Remembering December 1971
Winter, War and Refugee Camps
“So, what were you doing in December, 1971?”, asked a colleague 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. In charge of OXFAM’s refugee relief programme covering 500,000 refugees, I was very worried about the onset of winter as many of the camps in which we were working were in very cold areas of North Bengal as well as Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. We were having great difficulty in getting supplies of warm clothes and blankets through to the refugee camps because the roads in the border areas had been choked with Indian military supplies in November and early December. Sometimes we used old Dakota aircraft and flew supplies from Kolkata to air strips in Cooch Behar and West Dinajpur, but that was quite expensive. At the beginning of December 1971, we were expecting a chartered aircraft from OXFAM-America full of medical supplies worth about US$ 900,000 which were difficult to obtain in India, but at the last moment it was diverted to Madras because of the outbreak of war and we had to clear the supplies through Customs and transport them to Kolkata.
After a few days of war, I remember sitting one evening on the lawn of the New Kenilworth Hotel, enjoying a beer 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 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 Mukti Bahini 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, Dr Jon Rohde, broke down in tears when he heard the reports about the 7th Fleet coming to the Bay of Bengal.
As the fighting intensified, my main concern was not only to keep relief supplies moving to the refugee camps but to ensure the safety of all our staff. The young doctors from the Kolkata and Bombay medical colleges and the Gandhian workers from Orissa and Gujarat had to be withdrawn for their own safety.
We were sure in those early days of the short war that it would be over very soon and that Bangladesh would be free, but we were very aware of the great relief and rehabilitation needs for the future and so we were already calculating what sort of assistance OXFAM could provide and through which organizations we might be able to work. I see from a telex which I sent in December 1971 that it was estimated by some that Bangladesh would need half a million tons of rice per month and that there was an immediate need of 1,000 trucks, 500 buses and that “most shelter materials such as bamboos had been destroyed by the Pakistani Army. OXFAM was one of the first donors of BRAC, which is now probably the largest NGO in the world, and OXFAM also supported the early work of another outstanding NGO, Gonoshasthaya Kendra.
We were also able to procure 3 truck-carrying ferries and to assist the repair of many others. I remember that the Bangladesh Inland Waterways authority wanted to name the ferries after Liberation War martyrs but after my 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 river at Goalondo to this day, some 36 years later.
As soon as Bangladesh was free and the refugees started streaming home, we had to close down our work in an orderly way. One day in early February 1972, I was called out of the OXFAM office and there in the garden were about 300 people. I was worried that they had come with some grievance, but soon the reason for their visit was clear. From some waste wool and some wire these people, from a camp called Digberia, , had fashioned some ‘woollen flowers’ These were presented to me in a roughly made bamboo vase as a token of their thanks to OXFAM. They had come to say goodbye. It was such a moving moment.
These, then, are a few of my memories……..
Julian Francis who, since the War of Liberation, has had a long association with Bangladesh working in many poverty alleviation projects, is currently working as ‘Programme & Implementation Advisor’ at the DFID supported ‘Chars Livelihoods Programme’, RDA, Bogra