DHAKA, Bangladesh (WOMENSENEWS)–A dust-caked plaque says Laily Begum is a Birangona: a brave woman, heroine of a national tragedy. A local youth group presented Begum with the plaque a few years ago. It is all she has been given in the way of recompense for what she suffered four decades ago and now it hangs loosely, and alone, from a wall in her living room.
"I cringe when I hear that word. It means a dishonored or violated woman," said Begum, 56, her deep voice taking on an angry edge.
The title Birangona is used to honor the 200,000 women who were raped by the Pakistani Army during the 1971 Bangladesh war of secession. But the name is synonymous with rape, abortion, suicides and war babies.
There is a festive mood in Bangladesh because of yearlong celebrations marking 40 years of independence, but survivors of the mass rapes of 1971 say a small plaque is not enough when war criminals remain unpunished.
During the nine months of the war, thousands of women were gang raped and dumped into mass graves, their breasts chopped off. Those abandoned by their families slipped into India. Some killed their babies; others killed themselves.
Perpetrators were mainly of two types–some were members of the Urdu-speaking Bihari community and some were Bangladeshi–both supported by the Pakistani Army. They formed armed militia and committed atrocities on pro-liberation forces, according to government investigations and the research of civil society groups.
Those who survived, like Laily Begum and her sister Saleha, live in shame because their rapes left them tainted in the eyes of society and family members have treated their ordeals as taboo topics.
Laily Begum was 16 and pregnant when the Khans–as the Pakistani Army was called– kidnapped her. She miscarried and her husband was killed in the war. After months of gang rape, the Himayat Bahini, a freedom fighters group, rescued her.
"After we lost everything, our reputation, children, husband, home, we did not want them to get away with it," she told Women’s eNews while in her apartment in Dhaka, which she shares with her daughter.
She stayed in the camps of the pro-liberation forces, where she learnt passionate war songs, frenzied chants and how to shoot guns.
"There was hatred in our hearts, we were determined to kill the Khans and save the country," she said.
She says their contribution remains unacknowledged. "But nobody remembers us. Where is our name in history? Which list? Nobody wants to thank us. Instead we got humiliation, insults, hatred and ostracism," she said, her face tight, tears trembling in her large brown eyes.
There was no healing or government effort to rehabilitate the rape victims. Laily Begum remarried with much difficulty as many suitors asked for hefty dowries because they were "loose women." She said she and her family were subjected to public humiliation.
The war victims need justice to heal, she said. "For me, even the death penalty is not enough. The war criminals should be cut into pieces and fed to the dogs. Only then I will find peace."
After the war, the leader of the independence movement, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, granted a general amnesty to all war criminals. Subsequent governments did not confront the controversial issue. But in recent years the Awami League government, led by Rahman’s daughter Sheikh Hasina, has stepped up efforts to prosecute the war criminals.
Six accused are in custody; a war crimes tribunal is expected to try them in coming months. The War Crimes Fact Finding Committee, a civil society organization, published a list of 1,775 suspects after two decades of investigation.
A Crime Against Humanity
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.
A Harrowing Past
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.