By Bijoyeta Das
Monday, September 5, 2011
Bangladesh is celebrating 40 years of independence, but two sisters who were both victimized by massive, brutal war-time rapes are in no mood to celebrate. They say their lives have been ruined and perpetrators have never been brought to justice.
Rape is a crime against humanity according to the United Nations. War crimes tribunals in Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone have prosecuted sexual violence.
But in cases of war crimes, justice is largely symbolic, said Laurel Fletcher, a war crimes trial expert and professor of law at the University of California, Berkley.
"To the extent that we think of justice in conventional terms of individual perpetrators being held criminally responsible for their crimes, then justice is never fully realized in the aftermath of mass violence," Fletcher said.
The tribunal has the power to prosecute perpetrators within Bangladesh, but not the Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan can try the military officials, which is unlikely, she said. The tribunal should take extra measures to encourage victims to testify, by proving protection and psychosocial counseling, she added.
A compounding problem is the lack of forensic evidence after such a long time lapse to prove rape charges. But some international and hybrid tribunals have been successful in the prosecution of sexual violence based on victims' testimony. Earlier this year, for example, Lt. Col. Kibibi Mutware and eight others were sentenced to 20 years in jail for raping at least 60 women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, based on the testimonies of about 50 women.
But Saleha Begum said very few women are willing to come forward with their stories, fearing mockery and rejection.
"Anyway what is the point of telling? The government did nothing for our rehabilitation or compensation. There is too much pain in my heart. What is the value of my life?" she asked.
Saleha Begum lives with her family in a two-room house in Dhaka, which she shares with 10 people, including paying guests.
"Bangladesh became a free nation and I a fallen woman," she said, her gaunt face. She broke into a doleful smile, showing black-strained teeth from years of chewing dried areca nuts wrapped in betel leaves with a dash of lime.
Even now she gets blinding headaches when she recalls events of her harrowing past.
"The Khans tied our hands, burned our faces and bodies with cigarettes. My body was swollen, I could barely move," she said. She was fed once a day, mostly dry bread and sometimes a few fried vegetables.
Young girls were strapped to green banana trees and repeatedly gang raped. A few weeks later they were strapped to the same trees and hacked to death.
Saleha Begum was shot and left for dead but a freedom fighter rescued her. Lying among a pile of cold bodies, she remembers raising her quivering hands to the cobalt sky to thank death for coming, she said, as she lifted her sari to show gunshot scars on her long bony legs.
"Ghost," she recalled her mother screaming, when she returned home five months pregnant. No one expected the girls to come back alive.
But as Saleha Begum's belly grew, the taunts increased. "I was branded a bad girl, a slut, called names such as Khan-ki-manki by local people," she said.
When her son died four days after birth, she moved to Dhaka to escape the humiliation and work as a maid.
"I lied to my husband that I was a war widow, otherwise no one would marry me," she said.
When her husband came to know the truth a few years ago, he beat and dragged her out of the house. But their daughter, Asma Akter Eka, stopped him. He agreed to let Saleha Begum stay as long as his family never came to know about her past.
Fifteen-year-old Eka said people laugh at her because of her mother's past. She wrote a song to tell her story.
"I am the child of a Birangona, I wander around, for a glimpse of you, O father of nation. No one sees my pain, after all I am just a child of a Birangona," she sang and gently pressed her mother's hand.
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Bijoyeta Das is a multimedia journalist currently covering South Asia. Her work is available at http://www.bijoyetadas.com ">http://www.bijoyetadas.com.
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