Deaths in Dacca, 1971

During Bangladesh’s War for Independence from Pakistan, the Mukti Bahini was the guerrilla resistance movement consisting of the Bangladeshi military, paramilitary and civilians. It was both an effective guerrilla force and a symbolic rallying point for the Bengalis.

On 16 December 1971, the Pakistani army finally surrendered, at the end of 9-month long bitter and brutal war, where the independence of Bangladesh was secured primarily with the help of the Indian soldiers aiding the liberation movement. (India’s motive was to prevent 1 million refugees emigrating from East Bengal).

Reprisals and revenge killings began almost immediately. Monaem Khan, a loyalist, anti-Bengal ex-governor of East Pakistan was shot in the capital Dacca, with his assassin later honored with a national chivalric order, and on December 18th, two days after the independence, the Mukti Bahini staged a victory rally in a Dacca racetrack and used the gathering to seek revenge against those who they felt had sided with Pakistan during the fight for independence.

The international press was invited to the racetrack for a “photo opportunity.” Many chose not to take pictures of the scene for fear it would incite violence. Some — including Magnum’s Marc Riboud, UPI’s Peter Skingley, ITN’s Richard Linley, and Panos’ Penny Tweedie — left immediately, fearing that their very presence would incite violence. Some others like Observer’s Tony McGrath and Daily Express’s William Lovelace stayed, noting they had a duty to remain and tell the story.

Among the photographers who remained were Associated Press photographers Horst Faas and Michel Laurent, who would witness a series of actions that led to torture and death. Faas later recalled that his “hands were trembling so much I couldn’t change the film. . . . The crowd cheered and took no notice of us. I hoped the men would die quickly, but it took almost an hour.”

With burning cigarettes, the Mukti Bahini tortured the prisoners for the crowd. One of the leaders, Faas remembered, “took a bayonet from one of the soldiers and stabbed a prisoner. This was a signal for other soldiers to do this, but slowly.” After hours of torture, the Mukti Bahini executed the four men, who were suspected of collaborating with Pakistani militiamen and had been accused of murder, rape and looting. Another picture (above) showed a relative of one of these four men being stomped to death.

Many photographers deemed that the massacre would never have occurred if they (the press) were not there. Faas for his part maintained that other reporters left not because of some moral objection but because the rally was dragging on without anything much happening and it was getting dark.

Faas and Laurent decided to pool their photos and would later share the 1972 Pulitzer for their coverage. Along with Rashid Talukder’s photo of a mutilated head, the photos above became enduring images of the East Bengal War.

In India, the racetrack murderers were received with shock. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian soldiers aiding the Bengal liberation to rein their counterparts in to prevent further incidents. Citing “national interests,” the Indian government refused AP the permission to be transmitted through Calcutta. The result was that the story lingered in the international media for a longer period. The written story was published first and the pictures that were transmitted [through London] were printed a day later.

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