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Remembering March 1971 and all that followed

10By Julian Francis

The month of March is here again and it brings back vivid memories to me which are linked automatically with many others.

In March 1971, I was working on an Oxfam-UK supported Gandhian village development project in Bihar, India, where I had been for almost 3 years.

Through the BBC and some sketchy Indian newspaper reports, I learned about the unrest in Dhaka in the early part of March 1971, and Sheikh Mujib’s speech of March 7 was well reported by the Statesman newspaper which always reached Gaya from Calcutta a day later.

However, nobody was prepared for what would unfold later that month. Soon after the night of March 25, 1971, Oxfam’s office based in Ranchi, Bihar, which at that time covered Eastern India and East Pakistan, began to receive reports by telegram from some of its NGO partners near the India/East Pakistan border that hundreds and thousands of refugees were streaming across the border every day.

Immediately, some of us visited the border areas and our reports to Oxfam were so alarming that some people at Oxfam’s HQ refused to believe the details, one person commenting that, “Julian is young and inexperienced and appears to have been affected by the hot Indian sun!”

While reporting numbers of refugees crossing the border each day, Oxfam’s Head Office officials thought that we had added zeros by mistake; so 20,000 refugees crossing at one border crossing, was thought to mean 2,000!

Oxfam’s newly appointed Field Director for Eastern India and East Pakistan, Raymond Cournoyer, a French Canadian, had worked in East Pakistan from 1958 to 1965 and suggested in the early days of the refugee exodus that “up to 10 million” might come to India.

Again, Oxfam’s HQ in Oxford found this figure difficult to accept. Raymond asked some of us, already working in Bihar, to move to Calcutta and work out what Oxfam could do.

With our close connections to Gandhian organisations like the Sarva Seva Sangh and the Gandhi Peace Foundation, we consulted them while proposing a programme that Oxfam might support.

While most of the other aid organisations, UN and others, were flying in teams of expatriates, we took the decision that it would be far better to work with all the Indian organisations which we already knew.
(This proved to be a wise decision for, very soon thereafter, the Government of India banned foreigners from traveling to the border areas because of security concerns.)

As a result of this decision taken in Calcutta – which Oxfam, Oxford was not happy about since white faces leaving UK to save refugees brought publicity and donations – Oxfam first started to support the work of Mother Teresa’s medically trained Sisters to visit the camps close to Calcutta on a daily basis.

For the first 2 or 3 weeks, Mother Teresa herself would phone me at the same time every morning with a shopping list of what supplies her Sisters needed and how many taxis they needed, as we had not at that time procured any vehicles of our own.

As soon as I picked up the phone each morning, she would say not “Good morning,” but “God Bless You” and then give me the shopping list.

By late May 1971, Alan Leather, then Oxfam’s Assistant Field Director for Eastern India and I had been joined by a Varanasi-based Gandhian development worker, Vikas Bhai.

Vikas Bhai was a very rotund and big man with an even bigger personality. He was referred to affectionately as “His Heaviness”.

I remember that before Oxfam air-freighted Landrovers for us to use, we purchased some second-hand Willys jeeps and Vikas often drove around in one of them. He squeezed in behind the wheel and at the end of each day there was a black curved mark on his white khadi kurta where the steering wheel had rubbed against him!

It became very clear to us that most of the foreign aid organisations were working in refugee camps near to Calcutta, such as Salt Lake where about 250,000 refugees were living, so we decided to recommend to Oxfam that we try to support the camps much further away from the city.

At that time, there was a dire threat of cholera, and we needed to work out how to organise Indian medical teams as well as to ensure the correct medical supplies.

Vikas Bhai informed us that Sanghamaitra Desai (‘Uma’), the daughter of a dynamic Gandhian leader, Narayan Desai, was a final year medical student at the Nilratan Sircar (NRS) Medical College in Calcutta, and I remember, as though it was yesterday, that we went to meet her one evening and had tea in the student’s canteen to brainstorm.

