December Memories

Published:  01:44 AM, 16 December 2017

Painfully fresh in the mind

Painfully fresh in the mind Post-liberation exclamation of freedom

"So, what were you doing in December 1971?" asked a friend the other day. Every year at this time, as well as in the month of March, I remember vividly the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. As coordinator of OXFAM's refugee relief programme in India which cared for 600,000 women, men and children, my colleagues and I were worried about many things in November and December 1971.

 The roads to the refugee camps we were supporting were choked with military vehicles and hardware and it was difficult to reach supplies to places as far as Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam and Cooch Behar. Thousands of blankets and woolen clothing had been donated by the British people following campaigns of OXFAM, "Take a blanket off your bed" and "Send us your sweater: It can save someone's life".

The advertisement in the British newspapers said "Refugees in India are facing a new horror: death from exposure. Nighttime temperatures in winter can fall below freezing. Children and old people are being killed by the cold now. Healthy adults will not last the winter. Warm clothes are needed with desperate urgency - shawls, sweaters, and cardigans - anything woolen."

The British Post Office, in a rare gesture, did not charge postage for parcels of blankets and warm clothing sent to OXFAM.

We needed to deliver these warm clothes and blankets very quickly, but trucks, for instance, could take 10 days to reach Agartala from Calcutta. So, we chartered old Dakota aircraft (DC-3 and DC-6) to reach the north of West Bengal and the airstrip of the Maharajah of Cooch Behar.

After a few days of war, I remember sitting one evening on the lawn of the New Kenilworth Hotel, relaxing after a long day's work and managed to get the Pakistan Radio's English News and the propaganda machine said that the Pakistan Air Force had scored a direct hit on the Kolkata telephone exchange and that the Howrah Bridge was floating down the Hooghly! I remember that it was on 7th December 1971 that we learnt with horror that President Nixon had ordered the US 7th Fleet to the Bay of Bengal in an effort to prevent the Indian and MuktiBahini forces from defeating the Pakistanis.

Officially, this super flotilla - 'the most powerful force in the world' - was said to be going to evacuate a few American citizens from Dhaka, but the intention was clear. I remember how a well-known American doctor, working closely with us in the refugee camps, broke down in tears when he heard the reports about the 7th Fleet coming to the Bay of Bengal.

I was also worried about the aircraft which OXFAM-America had chartered bringing 27 tons of urgently needed supplies. This cargo included US$ 500,000 worth of medicine donated by American companies, 3 million water purifying tablets and blankets. Because of the war, the aircraft was not allowed to land in Calcutta and was diverted to Madras (now Chennai), so our staff had to go there for clearing Customs and arranging transport to Calcutta. At the same time I was busy sending relief supplies to people in Orissa who had been affected by a devastating cyclone the previous month when over 9,000 people perished.

In a way, it did not feel as if India was at war. Although in Calcutta there was a blackout, strictly observed, those of us working with the Bangladesh refugees were anticipating the massive rehabilitation problems and did not feel in danger at all. From my archives of treasured papers, I see that on the day before Victory Day, December 15th 1971, I attended a meeting called by Bangladesh government officials to discuss the future needs of Bangladesh. The telex that I sent to OXFAM that day said:

"Bdg (Bangladesh Government) expects and hopes majority refugees in india return by end jan. estimate in addition to these 10 million, there are a further 20 million homeless in bangladesh. for all these people foodgrain requirement estimate half million tons per month. immediate requirement vehicles, 1,000 trucks, 500 buses. most shelter materials such as bamboos reported destroyed by pakistan army."

I remember that a few days before Victory Day, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) was given permission by the Indian authorities to send in three Hercules cargo planes to Dhaka to evacuate diplomats of many different countries. The aircraft came from Singapore and the Indian Air Force (IAF) gave the RAF a 2 hour "window" during which no bombing runs would be made on Dhaka by the IAF. When the RAF arrived over Dhaka, the leader of the mission flew low to see if the runway was in good shape.

