In 1971, I had the privilege and responsibility of administering OXFAM-UK’s relief program for about 600,000 of the ten million refugees who had fled from Bangladesh to India and were staying in many of the over 900 refugee camps in the border area of India and Bangladesh.
After the return to Bangladesh of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on January 10, 1972, I made plans to bring one of their landrovers, laden with urgently needed medical supplies, to Dhaka from Calcutta. On January 20, I set off from Calcutta. We travelled very slowly as there were so many people walking back from West Bengal to their homes in Bangladesh. We stayed overnight at a Catholic Mission Hospital in Jessore where, earlier, an Italian Father had been killed by Pakistani army personnel as a punishment for giving humanitarian assistance to members of the Mukti Bahini.
The next day we continued on our slow way to Dhaka and with the very long delay queuing for the ferry, we did not reach the centre of Dhaka until about midnight. I remember driving past the old airport with not a person or vehicle in sight. Suddenly, from nowhere, army personnel and police surrounded our vehicle. We had not known that there was a night-time curfew. After explaining who we were, we were escorted to the Purbani Hotel.
I was advised by the British High Commission and other aid officials to pay a courtesy call on Sheikh Mujib. My meeting with him is one I will never forget. I told him that I wanted his advice about what we might be able to do to assist in the rehabilitation and development of Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujib took his pipe out of his mouth and pointed the stem of the pipe at me. “How did you come here, young man?” he asked in a booming voice. I told him that I had driven over land from Calcutta. “In that case,” he told me, “You have seen more of my country than I have, as I was a prisoner for over 9 months, so please tell me what my country needs. What have you seen?”
I told Sheikh Mujib that I had seen many villages that had been burnt down, many bridges and culverts blown up, and many ferries and launches, large and small, sunk in the rivers. I told him that, on behalf of the organisation I was working with, I had already ordered, in India, £ 250,000 worth of C.I. sheets for a big house-rebuilding program and these would arrive by early March. I added that I thought that bridge-building and replacement and repairs of ferries were more suited to bilateral and multilateral aid. “No,” Sheikh Mujib said, “Ferries are and will be the lifelines for my people. Please discuss with officials of the Bangladesh Inland Waterways Authority and see what OXFAM can do.”
Before I left him, Sheikh Mujib asked me about my experiences working with the people of Bangladesh in the refugee camps. As I spoke, emotion got the better of me and tears welled up in my eyes. Sheikh Mujib put his arm around me to comfort me and said, “Go young man, be strong, and thank you for coming to see me and for helping Bangladesh.”
As a result of the meeting with Sheikh Mujib, we were able to procure 3 truck-carrying ferries and to assist the repair of many others. I remember that the Bangladesh Inland Waterways Authority wanted, understandably, to name the ferries after Liberation War martyrs but after the experience of getting to know the flora and fauna of Bangladesh and how they are part of the country’s poetry and music, we requested that the vessels be named after flowers. And so, Kamini, Kosturi, and Korobi, were so named and they continue to ply across the Padma River at Mawa to this day, over 40 years later.
During my short visit to Bangladesh 42 years ago, it was obvious that the two greatest needs were food and the restoration of the transport system with which to move the food around the country. Our Overseas Aid Director at that time, Ken Bennett, wrote in a report, a short while after my January 1972 visit: “I doubt if it would be an exaggeration to say that on the extent to which a solution to the problem of food imports and the restoration of communications can be quickly found may well depend the future of Bangladesh as a State.” It is to Bangladesh’s great credit that it has survived and prospered and is now self-sufficient in the production of basic food grains which can be moved about the country most efficiently.
In 1975, I was based in New Delhi, and on August 15, together with my family, I was watching India’s Independence Day celebrations on the television when the program was interrupted with the news of the assassination of Sheikh Mujib and his family members. I remembered being numbed by shock and burying my head in my hands and weeping loudly. Nearly 39 years later, I still get very emotional when I remember that day in 1975.