I remember the bubbling effervescence and enthusiasm with which Uma and her NRS student colleagues were able to obtain permission for medical students to be members of mobile medical teams.

They would be going out to the camps by rotation and the authorities of Calcutta University formally agreed that their work in the camps would be officially recognised as the practical social and preventive medicine part of their MBBS.

As a result of Uma’s untiring work, the other Calcutta medical colleges also supplied medical teams.

By the end of June, Oxfam was supporting the work in refugee camps all round the border area as far as Tripura and the need of medical teams and other volunteers to cover sanitation and feeding programmes was never-ending.

By this time other medical colleges had heard of the success of the Calcutta medical students’ teams and we began to receive monthly contingents from the Bombay medical colleges and the Cuttack Medical College.

Medical personnel also came from Ludhiana Medical College Hospital in the Punjab and from the Gujarat Branch of the Indian Red Cross.

Teams of volunteers to cover non-medical needs of the refugees were sent on a regular basis by the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi in Orissa and from a number of Gandhian organisations in Gujarat and teams of students came from as far away as Udaipur in Rajasthan.

These volunteers injected life into the camps setting up schools, organising weekly cultural programmes, specially singing, and organising regular cleaning and feeding activities.

The work that these young Indians undertook was very difficult and exhausting and conditions worsened with the heavy and early monsoon flooding many camps. The logistics for which I was responsible were daunting.

At one time, with the Calcutta authorities scared of cholera sweeping through the city, I was asked by the Director-General of West Bengal Health Services if I could arrange an airlift of cholera vaccine to allow a buffer vaccination zone to be organised around Calcutta.

Oxfam was able to buy up over one million doses and get them to Calcutta within 72 hours. Oxfam also arranged mass cholera vaccination at the border crossings with new intra-dermal jet sprays under high pressure via ‘Panjet’ and ‘Pedojet’ appliances.

Another problem was that there were not enough bottles of intravenous saline available with which to treat cholera patients. Saline could be produced safely in Calcutta but there were not enough empty bottles!

So, Oxfam flew in a plane-load of bottles of saline from the UK and kept recycling the bottles and refilling. At times, when saline was not available, I saw doctors experimenting with using ‘dab pani’ as IV fluid!

A different kind of epidemic also spread through the camps causing much discomfort. Conjunctivitis, known at that time as ‘Joy Bangla’, and so a million tubes of eye ointment arrived from the UK too.

In all, Oxfam initially supported about 500,000 refugees (out of an estimated 10 million) in Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam, Cooch Behar, Siliguri, Jalpaiguri, West Dinajpur, Balurghat, Bongaon, and Barasat.

By the end of November that year the numbers had swelled to 600,000.

There are so many individual memories still clearly etched on my mind:

I remember digging graves for cholera victims in a refugee camp in Jalpaiguri, North Bengal.

I remember the pride with which many of the refugees kept their camps neat and clean despite the very heavy monsoon of that year which flooded many areas forced Oxfam to use amphibious vehicles.

I remember that most of the 36 staff I had at that time were refugees who had come across the border, some losing family members with heart attacks et cetera on the way. Other members of my staff were West Bengalis with Bangladeshi family links.

I remember buying 125,000 sarees, 125,000 lungis, 125,000 ganjis and 350,000 sets of children’s clothing of various sizes. It was a commercial nightmare but it was achieved!

I remember how Oxfam helped to facilitate the visit of Edward Kennedy to the refugee camps where Oxfam was working and what an impact his visit had.

I remember assisting with the collection of powerful personal statements that were included in Oxfam’s moving publication, ‘A Testimony of Sixty’

I remember being worried about the cold winter of 1971-72 in some border areas and the campaign we had to supply blankets and clothing to the refugees.

All through the relief operation Oxfam tried to find relief supplies within India rather than bringing them in from abroad which was expensive. We wanted to put as much into the Indian economy as we possibly could.

