On the morning of 30 January 1972, one and a half months after the surrender of the Pakistani army, the then Captain Helal Morshed Khan - who was later promoted to Major General (retd) - set out on his journey to recover arms at Mirpur, the last stronghold of Biharis and a hiding ground for Pakistani soldiers and their collaborators.
It was a volatile situation, and the then Biharis and their collaborators did not know what lay ahead. They were armed to the teeth.
Even though the country had gained independence from Pakistan, Mirpur still could not be fully liberated. During the nine-month war, the then Biharis fought against freedom fighters, killed them, raped women and helped Pakistani forces wreak havoc in the country.
Freedom fighters tried to enter Mirpur many times but every time they had to retreat in the face of heavy firing. The Biharis dug trenches around the whole Mirpur area and resisted viciously.
Mainly, the police would conduct arms recovery operations and the army would be there to aid civil power under the government's order. The police briefed the army that all Biharis had fled and taken shelter at Mirpur-12 where they stored all their weapons. But Major General (retd) Helal Morshed Khan had a hunch telling him there was more to this story.
On the night of 29 January 1972, Major General (retd) Morshed was at Mirpur-2 and he heard gunfire from all around in Mirpur.
"And that was the mistake. But we had to go to Mirpur-12 because we had to conduct the operation based on the police's intelligence report," said Major General (retd.) Helal Morshed Khan, Bir Bikrom, who headed the operation.
At around 10 am on January 30, the army and police forces set out for Mirpur-12 from Mirpur-2. Major General (retd) Morshed, as the commander of the operation, led the convoy in a jeep with 82 army personnel and around 200 police members.
Novelist Zahir Raihan also joined the police to track down the writer and novelist, and his brother, Shahidullah Kaiser, who went missing earlier. Kaiser was thought to have been captured by the occupation forces. The convoy set out in a line to Mirpur-12.
Major General (retd) Helal Morshed Khan still shudders at the thought of the moment of ambush. "The whole way from Mirpur-2 to Mirpur-12, we understood that the non-Bengalis were waiting with arms and watching us from both sides of the road. They were, I now realise, waiting for what we were going to do," Major General (retd) Morshed recalled. "Every house was like a fort, ready with arms to attack."
Back then, Mirpur-12 was like an island, surrounded by a 'beel' or a moat. Major General (retd) Morshed stopped his jeep at the starting point of Mirpur-12.
Then, one group of soldiers, as well as the police forces, went towards the end of the Mirpur-12 in the Balurghat area to take their positions. There was another group at the Mirpur 11 area. And another group got down and stood at the entrance of Mirpur-12.
Major General (retd) Morshed's target was to seize up the situation from a distance. The police forces stopped at the number 12 Water Tank area and slowly spread out in the area.
His three-platoon of soldiers began taking positions at three different locations and at a point that went beyond Major General (retd) Morshed's field of view. Eventually, the police began to search room to room with Zahir Raihan in tow.
For a while, Major General (retd) Morshed stood at the starting point of the Mirpur-12 along with subedar Momen, his bodyguards and the wireless operator and continued to observe the situation.
In the meantime, Major General (retd) Morshed's commanding officer Major Moinul (Moinul Hossain Chowdhury, Bir Bikrom, who was later promoted to Major General (retd)) took the Second Lieutenant Selim to assist him in the operation.
And Zahir Raihan was never to be seen again.
The firefight begins
It was 10:45 am. Major General (retd) Morshed was discussing with Lieutenant Selim about the operation at the Mirpur-12 water tank. At that very moment, they heard the sound of bullets ricocheting against lampposts. Within seconds, firing began from all sides.
"Bullets came flying from different houses. They rained down on us. Their targets were the lanes where we were standing," Major General (retd) Morshed recalled.
Wherever the soldiers and police were, they faced gunfire. And it went on for a while.
At one point, firing expanded all around Mirpur. And that was just the beginning. Within 15 minutes, no man was left standing. They were either forced to take cover or became incapacitated.
The soldiers and police officers returned fire to protect themselves.
"This is called the first reaction. Dash, down, crawl, look and fire back. Within 15 minutes, we had lost around half of our personnel. Our men were killed or sustained heavy casualties," Major General (retd) Morshed added.
Major General (retd) Morshed, Lieutenant Selim and subedar Momen and the rest of his men started fighting back. There were dead bodies all around them. The losses kept mounting and the soldiers tried their best to not get killed.
Suddenly, Lieutenant Selim was shot, causing him to reel back into Major General (retd) Morshed's arms, who then took Selim to another compound and told police there to manage some clothes to nurse his wounds. Major General (retd) Morshed assured Selim that nothing bad was going to happen to him.
Then, Major General (retd) Morshed ordered Momen to bring in some soldiers who were nearby so that the enemy could not breach the compound where they had taken position. Momen followed through on the order.
Later the men took control of another compound to repel the assailants and keep the enemies at bay. In the meantime, Momen tragically died in a cross-fire.
Around 3 pm, attempts were made by others to enter Mirpur and assist Major General (retd) Morshed and his men. The Commanding Officer of the second East Bengal Regiment Major Moinul tried to enter Mirpur-12, but in the face of heavy fire was forced to turn back. Similarly, Sector Commander KM Safiullah was forced to turn back as well.
Help could not reach the soldiers and police officers in Mirpur-12.
"Finally, I realised that there was only one way to get out of this mess and that involved staying there till dark. So we waited," Major General (retd) Morshed explained.
At that point, Major General (retd) Morshed was accompanied by four others. This time, they carefully avoided the lanes and exited the area by climbing over walls and creeping through the alleys. When they came to the last house near the Balurghat area, there was a hole in the wall, Major General (retd) Morshed and his men cautiously went in.
Although it was dark, a man was standing at one side of the door. He was standing guard, looking outside for soldiers and the police.
"When I went through the hole and stood up, my arms made noise. Instantly, the man turned around and fired at me as I fired back. He was shot," Major General (retd) Morshed added.
Again, firing began around the area. They waited there for some time to assess the situation. Then Major General (retd) Morshed and his men exited the house and jumped into the 'beel' nearby. Again, they waited in the water some time to see if someone saw them. Luckily, no one did.
When they swam and came out of another side of the 'beel,'there were some armed young men. They called out "Hands up!" Major General (retd) Morshed's men dropped down on the ground at once. There was not a lot of light so as a result, the youth could not pin down exactly where Major General (retd) Morshed and his men were.
"Then I told them in Urdu that I came to see you. Why are you scared? Do not worry. They became perplexed. Then they asked me where we were coming from. I asked them if they heard the gunfire earlier. They became confused for a few seconds," said Major General (retd) Morshed.
In that moment of the young Bihari men's confusion, Major General (retd) Morshed and his men fled by jumping into the muddy water and crawled further away. Later, they started walking towards the light in the Balurghat area. This was their escape route. There was a platoon of the Indian army there. After reaching their destination, Major General (retd) Morshed and his men were sent to the Racecourse on a truck.
Major General (retd) Morshed said that a total of 42 and 82 army and police personnel, respectively, died in the operation.
Major General (retd.) Khan said that in the following day, the forces from different cantonments were called in causing most of the armed combatants to flee the Mirpur area. Later, four trucks of arms were recovered from the area after a 15-day operation.