The words 'freedom fighter' for Bangladeshi people evoke the image of the dominant ethnic group in the country: Bangalees. But people from minority ethnicities did fight against the Pakistani military in 1971. Nabin Chandra Koch, the lone surviving freedom fighter from the Koch community in Sherpur is one of them.
One of the oldest ethnic communities living in Bangladesh, the Koch (pronounced like 'coach') left their native Cooch Behar – just north of present day Bangladesh – and settled down in the district of Mymensingh. The Bangladeshi Koch community currently lives in Jhinaigati, Nalitabari and Shribordi upazilas in the Sherpur district.
Nabin was among the three children of Mahim Chandra Koch and Apari Das Koch. Hailing from an agrarian family of Kangsha mouza – part of the Gajni forestland – Nabin went to school until class eight, after which he became a farmer, like his father.
Their village in the jungle was remote and calm. But the ripples of the anti-Ayub movement spilled over from the urban areas and even into rather isolated villages like Nabin's.
After Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's historic 7 March speech, provincial assembly member Abdul Halim visited Kangsha villagers, urging them to get ready for a long-term struggle.
The villagers were informed that the Pakistani occupation army orchestrated a massacre at Dhaka University and neighbouring areas on 25 March. The minority community did not feel removed from what could have been seen as the problem of the Bangalee people. They put up black flag as a sign of mourning for and protest against the mass murder.
Nabin was a simple man. He did not understand politics. But the young man realised that if he did not join the armed struggle, the Pakistani army can eventually destroy his village or murder the family members.
"Without any hesitation, I joined the fight," Nabin told The Business Standard recently.
Nabin did not take permission from his parents for joining the fight, he recalled.
Wrinkles on his face turned deep and eyes went watery as he recollected memories of the war.
He, however, could not remember the exact date he, along with some other Koch individuals, migrated to India for guerrilla training. His memories about other fellow freedom fighters are blurry as well.
Deshor Chandra Koch, Binod Bihari Koch, Sudhangshu Koch, Majendra Koch, Indra Mohan Koch, Lal Koch and some Garo and Muslim youth accompanied Nabin. For one month, they took part in training in the remote Tura area of Meghalaya, India.
Under the command of Abdul Gaffar – a politician of Ghatail, Tangail – the trained guerrillas entered Bangladesh through the Nakugaon border. They had been without any food for two straight days before reaching Raosaitola. A local politician fed the fighters with available dry food.
The fighters then marched to Kashiganj and set a temporary base in a grass field there. The village was a den of local Pakistani collaborators.
Next day, the guerrillas came face to face with the Pakistani military while they were heading to Bidyaganj. At least 25 freedom fighters died in the encounter.
Muktagacha was a safe hideout for them. When they reached the village, it was early morning.
People were roaming around after the fajr prayer. One of them, an old man, invited the fighters to have meals at his home.
Nabin and others accepted the invitation. The old man slaughtered a goat to honour the guests. After a while he went out for an errand.
"The old man's daughter threw a little piece of paper with a message. She wrote that her father is a collaborator. She called us 'brother's and told us to leave the house before her father returns," Nabin recalled.
"She wrote that we shouldn't sacrifice our lives only for the mutton," said the septuagenarian with a smile.
Even after promptly leaving the house, they could not avoid running into an ambush by the Pakistani army.
Seven guerrillas, all from Tangail, died from heavy fire by the military.
The fighters rushed to Madhupur jungle to hide. They walked the whole night and got lost in the deep woods. And there was not a single trace of human existence.
"In the early morning, commander Gaffar told us to trek through the jungle by tracking cow hooves. We did that and found a Garo village. There was the Garo community leader who received us warmly. He served us with puffed rice and molasses," Nabin said.
In the next few days, the guerrillas trailed through Dhanbari, Salla and Soya villages in Tangail. No casualty happened. But some Koch men found the floodplain landscape, especially the rivers, uncomfortable to go through.
Nabin said, "Binod and I almost drowned. We were hill people, unskilled swimmers. When I was drowning, I lost my weapon and ammunition."
Commander Sattar from Ghatail summoned local fishermen. They fished out the gear with nets.
Nabin used to carry a self-loading rifle (SLR). The arms were comparatively light and easy to operate, he said.
The Koch man also was skilled in operating 3o3s, Sten guns and light machine guns. They had also learned how to blow up bridges in his training.
In Salla village, the guerrilla team destroyed a bridge, said Nabin.
"Tipped-off, we took position at one end of the bridge to prevent a Pakistan military truck. I fitted explosives (dynamites) and a detonator on the pillars. When the truck arrived, we kept firing at the target. The truck fell from the bridge. Later the whole structure was destroyed to cut the enemies' network," Nabin said.
He lost many co-fighters in the 1971 Independence War. What did he feel while losing a comrade? Nabin replied, "Felt sad. But not demotivated. I too could have been martyred."
He also remembers another battle particularly. "In that fight, one of my co-fighters got shot in his thigh. He requested me to take him on my shoulder. I told him to grab my leg so that I can crawl and drag him along to a safe place."
"I could not do it. He got shot again, this time to his head and back. He wanted to drink water. I brought water from a nearby Aman field which was irrigated recently. He drank a few drops of water before dying," Nabin said.
Nabin said four or five freedom fighters died on that very day.
According to official records, at least seven Koch men including Nabin from Sherpur district joined the liberation war. They all returned to their homes after independence.
Currently, only Nabin among these men are alive.
The war veteran faced political vengeance during the military ruler Ziaur Rahman's regime.
"Freedom fighters opposing the regime were arrested on false charges. Police summoned me too. But I escaped police detention, hiding in the hilly jungle in Gajni. That time was very tough," Nabin said.
With wife Usha Rani Koch, Nabin still lives in Gajni forest. The couple has a son, Jubaraj, and a daughter, Surma. Sometimes, grandchildren visit Nabin and Usha.
The lone surviving freedom fighter from the Koch community now receives special allowance from the government.
It's no big recognition, but Nabin is content. "That's the only reward for me," he said.