They were standing together on the balcony looking down under the soul pleasing January sun. We looked up; and one of their eyes locked with mine. Without even knowing I trembled a little but the owner of the other pair of eyes smiled unreservedly, as if she had known me for ages. The name of the organisation, Sirajganj Uttaran Mohila Sangstha, was written on a hoarding underneath the balcony. We are here at last. While climbing up the stairs I recoiled at the idea of facing them. There the twenty one Birangona women were waiting for us.
It is estimated that more than 200,000 women and girls were systematically raped and tortured by the Pakistani army and their Bangladeshi collaborators in the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971.
I grew up listening to the stories of the Liberation movement from my father. What incredible stories they were. A few of them will stay with me forever.
After the war ended thousands of women and girls were rescued from rape camps and Army barracks from all over the country. My father once told me he had witnessed hundreds of them standing back-to-back on a convoy of trucks like sacrificial animals. This image of Birangona women never left me. The word 'Birangona' means Brave woman.
I went to see them in Sirajganj in 2010 with my friends. We all sat on the floor. I took their permission beforehand to film their accounts. I took a small camera crew just to save their voices. It might be because the history of Bangladesh's Liberation War had never been documented properly. On top of that much of it was manufactured, fabricated for decades to maximise political power. I was of the first generation of a new-born nation which saw two nasty military coups. History books used to change with the change of regime. Children of my generation would study textbooks which said that in 1971 we fought against Perpetrators. But who those perpetrators were was never mentioned. Had they come from the moon? Were they aliens - who were they? We were not allowed to know. We were not allowed to say 'Pakistani Army', 'Razakars' or any facts about the war.
Before meeting the Birangona women, I anticipated the moment, but it was nothing like I imagined. I remember trying my best to picture them, but I couldn't, they remained a collective entity. Dr. Nayanika Mookherjee pointed out that only 6 days after the war ended in 1971 the Interim Government of Bangladesh recognised these women and announced that they would be given full respect as Birangonas. But within the next few years everything went horribly wrong. Their stories were not only silenced and overshadowed by the power-hungry monsters, they were also hidden, shunned and ostracised from their own homes and society.
For the first time I found myself standing before real women behind the term 'Birangona'. There I was in front of the hard truth and there was 39 years of silence between us. But they welcomed us with open arms and the most beautiful smiles.
I cannot possibly explain how I felt while they were sharing their harrowing experiences, but later, I could not sleep for nights. After the interview, one woman asked me gently, 'What's the point of telling these stories? Nothing happens.'
That haunted me for months. I finally went back to them with our theatre company Komola Collective in August 2013 to develop an R&D theatrical piece based on their testimonies. Their heart-breaking accounts were interwoven into the play. Then we heard the news that Birangona Bahaton had died. One by one they are dying and with them their stories.
The Dhaka R&D performance was at the Liberation War Museum. It was an emotional day - one of the reasons was because the Birangona women had come from Sirajganj with Shafina Lohani to see the performance. When I realised the implication of that my whole body froze. Will we be able to tell their stories? They sat in the front row seats. I was on stage, determined not to look at them, but did anyway. Soon after the play began, not sure when, I heard them sobbing. After sometime it grew louder, suddenly one of them fainted. She was taken away. Should I stop the performance? I was mortified.
Later we came to know that she thought that Pakistani Army was here for real. She had to be assured. ''There is no Pakistani Army. We are free now.''
We were devastated - we should not have invited them, but it is their stories! They have the right to see it more than anyone else and they wanted to. After the performance I ran to them but there was no warmth. I held their hands they didn't even look at me, as if they had raised a wall between us. Whenever we met them before they would stroke our hair, blow dua's on to our faces like mothers do but on that day they turned stone-cold. We thought we must have messed it up, they were let down once again.
When they got into the microbus I went up to them, unsure. The seconds of silence seemed eternal.
''Will you perform this play only in London?' The question came as a shock; I said - 'Na Acia Apa (sister), we'll take these stories to other cities''. ''Show it to the world'' Joigun Apa murmured. Razu Bala Apa didn't say a word; she was sitting on the back seat and stretched her hand towards me. I held her hand. Then they all held my two hands tightly from both sides. We heard the engine start; they had a long way to go.
Now we are telling their stories through the play 'Birangona: Women of War'. Hope the world is ready to listen.