From the genocide of 1971 to the humanitarian crisis of 2021
During the month of April, the news channels, talk shows, and newspapers have had many relevant subjects to cover, such as the serious Covid-19 situation in Bangladesh and India, climate change discussions and negotiations, the George Floyd case judgment in the US, and the ongoing tensions between the superpowers.
However, many of us who were involved in India with the refugee relief work in 1971 remember the chaotic situations which were taking place in India, particularly in West Bengal and Tripura during the month of April 1971. The government of India, the West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya state governments, UN agencies and NGOs, both national and international, were trying to come to terms with the floods of traumatized Bangladeshi refugees streaming across the border between India and (then) East Pakistan.
Those of us on the ground found it difficult to obtain reliable information. International media personnel had been deported in late March from Dhaka and most of the other foreigners working in East Pakistan were evacuated by early April 1971. We relied on the personal accounts of the refugee families arriving at different border crossings. It was estimated that about 1 million refugees had crossed the border into India at different places by the end of April 1971.
Many had crossed into Tripura and in the last two weeks of April it was estimated that 100,000 had crossed into Tripura. It was even reported that the town of Sabroom near the Tripura border, with a population of about 5,000, had received 20,000 refugees.
One of the accurate, yet extremely tragic news that we received was that an Italian Catholic Father, Father Veronesi, also a doctor, based at the Fatima Hospital in Jessore, had been shot dead by the Pakistan military in early April.
We received this news as Oxfam had assisted the hospital’s community health work and therefore had a close link with the hospital. The Pakistan army, however, blamed the freedom fighters for the death of Father Veronesi.
Among the foreigners evacuated from Dhaka in the first week of April were Dr Jon Rohde and his wife Candy. They had been based in Dhaka for three years and Jon had been working at the Cholera Research Laboratory, the forerunner of today’s icddr,b. Based at their Gulshan residence, they had witnessed the Pakistani crackdown of March 25 and onwards and by the time they reached the US, they were ready to inform the American media, law-makers and the public about the beginnings of genocide they had witnessed in the early days of “Operation Searchlight.”
They knew that the American consul at that time, Archer Blood, had accurately reported the situation in East Pakistan to the US State Department in Washington, but the real picture was not more widely known at all. Jon and Candy wrote letters to their US senators and after they arrived back in the US, they were ready to release the contents of their letters to the media.
In his letter to his senator, Dr Rohde, while describing the events of March 25 onwards, stated: “Tanks rolled out of the Cantonment illuminated by the flares and the red glow of the fires as the city was shelled by artillery, and mortars were fired into overcrowded slums and bazaars.” After two days of military action, Dr and Mrs Rohde “took advantage of a break in the curfew to drive around the city.”
They were told by Bengali friends of families burned out of their shacks and shot “like dogs.” The homes of Muslims and Hindus were a “tangle of iron sheet and smouldering ruins.” In the ensuing days, the Rohdes saw “stacks of machine-gunned, burning remains of men, women and children butchered. Two of the student dormitories of Dhaka University had been shelled by the army tanks and all residents were slaughtered.
There was a planned killing of much of the intellectual community, including a majority of the university professors and many of these professors’ families were shot as well.”
Dr Rohde went to say in his letter: “It is clear that the law of the jungle prevails in East Pakistan where the mass killing of unarmed civilians, the systematic elimination of the intelligentsia, and the annihilation of the Hindu population is in progress.”
And at the end of his letter to his senator, he said: “We urge you to speak out actively against the tragic massacre of civilians and take the humanitarian stand which must override any consideration of power politics.”
As we recognize 50 years of Bangladesh, many of us remember, with horror, what unfolded 50 years before and the US government led by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had the blood and deaths of hundreds of thousands innocent people on their hands. Remembering this, it is the right time now, in 2021, for the Biden US administration to urgently release supplies of the unused stock of AstraZeneca and other vaccines so that the lives of Bangladeshis in 2021 can be saved from Covid-19. This would be a significant humanitarian way of dealing with the US guilt of 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. Julian has also been honoured with the award of the OBE for services to development in Bangladesh.