 He saw that there were many dangerous potholes and was able to get a message down to the control tower that they would not land until the holes were filled up. Many of the waiting diplomats rolled up their sleeves and filled in the holes. With the 2 hour time slot running out, the IAF put a lot of pressure on the RAF, so that when, eventually, the planes landed, the engines were kept running and the diplomats and their families quickly climbed aboard for the short journey to Calcutta. One ambassador wanted to take a filing cabinet with him, but this was not allowed. I learnt of this remarkable drama when I met the pilots in the Grand Hotel in Calcutta after their arrival from Dhaka.

There are so many sad and painful memories of 1971 and, of course, memories of December 1971 are still very clearly etched on my mind. When we heard the news that the Pakistan forces had surrendered, there was both relief and joy among my staff numbering 36, most of whom had come over the border as refugees.

As a team, we had often worked 18 hours a day, so, when we heard that the war was over, there were many tears of exhaustion as well as happiness. As soon as we heard the news of the surrender, I gave my staff a day's holiday, many sweets were distributed and there was much singing. On the one day special Victory Day holiday, I went to my office and sat alone, deep in thought, remembering the previous tumultuous months that ended with the birth of Bangladesh.

l    I remembered digging graves in May and June for cholera victims in Dangi and Sakati refugee camps in Jalpaiguri, North Bengal

l    I remembered how the medical students and doctors of the Nil RatanSarkar Medical College, Calcutta led the way working with Oxfam by rotation in the refugee camps. The other medical colleges of Calcutta joined in too and the Calcutta University authorities officially decided that the work done by the medical students and doctors would be recognized as the 'social & preventative medicine' part of the MBBS.

 News of this spread fast and teams of medical students and doctors from the Bombay Medical Colleges joined Oxfam's work, again on rotation. Doctors also came from Punjab, Gujarat and Orissa
    I remembered the pride with which many of the refugees kept their camps neat and clean despite the very heavy monsoon of that year which flooded many areas and forced Oxfam to use amphibious vehicles
    I remembered that most of the 36 staff I had at that time were refugees who had come across the border, some losing family members with heart attacks etc. on the way. Other members of my staff were West Bengalis with Bangladeshi family links
l    I remembered buying 100,000 sarees, 100,000 lungis and ganjis and 400,000 sets of children's clothing of various sizes. It was a commercial nightmare but it was achieved!
    I remembered the visit of Edward Kennedy to the camps where Oxfam was working and what an impact his visit had
    I remembered the many leaders and heros of different Gandhianorganisations and the hundreds of volunteers they sent to work in the refugee camps. The Gandhi Peace Foundation, the Tarun Shanti Sena (Youth Peace Corps), a youth wing of the Sarvodaya movement and the International Committee of Friends for Bangladesh which was chaired by Jayaprakash Narayan.

 In Tripura the Gandhian leader KhirodeSen set up a Relief Coordinating Committee with the Chief Minister as Advisor. Oxfam funds supported the activities in the Mohanpur refugee camp and I remember that a doctor working there was a refugee from the Buddhist Ashram near Dhaka's Kamlapur railway station. In Meghalaya and Assam a committee was formed with the two Chief Ministers as co-chairmen. The cooperation with officialdom was amazing. This was also true in Calcutta with the Indian Central Government's Ministry of Rehabilitation.

And sitting, alone, in my Park Circus office in December 1971, I knew that I would never forget the babies with their skin hanging loosely in folds from their tiny bones-lacking the strength even to lift their heads. The children with legs and feet swollen with oedema and malnutrition limp in the arms of their mothers. The babies going blind for lack of vitamins, or covered with sores that will not heal.Seeing in the eyes of their parents the despair of ever having their children well again. Seeing the corpse of the child who died the night before.

Now, 45 years on I still have nightmares about those days of 1971. In my nightmares I imagine myself in a large refugee camp. I see that regularly each hut disgorges a hundred refugees or more who form queues for their government rations, queues for the wells, and queues for a place at the trench latrines. Those with dysentery seldom make it to the queue. The children form lines for their daily dollop of special nutritious food provided by Oxfam. I oftenwake up covered in perspiration and in tears. I will never forget what I saw in 1971 and everyone in Bangladesh should remember and those too young must learn of the true history of that time.

The writer worked for many years in Bangladesh with poverty alleviation programmes and disability related programmes. In recognition of his work in 1971 The Government of Bangladesh, in 2012, bestowed on him 'The Friends of Liberation War Honour'

----Julian Francis

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