A trove of photographs casts light on Bangladesh’s liberation war

No one is quite sure how many people died in Bangladesh’s war of independence, which ended 50 years ago, in December 1971. Some say 3m; others claim a few hundred thousand. Clearer, however, is the bloodshed’s mark on the country. Its heroes are burnished in art and popular culture. The conflict still takes centre stage in Bangladeshi politics, evoked 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 them members of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic party.

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

Ms de Henning’s war photos were a chance discovery, says Rajeeb Samdani, one of the exhibition’s organisers. Since 2012 he and his wife Nadia have run the Dhaka Art Summit, a hub for contemporary art in South Asia. In 2020 the event marked the centenary of the birth of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s independence leader 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 coup in 1975 in which Sheikh Mujib and most of his family were killed. Searching the internet to fill the gap, the Samdanis came across Ms de Henning’s website and found her portraits of Sheikh Mujib taken in 1972, as well as photos of the war itself.

When Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, declared itself independent in March 1971, Ms de Henning was in Nepal. West Pakistan sent in its forces to quell the secession attempt, unleashing a massacre on the civilian population. The then-26-year-old photographer headed to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), an Indian city not far from the border, and after three failed attempts managed to cross into Bangladesh, where she joined the liberation army, travelling through small towns as it prepared to fight.

Unlike the work of other photographers who made their way to Bangladesh, the bulk of Ms de Henning’s images document the early days of the war. “What first struck me was the quietness of the place,” recalls Ms de Henning now. Many depict a stillness laced with tension and the threat of violence. In one picture, taken in Kushtia, an open truck full of mukti bahini (freedom fighters) intrudes on a street scene (pictured top). Men on bicycles glance across as one of the combatants runs ahead; a dead cow lies in a pool of blood in the foreground. In another, a young bare-chested man wearing a lunghi walks briskly down the street, a rifle slung over one shoulder, a small bag of possessions over the other. “The image shows both the readiness to fight of the freedom fighters and the poor equipment they had to face a modern army,” Ms de Henning says, adding that “their lack of means but will of mind” left a deep impression on her.

The contrast between the military and economic resources of East and West Pakistan is evident in all the photographs on display. On the eve of war, the western part of the country had military might, a centralised bureaucracy and significant wealth. The delta land of Bengal in the east had a big, poor population and little else. Illiterate Bengali farmers clad in lunghis fought Pakistani guns with pitchforks and bows and arrows. They were nonetheless “willing to die in order to achieve the creation of an independent Bangladesh,” Ms de Henning says.

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

India offered assistance to the independence fighters and in December 1971 Pakistan’s forces were defeated. The following April, just after America formally recognised Bangladesh, Ms de Henning returned to photograph Sheikh Mujib as he delivered a speech (pictured above). Shifting from her usual black and white to colour, the portraits show the vitality of the country’s new leader and the hope he represented for his followers.

The optimism did not last long. Within a decade of independence, a military dictatorship was installed. Bangladeshi democracy had started to unravel even before Sheikh Mujib’s murder. Today one of his two surviving daughters, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, rules with an iron fist. For most Bangladeshis, though, memories of the liberation war have not been sullied by the whittling away of their freedoms. Instead, the past has taken on even greater glory.

“Witnessing History in the Making: Photographs by Anne de Henning” is on display until December 31st

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