Monday, June 24, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Julian Bhai, friend of Bangladesh (Part 4)

In this exclusive, expansive interview, Rezwan Hussain talks to Julian Francis, OBE, about his remarkable life and career. This is the fourth instalment
Update : 01 Jan 2022, 12:37 PM

Did you get visitors to the camps?

Oh, yes. We had a number of visits from British and European MP’s and American Congressmen. One memorable visit was that of Richard Wood, who was the British Minister for Overseas Development at the time. A big man, probably in his fifties. He didn’t have a noticeable infirmity, but he did walk stiffly, and he carried a walking stick.

As we traipsed through a muddy camp, we noticed Wood wasn’t wearing rubber boots. The Indian government officials became increasingly concerned. Were the Minister’s feet not uncomfortably wet? Finally, Wood laughed and banged his stick against his leg. A metallic clang rang out. “Don’t worry old chap,” he said, “I don’t feel a thing.” During military action in the Middle East in the Second World War, he had lost both his legs. 

Also Read- Julian Bhai, friend of Bangladesh (Part 1)

Another time, I remember we were invited for drinks at the American Consulate to meet delegates from Washington. It was on Harrington Street, near the British Consulate. In the middle of the reception, one of the Americans collapsed. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with malnourishment. Apparently, he was terrified of getting sick from the food in Calcutta, and had been living on nothing but imported Coca Cola since landing in India!

At the time, some wondered whether Bangladesh was headed for a long-drawn out war of insurgency, similar to Vietnam. What did you think? 

To many of us, it was obvious that the Mukti Bahini was going to triumph, and that it wouldn’t take long to do so. No more than a year. The Indians were arming, training, and supporting all the Mukti forces, right around the border. Meanwhile, the Pakistan military supply lines were a thousand miles away. The whole situation was a losing proposition for the Pakistanis.  Even if the Indians had not got involved, I believe Bangladesh would still have become a reality. It might have taken a little longer, that’s all. Many thought the same way. 

It’s easy to forget that once the fighting ended, hundreds of thousands of people had to be repatriated. 

Also Read- Julian Bhai, friend of Bangladesh (Part 2)

Yes, this was not a trivial task. The return of the refugees to Bangladesh had to be carefully organized, as orderly as possible. Because if you allowed a hundred thousand people to cross at once, you would have dangerous bottlenecks. Initially, the Indian army controlled the ferry crossings, in a low-key manner. 

Oxfam’s partners were at the Benapole border, handing out blankets and food. I remember Hindu groups made packets of sweets to hand to Muslims; it was going to be Eid at the end of January 1972. There were a few Christians in the camps, and at Christmas, the Hindus and Muslims made a point of bringing something for them, also. 

A wonderful gesture. How did Muslims and Hindus get along in the camps?

Very well. We never heard of any issues between them. Muslims were about thirty to forty percent of the camp population, and they typically lived in their own area of the camp, but there was no conflict between religious groups. Any problems that emerged were between the local population and the refugees. Don’t forget, most local Indians were poor also. And they watched as another group of poor people received free food and medical care, while they did not. This inevitably created some resentment. 

Today, the tables have turned somewhat, and it is Bangladesh that is hosting refugees, from Myanmar. Have you noticed any interesting similarities or differences between the two refugee crises?  

Also Read- Julian Bhai, friend of Bangladesh (Part 3)

The number of expats! I believe there were up to 2,000 expats in Cox’s Bazar, working with the Rohingya, before the pandemic intervened in early 2020. A great waste of money. In the refugee camps in 1971, Oxfam managed a program for 600,000 refugees with only two or three foreigners! When I asked a senior Oxfam staffer not long ago why so many expats were turning up this time around, he said the donors insisted on it “because of the corruption.” 

This, in my opinion, was a ridiculous comment. 

Rezwan Hussain is a writer and researcher in Dhaka. This is the fourth instalment of a multi-part interview with Julian Francis.

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