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     Volume 5 Issue 124 | December 15, 2006 |

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Cover Story

An Important Footnote In Our History

Shamsad Mortuza

Sven Lampell is a retired Swedish Air Force Colonel who came to act as a Red Cross delegate to help out victims of the 1970 cyclone. He soon got involved in a cyclone of a different kind, a man-made disaster that had outstripped even the cruelty of nature. He has given an account of his stint in Bangladesh, rather what turned out to be its gestation period, in a 1996 book in Swedish, titled Mitt i Stormen: Med röda korset i fält. A free translation would be In the Middle of the Storm: With the Red Cross on the Field. Shamsad Mortuza met Sven Lampell at his residence in Stockholm in May 2006 to learn how he weathered the storm. And the snippets of memory soon turned out to be interesting footnotes of our liberation war, of which our contested history is rather blind.

"After a busy day, I was just about to recline in my hotel room when the telephone rang. Instinctively I knew it was trouble. It was from the Holy Family Hospital. They had received a call from an orphanage in Dhanmondi; fourteen young girls had disappeared.” --Sven Lampell was telling me of the day his Land Rover got shot at by machineguns while trying to track down some missing girls.

Victory Day, Bangladesh. December 16, 1971

I was asking him to explain the picture from his 1996 book in Swedish, Mitt i Stormen: Med röda korset i fält, which could be translated as In the Middle of the Storm: With the Red Cross on the Field. The memoir in Swedish reflects on Lampell's assignment in different countries in Asia and Africa as a Red Cross delegate. One of the chapters recounts his stint in Bangladesh, rather what turned out to be its gestation period. Lampell came to the then East Pakistan in 1970 to coordinate the relief operations after the great Cyclone. He soon got involved in a cyclone of a different kind, a man-made disaster that had outstripped even the cruelty of nature. I was still waiting for a translation of the relevant chapter, but we went to meet him anyway at his residence in Stockholm.

With wife Eva Dahlback; once a leading actress who featured in six of Ingmar Bergman's films. Photo: Shahnaz Gazi

Sven introduced us to his wife, Eva Dahlback, to whom he has been married for nearly 70 years. Eva, still beautiful in her naturalness, happened to be one of the leading Swedish actresses who featured in six of Ingmar Bergman's films. She devoted herself to full time writing and had quite a few novels to her credit. Eva excused herself because of her illness as we settled ourselves in the sitting room that had a large portrait of young Lampell, looking a bit like Rock Hudson I would say. There were lots of books and souvenirs from different parts of the globe, but not any sign of abundance or excess. Lampell took us by surprise, pleasantly so, by offering us tea and pastry with a little flag of Bangladesh stuck to the tea cosy. “A Bangladeshi friend of mine gave me those flags.” We were touched by the simple yet thoughtful gesture. “That's daddy's chair,” Lampell sunk into his armchair as we gathered around him to hear about '71.

I found Sven quite by accident. I don't think his name is mentioned in our contested history of the liberation war. Yet Sven Lampell played a significant part in hastening the resignation of the then governor of East Pakistan, Dr A M Malik and his cabinet colleagues. We came to know of him from Sven Stromberg, an ace journalist who covered the liberation war for Swedish TV. Before coming to Sweden, the only Sven I had heard of was the former English coach Sven Goran Eriksson; his Bangladeshi affair was nothing to be proud of! But here in Stockholm, we met these two Svens who were not only linked by their first names but also by their strange connection to Bangladesh. Sven Stromberg came to Bangladesh Embassy in Stockholm to get visas for himself and his adopted son. He told the extraordinary story of his son Joy who was brought to Sweden by Lampell in a shoebox. The First Secretary in the Bangladesh embassy in Sweden Shahnaz Gazi, invited them both upon hearing their interesting snippet. The octogenarian Lampell could not make it because he was not in a position to leave his wife who was suffering from the Alzheimer's. He invited us at his place instead.

