When Kalipad Haldar left home in 1971 as a ten year old refugee, he thought it was only a temporary shift.
“Our area was free up to April 24. After the declaration of independence, the very air around us was charged. But the Pakistani army’s atrocities quickly replaced our excitement with fear. We kept expecting them to attack.”
The Pakistanis finally came via Mongla port, guns blazing.
“I still remember the sound of shelling. I think it was 10am.”
Forced out of their homes by local collaborators
“The thing that saddens me most is that the Pakistanis left all this destruction in their wake, fine – but why did the Bengalis have to participate? I still don’t know the answer.”
Kalipad, his parents, two elder sisters, infant brother and grandmother – all took shelter in a nearby Muslim house, since the military was known to attack Hindu houses first. When they came back, their house had been stripped of almost everything. They crossed the Bagerhat river and went to Kachua.
“We never thought that we couldn’t go back to our house, just that these were bad times, and they would end. The Mukti Bahini put up strong resistance.”
“There was a dog called Raghu in my house,” Kalipad suddenly smiled while recollecting. “He didn’t go anywhere while we were away. When we came back, he even walked very far with us, all the way to Baghmara village.”
I can’t tell you what day, date, month it was. I only remember one date from that whole period in my life
But this was only the first of many moves. Many families from the Liberation War can profess to have faced similar situations – where they would go deeper into the villages to hide when the army attacked, all hoping to go back to their homesteads when things quietened down. The family travelled to Jatrapur to stay with Kalipad’s Nani.
“We heard rumours of the Razakar Rajab Ali Fakir, who people said was so ferocious that even Indira Gandhi wanted to meet him. Apparently he invited one of his Hindu neighbours over when the war started, gave him sweets like you would any guest, and then shot him in the forehead.”
Who has room for a family of seven?
“It is difficult to explain the uncertainty and fear that families faced during that time. I was only a child but I knew what was at stake. My eldest sister was the biggest concern. We feared for her more than we could say.”
When the Razakars did attack, Kalipad’s family crossed another waterway to hide.
“I remember seeing the fire while drifting away. But there was no sign of my father. We heard they had found and murdered some Hindus. I was so sure, he was gone.”
He turned up at night, covered from head to toe in mud. He had spent almost seven hours in a doba, hiding under the green with his nose above water. Right next to him, two men had been killed. The family decided to try their luck and cross the border.
By then, an industry had already sprung up around taking displaced persons and refugees to safe places. For Kalipad, it cost 100 taka.
“We could only scrounge together 300 taka, so my father took my eldest sister and me. We got ready at dawn, wearing burkhas and skull caps. There was a place called Taltola in Fakirhat where the Muktibahini were stationed. You could use the Rupsha river from there to get to India.”
The company crossed the Rupsa river in silence, wary of Razakars patrolling the shore. They sailed on to the Bhadra river, skirting the Sundarbans. While Kalipad’s memory fails at times, he remembers getting into Nolen station in Satkhira.
“These routes had already become established for people trying to get to the border, and at almost every stage, we were stripped off our goods. By the time we reached, even the sandals I was wearing were gone.”
“I can’t tell you what day, date, month it was. I only remember one date from that whole period in my life.”
“That was the day we reached the camp, all of us together.”
But Kalipad and his family had reached the Ichamoti and crossed over to India, days before that.
“When we got to India, we were herded into a school called Chamarkhali school. I remember lying in a corner, listening to the sound of rain. We ate some flour that smelt like kerosene.”
They were stuck there for two to three days, without any proper meals. They continued on foot, and then were allowed to board a launch to Hasnabad in Bashirhat, West Bengal.
“When we reached, because I was the youngest, I was given rice and a plate of taangra maach for us to share. I’ve had the fortune of travelling to many places later on in my life, but I have never had anything that even came close to that meal.”
My own people were taking advantage of my vulnerability as a refugee. It made me lose a little bit of hope
They travelled on to Dum Dum, and then on again to Gobardanga. At that time, they were informed of a crackdown in their area, and heard that his mother had fled with the rest of the family. In a dramatic twist of fate, they met halfway in Madhyamgraam, at the house of a man who had ties with their neighbourhood.
“My mother had never left her village. Imagine getting on a train with your infant and walking all the way over here! It was a miracle that we found them. By then, thousands of people had started to flock to the border areas. My father decided to travel to the Mana camp in Raipur, Chattisgarh, which had been an army camp and was abandoned after the 1965 war. I don’t know why he agreed to move so far away.”
The family got passage onto a train that took them over Howrah bridge to Barrackpore. From there on to Adra, where sometimes the train would stop for hours on end and people would get down to cook whatever rice and lentils they had. The train went on for almost three days.
“We went through Orissa, I remember Tata Nagar and Bilashpur. I was fascinated by the covered rail station, the tunnels, the hills and the reddish water flowing underneath the bridges. I tried to spot the monkeys in the trees, sometimes there were no people for miles.”
When they finally reached Raipur rail station, an open truck took the family to Mana camp.
“We were given the number 13-08 on arrival. There were three sections, with around 63,000 refugees. By the time we all left, the numbers had dwindled down to around 33,000.”
Life as a registered refugee
Mana had been used as a transit camp by the Indian authorities during the 1965 Indo-Pak War. While the sufferings of displaced persons and their ordeal in reaching the borders of West Bengal via Jessore Road had been documented during the Liberation War, there is a dearth of information on the refugee camps, especially one as far into India as Mana camp.
“I remember tran (relief) there was called Russian. I’m still not sure if they came from the Russians, or if it was just a mispronunciation of rations,” said Kalipad.
“The educated people in the camps set up schools, and I went to one. My sister worked as a nurse. I remember I used to walk to the other end of the camp to play football. Life went on, there was even a play once. But we never had enough water, and there was a lot of blood dysentery and pox going round. My grandmother couldn’t survive that.”
A report from the time titled ‘Present position at Mana and the gravity of the situation’ prepared for the Central Social Welfare Board, described Mana as a “large treeless stretch of morrum land, unfit for agricultural purposes. There is a great dearth of water.”
In Refugees and borders in South Asia, Antara Datta wrote of how segregation between earlier and newer refugees was a deliberate strategy at Mana, and quite often the new ones would have to live under the open air. They were given rations, but no utensils. She also described a breakout of cholera at the camp. In September 1971, there was even an attack on the camp administration by furious refugees protesting against the inadequate supply of bulgur wheat, and two refugees were killed by camp police.
“We didn’t hear about Victory Day for ages, there was no radio. We eventually heard refugees were being repatriated, and everyone was in a mad rush to go home. So mad that there was a riot at the camp, because the trains weren’t coming to take us.”
According to official reports, approximately six million refugees had gone back to Bangladesh from India by January 1972, making it the largest repatriation operation in world history. However, Kalipad and his family didn’t make it back till February.
“I remember what it meant for me to come home to a free country. But even on the way back, we were robbed on the train, and I can’t get that out of my mind. I wanted to live in a golden Bengal, but my own people were taking advantage of my vulnerability as a refugee. It made me lose a little bit of hope.”