INAM AHMED & JULFIKAR ALI MANIK
IT WAS not dawn yet. A false dawn spread its pale light across the sky. At House 677 of Road 32 in Dhanmondi, it was time to change guards while everybody was still in deep sleep: President Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, wife Begum Mujib, sons Sheikh Kamal, Sheikh Jamal and Sheikh Russell, daughters-in-law, and brother Sheikh Naser.
Bangabandhu's personal assistant AFM Mohitul Islam was on night duty, but he hit the bed around one in the morning. Suddenly the phone rang and he sleepily picked up the receiver. At the other end was the President himself. The clock was about to strike five.
“Get the police control room,” Bangabandhu ordered Mohitul. Mujib just got the message that his brother-in-law Abdur Rab Serniabat's house was under attack.
Mohitul dialled the police but the line did not get through. He then tried to reach the Ganobhaban exchange. Somebody picked up the phone at the other end but would not speak.
Mujib was impatient and asked him why he did not contact the police control room. Shakily, Mohitul gave the President the bad news -- he cannot reach anybody.
Irritated, Bangabandhu took away the telephone receiver from Mohitul.
"This is President Sheikh Mujib speaking," he thundered.
Just then a hail of bullets slammed Mohitul's office room and shattered the windowpanes.
Bangabandhu had little idea that the assassination mission had started. Little did he know he would not live to see the false dawn turning into a morning darker than night.
It was also in this false dawn that Havildar Md Quddus Sikder along with seven other guards were hoisting the national flag to the tune of bugle at Bangabandhu's residence. It was time for the guard changeover. Then he heard gunshots coming from the lakeside.
The guards immediately took position behind the boundary wall. They were baffled and were still looking for bullets to retaliate when some army men in black and khaki uniform thundered into the house through the gate.
“Put your hands up,” they shouted at the guards. The tragedy showed its first signs.
Inside Mohitul's office, Bangabandhu stepped beside a table and pulled Mohitul to the ground. Right then house help Abdul brought Bangabandhu's punjabi and glasses from the first floor. The president quickly put them on and came out into the veranda.
He shouted at the sentries.
"There have been firings all around. What are you doing?"
And off he went to the upper floor where his wife, sons Russell, Jamal and wife Parvin Jamal Rosy and brother Sheikh Abu Naser were sleeping. He did not realise this would be his last meeting with his family.
House help Rama was sleeping on the veranda in front of Bangabandhu's bedroom. It was around five in the morning. Suddenly the door opened and Begum Mujib emerged.
“Criminals have attacked Serniabat's residence,” she said.
Rama sprang up from his sleep. He ran down in panic and went outside the front gate and saw some army men advancing toward the House 677 with weapons raised and firing bullets in the air. An unknown fear gripped him. The immediate person he thought of informing about this impending peril was Sheikh Kamal, Bangabandhu's elder son.
He again entered the house and ran up to the second floor where Kamal and his wife Sultana were staying. He woke Kamal up and somehow blurted out that the army had attacked their house.
Kamal quickly put on his trousers and a shirt and ran to the ground floor. Rama took Kamal's wife Sultana to the first floor where the rest of the family was sleeping.
Rama also woke up Jamal who put on a shirt and trousers and went to his mother's room. His wife followed him there.
All hell broke loose outside as bullets pinged and whizzed around. He heard somebody groaning downstairs. Little did he know that his brother Kamal was getting mutilated by those stinging bullets.
Mohitul saw Kamal coming down to the ground floor. He stood on the veranda and roared: "Army and police members, please come with me." He was trying to locate the sentries.
Just then the killers appeared -- three to four army men in khaki and black fatigues. Automatic weapons held at waist level in front of them. They stopped right in front of Kamal. Mohitul and Nurul Islam, a police officer, stood dumbfounded behind Kamal.
Mohitul recognised Major Bazlul Huda in khaki uniform. He had met him before. Without a warning, Huda shot Kamal first in the leg. Kamal jumped to Mohitul's side by the reception room.
“Tell them I am Sheikh Mujib's son Sheikh Kamal."
“Don't shoot him,” Mohitul pleaded. “He is Sheikh Kamal. Sheikh Mujib's son.”
