Memories of the plight of children in 1971
As far as I can remember, I first heard the term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) soon after the first Gulf War, and was told that it was the psychiatrist’s terminology for what we had earlier known as “battle fatigue” or “shell shock.”
In 1971, as a young man working for Oxfam with Bangladesh refugees in the refugee camps in the border areas of India, I witnessed many people of all ages dying in front of my own eyes. They died of diseases like cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and bronchial pneumonia, and some died as a result of bullet or bayonet wounds which had turned septic.
For many years, I did not talk about what I had witnessed -- I kept it “bottled up” as it was far too painful to remember. It was only about 15 years ago, at the Segun Bagicha-located Liberation War Museum, that the late and much-missed Tariq Ali, such a very caring and sensitive soul, managed to help me feel comfortable to talk and write about my experiences.
Much later though, in 2016, I started having regular nightmares, almost every night, which always ended in the same way -- with me standing in a muddy refugee camp holding the body of a small Bangladeshi child who had just died in my arms. Sometimes I woke up shouting and/or in tears.
I sought assistance from medical and psychiatric experts and, eventually, the nightmares ceased. However, that was in the months of September and October 1971 when the level of child malnutrition and death was at an alarming level, and so it is no surprise that the same nightmare has returned to me again in 2020, last night, and that is why I am writing about it at 3am in the morning of October 8.
In August 1971, we had been involved in the coordination of the visit of Senator Edward Kennedy to refugee camps in West Bengal and Tripura. We were able to arrange that a colleague of mine, the late Alan Leather, was able to accompany the Kennedy entourage, and later on, Alan was invited to give evidence in Washington to the Senate’s Sub-Committee on Refugees, of which Senator Kennedy was chairman.
In October 1971, in an attempt to wake up the world at the United Nations General Assembly, Oxfam published “The Testimony of Sixty” about the crisis in Bengal, and a paragraph of Kennedy’s article, entitled “Mosaic of Misery,” which reads: “You see infants with their skin hanging loosely in folds from their tiny bones -- lacking the strength even to lift their heads. You see children with legs and feet swollen with edema and malnutrition, limp in the arms of their mothers. You see babies going blind for lack of vitamins, or covered with sores that will not heal. You see in the eyes of their parents the despair of ever having their children well again. And, most difficult of all, you see the corpse of the child who died just the night before.”
At the end of September and the beginning of October 1971, it was thought that at least 5,000 children a day were dying out of an estimated 1.7 million children under the age of eight years. After much bureaucratic dithering lasting about two months, “Operation Lifeline” was set up with the help of Unicef, and many specialized feeding centres were set up.
The delay in setting up the two-stage specialized feeding program was due to the observation that this sort of assistance is not available to the malnourished children of the local population.
By October 1971, we found that most of the refugees arriving in India at that time were from interior Bangladesh. After travelling longer distances, they were arriving in an even weaker condition than the 9 million who had preceded them. “A lot of them arrive in an irreversible state -- a condition of complete collapse,” said a doctor in a children’s ward at a camp near Kolkata at that time. “There’s nothing we can do for them.”
In 2020, children are suffering in many parts of the world, in many different refugee situations -- refugees in countries such as Yemen, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, as well as the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. And as far as malnutrition is concerned, people in Bangladesh are worried about the state of children due to the economic distress in which many families find themselves in, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Next year, we will be celebrating the 50th year of Bangladesh, and it is so important that everyone learns and knows the true history of Bangladesh and the pain and suffering of many Bangladeshis. Just a few days ago, I was told that the “median age” of Bangladeshis is 25 years (50% above 25 years and 50% below 25 years) and, I am told, that at least 80% of the population was born after 1971. That is indeed food for thought. They must know how and why Bangladesh was established.
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.