• Tuesday, Sep 25, 2018
  • Last Update : 09:44 pm

Missing pages in our history book

  • Published at 06:08 pm March 25th, 2018
  • Last updated at 06:52 pm March 26th, 2018
Missing pages in our history book
In 1971, the author's father, a medical doctor stationed in West Pakistan, became an enemy alien. And the family, like many others, were herded together into internment camps, until they became hostages in the official negotiations between Bangladesh, India and Pakistan that led to an exchange of populations. Here, she writes not only of her experiences, but her research with Dhaka University's Centre for Genocide Studies focusing on stranded Bengalis in 1971. Why do I find it so difficult to talk, think and write about my days in the camps, which were known as concentration camps? I have been trying to ink down those days for quite sometime now; but a certain amnesia takes me over; yet those were formative years of my life and in a way shaped my ideas, my passion and love for my homeland, Bangladesh, a land with which I had very scant familiarity at that stage of my life. Despite this unfamiliarity with the objective in my subjective real, I had indeed created a Bangladesh of my own, which I carried through my camp days when I along with the other stranded Bengalis waited eagerly to come back, it was the land of freedom after all! My story, our stories – the stories of the Bengalis who found themselves on the other side of the fence, when the Liberation War of Bangladesh started, is the voice of a people who suddenly realized they had become aliens and objects of suspicion in a land, which they had regarded as their home for years. However, while carrying on this work, I discovered that looking back turned out to be very difficult for my family and friends who were stranded or interned in Pakistan. I was more puzzled and surprised and to some extent saddened by the realization that the unwillingness had a bitterness to it as well. A sense prevailed that things would go wrong for them if they were identified as returnees from Pakistan. Many of them asked me not to go ahead with this write up.
My story, our stories – the stories of the Bengalis who found themselves on the other side of the fence, when the Liberation War of Bangladesh started, is the voice of a people who suddenly realized they had become aliens and objects of suspicion in a land, which they had regarded as their home for years.
A cousin of mine who was studying engineering in Lahore and was interned in camp with a Bengali family said to me that he does not want to talk or write about his post-71 days in Pakistan in this political situation, when there is always the fear of being misinterpreted or misunderstood. He went on to add, “who else would know it better than you?” It then dawned on me that for many of us, the personal remains the political, more so when it comes to recording people's narratives if you are or were on the 'other' side of the fence, just spatially and circumstantially, not ideologically. Negotiations and prisoner exchange after the war Content analyses of newspapers, Pakistan Observer later Bangladesh Observer and Dainik Purbodesh during the period of March 1971 to June 1974 show no discussion regarding the fate of the stranded Bengalis in Pakistan. A few reports, however appeared in the international media – for example, The New York Times on April 13, 1972 reported 'official reports, 2,000 Bengalis held in Pakistani jails'. The silence on the issue at the public domain in Bangladesh may be explained by the exigencies and trauma that Bangladesh was going through, not to mention the day to day administrative disorder. However, at the political level, the issue of prisoners of war (POW) loomed large for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Bangladesh was eager to get the Bengalis stranded in Pakistan back. In March 1973, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, wrote to the the UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim seeking his assistance for the repatriation of the stranded people. The matter could only be resolved through the involvement of the three nations, but the issue was complicated by the non-recognition of Bangladesh by Pakistan. The Simla Agreement between India and Pakistan paved the way for reconciliation in the sub-continent. Following the Simla Agreement, which was welcomed by Bangladesh, on 28 August 1973, the Delhi Agreement was signed between India and Pakistan with the consent of Bangladesh. According to this, it was agreed that the three countries would exchange all POW except the 195 war criminals wanted by Bangladesh. Once this repatriation was complete, Bangladesh and Pakistan would negotiate directly regarding the 195.
In March 1973, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, wrote to the the UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim seeking his assistance for the repatriation of the stranded people.
By the end of October 1973, huge air repatriation was underway with aircrafts loaned by East Germany, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. There were six planes on mission duty carrying an average of 1200 people per day. By late January 1974, some 90,000 people had been transported from Pakistan to Bangladesh, and over 44,000 from Bangladesh to Pakistan. By mid-February 1974 over 200,000 people had been repatriated under the terms of the New Delhi Agreement. By September 1974, some 9,000 people had been transported by sea between Bangladesh and Pakistan and some 231,000 people had been airlifted across the sub-continent. Those airlifted included some 116,000 Bengalis who went from Pakistan to Bangladesh, some 104,000 non-Bengalis who went from Bangladesh to Pakistan and some 11,000 Pakistanis who were airlifted from Nepal to Pakistan (they had fled from Bangladesh). It was at that time the largest emergency airlift of civilians ever organised. A war is fought by varied means For example, despite much risks, Bengali cultural festivals were observed in the camps, as Noori says, “after each program, we proudly sang our national anthem.” Defying those guns in Pakistani territory, the Bengali interned persons were building their own Bangladesh, a land of freedom. There was no dearth of hope in the camps because that is all they could cash on. Let us honour and recognise these feelings, sentiments and sacrifices, as Mazhar puts it, if their fenced voices and sacrifices had ever been recognised or acknowledged. "Pre-1970, we had a very happy and peaceful life. By “we” I mean my parents, and my three younger siblings – two sisters and a brother in between. My abba was an army doctor, and in 1971 he was working in Sialkot Cantonment in West Pakistan as a Major. His promotion was due in 1971, but he was not promoted because he was a Bengali. When the war started, Bengali military officers came under surveillance and were grounded. My family, along with many other Bengali families, was sent to Mangla dam. In March 1972, we were sent in packed trains to Kohat Camp. Primarily used as army training barracks, it was surrounded by barbed electrical wires and sentries were on guard 24/7. There were no homes, but instead, there were rows and rows of single-room units. There were common-use bathrooms for which the septic systems and sanitation was terrible. Salaries for all the officers were reduced to subsistence allowance. No one was allowed to go to school. In March 1973, we were moved to Mandi Bahauddin Camp, a huge and centralised camp designated for all Bengali officers and their families. The officers there were growing restless and uncertain about the fate of their families and with no idea about how long they were expected to reside in the camp, and they decided to take matters into their own hands. They opened a school, a play area and a dispensary. They also started organising cultural shows and community arts events to improve morale. At the end of each production, we would all proudly sing our national anthem “Amar Shonar Bangla.” Near the end of 1973, the Pakistani and Bangladeshi militaries had begun discussions of their next round of prisoner exchanges. Luckily, our time had finally come to go back home, to the newly-found Bangladesh. Once there – I cannot describe effectively in words, the emotional and relief that came over my parents. They were finally at home." - Noori Chowdhury "It was around March of 1972 when all the Bengali officers and their families were rounded up in Sialkot Cantonment and put in a guarded train for transportation to the concentration camp in Kohat. The train journey from Sialkot took us to the barbed wire fenced camp in Kohat and we were put in the barracks of the soliders and treated like POWs.  The life inside the fence was multifaceted. Parents were worried about the unknown future and time frame to live with minimal financial resources. Also the tension of failed talks of Pakistani POWs was having a great toll on their lives. On the other hand, the youngsters were enjoying the extended vacation from their schooling. All day long we would play and hang around. Our mind and soul were kind of lost in the dreams of going to Bangladesh.  We were among the first group to be repatriated from the camp. It was October 10, 1973 when we finally landed in Bangladesh and a new era of life began. Our joy and excitement knew no bounds as tears were rolling down as our feet touched the soil of our beloved free country." - Mazhar-ul-Huq  The author is professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka. The article here is summarised and reprinted from her research under special arrangements with Centre for Genocide Studies, University of Dhaka. http://cgsdu.org/