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Pakistan: Reign of Terror

Newsweek April 19, 1971; p. 52-54

Blealy-eyed from lack of sleep and emotionally drained by what they called their “ten days of terror,” hundreds of Americans who had been trapped in war-ravaged East Pakistan finally got out to safety last week. Nearly 500 of them were evacuated by air from the East Pakistani capital of Dacca. Another 119 foreign nationals, including 37 Americans, were brought out by a British freighter from the battered East Pakistani port city of Chittagong. Most of them begged off from interviews, fearful that anything they said might endanger some 200 Americans-consular officials, businessmen and missionaries-who chose to remain behind in East Pakistan. But a few, unable to contain their outrage at the wanton slaughter they had witnessed, talked guardedly to newsmen. And their harrowing accounts tended to confirm earlier reports of savage repressions by the Punjabi-Ied Pakistani Army in its attempt to stamp out the Bengali rebellion in East Pakistan.

The Americans evacuated from Chittagong told NEWSWEEK’S Tony Clifton that the bitter fighting there had reduced East Pakistan’s largest port to a ghost town. “In the first few days,” recalled Neil O’Toole, a New Yorker working for a private charitable organization, “I actually saw Awami League people [supporters of Bengali nationalist leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman] patrolling the streets with bows and arrows, and I wondered how they could possibly hold off the army with things like that.” Four days later, the reinforced Pakistani Army gained full control of the city and launched a reign of terror. “Some Punjabi soldiers called a kid over and hit him around the head and in the groin and then forced him to his knees,” said Fritz Blankenship, a crane operator who had been employed by an American construction firm. “The kid was crying, begging and the soldiers just watched him for a minute.” Finally, according to Blankenship, “they just shot him out of hand and walked on.”

A similar wave of atrocities was reported by the Americans who had been in Dacca. As soon as the curfew was lifted, they said, at least a half-dozen Americans were met by nearly hysterical Bengali friends who told of a massacre at Dacca University. When three young Americans agreed to investigate the story, they found a staircase in a faculty building splattered with the bloodshed when five teachers were dragged out and coldly mowed down by gunfire. Still more shattering was the experience of Victor Chen, who had been visiting Dacca as a tourist when the war broke out and was led by a group of excited Bengalis to a shantytown set in the middle of Dacca’s sprawling racetrack. “The houses were burned down, and some were still smoldering,” he told NEWSWEEK’S Milan J. Kubic. “Literally dozens of dead bodies were strewn all over the place, many of them small kids, all of them riddled by bullets.” And another young American said in obvious disgust: “We just don’t see why the U.S. should go on supporting a regime that behaves in this fashion.”

Cautious: Indeed, Washington’s policy of calculated ambiguity on Pakistan has left the U.S. open to charges that official silence is tantamount to support for the martial-Iaw regime of President Mohammed Yahya Khan. Even touchier was the charge that U .S.-supplied Patton and Sabre jets were being used Pakistani Army to slaughter Bengalis. But State Department officials argued that the unsettled circumstances dictated a cautious policy. They also pointed out that no American weapons have been Delivered to the Pakistani Army since 1965. And last week, the department’s spokesman, Charles Bray 3rd, expressed “sympathy” to the “victims” and hoped that “it will be possible soon to alleviate the suffering caused by recent events” in East Pakistan. Though U .S. officials denied any implications beyond humanitarian concern, Bray’s use of the word “victims..struck some Pakistani Government officials as a slap at the Yahya Khan regime, which has never conceded that there was much suffering going on in East Pakistan.

Washington, of course, was hardly alone in this dilemma. Both the Soviet Union and Communist China, the principal purveyors of arms to Pakistan since 1965, have only begun to choose their rhetorical stance-with Moscow urging Yahya to find a way to end the fighting and Peking edging toward Yahya’s side. But by far the most difficult position was that facing the government of India, where popular sentiments remained overwhelmingly pro-Bengali and where pressures mounted for direct action. “It is neither proper nor possible for India to keep quiet [over the Pakistani situation),” said Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

The watch-and-wait policy assumed by most foreign governments stemmed from a widely held belief that the Pakistani Army will ultimately fail in its attempt to subjugate 75 million East Pakistanis. Still, fears increased that the army was fully prepared to wreak bloody havoc even in a futile try. An American businessman who was evacuated from Dacca last week recalled asking a Punjabi major why the army was killing so many people. “There are millions of them, and only thousands of us,” the major replied. “The only way we can control these people is by making them scared stiff.” And from what he saw, the American said, “it looked as if the army went berserk. I can’t help feeling sorry about the poor Bengalis in that hell.”

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