So there we were, at his house in Stockholm, listening to some scintillating vignettes from a remarkable man. Born in 1920, Lampell joined the Swedish Air Force and retired as a Colonel. His illustrious career earned him the assignment in the Red Cross afterwards. He was one of the pioneers to make the Air Pentathlon a regular event. He himself was part of the champion team in 1954, 1956 and 1958. But this was nothing compared to what we came to hear from the real man.

Photo credit: Star Archives

We begin our conversation with the incident in which Lampell went in search of fourteen young girls. It happened on December 16, 1971 after the official surrender of the Pakistani forces. These girls, aged between 10 and 14, cajoled the Master of the Orphanage into letting them to join the victory celebration. But the minivan in which they were travelling came under attack, and the driver fainted after crushing the van against a wall. When he came back to his senses, he, although heavily injured, somehow managed to return to the orphanage; but he could not tell anything of the girls. All he could give was an approximate location of the incident.

All the Red Cross delegates were spread out in the countryside. So Sven had to deal with it himself. He took his driver Haidar and went to the orphanage to get some more information before heading for the site of the accident which was actually very near to the orphanage. “I saw the smashed up van. But the moment I got off the jeep, we were shot at. I dropped down on the ground. It was rather dark and I somehow crawled to the lakeside. There was no response from Haidar. I thought he was dead. I stayed in the ditch for some time. There were quite a few rounds of shots. I realised my white shirt was flashing like a target in the moonlight. So I took it off and lied still half submerged in the ditch. There were millions of mosquitoes and, believe me, it was not an easy job.” With his sharp and clear voice, Sven transported us to a familiar part of Dhaka, but attached it with an unfamiliar tale.

“I lied there for a while. There were intermittent gunshots. I crawled up to the van, and saw a girl lying under it. But we could not communicate as she did not speak English. She somehow pointed to the sliding door of the van which was open, where I noticed a dead girl lying on the floor. I realised the dead girl was her sister, and she didn't want to leave her. She pointed at a big gate just opposite to the van, and I understood that the other girls were behind that gate.” There was an imposing matter-of-factness in Sven's details that was driven by the necessities of the given moment. No added sugar or spice. For example, he did not say the girl was crying and so forth. It was plain and simple: they had to brave the bullets and go to that house for the other girls. Because of the moonlight and the snipers within range a straight crossing of the road was not an option. So they waded through the lake, with Sven carrying the dead girl in her arms and her sister holding on to his belt to reach a shadowy part of the road. The snipers sensed the movement and kept on shooting. Somehow they managed to get to the iron door, which was sensibly left open by the owners of the house. There was an elderly couple who showed them to the other girls.

Photo credit: Star Archives

“It turned out that after the accident when the driver lost consciousness, the girls took him to be dead and ran for shelter in that house.” They cleaned up the dead girl and decided to return to the orphanage. It was almost dawn, and they could not take the main road. So Sven led the girls to a series of wall-climbing with a wooden box that he borrowed from the first house to reach the road on the other side. “And guess what! There was Haidar, waiting for us with an ambulance.”

Sven told us while they were returning to the orphanage they were stopped by two women, frantically crying for help. They followed their direction and went to a house where a man was sitting on a chair with blood oozing out from one of his eye sockets. Sven had to attend him as well. “He did not seem like a fighting man. It was probably a stray bullet that hit him. I put some bandages and took him to the hospital, where later on he died.”

After returning to the hotel, Sven told the Indian Army, who were in charge of their security, of the attack. They went to the spot and found that a group of Pakistani army men who were guarding the residence of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had not been informed of the surrender. They were still under instruction to shoot to kill as Begum Mujib and her daughter (Shaikh Hasina) were still held as hostages. The Indian Army convinced them that the war was over and made them surrender. “They found my Land Rover with the engine still running.”

