The safe house is not safe

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Exploring the dark chapters of military coups and counter-coups

While the opposition BNP silently observes the 84th anniversary of its founder General Ziaur Rahman, M Anwar Hossain, a professor of Dhaka University, recollects his illegal detention at a nondescript “safe house” in Dhaka Cantonment 45 years ago, accused of conspiracy against the state with an intention to overthrow a legitimate government of General Ziaur Rahman.

After seven years, I was also thrown into the dark dungeon of an undisclosed “safe house” in a different location in Rangamati. I was a young reporter working for an English newspaper, The New Nation, in 1982.

Well, Anwar Hossain and I were in separate “safe houses” during the military dictator General Ziaur Rahman’s junta.

Later, I was told by Major (retd) Khandker Badrul Hasan, then General Staff Officer (GSO-2) at TAC HQ in Rangamati, that a section of military officers was “disturbed” with a series of news published in The New Nation. 

The news was on the anti-insurgency “Headmasters Operation” in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) against the armed rebellion Shanti Bahini demanding regional autonomy for indigenous hill people. 

A couple of rogue officers unilaterally decided to silence the scribe exposing appalling human rights abuse in CHT.

At midnight on March 27, 1982, I was dramatically whisked into an unmarked Toyota Land Cruiser in Rangamati. The plain-clothes security agents brandishing handguns asked me to remain silent and quickly blindfolded me. 

The vehicle arrived at “Khan Bari,” the cell was notorious for the torture of its inhabitants. There, I was handcuffed, blindfolded, and tightly bound with rope around my body and arms, to ensure that I did not escape.

The Pakistan occupation army’s henchmen, the Al-Badr death squad recruited from Jamaat-e-Islami, were responsible for killing hundreds of intellectuals. The victims were kidnapped and blindfolded and brought to secret locations for torture, during the brutal birth of Bangladesh in 1971. 

In less than a decade, the torture cells were revived during Zia’s military junta.

The evening of the fifth day of detention, they removed my handcuffs and undid the ropes around my arms. Still blindfolded, I was dragged into a Land Cruiser. The vehicle drove into the night for two hours.

Later I was abandoned at a dark, lonely roadside of the Kaptai-Chittagong highway.

On November 7, 1975, a counter-coup was spearheaded by Liberation War-decorated hero Colonel Abu Taher (Bir Uttam) in a bid to release his closest comrade General Ziaur Rahman (Bir Uttam), Chief of Army Staff, from house arrest.

The general was brought to Bangladesh Betar radio station at Shahbagh to announce that a new Bangladesh was born, 83 days after of the brutal assassination of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Biplobi Sainik Sangstha (Revolutionary Sepoy’s Organization), a secret outfit led by Col Taher, decided to stage a revolt on November 7th.

Prof Anwar Hossain, a scientist and professor at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Dhaka University, was actively engaged in the Sepoy revolt on November 7, along with other young turks.

The military leader, who was a beneficiary of the revolt, made a U-turn in less than a few hours. 

War veteran Col Taher, along with his younger brother Dr Anwar Hossain, was detained in a “safe house” managed by military intelligence in 1976. Later, a kangaroo court handed Col Taher the death penalty and the 27-year-old Anwar Hossain was given long-term imprisonment.

Bangladesh-born American filmmaker Zakaria Mir directed a short film, The Safe House, based on the true story Chakrabarti Ghorey Fera, written by Anwar Hossain. The film briefly explores the real-life narrative of a young Hindu Chakrabarty, who was also detained and interrogated at the same “safe house” for allegedly spying for India.

The short-film was recently screened to a private audience in Dhaka, which recollects the dark chapters of military coups and counter-coups. The 27-minute short film brings forward the narratives lost from the pages of history. The documentary has been submitted for screening in an international film festival.

Unfortunately, Anwar Hossain could not say whether Chakrabarty survived the torture.

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellow (USA) and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at @saleemsamad on Twitter, and [email protected] through email.