A couple of days ago, I experienced, in the middle of the night, a very scary bout of cholera like diarrhea. In between my very frequent visits to the bathroom, I slipped in and out of sleep and in my dreams, rather nightmares; I remembered the hundreds of Bangladeshis I saw dying of cholera in the refugee camps in India in 1971. I remembered vividly the mass graves I helped dig. In my dreams, I imagined myself in a hospital bed and the doctor telling me that there was no saline with which to treat me. I told him that in 1971 I saw coconut water being used instead of saline and lives had been saved in that way.
As I was recovering from my stomach upset, I picked up a recent issue of The Daily Star and came across Mahfuz Anam’s powerful writing of October 4, ‘War crimes trial and failure of our politics’. For someone who witnessed the birth of Bangladesh, it is painful and difficult to understand that many Bangladeshis do not support the war crimes trials. Surely justice must be done! There are also those who deny that any genocide took place. Whenever, someone tells me this or I read this, I become very angry indeed and also incredulous. I remember families of Bangladeshis — Hindus and Muslims — coming in a traumatised state across the border to access some of the over 900 refugee camps. Men, women and children of all ages, struck dumb by the horror of seeing some of their loved ones murdered before they managed to escape. I remember being in a hospital in Krishnanagar, West Bengal, in June 1971 at the same time as an international reporter from, I believe, Newsweek. I remember this young girl in a colourful dress and this is how the reporter recorded our meeting with this girl who was about 10 years old:
The story of one shy little girl in a torn pink dress with red and green bows has a peculiar horror. She could not have been a danger to anyone. Yet I met her in a hospital in Krishnanagar, hanging nervously back among the other patients, her hand covering the livid scar on her neck where a Pakistani soldier had cut her throat with his bayonet. “I am Ismatar, the daughter of the late Ishaque Ali,” she said formally. “My father was a businessman in Kushtia. About two months ago he left our house and went to his shop and I never saw him again. That same night after I went to bed, I heard shouts and screaming, and when I went to see what was happening, the Punjabi soldiers were there. My four sisters were lying dead on the floor, and I saw that they had killed my mother. While I was there they shot my brother — he was a bachelor of science. Then a soldier saw me and stabbed me with his knife. I fell to the floor and played dead. When the soldiers left I ran and a man picked me up on his bicycle and I was brought here.” Suddenly, as if she could no longer bear to think about her ordeal, the girl left the room. The hospital doctor was explaining to me that she was brought to the hospital literally soaked in her own blood, when she pushed her way back through the patients and stood directly in front of me. “What am I to do?” she asked. “Once I had five sisters and a brother and a father and mother. Now I have no family. I am an orphan. Where can I go? What will happen to me?
Perhaps it is necessary to remind people about what happened in 1971 and for the members of the younger generation it is important to accurately inform them of the genocide unleashed by the Pakistani army and their collaborators. Because of ‘Operation Searchlight’, 10 million refugees came to India, most of them living in appalling conditions in the refugee camps. I cannot forget seeing 10 children fight for one chapatti. I cannot forget the child queuing for milk, vomiting, collapsing and dying of cholera. I cannot forget the woman lying in the mud, groaning and giving birth.
However, I do remember some happier moments. I remember Muslim families making sweets for the Hindus in the refugee camps for Durga Puja in 1971 and the Hindus reciprocating at Eid ul Fitr. Eid ul Adha occurred in February 1972 and I recall local Hindu shopkeepers in Bongaon handing out sweets to Muslim families who were returning to their Bangladesh homes at that time. The message was loud and clear. “We are not either Hindus or Muslims. We are Bangladeshis and Bengalis!”
In 1971, the population of Bangladesh was about 75 million. 10 million came to India as refugees and it is estimated that about a further 20 million were internally displaced inside Bangladesh. Therefore, as Mahfuz Anam indicates, it is likely that, today, you would find that most families lost family members or suffered in some way during the Liberation War. It follows, therefore, that the majority of the population should be in support of the war crimes trials. In any case, what ever happens, it is important that the history of Bangladesh is recorded correctly.
The writer coordinated Oxfam’s refugee relief programme in 1971 for 600,000 Bangladesh refugees, continues to live and work in Bangladesh and was, in March 1972, awarded the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ by the Government of Bangladesh.