Sven Lampell still has feelings for the country he witnessed being born
Photo: Shahnaz Gazi

It was probably just another night of action for Sven Lampell. True to the title of his book, he was caught in the middle of the storm. Just a couple of days before, he had played an unlikely part in talking the governor of East Pakistan Dr. A.M. Malik into resignation as a precondition to enter the neutral zone located in the then Inter Continental Hotel. I give the full excerpt from the book, which had been translated from Swedish to Bengali by Liakat Hossain. I believe this anecdote can be an interesting footnote to our liberation history:

Lampell, who inadvertently became involved in a significant development in the 1971 war while trying to help the people of Bangladesh any way he could. Photo: Shahnaz Gazi

December 12, 1971
I received a letter from the Governor of East Pakistan Dr Malik. He wanted me to send a message to President Yahya in Islamabad expressing his desire to negotiate with the Indians for a peaceful solution to the war. The message was in defiance of the 'butcher of Bengal' Niazi's wish [who had ordered to fight to the last man.]

Two days later I received another message from Governor Dr Malik in while he, along with his other cabinet colleagues, wanted to meet the person-in-charge of the 'neutral zone.' Legally I was the only person to be in charge of the neutral zone. So I got on my Land Rover (along with two more local Red Cross delegates.) Our driver Haidar drove us along the deserted street. Suddenly there was an air raid, and we hid ourselves in a park close to the governor's house. The building was damaged by recent attacks. Some parts of the building were still on fire. No sooner had we started for the governor's house again, there were fresh attacks on the building. Again we were forced to take shelter, this time at a lake nearby.

Nobody was guarding the main entrance. We walked in without any hindrance. The governor's chamber had not been affected by the attack. We entered the neatly decorated conference hall where the governor was sitting along with his cabinet colleagues. These were the people who were once radiant in their pride and authority, and who pulled all sorts of bureaucratic strings to interfere in our day to day activities. It was hard to believe that these people were of the same breed as the poor and miserable ones that we were trying to help. The men sitting around the table looked pale, exhausted, broken and uncertain. They had not heard anything from President Yahya after their last message about a possible negotiation. They could not wait anymore; they wanted to take refuge in the 'neutral zone.' Their lives were in our hands. Fate was indeed having the last laugh. I felt like an actor standing on the stage of a Greek tragedy.

I said that we need to talk over it. We went to the corridor opposite to the conference hall where the heat of the smouldering fire was still felt. Just like in a movie, I thought. Indeed we could not just allow twelve members of a cabinet who were involved in the war to enter the 'neutral zone.' Of course, their only other option was to ask assistance of the Pakistan Army. But in that situation they would not have made it to the airport;

Triumph of the freedom fighters

the Muktis would have attacked. So there they were, literally standing on the isthmus between life and death.

We decided that they could be taken into the 'neutral zone' on condition that they officially resigned from their posts and severed all links with the Pakistan government. Only as civilians they could enter the 'neutral zone.' I made the proposition with deep apprehension. Suddenly there was a pin drop silence in the room. Their faces were ashen. After what seemed like a long pause, Dr Malik's voice was heard from a distance. “I suppose we have no choice. Thank you.”

I produced my old writing pad. His hands were trembling as he wrote the resignation letter addressed to President Yahya. The letter was circulated around the table and everyone else signed it; some did it in a heavy heart, some with tears in their eyes and some with sarcastic laughter. In a matter of minutes, the cabinet was dissolved. Dr Malik gave it back to me and said, “It all depends on President Yahya now!” Just then another rocket hit the building, rocking the window panes.

Dr Malik and his colleagues were brought to the 'neutral zone.'

That afternoon I heard that Dr Malik was looking for me. I went to the room where he was staying. He was standing on the corridor with some of his family members. “So how does it feel to be inside the safe zone?” I enquired. Instead of replying he just forwarded a piece of paper. It was the reply from President Yahya that he was waiting for. Dr Malik had been authorised to negotiate with the Indians “to take all necessary measures to stop the fighting.” It was a little too late. Had it reached Dr Malik a couple of hours ago, Dr Malik would have not resigned. But by then he had been stripped of all his authority. (My English translation)

The translator Liakat Hossain, an expatriate Bangladeshi settled in Sweden, told me that the documented history makes no reference of Sven Lampell in connection with the surrender. One source said that Dr Malik surrendered to foreign journalists and another mentioned the UN officials. But the references are vague and lack credentials. One Indian newspaper published on the following day, however, reported that Dr Malik had resigned and handed himself to the Red Cross. According to Liakat, if Sven had not talked Malik into resignation, General Niazi would have tried to delay the surrender and unleashed more havoc like that of the killing of the intellectuals on December 14. I tend to agree with Liakat.

