Apologizing For Atrocities: A Pakistani Citizen’s Apology to Bangladesh

In 2017 I had the delight of visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina. Unlike most countries I have traveled or desired to travel, this country was one I went to with very little preconceived notions, as my social media wasn’t really plastered with it as a “destination” holiday spot. I did, however, know it was a war-torn country with religious and political divides, at least, that’s what I remembered hearing on the news as a child.

Once I actually landed in Sarajevo, it looked to me as any European country. It was vibrant and beautiful with a special grit and edge to it. As the tours began though, it quickly became apparent that Bosnia is actually very unique in the way it has made its traumatic history a part of its lived reality, its spatiality, the city remembers the atrocities that happen because many of its citizen’s are still grieving and are forever tied to what we think of as, “the past”.

In acknowledging, remembering and honouring these atrocities, a moving-on process of sorts has been initiated, at the very least.

During my visit, I also witnessed the anniversary ceremony of the massacre in Srebrenica when in 1995 more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by the Bosnian Serb Army. Bosnia experienced the largest widespread killings and other war crimes in Europe since World War II.

Since 2006, the International Committee on Missing Persons (ICMP) has used DNA analysis to link bone fragments and organic material buried in Bosnia’s mass graves with the DNA of potential relatives.

Almost 15 years on, many families are still waiting for their loved ones to be acknowledged. While nothing can bring peace to these families, the fact that the government and various agencies have come together in this effort, to memorialize the murdered and tortured, speaks greatly to a nation’s resilience.

While it’s healing and important for traumatized nations to empower themselves in remembrance, what about the perpetrators? Don’t they have a duty to be self-reflexive, be accountable, apologize and do the needed to make amends?

In 2004, for the first time, the Bosnian Serb authorities issued a public apology, saying,they “sympathize with the pain of relatives of the Srebrenica victims and expresses sincere regrets and apologies over the tragedy which has happened to them.”

The statement, invariably, was the result of international pressure after the government played down the extent of the massacre.

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic issued an apology in 2013, shy of however, defining it as genocide. He said: “I kneel and ask for forgiveness for Serbia for the crime committed in Srebrenica”. He further commented that the term, “genocide” needed proving.

‘Genocide’, it’s a loaded, shameful word for many countries to admit but the thing is, if you truly acknowledge the pain and suffering caused that is immeasurable by any standard or word, leaders would say it. Call it a genocide.

Pakistan has its own dark history of genocide. During the nine-month-long Bangladesh War for Liberation, members of the Pakistani military and supporting Islamist militias from Jamaat-e-Islami killed between 200,000 and 3,000,000 people and raped between 200,000 and 400,000 Bengali women. It is 9th of the world’s largest and most devastating genocides.

In 1974, Pakistan apologized for the army’s violence during the 1971 Bangladesh war. The apology, however, coincided with the decision by Bangladesh to drop the proposed war‐crimes.

Then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan had “appealed to the people of Bangladesh to forgive and forget the mistakes of the past in order to promote reconciliation.”

This apology was not quite what Bangladesh had demanded and on top of that, they had dropped allegations for the sake of diplomacy.

Recently, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan congratulated Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on her country’s 50th anniversary of independence, inviting her to Pakistan for a visit.

His letter read, ”On my own behalf, and on behalf of the government and people of Pakistan, I have the great pleasure in extending our felicitations on the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.” While this is being widely hailed as an “apology”, it is in fact merely an invitation and a serendipitous one at that.

Bangladesh is fast becoming a formidable economic power-house in South Asia, as in just five decades, it has gone from extreme poverty to fast GDP growth. According the to the World Economic Forum, by 2030, Bangladesh will be the 24th largest economy and Bangladesh is emerging as a new IT hub in South Asia.

According to research, COVID-19 has made Bangladesh richer per capita than India due to its data-led innovative public health approach and rapid improvement of digital infrastructure. This has no doubt tipped the scales in favour of diplomacy with Bangladesh.

With strained ties between India and Pakistan, Bangladesh is a prospective ally we cannot afford to ignore or miss anymore.

PM Khan’s economic development aspirations are no mystery and while trying to smooth over relationships with Bangladesh with a felicitations and invitation are a start, doesn’t Bangladesh deserve a REAL apology first?

This government has an opportunity to set a global precedent but one wonders if that is a naive expectation. As current human rights violations are taking place in our very own country right now, can war crimes committed in another country in the past be dutifully acknowledged?

I do, as an optimist, still carry hope. I hope that Pakistan will take a leaf out of apology campaigns such as “I Apologize” (“Özür Diliyorum”), a citizen online campaign launched in 2008 in Turkey calling for a collective apology for the Armenian Genocide in 1915.

Even if the Government of Pakistan has not yet apologized to Bangladesh, I today, as a Pakistani, would like to give my humble apology:

I know these are only words and cannot begin to capture the suffering, trauma and grief caused to you by our military and by lack of apology, by our government. I cannot fathom your pain. I acknowledge these atrocities as a genocide and I understand that this genocide did not start at a certain date and definitely did not end in 1971. The loss has surely reverberated for decades through every citizen, through every sphere of human life as it was the most inhumane of acts. I am sorry that a part of our collective history has been so bloody and I am ashamed.

Sociologist, writer, anxious hypochondriac waxing lyrical. Believes in the power of critical analysis and pizza to unite against oppressive forces.