Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home |Volume 5, Issue 49, Tuesday, December 14, 2010




Forget them not!

While I watched 'Pearl Harbour' on Zee English and waited for someone to come online, random explorations into the knowledge chest that is Wikipedia soon took me to a page titled "Bangladesh Air Force". Knowing full well that no stories of stealth fighters or B-52 bombers would ever feature in the said page, all I expected was a possible historical outline and perhaps a description about the meagre fleet we possess; yet what I unearthed was nothing short of a jolting, pleasant surprise.

Living in a country where the Air Force only makes headlines with relief efforts after natural calamities or due to tragic crashes of young pilots flying deathbeds (otherwise known as half-century old PT-6 trainers), we least expect commentary about these men in uniform to emphasise their valour. Today's armed forces of Bangladesh occupy column space because of their indirect influence in all that is said and done in the running of a country instead of stories about men and women who fight for a cause and make a mark in history. And with the demise of the infamous Shanti Bahini (PCJSS) from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, stories of bravery and heroics are possibly only written on foreign soil (perhaps as a UN Peacekeeper). Throw in the recent brutal massacre of army officials in the BDR carnage; perhaps all that is left for the military to take pride in is its past glory.

And so the crux of this article: three remarkable but unsung heroes of the Bangladesh Air Force.

Squadron Leader Sarfaraz Ahmed Rafiqui (1935-1965) was a well-known pilot in the Pakistan Air Force. On 1 September 1965 Squadron Leader Sarfraz Rafiqui shot down two Indian Vampires in Kashmir. On 6 September he led a formation of three F-86s against Halwara. In the ensuing battle, his guns jammed after shooting one Hunter. Still, he refused to leave the battle area, providing cover to his formation. He laid down his life in an outstanding display of courage against overwhelming odds. He was awarded both Sitara-i-Jurat and Hilal-e-Jurat. Pakistan's third biggest air base, Rafiqui Airbase (Shorkot Cantonment) is named after him.

Nicknamed “Little Dragon”, Air Commodore Muhammad Mahmood Alam is well known for his contributions during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 and is credited with the downing of nine Indian fighters, six of them being IAF Hawker Hunters, in air-to-air combats Although the PAF figures have been disputed by Indian sources, he is a recipient of the Pakistani military decoration, the Sitara-e-Jurat (The Star of Courage).

Alam and his 30-second mythical achievements are as unbelievable as Frank Miller's “300” but unlike the Spartan king, Leonidas, he lived to tell his story to his grandchildren.

The final air force hero is not only honoured by the United States Air Force (USAF) but he also enjoys the status of being one of the twenty-two 'Living Eagles' of the world and he remains the only pilot to have flown for three different air forces at war (Jordan, Iraq and Pakistan) with the unique distinction of having kills against the air forces of two different countries (India in '65 and Israel in '67).

Saiful Azam graduated as a pilot officer in 1960 and was commissioned to the PAF. Azam had his first kill during the 1965 war between Pakistan and India. During the war, he was primarily tasked with ground attack missions deep into Indian territories. He flew a total of 12 ground attack missions in the areas of Kasur, Sialkot, and Wagha. On September 19 1965, during a fateful ground attack mission, two Indian fighters intercepted Azam's formation. In the ensuing fight, he shot down one of the attackers, a Folland Gnat fighter.

He would again earn fame during the 1967 Arab Israeli War where he was one of dozens of PAF personnel to volunteer to fight on the Arab side. He worked as an adviser to the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) and on June 5 1967, Azam's formation of four Hawker Hunters bounced an Israeli formation of Dassault Super Mysteres attacking the major Jordanian airbase of Mafraq. Azam shot down one Mystere and critically wounded another.

