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OP-ED: Memories of December 1971

  • Published at 12:19 am November 27th, 2020
Painting "1971"
Painting: Zainul Abedin

Let us honour those who lost their lives in that time. We shall forever be in their debt

As coordinator of Oxfam’s refugee relief program in India which cared for 600,000 women, men, and children, I was worried about many things in December 1971. 

The roads to the refugee camps we were supporting were choked with Indian military vehicles and hardware and it was difficult to reach supplies to places as far as Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam, and Cooch Behar. Thousands of blankets and woolen clothing had been donated by the British people following campaigns of Oxfam: “Take a blanket off your bed” and “Send us your sweater: It can save someone’s life.” 

The advertisement in the British newspapers said: “Refugees in India are facing a new horror: death from exposure. Nighttime temperatures in winter can fall below freezing. Children and old people are being killed by the cold now. Healthy adults will not last the winter. Warm clothes are needed with desperate urgency -- shawls, sweaters, cardigans -- anything woolen.”

The British Post Office, in a rare gesture, did not charge postage for parcels of blankets and warm clothing sent to Oxfam.

We needed to deliver these warm clothes and blankets very quickly, but trucks, for instance, could take at least 10 days to reach Agartala from Kolkata. So, we chartered old Dakota aircraft (DC-3 and DC-6) to reach the north of West Bengal and the airstrip of the erstwhile maharajah of Cooch Behar.

I was also worried about the aircraft which Oxfam had chartered, bringing 27 tons of urgently-needed supplies. This cargo included $500,000 worth of medicine donated by American companies, 3 million water purifying tablets, and blankets. Because of the war, the aircraft was not allowed to land in Kolkata and was diverted to Madras (now Chennai), so our staff had to go there to clear customs and arrange transport to Kolkata. 

At the same time, I was busy sending relief supplies to people in Orissa who had been affected by a devastating cyclone the previous month when over 9,000 people perished.

In November/December 1971, what worried me most was that many people were dying from the cold, and death from cold is as terrible as death through hunger. The very young and the elderly were most at risk and, at one time in late November, we estimated that over 4,000 children were dying in all the refugee camps every day.

In late November, when a lot of shelling had been taking place at different border points, I had to close down some of our relief work because our volunteer workers were in dangerous places. These decisions were very difficult, as we would be abandoning the refugees at a time that they were somewhat excited that a war would take place, and that Bangladesh would be a reality, and they would go home. 

They had a whole range of emotions. Happiness, joy, but also some fear. What will they find when they get home? I asked one camp organizer what he was feeling about the possibility of going home. He told me: “You have tried your best to help us survive, but life has been so hard. If I get back to my village, I will feel good even though my house might have been destroyed. However, home is home. But the memories of the suffering in the camps will be fresh in my mind always. I will remember 50 children fighting for one egg and the child in a queue for milk vomiting and collapsing. I will remember, in the mud, a woman heaving, groaning, and giving birth. Oh, how I long to get to my home in Bangladesh.”

From my archives of treasured papers, I see that on the day before Victory Day, December 15, 1971, I attended a meeting in Kolkata called by Bangladesh government officials to discuss the future needs of Bangladesh. The telex that I sent to Oxfam that day said:

“BDG (Bangladesh Government) EXPECTS AND HOPES MAJORITY REFUGEES IN INDIA RETURN BY END JAN. ESTIMATE IN ADDITION TO THESE 10 MILLION, THERE ARE A FURTHER 20 MILLION HOMELESS IN BANGLADESH. FOR ALL THESE PEOPLE FOODGRAIN REQUIREMENT ESTIMATE HALF MILLION TONS PER MONTH. IMMEDIATE REQUIREMENT VEHICLES, 1,000 TRUCKS, 500 BUSES. MOST SHELTER MATERIALS SUCH AS BAMBOOS REPORTED DESTROYED BY PAKISTAN ARMY.”

There are so many sad and painful memories of 1971 and, of course, memories of December 1971 are still very clearly etched on my mind. When we heard the news that the Pakistan forces had surrendered, there was both relief and joy among my staff numbering 36, most of whom had come over the border as refugees. 

As a team, we had often worked 18 hours a day, so, when we heard that the war was over, there were many tears of exhaustion as well as happiness. As soon as we heard the news of the surrender, I gave my staff a day’s holiday, many sweets were distributed, and there was much singing. 

On the one-day special Victory Day holiday, I went to my office and sat alone, deep in thought, remembering the previous tumultuous months that ended with the birth of Bangladesh.

And sitting, alone, in my Park Circus office in December 1971, I knew that I would never forget the babies with their skin hanging loosely in folds from their tiny bones, lacking the strength to even lift their heads. The children with legs and feet swollen with oedema and malnutrition, limp in the arms of their mothers. 

The babies going blind for lack of vitamins, or covered with sores that would not heal. Seeing in the eyes of their parents the despair of never having their children well again. Seeing the corpse of the child who died the night before.

As we prepare to celebrate the milestone 50th anniversary of Victory Day in 1971, although, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the celebrations will be muted, we have to strongly and clearly remember those who lost their lives or whose lives were taken away during those hard-fought months of 1971. We shall, forever, be in their debt.

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.

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