a woman's war, photography, research

in memoriam: Fauzilla Tunnesa Bulu

Fauzilla Tunnesa Bulu, known to many as Bulu Khala, was born in 1919 in then-India. Fifty-two-years old when the Liberation War broke out, she is the oldest woman included in “A Woman’s War” from any country thus far.  Bulu Khala was a key driving force throughout the Liberation War, working to maintain the Kuchbihar refugee camp, as well as recruit and prepare mukti bahini (Bangladeshi guerrilla fighters) for battle. Last week, at the age of 93, living in rural Rangpur with her children and their families, Bulu Khala passed away.

When I met Bulu Khala in June 2011 at her home in Rangpur, in far northwest Bangladesh, she could barely speak – her family and friends provided much of this information on her behalf.  Though she found it difficult to move without assistance, just before we were leaving, she took my hand, kissed it, and quietly said I love you.  She then took my face and kissed it three times. Right, left, forehead. I love you.

She had barely known me for an hour.  I’ll never forget it.

“She never looks for herself, always for others.” – son-in-law of Fauzilla Tunnesa Bulu, on her character

The interview below been edited, with some information provided by her daughter-in-law, Asha, her son-in-law, Sekender Ali, and her longtime neighbor and childhood friend, Nurjahan. Interview conducted on 8 June 2011 at the home of Fauzilla Tunnesa Bulu in Khamarbari, Rangpur. Translation by Simul Khan. Edited by Elizabeth D. Herman.

I WAS BORN in 1919 in Bornogram, Gaibandha. When I was young, in the village during my childhood, I would go with my friends to pray together, to swim in the pond.  To play together.

I was a government employee. At first, I was the assistant headmistress of a government girls high school. Then, when I thought about social welfare, I resigned from the school. Whatever I earned or got from my parents, everything I tried to give to the people. I got some land from my father and my husband and I gave it to the poor.

During the Liberation War, my husband and I were in charge of the Kuchbihar refugee camp.  At the time of the war, I was the district officer of Rangpur district of the Bangladesh Social Welfare Bureau.  When the Liberation War started, I was appointed to be in charge of the refugee camp. I arranged and served food to the mukti bahini, and took care of the injured mukti bahini. I also tried to get people to join up to fight – I organized many mukti bahini for training in India.  I also took training to fight, but I did not get to fight [because the war ended sooner than expected]. I was also working as a newspaper reporter at that time.

After the Liberation War, that was 1972, the whole of Bangladesh was ruined. Everything was broken, everywhere there was sorrow and crying. Only satisfaction was that we got an independent Bangladesh. But every town and village had the sign of Pakistani’s brutality.  I was a government officer, and the government gave me the responsibility of arranging food, security, and a place to stay for people who lost everything during the Liberation War. I established the Care and Protection Center (CPC).

I was also given the responsibility of arranging hospitality for girls who were tortured [raped] by the Pakistani army, and arranged abortions for the pregnant girls. The whole responsibility of Rangpur was left to me, there were 36 villages in Rangpur and there were lots of victim women in those 36 villages. But I did not face any problem. The women of the whole of Rangpur came to help me. One woman who helped me a lot was Hamida Begum.  There were 132 pregnant girls found among the victim women.  When their husbands and families refused to take them, I made an organization named Chinnomul Nari (Rootless Women) for them. Of those 132 pregnant girls, 10 of them were in their last stage of pregnancy, so it was not possible to perform abortions on them. They gave birth to the children, and of those 10 children, 6 were sent to the Dhaka Child Center.

But that was not the end.  The girls who were hospitalized, when they got well, some of their families refused to take them back [due to the social stigma of rape].  I was then given the responsibility by the government to rehabilitate them. We collected donations for them. In Aramraz Hotel, we gave them tailoring and sewing training. The program ran until 1974.  Then that rehabilitation center was established as a Women’s Federation, Rangpur Branch.

I faced challenges during the time I was trying to help the victim women.  During that time, my family members and relatives told me not to work with them.  But I did not stop.  A while ago, ATN Bangla gave me 1000 taka for the work that I had done. But I wanted to share the money – I gave it away to those who had less.

Image at top: Bulu Khala in her home in Rangpur, holding a photograph of herself taken during the Liberation War. June 2011.

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