Mine of photographs sheds light on Bangladesh liberation war

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NOTwhere one is quite sure how many people died in the Bangladesh War of Independence, which ended 50 years ago, in December 1971. Some say 3m; others claim a few hundred thousand. Clearer, however, is the mark of the bloodshed on the land. Its heroes are polite in art and popular culture. Conflict still occupies a central place in Bangladeshi politics, brought up in speeches and used to score political points. In 2010, the ruling Awami League began prosecuting people for war crimes committed during the fighting, many of whom were members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic party.

The violent birth of the country was recorded by foreign and local photographers. Often shocking, their images alerted the rest of the world to the atrocities. Some, like those of Bengali photojournalist Rashid Talukder, have become famous, at least in Bangladesh. Others have been lost in time. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the war, however, new images have emerged. In October, the Liberation War Museum and the Alliance Française de Dhaka joined forces to exhibit the photos of Marc Riboud, a French photographer. And on December 10, “Witnessing History in the Making”, an exhibition of works by Anne de Henning, another French artist, opened at the National Art Gallery in Dhaka.

Ms. de Henning’s war photos were a chance find, says Rajeeb Samdani, one of the exhibition’s organizers. Since 2011, he and his wife Nadia have been leading the Dhaka Art Summit, a contemporary art hub in South Asia. In 2020, the event marked the centenary of the birth of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, independence leader of Bangladesh and first president. To their surprise, they found a dearth of official photos of “Bangabandhu” (“the father of Bangladesh”) as he is known. Mr Samdani speculates that many were destroyed after the 1975 coup d’état in which Cheikh Mujib and most of his family were killed. While searching the internet to fill the void, the Samdanis came across Ms. de Henning’s website and found her portraits of Sheikh Mujib taken in 1972, as well as photos from the war itself.

When Bangladesh and then East Pakistan declared independence in March 1971, Ms. de Henning was in Nepal. West Pakistan sent forces to suppress the attempted secession, triggering a massacre against the civilian population. The then 26-year-old photographer traveled to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), an Indian town not far from the border, and after three unsuccessful attempts, she made it through Bangladesh, where she joined the Liberation Army. , crossing small towns as he ready to fight.

Unlike the work of other photographers who have visited Bangladesh, most of Ms. de Henning’s images document the early days of the war. “What first struck me was the calm of the place,” de Henning now remembers. Many portray stillness mixed with tension and the threat of violence. In a photo, taken in Kushtia, an open truck full of mukti bahini (freedom fighters) interferes in a street scene (top photo). Men on bicycles peek through one of the fighters running ahead; a dead cow lies in a pool of blood in the foreground. In another, a shirtless young man wearing a lunghi walks briskly down the street, a gun slung over one shoulder, a small bag of possessions over the other. “The image shows both the freedom fighters’ will to fight and the poor equipment they had to cope with a modern army,” said Ms. de Henning, adding that “their lack of means but the will to ‘spirit “had left a deep impression on her.

The contrast between the military and economic resources of East and West Pakistan is evident in all of the photographs on display. On the eve of the war, the western part of the country had military power, a centralized bureaucracy, and significant wealth. The East Bengal Delta had a large and poor population and little else. Illiterate Bengali farmers dressed in lunghis fought the Pakistani rifles with pitchforks and bows and arrows. They were, however, “willing to die to achieve the creation of an independent Bangladesh,” de Henning said.

The Bangladeshi fighters were keen to get their message across to the rest of the world, and foreign photographers such as Ms. Henning provided an opportunity. One of his photos shows men gathered at a train station, calling for foreign military intervention. “They raised their fists in the air and chanted aloud in Bengali: ‘Sheikh Mujib is our leader,’” said de Henning. The sound still echoes in her ears to this day, she said.

India offered aid to independence fighters and in December 1971 Pakistani forces were defeated. The following April, just after America officially recognized Bangladesh, Ms. de Henning returned to photograph Sheikh Mujib as he gave a speech (pictured above). Switching from usual black and white to color, the portraits show the vitality of the country’s new ruler and the hope he represented for his supporters.

The optimism did not last long. Less than a decade after independence, a military dictatorship was installed. Bangladeshi democracy had started to crumble even before the murder of Sheikh Mujib. Today, one of his two surviving daughters, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, reigns with an iron fist. For most Bangladeshis, however, the memories of the liberation war have not been sullied by the erosion of their freedoms. Instead, the past took on even greater glory. â– 

“Witness to history in the making: the photographs of Anne de Henning” is on display until December 31


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