Two days later, Azam saw action again, this time in Iraq. On June 7 1967, an Israeli formation of four Vatour bombers, escorted by two Mirage IIIs was in the process of attacking the strategic Iraqi airbase H-3. This time flying in an Iraqi Hunter Hawker (No. 702), Azam intercepted the formation. A Mirage III, flown by Captain Gideon Dror, shot two of his wingmen. Azam was quick to avenge his wingmen's demise and shot down that Mirage. He then pounced upon the camouflaged Vatour bombers, and scored another kill. Both his victims, Captain Dror flying the Mirage, and Captain Golan flying the Vatour were taken as POWs.

Being the highest shooter of Israeli aircraft in the history of dogfighting to date, Saiful Azam has been decorated with Jordan's Husame Isteqlal and Iraq's Medal of Bravery, the Noth-es-Shuja along with Sitara-i-Jurat by Pakistan.

Saiful Azam did not fly during the Bangladesh Independence War of 1971, as he was a Bangladeshi and hence grounded in Pakistan. After independence however he joined the newly formed Bangladesh Air Force (BAF) or Bangladesh Biman Bahini as the Director of Operations. In 1977, he became Wing Commander and Base Commander of the BAF airbase in Dhaka. After retiring as a group captain in 1988, Azam twice served as Chairman, Civil Aviation Authority.

As we look for new heroes every day, we should not forget the ones who made us proud with their achievements and etched the name of Bangladesh in the pages of history. Although unknown they may be today, it is our duty to spread word of their bravery, and pay them the homage they deserve.

By Sabih Ahmed


From the younger perspective

Victory day is celebrated every 16 December in Bangladesh, to commemorate the independence of our nation from Pakistan. On this day in 1971, at the Indo-Bangladeshi High Command in Dhaka, the Bangladesh Liberation War was announced over, and this ended all atrocities. For a small but mighty country, the word victory had grand implications and autonomy was achieved after decades of economic and cultural dissatisfaction.

The younger generation can only imagine the jubilant Bangladeshis celebrating on the streets some 39 years ago. For months, children slept with cotton in their ears to block out the sounds of guns. On this day in 1971, shouts of Joy Bangla! echoed in the air instead. Freedom resounded from radios, to the relief of the country. They can only imagine the nature of sovereignty the way it was first felt by the nation, the taste of revolution in the air.

But here is the travesty; they really can only imagine.

Bangladesh seems increasingly to be churning out youngsters who are curiously distanced from their homeland. Their perception of Bangladesh is a combination of fleeting images glimpsed through car windows during rare trips back home, of Discovery Channel documentaries on a country constantly battling natural disasters or of a nation that breaks into jubilation after long-awaited victories on the cricket pitch.

Bangladesh is a developing country, with a low-income economy with medium human development, and a flawed democracy. All of these factors not only restrain Bangladesh from joining the BRICs, but also discourage young adults of Bangladesh living abroad from returning to Dhaka. Their visas can be seen as one-way tickets to the USA, Canada, the UK, or Australia, resulting in a 'brain drain', as there is a large-scale immigration of individuals with technical skills or knowledge. Living abroad seems more appealing due to the environmental, and socio-economical conditions of Dhaka. Regardless of the KFCs and Pizza Huts that litter the roads, young adults are restless. TV shows, movies, friends and relatives abroad, instil an idea that there is a bigger and better life to lead.

The wealthy minority of Dhaka send their children abroad to learn from advanced countries with superior technology, and expect them to return to save the country from poverty and illiteracy; yet this does not happen. In their host countries, there is a plethora of opportunities, a stable political system and more attractive living conditions.

Yet despite all of this, the freedom to call oneself a Bangladeshi should help every citizen feel victorious. Because Dhaka may be no Upper East side, but it sure is home. This swelling pride is one of the many sentiments that will bind together the country on the 16th of December, as well as the hope for future peace and prosperity.