The killers could not care less. Guns blazed again and bullets bored through Kamal again. He fell dead.
Kamal was only the first small game for the killers. They were looking for the giant. They asked some soldiers to keep watch on Mohitul and the police officer who also suffered a bullet wound in the leg.
In heavy steps they hurried to the first floor where their main target lived. After some time, Mohitul heard the loud voice of Bangabandhu. Gunshots rang out. Mohitul did not know what was happening up there. All he could do is hope that Bangabandhu was not hurt.
But Havildar Quddus saw the terrible event playing out before his eyes.
He was detained from the moment the killers had gone inside the residence boundary. Now they ordered him to follow them to the first floor. He numbly obeyed.
As Huda and Nur stepped on the landing of the staircase, Major Mohiuddin and his soldiers appeared at the top. With them was Bangabandhu. They were coming down.
Quddus was just behind Huda and Nur. Nur said something in English that he could not understand. To this, Major Mohiuddin and his men moved to the side.
“What do you want?” Bangabandhu asked.
Suddenly, Huda and Nur pulled the triggers and bullets from their Sten guns rained down on Bangabandhu.
The president collapsed on the stairs, silently, and died and blood flowed first around the landing and then down the stairs. He was still holding his favourite tobacco pipe in one hand and a matchbox in the other.
Mohiuddin, Nur, Huda and others went down and out of the gate through the south side of the house.
For them, the mission was accomplished.
Rama saw Bangabandhu dying in a hail of bullets. He was walking behind the group of Mohiuddin who brought the president out of his room. The killing over, the army men ordered Rama to get lost.
Trembling and feeling weak in his knees, Rama slipped into the bathroom of Begum Mujib's room. Sultana Kamal, Sheikh Jamal and his wife Rosy, Sheikh Russell and Sheikh Naser were all holed up there. Naser was bleeding from his hand.
Rama told Begum Mujib that Bangabandhu had been killed.
Just then the killers returned and kept knocking on the door. The soldiers were too impatient to wait. They fired on the door. A terrifying moment of noise, cordite, flying bullets and splinters.
Then Begum Mujib softly said, "If we will have to die, let's die together." And she opened the door and begged for the lives of her family members.
The army men then herded Sheikh Naser, Sheikh Russell, Begum Mujib and Rama towards the stairs.
Begum Mujib stopped as she saw Bangabandhu lying in a pool of blood on the stairs. She broke into tears and said: "I won't go further. Kill me here."
The killers took Begum Mujib back into her room. Quddus then witnessed another most terrible thing that was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Major Aziz Pasha and Risaldar Muslemuddin started firing from their Sten guns. Begum Mujib, Sheikh Jamal, his wife Rosy, and Kamal's wife Sultana stumbled on the ground with bullets in their bodies.
The killers took Naser, Russell and Rama to the ground floor and made them stand in a line beside Mohitul.
Sheikh Naser pleaded: "I am not into politics, I do business for a living."
Mohitul heard an army officer telling Naser, "We won't hurt you. Take your seat in that room."
He took Naser into the bathroom attached to Mohitul's office and opened fire.
Mohitul could hear Sheikh Naser begging for water. One of the army men winked at another, "Go and give him some water."
Then the other army person went inside the bathroom and shot Naser again.
The most horrifying thing happened next. The killers went up and came down with Russell, Bangabandhu's 10-year-old son -- bewildered and devastated. He first held Rama close and then Mohitul.
"Bhaiya (brother), Will they kill me too?" the child asked.
“No Bhaiya, they won't kill you," Mohitul said. He had no idea what was next.
An army man in khaki uniform wrenched Russell away from Mohitul. The child wanted to go back to his mother.
“Take him to his mother,” Major Pasha ordered an army havildar.
The havildar with a mischievous smile held Russell by his hand and took him to the first floor. Russell was wailing. Then came another burst of gunshots.
A little later, Major Farooq Rahman met Bazlul Huda at the gate.
"All are finished," Huda announced. #
First published in The Daily Star, Bangladesh, January 28, 2010
Inam Ahmed & Julfikar Ali Manik are staffers of The Daily Star