Summer Refugees

“We had to live like this,” his mother said from behind. The boy was watching the news.

“Sorry, what?” He looked back and said.

She nodded at the TV screen and said,” We had times like that.”

They were showing an item about the migrant crisis in Europe. A scene from one of the camps. People in long lines, kids with their mothers walking by train tracks, people fighting with police, sitting on cold earth, eating under the open skies. His mother sat on the sofa watching intently. A woman in her mid fifties of medium height and bright skin. She was wearing no jewelries except two bangles of conch shells. When did she ever have to live like that? Then he remembered.

“During the war?”

“Yes.”

He never heard her talk about the days of liberation war. Stories were his father’s duty.

“Tell me about it.”

She looked at him and smiled. He thought she will say something to avoid it but she didn’t. She started to tell him about her memories of being a refugee. Outside a golden sun shone the early summer light which crept through the window and formed a square of brightness on the wall. Two black and white pictures dangled on the wall among the many colorful frames of flute playing Gods and blood soaked goddesses. An old woman in a white sari and a middle aged man in a white panjabi looked at their descendents from a two dimensional slice of frozen time.

The boy’s grandparent’s home is in Gazipur district. It’s nestled among the hardwood trees and by the sandy shores of Shitolokkha. These days a highway cuts through the National Forest Reservation. Gazari and Shal trees loom over the road. Earth rise and fall along the way. The soil is red like hemorrhaging human tissue. The highway wasn’t always there. It was absent from the landscape when his grandfather lived there cultivating lands of his forefathers, among a cluster of houses with all inhabiting people sharing the same surname.

“When war broke out many people crossed the border to India, after some time we also followed suite.”

“How did you know it was time to go?”

“I… I don’t know how they had decided. It was the grownup’s decision.”

The boy looked at his mother. Her face, round and homely with a dash of vermilion on the forehead. He never thought she was ever anything but a grownup.

“So all of you left?”

“No not all of us, mother, all of your uncles except your first uncle. He went back to get your aunt and her family once we reached the border. Father stayed back too. He had to sell some land and arrange money. We didn’t have enough money with us. We didn’t know how long it would take the war to end. We didn’t know if we could have ever returned home. So along with some of our relatives one day we started the journey to leave the country. We walked for a time being. Then we took a boat, then again walked for sometime before we reached the border. There we stayed in a house for a day waiting for our chance to cross.”

She knew she wasn’t an eloquent speaker like the boy’s father or like her own father who was a school teacher. But as she watched her sons face she thought he didn’t mind. May be he won’t ask about the details of the journey or maybe he understood. He is her flesh and blood after all. So she didn’t tell her about how she had cried when they left home in a summer morning much like this. How her mother with tears in her own eyes pulled her and her brothers from their yard and started the walk but then again many were crying. Soon it would subside. Except sometimes during her time in the boat sobs would return. But mostly it was fear that she felt during those days on the road. She remembers the road all too well, walking along with her mother with her cousins and uncles and strangers. She remembers the people on the road, all walking, some silent some talking in hushed voices, their faces downward cast and all part of the same exodus.

“There were men who took people from this side of border to the other. But there were so many trying to cross, so we had to wait for our turn. After waiting for nearly a day word came that we will cross that night. In the cover of night we reached the fences that stand at the border. Pakistani army could be seen on towers with searchlights. There were places where the fences were weak and people could pass. But if seen we could also get killed. I could see men on the tower standing guard, looking for refugees like us. And then finally Rabi started crying.”

The boy saw her mother’s eyes gloss, get out of focus and lost in the visions of past, of a night in the threshold of life and death, between the borders of nations, hiding in the thicket, that high beam of searchlight passing by near and a kid crying in the dark.

“He was the youngest of my cousins. He never cried. He didn’t cried when we left home. But he was young and finally when it was time to cross he became overwhelmed with all the tension. So he started crying. First it was whimper which turned into sobs which would have been replaced by full on shrieking if not for my uncle who covered his mouth with his hands. The boy panicked and started to struggle. But his father held him tight, all the while covering his mouth, choking his screams and his breath in his mouth. He stopped struggling after a while. And as we crossed in to India his body became limp like a ragdoll.” she stopped and looked at her son.

The boy’s mother saw his eyes widen slightly.

“What else could he have done? Let so many die for that one child?”

“So he…”

“He nearly choked the boy to death. Rabi didn’t die that night. We all safely crossed into India. We all became refugees, taken to a camp in a place among the mountains, a place which was cold like winter. But he did die later. Due to food poisoning may be. That was when we were waiting for father in the camps. We had to live in empty school buildings, railway stations and in the camps. Scarcity of food and clean water led to all kinds of stomach aches ailments. We waited for my father. The plan was for him to meet us there and then together we would go to one my maternal uncles house who lived in India. But Rabi couldn’t wait that long. We buried him there near the camp among the mountains, in that cold place.

My father arrived with my sister’s family and my elder brother some days later. Then we went to my uncle’s house. Later we were given ration cared  card and all was well for the rest of our stay there.”

Mother stopped. The boy looked at her eyes. No, those weren’t moist. She looked back at him and smiled. He came to her and sat on the handle of the sofa and hugged her. She didn’t say anything. They both looked at the TV. Watching but not seeing. Each lost in their thoughts. Outside summer breeze moved through the small town and golden sunlight illuminated the dusts of the morning turning into noon.

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6 thoughts on “Summer Refugees

  1. It was honestly a horrific time. I’ve also heard many stories, but the difference is that my grandparents were trying to come from India to Pakistan, not the other way round. But the situation was same on both sides.

    Like

    • Thanks for your comment. What I wrote here is something my mother told me about her experience during 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh. After the war they returned to a changed country but many were not that fortunate.

      Liked by 1 person

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