|Volume 5 Issue 10| October 2011|
My part in the birth of a nation
In 1971 I had just returned from hitchhiking around the world when I read an advert in Peace News for volunteers to go to East Bengal with a group called Operation Omega. At the time I was unsure of what to do next so I volunteered.
A few weeks later on September 1st I was standing in front of an ex-army 4x4 Rolls Royce ambulance in Trafalgar Square with a group of pacifists as we left for an overland trip to Calcutta. I surveyed the other members of the group Daniel grotto, Marc Durran and Terry Tennyson who would all end up in Calcutta but not in the same shape as we left London.
Daniel, Marc and I shared the driving all the way to Kuwait, Terry would be expelled from the group at the first opportunity in Germany, however he eventually made it to Bangladesh and, because he was only 17 at the time and had, as I was to find out later, a phenomenal intellectual ability and knew and could recite Mao Tse-tung's great works on communism, he was a great hit with certain factions of the Bangladeshi intelligentsia in Calcutta. As it so happens after leaving Bangladesh in 1972 Terry and I drove across the Sahara desert together to central Africa, but that is another story.
The trip to Calcutta took a few weeks, in Germany we were supported by pacifist groups who would meet us at motorway service stations and lead us into town so we could rest for the night, it was exciting and the media was always there to throw a question or two, but mainly to take photos of usand the ambulance. Driving through Turkey reminded me of my hitch hiking trip around the world when I had also hitched down the same road in Turkey on my way to India, and beyond, overland and just marvelled at the culture of it all. Driving into Istanbul made us feel we were really on our way; and as we crossed the Bosporus into Asia we no longer had any support systems in place and no communication with London or anywhere. We were truly on our own. We sent letters in the post and predicted when we might be in the next place with Post Restante facilities in case anyone in London needed to contact us.
We only broke down once, in Iraq on our way to Baghdad, Marc who would now be described as the 'logistics manager' was the bloke who knew all about engines and repaired it successfully. Theambulance never broke down again and I often wonder if it still exists rusting away in some back alley. In Baghdad we collected a letter from London at the Post Restante advising us not to go overland to India as we would have to go through Pakistan, which for reasons of security was not advised at the time. So instead of going through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan we headed directly to Kuwait where we decided to put the ambulance on a freighter to Bombay. This turned out much easier than we had expected, on arriving in Kuwait city we went straight to the docks and found a cargo ship just preparing to go to Bombay and willing to take the ambulance. Within 2 days we were in Calcutta after flying from Kuwait.
Here the first Operation Omega team had already arrived and found accommodation in Calcutta with an elderly woman who had a large house. I can't remember exactly where the house was now but I remember travelling there and back by tram. The tram journeys in Calcutta at that time were an experience of their very own always vying for space with rickshaws, street sellers, people who lived on the pavements and all the taxis and other vehicles that also used the roads. Calcutta at that time seemed to me to be a reflection of the future overcrowding and resigned chaos, or of the past as a crumbling Raj city that had seen better days. It never looked or felt like the present. It was in my estimation one of the most dynamic and thrilling cities in the world.
India is where my father was born and where he later served in the 1st Battalion Bengal Lancers so I have always felt a slight affinity with the place. I had already been to Calcutta on my way hitchhiking around the world where I slept on the streets with the many other people and where, seeing a severely crippled beggar on the ground begging for food, in a market sitting under a concrete slab that held a very huge pyramid of fruit, I first understood the nature of structural poverty.
After a few days the ambulance had arrived in Bombay so Daniel and I flew there and drove it to Calcutta. Early on the way Daniel had an accident with a scooter, not his fault, but he felt unable to drive any further, so I then drove the rest of the 2000 kilometres. Nearing the state of Bengal there was flooding everywhere; I had to drive around and sometimes through the swollen rivers but the ambulance was fantastic: I put it into four wheel drive and through we went; it was like a tank. After 24 hours non-stop driving we arrived at the Operation Omega house in Calcutta at exactly the same time as the first team were setting off to the border between India and East Bengal (now Bangladesh). We stayed behind.
The first team of Operation Omega pacifists set off to the border in two jeeps and sat at the boarder undertaking satyagraha (non-violent direct action) they were arrested by the Pakistani army and imprisoned. The media in India and in the UK made much of it and it seemed to bring to light the injustices of the Pakistani authorities.One of the many news items.
“September 10, 1971 the OPERATION OMEGA was the first ever international attempt to help the affected people in the face of Paki regime's resistance against any humanitarian assistance inside Bangladesh at that time. It may be mentioned that there was total lack of any humanitarian effort undertaken when about 17 million internally displaced populations were passing days in great distress within the country.”
