that this was the final resting place of our brave brothers of 1971. “We have buried them in a line in this area all fifty-two of them.”

I stood there in solemn silence for some time. Here lay some of the gallant freedom fighters of Bangladesh's Liberation War. Yet, for forty years, their graves had never been visited; no prayers were offered to the departed souls by anyone from our beloved motherland. Of the people who collected the bodies of the 52 freedom fighters, dug their graves, bathed them, and attended the Janaza prayer, only a few are alive. Imam Hafez Ahmad Ali from Kacchar district, who was the Imam of the Police Line Mosque in 1971, led the Janaza prayer for the dead. Muhammad Abdul Jalil, who was then the caretaker of the graveyard and was in charge of digging the graves, passed away. The graveyard committee member Mohibur Rahman, Mohammad Hanif and Jamshed Ali were also long gone.

At over seventy-three and seventy years of age respectively, Ahmed and Afzal were the last two with memories of those eventful days, who still visit the graveyard from time to time. Afzal noted, “No one will know the stories of the dead, and how they came to this resting place.”

We offered prayers for the departed souls as the skies poured heavy rains and we were enveloped in biting cold winds. The brothers embraced me, holding back tears. Then we walked back to a nearby mosque, now modernized. “It was in this mosque that the bodies of the dead were brought and where Imam Hafez Ahmed Ali led the Janaza prayer,” recalled Afzal.

We drove away from the graveyard towards the Army Hospital of Shillong. It was here that the brothers were called in for a meeting in the month of April 1971, and the Colonel informed them that there were many wounded freedom fighters from Bangladesh being brought to this hospital for treatment. He was concerned that despite their best efforts, many would succumb to their injuries. “The dead must be honored and buried with due respect,” he reminded them. Furthermore, he also noted that as the Chairman of the Police Line Masjid Committee and member of the Moprem graveyard committee, Ahmed and his brother Afzal who was the Chairman of Lawarish Lash Dafan Committee of Shillong should discreetly take responsibility for the burial of the dead. He also emphasized that everything should be done secretly, otherwise panic would set in the peaceful tourist city.

The responsibility of burying the dead secretly required significant planning and careful execution. The Hussain brothers would bring their own vehicles for carrying the dead. The transportation would take place in the dark since the bodies would have to be carried through the streets of Shillong. There were no records or names of the dead as the patients were brought in without any identity from the battlefield. The Lawarish Lash Dafan Committee of which Ahmed was the leader would receive the dead bodies.

The work started from the next day. Almost all the dead were young, aged between eighteen and twenty-five years, bruised with severe battle injuries or surgical procedures. The latter, the surgery marks, were a reminder of the efforts made by doctors who had tried to save their lives. “So many times,” Afzal recalled, “we talked amongst ourselves how the families of the dead would never know whether their near and dear ones have been buried.”

I was invited to have a cup of tea at the home of the Hussain brothers, located in the beautiful area in Shillong on the MG Road. It was then that Ahmed talked about the challenges facing the Moprem graveyard. With the increase in the Muslim population in Shillong, there was a higher demand for graveyard plots than ever before. The graveyard committee had consequently decided the area in which the fifty-two martyrs were buried would have to be used for new burials. In tears, both brothers observed that if new graves are made on the old graves, there would be no trace of the latter, and their families would never find them. They had pleaded with the graveyard committee for more time, but it did not have any more time. “Can you please do something urgently?” they requested me, as if the fifty-two men they had laid to rest was their own flesh and blood. If blood is the ultimate price of freedom, these young men had paid more than their share. Do they not at least deserve to have their memories and the stories of their sacrifices recorded and remembered?

As a freedom fighter of our Liberation War, I have been working for the last nine years on the missing population of 1971 and preparing documents. I have successfully located graves of missing freedom fighters in both Bangladesh and India. After locating these fifty-two graves, I have moved on to the next destination upon receiving some information. Next morning, before leaving Shillong on the way to Guwahati Airport, I could not resist stopping at the Moprem graveyard one last time. Standing there again, I felt these young ones died for me and for the generations to come. Those who were sleeping in those quiet graves bore the true spirit of the stormy 1971. They responded to the call of the nation; they fought, bled and died in the quest for independence. But they were laid to rest in a foreign land by the hands of kind-hearted strangers, albeit with respect. As citizens of the free nation for which they had fought and died, can we not pay our last respects to these valiant young men by bringing them back to the land they helped liberate? After forty years in a stranger's land, honoured by the very few who still care to remember them, can they not finally return to this land of theirs? It is now time to bring them home. I felt deep gratitude to the Hussain brothers and few others who had so caringly shouldered the strenuous responsibility of burying our dead fighters and who have taken care of the graves for forty long years when none from Bangladesh has ever visited and prayed for their souls. They are the epitomes of good human being with deep compassion and love.