Razia Begum – Walking Through Flames and Ashes
1947, was a year of misery in the sub-continent. Razia Begum, a newlywed thirteen-year-old girl, was among the many who have burnt offerings in the past, memories of which haunt them day in night out. Her husband, Muhammad Hussain Khan, worked as a school professor and soon after their marriage they moved to Kanpur in pursuit of a job offer he had received.
Razia Begum witnessed the houses of fellow Muslims being burnt to ashes with the occupants still in them. Being a Muslim or having any sort of association with one, meant death at the hands of the blood-thirsty extremist mobs. Muslim men were butchered on sight while the women and children were usually kept till they got tired of them. It eventually got to the point that Razia and Hussain had no other option but to leave that place.
Under the cover of the night, they set out and came upon a group of some twenty worn out Muslims with the same agony. Razia and Hussain had intended to return home to their families, however, they were advised against it. They were told that there was nothing left for them to return to. Either the families had already set out for Pakistan or they had been burned to death inside their own houses with Hindus and Sikhs standing outside to shoot anyone who tried to escape. There were no survivors. Hearts heavy with fear, that their families were probably dead, Razia and Hussain continued their journey. When they finally stopped for rest, they set up a temporary camp and had just settled down when they heard strange noises.
“It sounded like animals keening in pain.”
Razia, her husband and two others decided to go and investigate. They happened upon a large number of Sikhs collected around a family of four, subjecting them to torture. They were spotted and tried to fight the Sikhs but it was to no avail. Blow upon blow of Kirpans were showered upon them. Her husband was killed on spot and as she moved towards his lifeless body when she too, was hit by a kirpan.
“I still remember clearly. It was a deep wound, eight inches in length.”
Her back and hands were also badly wounded and as she raised her hand in front of her face her fingers were cut off. She fell unconscious to the ground. Thinking she was dead, the men left her.
“I woke up to find myself in an ocean of dead bodies, among them my husband.”
She went back to the camp, alone this time, and was enlisted help by an old man, Bashir. She got three blankets from a nearby house and wrapped her husband. She and Bashir had to dig the graves with their own bare hands to bury the three men.
The family of four that was being tortured on their arrival was now down to two heartbroken parents. They sat clutching each other, their daughters having been hauled off by the Sikhs as they were very beautiful. Both of them joined Razia as she reminded the couple of their own daughters and they swore to protect her. They continued on their journey and had to travel nearly fifteen kilometers by foot. Razia’s wounds still unattended.
“It was very humid as we were approaching the season of monsoon. The wound on my head got infected and insects found their way into it.”
Her broken fingers eventually got jointed back at weird angles, making her, once beautiful hands, look disjointed. The wounds on her back left scars which would always be there to remind her of her suffering as if the psychological scars were not enough. The more distance they covered, more people joined them on their endless journey. They numbered at approximately hundred thousand people travelling together. Then the monsoon arrived and they had to sleep on the cold, wet ground as their food supplies depleted. Despite this each and every person, from child to adult, kept walking. However, the rains also brought cholera with them.
“Nearly a hundred people would die every day. People I now knew, and people I never got a chance to know.”
She traveled for 9 months till she finally reached Pakistan. Her feet were rapture, bleeding, and swollen due to excessive walking. Another 2 months were spent in the camps where she waited in the hope for a lost family to come and get her.
The couple she had traveled with had already left on their own journey but she and Bashir had grown very attached to each other. They cried when it came time for him to leave. They knew their struggles were not yet over and each had enough to deal with.
Razia Begum has spent every 14th August for the last 69 years locked up in her room. She says that her memories drain her every day. When she looks around herself, all she feels is disappointment. She is left wondering about the value of those sacrifices they made.
Interview & Written by Amna Khan