No graves where these families can offer prayers for their loved ones


Since 1977, from the age of four, Bilkis Chowdhury has been carrying a photo of her war hero turned air force officer father.

Deprived of joyful childhood memories with her father, Bilkis cannot even offer prayers or put flowers at her father’s grave, as his body was never found.

For over four decades, Bilkis has been looking for answers, in vain and in agony. Was her father hanged, or was he shot? The perpetrators behind her father’s abrupt disappearance remain elusive, she says, courtesy of BNP founder and country’s first military ruler, Gen Ziaur Rahman.

In 1977, during Zia’s rule, Bilkis’ father fell prey to what is deemed by researchers and historians as the “biggest purge” in the county’s armed forces, that saw freedom fighters turned officers ruthlessly executed without trial and their bodies disposed of without informing their families.

Bilkis’ father, Abul Bashar Khan, was a sergeant in the Air Force in 1977 when Gen Zia unleashed “a killing spree within the armed forces to consolidate his grasp on power.”

Bilkis’ father was disappeared following the landing of a Japanese Airlines Flight, hijacked by a terrorist group, in Dhaka.

“Gen Zia was responsible for the death of my father. Imagine the brutality and ruthlessness… we were never even informed of where my father’s remains were buried,” a sobbing Bilkis said.

Like Bilkis, a number of grief-stricken families whose loved ones were victims of the “purge” initiated by Gen Zia held a rally in Dhaka’s Shahbagh – demanding posthumous trial of the BNP founder – on International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances (30 August).

“Gen Zia was a killer, we demand trial of this dictator,” “How long will this impunity for extrajudicial killings continue?”, “Gen Zia ruthlessly executed war heroes without any trial” – some of the banners carried by the victim families read.

An elderly widow broke down in tears as she recounted her painful story, holding Gen Zia responsible for “all the doom that descended on her family” since the disappearance of her husband.

“I still don’t know where the remains of my husband are. He fought and won against the Pakistan army in 1971, and after independence he joined the armed forces to serve the country – only to be executed by Gen Zia,” she said.

Zayadul Ahsan Pintu, a senior journalist who authored a book in 1997 on those tumultuous years, said that he learned how hastily the executions were carried out from judges of the military tribunals.

“The judges said Zia signed the orders, and they just read those out,” Pintu recalled. “I still get calls from family members of those killed during that time,” he said at a seminar earlier.

Following the brutal murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Gen Zia rose to become the army chief and later assumed the presidency in 1977.

Describing the atmosphere after the coup and chaos in 1975, investigative journalist and former South Asia correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review, Lawrence Lifschultz, suggested that the whole thing be investigated further. Lifschultz said the men behind that assassination would not move “without Zia’s backing.”

Addressing the 30 August rally, AL central committee member Tarana Halim, among others, held Gen Zia responsible for initiating the culture of disappearances and killings. She also reminded all of the wave of unprecedented violence unleashed on minorities when BNP-Jamaat ruled the country between 2001 and 2006.