Tons and tons of bleaching powder and thousands of litres of Ascabiol, used for the treatment of scabies were procured. Items such as these were always in demand and kept Calcutta businesses very busy.

This campaign, Oxfam’s biggest ever relief operation after Biafra, and before Kampuchea, meant that Oxfam’s fundraising effort and publicity had to be second to none-better than others.

To raise funds for a crisis which appeared to be never-ending needed a sustained fundraising campaign using advertisements which would both inform but also shock people into giving.

As the winter of 1971 approached, and with it the need for blankets and warm clothing, Oxfam ran campaigns to “Take a Blanket off your Bed” and “Buy a new Sweater for Christmas and Throw your Old Ones to Oxfam”.

The British Post Office charged nothing for parcel postage if addressed to Oxfam.

For those of us who have forgotten or are too young to remember, there were an estimated 10 million Bangladeshis, most of them existing in over 900 refugee camps, others with friends and relations.
The logistics of feeding and caring for such a large number of people even now, after so many years, are difficult to comprehend.

How was it done? It was done through the heroism of so many, and these men and women never sought fame or credit but insisted that they were just doing what had to be done.

It was difficult to keep the crisis on the front pages of the world’s newspapers.

The news of the genocide of March 25, 1971 put it on the front pages and with outbreak, in May and June, of cholera, it was front page news again.

Again when the camps got flooded it was front page news.

But by September 1971, Oxfam decided that it must find a way to shock the world’s leaders, to make them open their eyes and wake up.

In a surprisingly short space of time eye-witness accounts of the tragedy were collected and published as “The Testimony of Sixty on the Crisis in Bengal” and handed over to all Heads of Governments.

Its publication coincided with the opening of that year’s session at the United Nations.

In 2007, the Liberation War Museum brought out an English facsimile edition so that more people could learn about the history of how this nation was formed and the pain and suffering that was involved, and on December 16, 2009, Prothom Alo published a Bangla facsimile edition.

It is interesting to record is that although the USA was firmly supporting Pakistan in 1971, Senator Edward Kennedy brought ‘The Testimony of Sixty’ to the attention of the US Senate and it was published in full in the ‘Congressional Record’.

It is important to record that although the US government supported Pakistan at that time, there was a huge outpouring of generosity and concern by the American people who put the fledgling Oxfam-America clearly on the map at that time.

In addition, over one million dollars of donated medicines were sent for use in the refugee camps.

As if there was not enough to do, my Calcutta office also had to respond to flood relief needs of Bihar and a devastating cyclone in Orissa.

In the field of disaster relief, Oxfam today has an outstanding reputation in the field of the provision of safe drinking water and emergency sanitation.

In the camps of 1971, we were able to try out a butyl rubber septic tank which was linked to a line of 10 latrines. We hosted a number of experts who were forever testing how safe the water and sanitation units proved to be.

After Liberation these sanitation units were used by CONCERN for a number of years in the Bihari camps in Dhaka and Saidpur.

As winter of 1971-72 approached, we were making plans to continue the work in the camps for another 6 months. However, with the outbreak of war between India and Pakistan, Bangladesh became an independent nation much earlier than we had anticipated.

I remember bursting into tears with my Bangladeshi colleagues when we heard that the Pakistani forces had surrendered on December 16, 1971. They were tears of relief and exhaustion as well as emotion, but we soon found that very hard work lay ahead.

We had to look ahead to what Oxfam might be able to do in the field of rehabilitation in war-torn Bangladesh.

Raymond Cournoyer, was the natural choice as Oxfam’s first Field Director for Bangladesh. However, it was not so simple.

He told Oxfam in UK that he wanted a free hand regarding development activities to be supported in Bangladesh and he did not want to have any part in distributing relief supplies.

“Give them to CARITAS or Mother Teresa!” he said, “I want to invest for the long-term in young Bangladeshis with vision.”

And so, as we wound up our operations in the refugee camps, the relief supplies in our godowns were given away.