In 1970 Pakistan held national elections including East Bengal, in East Bengal the Awamy League won a landslide 99% of the seats and ironically a majority in the whole Pakistan assembly. This should have meant that the leader of the Awami League (an East Bengali) should have become Pakistan's prime minister. This was too much for the Pakistan government in Islamabad who immediately declared the election results null and void and clamped down hard by sending in the army to East Bengal and outlawing the Awami League and imprisoning its leaders.
So by the spring of 1971 a civil war was raging across East Bengal between the Awami League freedom fighters and the Pakistan army. The Pakistan army was a well-trained and supplied army whereas the Awami League freedom fighters were young students with old 303 Enfield rifles and sten guns with little or no training. The Pakistan army had gone into the rural areas burning villages and threatening more violence so many (millions) of rural folk had left for the safety of India and thus begun the largest ever (to this day) refugee crisis.
In total about 17 million refugees fled East Bengal and camped on the outskirts of Calcutta. Calcutta at that time had a total population of 22 million people with the largest concentration of poor people in the world. The combined 39 million people meant that there was a very serious situation and no funds or proper organisation to deal with it.
Surprisingly this situation had not really caught the attention of the western media, very little was known of the situation. The main objective of Operation Omega was to break this silence and force the issue onto the world stage. Using non-violent direct action was our approach and it worked. The media loved it and reported on it and when the second Operation Omega team, of which I was a member, went into East Bengal we brought a large international media group with us who reported on the team going into East Bengal and distributing food and medical supplies direct to villages. The first team were still in prison at the time so we provided amply content for the media to report on. No aid agencies had crossed the border from India to East Bengal: the Operation Omega team were the first foreign people to enter East Bengal since the war started so it was easy to attract media attention. We believe that the concert for Bangladesh, where George Harrison played and subsequently made a double album to raise funds create awareness of the plight of the refugees, was partly inspired by our work in the field.
Although on the first occasion we only went about 30 kilometres into East Bengal it provided me with an insight as to what the situation was like. The countryside was completed flooded and we walked on higher mud paths or took boats of all sizes and shapes. The main problems suffered by the people were fear of attack and lack of medicines. Cholera was becoming endemic and the lack of saline solution for intravenous infusion and the necessary equipment meant that people contracting cholera were dying because of dehydration.
After a few further forays across the border into East Bengal distributing small quantities of food and medicines it started to become apparent that Operation Omega had been successful in bringing the situation in East Bengal and India to the world's attention. (I spent a bit of time in the Grand Hotel in Calcutta debriefing reporters on the actual situation in East Bengal who then wrote from the “front line” reporting on every move. It was a pleasant way to get a cool beer.)
One day Oxfam rang us up asking for volunteers to help with some work. I volunteered and for some weeks spent my time in the back of a lorry driving down all the roads leading out of Calcutta where on both sides for about 50 Kilometres out of town refugees were camped on the road side up from the paddy fields. My work consisted of shovelling lime over all the people and their makeshift tents as a way of keeping down the mosquitoes and other insects.
I realised that organisations such as Oxfam, who had mountains of food and medicines in warehouses in Calcutta but would not take them into East Pakistan, were actually exacerbating the problem by basically saying if you want food or need medicines you have to become a refugee and come to Calcutta. This was because the relief agencies in existence at that time were unwilling to go into Bangladesh for fear of reprisals of their projects in West Pakistan. Also, they were not used to conflict zones and were not equipped for such ventures. This seemed ridiculous to me so through some contacts I had made I arranged to go deep into East Bengal, where no agency or western media people had been, to see the situation for myself.
It was arranged that I would go with a column of freedom fighters (MuktiBahini) who were going to Chittagong to sink some Pakistani supply ships; which I heard later was successful.I met up with the column, young men with their weapons and explosives, on the border. We had to travel about one hundred kilometres walking during the night for fear of being sighted by the Pakistani army and travelling during the day in boats. I went as far as Faridpur to see if there was anything to be done. Cholera was rife in Faridpur district and it was obvious that those with cholera (the most vulnerable) were unable to trek the 100 or so kilometres to the Indian border where they might find medical assistance.
The commander of the column left behind two fighters to accompany me back to the Indian border and gave me a sten gun for protection. After a couple of days we returned early in the morning joining a column of refugees going to India. At the time had a beard and because I was tall as we joined the refugees some of them started to suggest I was a Pakistani and immediately the column of refugees numbering many hundreds of adults and children, started panicking and fleeing into the surrounding bush. This was horrendous and it took about half a day to calm the refuges down and re-assemble them in some order to continue towards India. Also during this time Bangladesh experienced one of its worst floods so much of the countryside was under water and boats were the easiest way to travel. I sometimes had to dress in a sari as a disguise so I could travel with the MuktiBahini during the day in open boats.
