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Remembering the refugees in winter

  • Published at 12:02 am November 15th, 2019
Anwar Hossain's photo of 1971-1
Photo: Courtesy: Anwar Hossain Foundation

Many in Bangladesh are all too ignorant about the Liberation War

It is that time of the year, November and December, when members of the older generation look back to those months in 1971, when people, both in Bangladesh and India, wondered how long it would take for Bangladesh to achieve its freedom. Those of us responsible for the welfare of the refugees were very concerned with the onset of the very cold winter months. 

I remember also that fierce fighting had broken out even before the official beginning of the war on December 3, 1971. What became known as the Battle of Hili started, according to my records and memory on November 23, 1971. 

As the Oxfam person in charge of all the refugee relief work in the border areas, I had been concerned about the safety of our staff in the refugee camps in the Hili area and had been consulting the Indian military for advice and had been in touch with one Major Najmul Huda who had promised that if Oxfam withdrew the intern doctors who had come from Mumbai, he would make sure that the medical needs of the refugees would be covered by members of the army medical personnel. 

Major Huda was at that time in command of about a hundred regular soldiers and about 7,000 trained freedom fighters, the Mukti Bahini.

The apparent growing cohesion between the Mukti Bahini and the emergence of officers like Major Huda as de facto district administrators were interesting trends that were being noted by observers, people like me and the Western journalists. 

At that time, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, a Kolkata-based Western diplomat told the reporter, Jim Hoagland: “Some of us assume that East Pakistan will in fact be an independent country at some point. We don’t know if it will take six months or six years. But if it does happen, there will be a new generation of leaders who have been formed in battle.”

This November and December, in 2019, there are a few conferences, which will take place in Dhaka, related to genocide and justice. Genocide in Bangladesh in 1971 and genocide in Myanmar in the present day will be discussed at length. 

If the US House of Representatives could recently vote to officially recognize the killing of Armenians, which began in 1915, by Turkish militia, as genocide, and in discussion they have referred to the slaughter of Rohingyas in Myanmar as genocide, it is high time that the United States Congress recognize the killing of Bengalis in Bangladesh in 1971 as genocide. 

However, it is highly unlikely that such a recognition will ever take place because the US could have stopped the genocide but chose to allow it to happen and support Pakistan.

In October 1971, Oxfam published the “Testimony of Sixty” to raise awareness about the horror of the conditions in the refugee camps and the increasing death toll of children with the onset of the winter, and one of the very powerful testimonies was from Claude Mossé of Radio Suisse Romande, which said: “Between 1942 and 1944, there were 10 million deaths in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. A quarter of a century later, this memory is still in our minds. There are 10 million refugees in West Bengal and apart from some news especially in the Anglo-Saxon press, the whole world accepts with complete apathy the slow agony of these human beings.” 

“If we can accept the potential death of these 10 million refugees it means we can accept the 10 million deaths in Auschwitz. The powers which united to give freedom to the oppressed people in 1944 cannot fail to unite today to save the innocent victims of this tragedy. Their destiny is linked with ours. If we let them die it means our civilization is already dead.”

I have been astonished to find that even Bangladeshis of 40 or 50 years of age are often ignorant of the historical details and the horror of the Liberation War. There should be a far greater effort to ensure that the history books for all ages accurately present the account of the Liberation War.

The media coverage of the genocide in Myanmar is far more intense and detailed than the press coverage in 1971, but, just as in 1971, the international community has, largely, looked the other way. I hope that the conferences in Dhaka will again attempt to wake up the world in the same way as the “Testimony of Sixty” did in 1971.

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.