By Shanzeh Ameen


Reincarnation of the golden fibre

Back in the old days, this cash crop generated the livelihood for numerous Bangladeshis, bringing smiles on their faces while rooting strong pillars of financial and cultural success for the country. Being one of the highest export earners of the nation, the industry flourished enough to name its product “the golden fibre” of Bangladesh. But we have lost those days of glory. Mismanagement, corruption, declining demand and bad economics caused many of the factories to shut down, extinguishing those smiles of the cultivators for a long time. But now, with more cautious government schemes, a dream team of bright scientists and an army of eco-friendly and conscious consumers, jute has made its comeback…

In the year 1972, the jute industry was nationalised and the government took it under its wing but the enterprises made enormous losses. Running a business is not the government's task, and it's likely to make a loss, since its primary objective will not be to make profits. A business organisation, to survive well, must run like a business enterprise. But that didn't mark the end of miseries for the golden crop. Later, the government privatised many of these companies, giving ownership to private individuals. But the tragedy is -- the government transferred the losses they made to those privatised entities.

That's one reason why this splendid industry saw demise. While in misery, substitutes like synthetic and other artificial fabrics invaded the market. The government was oblivious to the jute industry favouring the public jute mills and thus making the private companies suffer. The golden fibre, therefore, lost its “golden” state.

But now jute is making a comeback! It is natural, eco-friendly and also stylish. Hence, the price of raw jute is surging both at the domestic, as well as the international market. Jute has all the necessary ingredients to make it big. According to predictions jute should be the major fabric of the twenty first century. In a world where causing harm to the environment is shunned and “doing your bit” gives you (or your company) a hearty thumbs-up, jute offers a refreshing alternative to artificial fabric: a ray of hope for the golden fibre.

Keeping this in mind, the government also made plans to ensure that our country gets a piece of this pie (hopefully the biggest piece). The Mandatory Jute Packaging Act is waiting to get implemented. If this actually takes place successfully, the local demand for jute will shoot up, while decreasing the use of polythene and other fabrics that are detrimental to the environment. Other than that, the Jute Ministry has planned to use a staggering fund of Tk300 crores to import machinery and spare parts to modernise the existing jute mills.

It's not just the government that has come to the rescue. A group of scientists recently decoded the jute genome, and it follows that Bangladesh will be able to improve the quality of jute fibre and also make it resistant to climatic changes, thus helping cultivation throughout the year. Therefore, in the future, when the whole world will want more jute, we'll be the one with the competitive edge.

So what is all this fuss about a crop? Well, the fact that it is biodegradable and natural are the keys to the revival of the lost glory and the surging international demand. Many local Bangladeshi companies are identifying diversified uses of jute, the wide consortium of products that can be made with it. With little investment, plenty of creative input, a handful of research and an enormous amount of industrious work, we have started producing many innovative jute products. The workers are very poor and uneducated, mostly women. Thus, jute is also helping to empower females and curtail poverty.

Whatever the reasons are, everybody seems to want jute these days, from local companies to big international brands such as Body Shop; jute is in high popularity among many, including you.

If you are environment friendly, or look for things made of unconventional materials or it's just that you want a touch of nature in your everyday life, then jute is the thing for you. And if you are still a sceptic, it's a good time you start thinking about including jute in your life.

A first and simple step can be to buy yourself a jute bag. With smart and stylish designs, jute handbags and sacks can be found in many places in Dhaka. The list of jute-made products only begins here. Toys, tapestry, pieces for home-decor, trays, masks and lampshades are all available at various price ranges in many shops.

Unfortunately, these products are yet to gain much popularity in our local market. Look for the handicraft shops to buy some of these products. But jute has diversified uses and many other products are formed with it. Jute carpets, for example, can bring a very simplistic, yet stylish and environment savvy feel to your room, whilst jute curtains lend an ethnic outlook.

Currently, there are 3.5 crore people earning their livelihoods (directly or indirectly) from the jute industry. One thing's for sure, jute has made its way back, and soon it will rightfully regain its pride as the golden fibre of Bangladesh. Only this time, we must ensure that we protect the glory of the golden fibre.

By M H Haider
Thanks to A Barik Khan, Secretary, Bangladesh Jute Mills Association (BJMA) for sharing insights on the jute trade.



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