One of the Bangladeshi rape victims. Photograph: Nabil Uddin Ahmed/Rex
hen writer and actor Leesa Gazi was 17, her father told her a story that would leave an indelible mark. He said that after the end of the 1971 war – the war that gave Bangladesh its independence from Pakistan – he crossed paths with a convoy of trucks full of women. These were the women people had been whispering about, the ones captured from their village homes and interred in rape camps, most having witnessed the death of their family members. He saw hundreds and hundreds of them, standing up in those trucks as they were finally freed, and this was one of the abiding images he carried with him as his country took its first steps into nationhood.
It is this ugly history that Gazi and her team, the Komola Collective, address in their production, Birangona: Women of War. The choice of subject matter is a bold one for a company's debut production, but underlines Komola's mandate to "tell untold histories from women's point of view". The project began in 2010 when Gazi accompanied a friend to Sirajganj, five hours from Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, to visit a group of "Birangona" women – the label the state gave to women who suffered sexual violence during the war. The 21 women she met have lived with the shame and ignominy of their wartime experiences for more than four decades. Shaken by what she heard – stories of rape, imprisonment, torture – Gazi returned to London determined to break the silence surrounding them. Two years later, she went back to Sirajganj, this time with the newly formed production company she founded with three other London-based artists. With the help of a videographer, they filmed the testimonial of five Birangona women, and, along with a local playwright, developed the script for a one-act play.
The result of this collaboration is currently running at the Lost theatre in London, before a tour that takes in Oldham, Birmingham and Leeds. Birangona: Women of War tells the story of Moryom, a young village girl who is newly married and expecting her first child. Then war breaks out, and Moryom is captured by the Pakistan army. The play follows Moryom as she goes from the innocence of village life to being captured and sent to a rape camp. Her story is interspersed with her early memories: learning to swim in the pond near her home; getting married to a local boy who she calls her "tamarind man"; the first movements of the child she carries.
She also tells the stories of the women she meets while she is interred, each with their own sorry tale of murder, kidnap, and rape. It makes for a brutal 60 minutes, and would be almost unbearable to watch if not for the use of mixed media, the clever animation of a Bengali folktale and flashbacks. At the end, there is a long segment of video footage in which the Birangona women speak directly to camera. They say they are still taunted for losing their honour, that their children are stigmatised, and that they worry no one will come to their funerals when they die. The women bear not only the scars of what happened to them in the past, but the continual pain of everyday life as a woman marked forever by that defining moment of violence.
When the Komola Collective staged the production in Dhaka for the first time, they invited the Birangona women of Sirajganj to see the play. The women traveled the 200km to the capital and sat in the audience, watching their own images in the video footage. One of them fainted in the aisle and was led away. Afterwards, they greeted Leesa and her company with a hard silence. Then, finally, one of them said: "Go out and tell the world our story." And that is exactly what Komola are doing with this groundbreaking production.