Published: Monday, April 1, 2013

“What’s going on in Bangladesh?”

YOU live in Bangladesh, don’t you?” asked a friend on a recent brief visit of mine to UK. “There is some trouble over there, isn’t there? It was on the BBC the other day, I think, and it was about some trouble with a war crimes trial.” I proceed to explain exactly why and how the recent protests and violence have erupted in Dhaka but to explain everything, I found myself going back to 1971 and Bangladesh’s Liberation War.

In fact, when talking to many westerners, I find that I have to start by explaining where, geographically, Bangladesh is positioned and then explaining the history. I find myself asking: “Surely you remember the genocide of millions in 1971?” “No? Then, do you remember the ‘Concert for Bangladesh’?” “Oh yes” is the reply, and then I try to piece things together and give a potted history of Bangladesh, the “ups” and the “downs,” some of them very bloody. Sometimes, when reading articles in publications like The Economist, or listening to BBC reports, I wonder why these news gatherers do not talk to foreigners who have years of experience of living and working in Bangladesh.

With regards to the war crimes trials, of course there is a need for justice to be done and to be seen to be done. However, there is overwhelming documentary evidence — film and print media — against those who have been tried or are on trial. In addition, there are many eye-witness accounts.

It is most unfortunate that a section of people in Bangladesh continue to deny that there were millions of collaborators in 1971 that assisted the Pakistan army in acts of gruesome violence and genocide. Many of these people, who are in denial, were not even born in 1971. It is very sad to realise that they have been brain-washed about the events of 1971.

In 1971, I was responsible, on behalf of Oxfam, for the supplementary care of about 600,000 Bangladeshi men, women and children living in refugee camps, and I saw with my own eyes and heard the verbal evidence of acts of brutality experienced by the refugees from the hands of the Pakistani soldiers and their helpers, the so-called Peace Committees, the Razakars and the para-military members of al-Badr and al-Shams.

It was a great honour for me to receive the “Friends of Liberation War Honour” in March last year and it is very good that this year that some of those Pakistanis with consciences who risked their lives in 1971 are being honoured. They spoke out about the genocide in Bangladesh then but, at that time, were branded as traitors by the Pakistani authorities. By honouring these Pakistani citizens, it is hoped that the anti-liberation forces in Bangladesh may see the light and that gradually, in Pakistan, the history books will be more accurately written and that, eventually, a full apology will be forthcoming from the government of Pakistan.

The writer has had an association with Bangladesh since the Liberation War and works on various aspects of poverty alleviation, particularly to improve the prospects for people with disabilities.