Three young boys in their teen years, one standing, ready to throw a grenade, two others kneeling down, their rifles pointed afar; the photograph drips with their grit and intent, and it has become a symbol of the Liberation War. The photo, “Muktijuddhe Tin Kishore”, is an ubiquitous presence in newspapers and invitation cards marking Victory Day and Independence Day events. It even hangs on the walls of the liberation war affairs ministry.
The three boys from the photo — Abdul Khaleque, the one with the grenade; Abdul Mazid (middle), and Mujibur Rahman — are all from Tangail’s Musuria village, under Delduar upazila. Of them, Khaleque and Mazid are still alive, while Mujibur passed away in 2016.
The photo was shot by Naib Uddin Ahmed, one of the most important documenters of the Liberation War of the Tangail-Mymensingh region.
Sadly, none of the three subjects of the photograph went on to live very comfortable lives, with two of them being ravaged by financial insecurity.
Khaleque now lives on a piece of land leased by a company at Foy’s Lake area in Chattogram. Out of work, he has to depend on the freedom fighters’ monthly allowance to manage his family of five. Due to extreme poverty, Khaleque had to leave Kushtia Polytechnic Institute in 1974, in only his third semester.
Mujibur Rahman used to pull rickshaws and struggled throughout his life to run his family of five, until succumbing to cancer in 2016, in an almost untreated state, lamented Khaleque.
Mazid perhaps fared a little well. He went on to join the Ansar Battalion following the war and is now a retired officer.
However, for all their woes, it’s not like the trio asked for anything in return when they put everything on the line to join the war. “We decided to fight for our country, and we sought nothing in return,” Mazid told this correspondent.
“But what is painful is that though our photos are widely circulated, none of our names, not even Naib Uddin Ahmed’s name is credited anywhere,” he said.
When the Liberation War unfolded, Khaleque — then only a seventh-grader — and some of his fellows contemplated joining, but they didn’t know how. Then one day, Bangobir Kader Siddiki, Bir Uttom, came to Musuria and spoke to young boys of the village. He asked them if they wanted to go to war, and 42 of them agreed. They were listed and left the village, without informing their families.
After reaching Baruha, a village some five kilometres away, they boarded three boats heading for the Indian border.
During the journey, the boatmen covered the boys with log grasses, Khaleque recalled. Whenever Pakistan Army’s gun boats approached them, the boatmen said they were transporting the grass for cattle.
“When we reached Bahadurabad Ghat in Dewanganj upazila of Jamalpur, we came across a lot of dead bodies at the ghat area. Some of our mates couldn’t stomach it. They decided to return home, so only 22 of us reached India’s Mainkar Char,” he said.
They went through a 21-day training on frontline fighting and another 13-day training on guerrilla warfare at Meghalaya. “We used to visit different bordering areas of Mymensingh and Sherpur for operations from India,” Khaleque said. “When the war was nearing its end, we entered Bangladesh and reached Mymensingh on the first week of December.”
“After independence, we went to Mymensingh to surrender our arms. Someone from there identified me and told me about Naib Uddin. Five of us visited his house in BAU campus. He was delighted to see us,” he continued.
“Naib Uddin took several photographs of us and another one with his five-year-old boy Nawsher Ahmed Nipun in my lap. I used to visit Nipun at his residence at Mymensingh city when he was critically ill,” Khaleque reminisced. “He died in 2014.”
Interestingly, Khaleque and his friends had little interest in the photograph and had no clue about its influence for a long time after the war.
“I was seriously impressed by the image for the first time when I saw a large installation of it at the Liberation War Museum in 2005,” Khaleque said. He hadn’t met Naib Uddin in a long time. He asked an employee of the museum and collected the photographer’s contact.
“When I phoned Naib Uddin, he was utterly surprised to hear my name. He later invited me to a solo exhibition at Bengal Gallery in Dhaka.” Khaleque chronicled.
“It was filled with rare photographs of the war, but our photo seemed to evoke a special kind of emotion among the audience,” said an emotional Khaleque.
Khaleque went on to establish “Bangabandhu O Muktijodhha” museum on four-decimals of his ancestral land. It contains photographs, books, and paper cuttings of the Liberation War.
He has been running it from his monthly allowance, but recently got a grant of Tk 50,000 from the local upazila parishad. He said he’ll spend the money to buy furniture for the museum.
So many years have passed, most of Khaleque’s mates from the war now lay at rest. But the war veteran is proud of the life they got to live, despite their relative obscurity, especially of the three boys who appeared on the photograph. But he’s not complaining.
“We never thought this photograph would go on to become such an important part of the Liberation War history,” Khaleque said with pride.