In January 1972, before Raymond took up his position in Bangladesh, I drove a Landrover from Calcutta for Raymond to use in Bangladesh. The journey was memorable in that it was wonderful to see so many people returning to their country, but it was also so desperately sad to see so much destruction.

Burnt down villages, bridges and culverts blown up and destroyed and many vehicle ferries and passenger launches sunk in the rivers.

I stayed overnight at a Catholic Mission in Jessore where Pakistani soldiers had killed an Italian priest because he had given medical assistance to the Muktibahini.

The next day, we took more than 12 hours to reach Dhaka. I remember driving past the old airport at about midnight with not a person or vehicle in sight.

Suddenly, from nowhere, my vehicle was surrounded by military personnel. My driver, Badol Nandi, from Chittagong, and I had not realised that a night curfew was in place!

We were then given a very friendly escort to the Purbani Hotel.

Although he had been back in his country for only 2 weeks, he was surprisingly knowledgeable about Oxfam’s work and I asked him what a small organisation like Oxfam could do for the rehabilitation of Bangladesh.
“How did you come here, young man?” he asked in a loud voice pointing the stem of his pipe at me.

I told him that I had driven overland from Calcutta.

“Then you have seen more of my country than I have as I have been in jail for over 9 months.”

“What did you see?” he asked.

I told him about the damage that I had seen on the way and added that Oxfam was already supporting a large house building and repair programme. I said that I thought that bridge building would be done by bilateral and multi-lateral donors and that ferries would probably be too costly for Oxfam to consider.

Sheikh Mujib, was, however, very keen that Oxfam explore the possibility of purchasing new ferries and repairing others.

It is remarkable that Oxfam was eventually able to procure 3 truck-carrying ferries and to assist the repair of many others.

I remember that the Bangladesh Inland Waterways Authority officers wanted to name the ferries after Liberation War martyrs but Raymond with his love of Bengali countryside and culture requested that the vessels be named after flowers.

And so, Kamini, Kosturi and Korobi, were so named and they, I believe, continue to ply across the river at Mawa and Goalando/Paturia to this day, over 40 years later.

Another March memory is that in March 1972, I remember attending the Calcutta docks for the loading of £ 250,000 worth of C.I. sheets for CARE’s house-building programme in Bangladesh.

Eventually, Raymond got his way, and began to support new and emerging “Bangladeshis with vision”. Oxfam was one of the first donors of BRAC which is now the largest NGO in the world. I recall personally handing over in cash 3 lac rupees to Sir Fazle Hasan Abed in Calcutta in February 1972. Oxfam also supported the early work of another outstanding NGO, Gonoshasthaya Kendra.

As soon as Bangladesh was free and the refugees started streaming home, we had to close down our work in India in an orderly way.

One day in February 1972, in fact on the day of Ekushey, I was called out of the Oxfam office and there in the garden were about 500 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 made some ‘woolen 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 and to explain that they had decided to return to Bangladesh on an auspicious day, Ekushey, February 21.
It was such a moving moment.

Working with the Bangladeshi people in 1971 changed my life as it must have done for many others as well.

If there had been no Liberation War, I might have returned to the UK in 1971 to do some rather boring animal husbandry research.

I have instead enriched my life by sharing the struggles of the very poorest and disadvantaged for altogether over 40 years, most of which have been spent in Bangladesh and some in India.

(Julian Francis has worked for many years in Bangladesh with poverty alleviation programmes and disability related programmes. In recognition of his work in 1971, in 2012, The Government of Bangladesh bestowed on him ‘The Friends of Liberation War Honour’. The same award was also bestowed on Oxfam and the Gandhian Leader, Narayan Desai, mentioned in the article.)


Julian FrancisJulian Francis has had a close association with Bangladesh since the War of Liberation in 1971 when he coordinated Oxfam’s refugee relief operations in India covering over 50 refugee camps and 600,000 men, women and children. For over more than 20 years, he has worked in many poverty alleviation projects in Bangladesh where he continues to live and work as an independent consultant.