We must never forget the pain, suffering, and death
In March 1971, based in Gaya, Bihar in India, I was working on an Oxfam-UK supported Gandhian village development project in Bihar, India, where I had been for three years. Through the BBC and some sketchy Indian newspaper reports, I learned about the unrest in Dhaka in the early part of March 1971 and Bangabandhu’s momentous speech of March 7 was well reported by The Statesman newspaper which always reached Gaya from Calcutta one day later.
However, nobody was really prepared for what would unfold later that month. Soon after the night of March 25, Oxfam’s office based in Ranchi, Bihar, which, at that time, covered Eastern India and East Pakistan, began to receive reports by telegram from some of its NGO partners near the India/East Pakistan border that hundreds and thousands of refugees were streaming across the border every day.
I remember families of Bangladeshis -- Hindus and Muslims -- coming in a traumatized state across the border to access some of the over 900 refugee camps. Men, women, and children of all ages, struck dumb by the horror of seeing some of their loved ones murdered before they managed to escape.
We must never forget
Perhaps it is necessary to repeatedly remind people about what happened in 1971, and for the members of the younger generation, it is important to go on accurately informing them of the genocide unleashed by the Pakistani army and their collaborators. Because of Operation Searchlight, 10 million refugees, in order to save their lives, went to India, most of them living in very difficult conditions in the refugee camps.
I cannot forget seeing 10 children fight for one chapati. I cannot forget the child queuing for milk, vomiting, collapsing, and dying of cholera. I cannot forget the woman lying in the mud, groaning, and giving birth.
While most of the other aid organizations were flying in teams of expatriates, we took the decision that it would be far better, and cost-effective, to work with all the Indian organizations which we already knew. Gandhian organizations in Orissa and Gujarat sent batches of volunteers to organize food and sanitation in the refugee camps and to informally run learning centres for the children.
We were also able to obtain agreement from Calcutta, Bombay, and other medical colleges that any work done in the refugee camps, supervised by their lecturers and professors, would be officially regarded as the practical, social, and preventive medicine part of the MBBS qualification.
In 1971, 10 million Bangladeshis fled to India as refugees and an estimated 20 million were internally displaced in Bangladesh -- about 40% of the population. Some days we saw over 50,000 Bangladeshis a day cross the many border crossings to India. 20,000 or 30,000 a day at one crossing point was normal. When I remember the work that Oxfam undertook in 1971, I remember the faces of the children suffering severe malnutrition the most.
In April 1971, I was in some muddy refugee camp, wondering how the Oxfam assistance could make them a bit more comfortable and how the children could get better food and have a chance to learn and play. It was a daunting task to say the least.
At the time, the world had not understood the enormity of the refugee problem. In the field, we were witnessing death and disease on a scale that was unimaginable. I still have nightmares about the deaths of children in the refugee camps in India. I still remember as though it was yesterday the wounds of men who had managed to arrive to safety after being attacked by machetes by the collaborators of the Pakistani authorities.
Sometimes, in my nightmares, I see the body of a dead child lying in the rain, its arms and legs gnawed off by dogs, its eyes pecked out by crows. I will never forget the babies with their skin hanging loosely in folds from their tiny bones, lacking the strength even to lift their heads.
Seeing in the eyes of their parents the despair, wondering if they will ever have their children well again. Seeing the corpse of the child who died the night before. It was only when cholera swept through the camps towards Calcutta that the conscience of the world was alerted, but even this killer came and went. It left behind what was there before, suffering and despair -- no homes, little or no food, insufficient medical supplies, and, worst of all, no hope.
It is very right to celebrate Bangladesh’s remarkable development successes and progress over the years, but we must never forget the pain, suffering, and death that were invested into the foundation of this beautiful country. I can never forget. My recurring nightmares will not allow me to do so.
Many years later, in 2017, and in the month of March, it was very fitting that the Government of Bangladesh, as authorized by parliament, decided that March 25 will henceforth be observed as national Genocide Day. The government is now seeking international cooperation so that the genocide carried out in 1971 will be internationally recognized as genocide.
Remembering the birth of Bangladesh should help us all to redouble our efforts to see that the world, 50 years later, shows more kindness to all the refugees being displaced in the 21st century and to see that the politicians work more seriously and concertedly to overcome all these problems which create the movement of people as refugees.
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.