“If you were considered for a government job, you had to go to West Pakistan for the interview,” Khan said. “We spoke different languages. East Pakistan spoke Bengali. West Pakistan spoke Urdu.”
It was language that brought the first signs of friction, Khan said, when West Pakistan passed a law that everyone had to speak Urdu.
“That’s when everything started to break down,” Khan said. “It started a student movement. My uncle was part of it. It was the 21st of February, 1952. There was a protest of the language movement. The police opened fire. Many students were killed in the streets.”
With unrest growing for decades, by 1970 things came to a head when the Awani League, the major political party in East Pakistani, won the majority of seats in the 300-seat Pakistani Parliament.
The results of the election changed the balance of power from West Pakistan to East Pakistan, Khan said. On March 25, 1971, as the two sides were supposedly negotiating the transfer, the West Pakistan-controlled army invaded East Pakistan. The day after, East Pakistan’s leadership declared independence and the war was on.
“We were living in Dhaka, the capital; I was 11 years old,” Khan said. “I tell you, there was shooting everywhere. It was like what you see on television in Syria today. Everyone went into hiding.”
With the cloths on their backs and a few things they could carry in a sack his mother made, the family fled Dhaka for its native village of Bahndaria. But getting there was the tricky part. It took days, ingenuity, and the loyalty of the family pet.
Driving on the roads wasn’t safe, boat travel was the only way, but thousands were trying to get on the same ship, he said, which would have sunk if they’d all gained passage. The ship was moored in the water off shore.