The war that raged comprised many little skirmishes between the four fighting forces; the Pakistan army, the MuktiBahini, the Bahri(a Pakistan supported militia) and the Naxalites (a communist group from Bengal). Although there were undoubtedly some large scale fights and some atrocities committed I only experienced small scale and short skirmishes. In one village we entered with the MuktiBahini there turned out to be a three way fire fight between us, the Naxalits and a band of Behris. Luckily, I suspect for all of us, these fire fights didn't last long as all sides had to carry their ammunition on their heads and as it was very heavy there was concern that we might run out so all engagements were kept to a minimum.
Pacifism and non-violent direct action as a tool to influence change can only be effective if there is an audience; without an audience non-violent action has no impact. I personally felt that Operation Omega had been effective in bringing to the world's attention the plight of the refugees of war. We had also exposed the poor operating practices of the aid agencies in showing that, by not going into Bangladesh, were making the situation a lot worse. However, Operation Omega was not happy with me taking direct action and accompanying the freedom fighters so I decided to leave Operation Omega and continue supporting people in rural areas.
In Calcutta I met a doctor who was involved in developing a new method for curing cholera using oral rehydration techniques (ORT) developed in Pakistan and the US. ORT had been developed and tested in a laboratory situation and found to work in the replacement of fluids and electrolytes lost during an episode of diarrhoeal illness. Once someone can replace fluids lost they can then take medication; in the case of cholera an antibiotic such as Tetracycline quickly cures the cholera infection. It was being used in the refugee camps but not in rural areas and not without supervision from international doctors.
The doctor was training Bengali medical students in how to also use the technique. He assured me it was easy. As I had seen on my trip to Faridpur people were dying daily of dehydration caused by cholera. We agreed that he would write a simple set of instructions on how to use the technique and supply me with trained medical students who would accompany me into rural Bangladesh. The main ingredients were salt and sugar which could still be acquired in the local areas so the instructions were very useful and we distributed these widely: no electricity or any other facilities were required other than a charcoal stove for boiling the water. I think my project was the first time ORT had been administered by local people in villages without and supervision and without support from a medical institution.
I raised some funds from the Catholic Bishop in Calcutta to buy the simple ingredients required and the antibiotics. I arranged with the freedom fighters for us to accompany them into rural Bangladesh. By pretending to be an Oxfam staff member, I managed to acquire some of the medicines I needed from the Oxfam warehouses in Calcutta and used the cash to employ a man with a cart and buffalo who transported the medicines, and also to pay the boatmen.
I did this for a few months going backwards and forwards taking groups of students and medicines into East Bengal and setting up Cholera Cure Units in empty public building in villages. I would leave the medical students in the villages and accompany the columns of refugees going the other way and return to India. I had by now shaved off my beard. On one of my first visits we entered the village to find about ten people suffering from dehydration and dying, literally just dying. So we boiled the water and mixed the solution and spent all day forcing down the solution into the patients mouths, as much as we could with the idea that we should put more in than the stool coming out. Before my very eyes, as the day progressed, so the people started to get better until by afternoon some even went home.
As my confidence and contacts grew I sought to do better so went back to see Operational Omega to ask to borrow the ambulance that I had previous driven from London. Much to my surprise they gave it to me and off I went to see the Bishop again for more cash. He gave me £4000 this time, a lot of money. But there was a proviso; I had to help out with another project he was supporting. This was run under the Howrah Bridge in Calcutta by a catholic nun who was working with slum dwellers. Here name was Mother Teresa: she was with lots of Bengali nuns all dressed very cleanly in starched white clothes, and they were helping the street beggars and lepers who lived in the slum under the bridge. Because I had a vehicle the Bishop had said that I should offer to transport anything she required and so I spent a couple of months dropping in and helping out where I could. Mother Teresa was not an easy person to work with; as my work became more demanding I eventually stopped working with her.
The ambulance turned out to be superb, it would just drive through the paddy fields and even shallow rivers and so I spent some months transporting medicines and students into Bangladesh to set up cholera cure clinic wherever there was a need. We would just drive into Bangladesh and whenever we came across villages with people suffering from cholera we set up camp. The Indian army made a move on Bangladesh in December of 1971 and quickly the war came to an abrupt halt, the refugees started to return home and the aid agencies went into Bangladesh.
I cannot remember the actual the birth of Bangladesh, in the turmoil of the moment there is always more immediate things to think and do. But at some point it became clear and absolute that Bangladesh was an entity, a reality with no going back. This was before the Indians marched in and before the Pakistanis had left. It became just a fact that everyone I met knew without exchange of words.
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