Photo: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo
Yesterday afternoon I went down to Shahbagh to absorb some of the atmosphere of the protests related to the War Crimes judgement in the case of Quader Mollah. I talked to some old friends and made some new ones; my mind went back to early December 1990 when, at midnight, I had joined young and old on Mirpur Road, Dhanmondi, and we hugged each other on the occasion of the "return of democracy" in Bangladesh.
The emotions in the air on the two occasions were somewhat similar.
After running Oxfam's Refugee Relief Programme in India assisting 600,000 refugees, I was in Dhaka in January 1972 to assist in the assessment of the rehabilitation needs of Bangladesh after the months of destruction by the Pakistan Army and those collaborators who had made the work of the army much easier.
I was in Dhaka on January 24, 1972, when, as I remember, an order was issued to put those who had collaborated with the Pakistan Army on trial. I remember having animated discussions then, with excited Bangladeshis, about what might happen next and talking with them about the Nuremberg war crime trials which took place after the Second World War (1939-45).
I was not, of course, a witness to any of the atrocities which are related to the War Crimes trial. I did however meet many people who came to India as refugees who had been wounded and/or raped by people who had been their neighbours, but who had in 1971 suddenly become collaborators of the Pakistan Army. Two incidents remain clearly in my memory.
One day in early July 1971, I was at the Bongaon/Benapol border crossing where our medical teams were providing all refugees with cholera vaccine, first aid, food and water as they streamed across the border into India in their thousands. I noticed one family carrying a dead man. I asked why they had not organised the burial earlier. I was told, "Father was killed by a Razakar, a man who had been my father's friend and neighbour for many years. We were so shocked that, and as we live close to the border, we decided to bring father's body to India where we can bury him with a more peaceful frame of mind."
On another occasion, I was visiting one of the refugee camps in Barasat, West Bengal, and came across a man who had a bayonet wound which had turned septic. As a result of the high fever he had, he was delirious and kept repeating that it was not an Army person who had attacked him, but a Bengali Razakar.
In addition, when I came in January 1972, I visited Shakhari Bazaar, Rayer Bazaar and, later, Jalladh Khana and learnt about the respective slaughtering that that happened at those places as well.
When I lived in Bangladesh in the late 1980s, people did not talk so readily about the history of the Liberation War and I have found that some of the generation that were born after Liberation did not learn so much about 1971; unless there were family members who had been Freedom Fighters who were able to teach them the true facts.
It was therefore a very positive side to the gathering at Shahbagh, where I found so many people who were clearly born after 1971.
In March 2012, at the time of receiving the "Friends of Liberation War Honour" from the Government of Bangladesh, the media frequently asked me for my opinion about the War Crimes trial and if I felt it was too late. My reply was that it is never too late to set the record straight and bring people to justice. I pointed out that even more than 60 years after the Second World War, Nazi criminals were still being tried and that the trials following the wars in Cambodia and Bosnia were taking place many years later too.
In 2007, the leaders of the Jamaat, who are now being tried, made statements that there were no anti-liberation collaborators of the Pakistan Army. It is to the great credit of the Sector Commanders that their pressure resulted in re-starting the War Crimes Trial.
However, what about those who had been tried and sentenced prior to 1975? What has happened to them? What about the thousands who were awaiting trial but who were released after 1975? The masses, the patriotic thousands, who are gathering in most district towns of Bangladesh and Shahbagh as I write, want some clear answers very soon.
The writer, who has had an association with Bangladesh since 1971, was honoured in 2012 as a foreign friend of Bangladesh for his role in the country's War of Liberation in 1971.