Immediately after Sven had taken the cabinet members in the neutral zone as civilians, he felt obligated to tell the Muktis of his move. There were waiters at the Inter Continental Hotel who were acting as informants. They would usually come up and say “Is there anything else that you need?” That was the password for making connections with the Muktis. Then Sven would be assigned with a pathfinder, usually a young boy or a girl. It was never the same person and the Muktis were constantly shifting their head-quarters. So Sven went on to meet the sub-commander and explained why he had to give shelter to Dr Malik and others. He seemed to appreciate his position, but there were some dissenters among the Muktis. They threatened us with attacking the 'neutral zone,' if the 'traitors' were not handed over. But with the Indian Army taking control of things, the attack never took place. Sven also complimented the Indian Army for being very professional. “The Indian Army was there for two months as the occupying force, and there was not a single incident of rape or looting. As a former military man, I must say this is a laudable record by any count.” Sven also spoke highly of the new government, excepting the way they handled the stranded Biharis. “They never allowed us to deal with the Biharis. 'Give us what you want to give to them,' was their answer. But one thing I know: if you give it to the government, it will never get to the people who needed it the most.” Sven was shocked to learn that the issue had not yet been solved.

The Muktibahini wading through a river during an operation

I asked him what he makes of the whole situation. Sven proffered a very reflective opinion, “It was unbelievable. How could be people full of such hatred! It was a civil war of its worst kind. Anyone with a sane mind would know that it was a dead issue from day one; thousands of miles in between, totally different cultures the idea of Pakistan as a single state was never going to work. But after 32 years in the Red Cross, I must say, I don't have any high hopes in human kind, especially in war. Anything that you can ever imagine can happen.” He recalled the killing of the intellectuals just before the ultimate victory, “It was a ghastly sight I was there.” There was a silence that needed no translation.

I wanted to end the conversation with something happy. So I asked him about Joy, the adopted son of Sven Stromberg. Joy was found by a Red Cross ambulance mission in a house somewhere in Old Dhaka after an air raid. Both of his parents were dead in the attack, and the newborn was brought to Holy Family Hospital where he became everybody's darling. Sven Stromberg was on the first helicopter of the Indian Army that came to arrange the surrender ceremony. While interviewing his fellow Swede, Stromberg expressed his willingness to adopt a child. He went to the Holy Family Hospital where he saw Joy, and “it was love at first sight.” It was up to Lampell then to bring the child though. He told me how he prepared the passport for Joy with the help of a German delegate (because the newly established Bangladeshi officials had more serious things to concentrate on); how he bribed the airport authority and carried the child in a shoebox all the way to Geneva, how he had to tackle the suspicious Swiss police, how he did not get the protocol assistance that he was supposed to get because of a delayed flight, how he had to withstand the battle-cry of baby Joy, and the list goes on. The flight attendants of Lufthansa gave Lampell a proper baby basket, but he decided to keep the paper box as a memento. In fact, when they arrived in Sweden the whole Swedish media was there and the child was handed over to his adopted parents in the shoebox. “He was named Nicholas Moses Joy: Nicholas because he was found on the Christmas Eve (after St. Nicholas), Moses because of the way he was found, and Joy comes from Joy Bangla as well as the joy of having the child.”

So there we were with the story of a dead girl, a fallen government, and a rescued boy. And there we were with an unsung friend of Bangladesh, both humbled and enriched by his experience. For Sven Lampell, the Red Cross was not just a job. He served it with passion and love for humanity. He has allotted a special place for Bangladesh in the corner of his heart, but have we? Is it too much to ask that we reciprocate the feeling that Sven Lampell harbours for us? I am sure Sven Lampell is one of the many friends we have in different parts of the world. One only hopes that these friends of Bangladesh are recognised before it is too late.

The writer is Chairperson, Department of English, Jahangirnagar University.

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