• F R Chowdhury



The Pakistani forces in occupation of Bangladesh finally surrendered to allied forces of Bangladesh and India on December 16, 1971. The ceremony took place in Dhaka. In Chittagong Pakistani forces were still negotiating with Indian local command for organized mass surrender. I was in Chittagong. We eventually went to bed knowing that Bangladesh was liberated. However, 17th morning was a different picture. Celebrations were taking place all around. There were perhaps more members of 16th battalion rather than actual freedom fighters. It did not matter. Bangladeshis were happy to be finally free.

We gathered around Circuit House Building. I was in close contact with Capt. M L Rahman, a senior member of the marine community. Mr. Nurul Islam, B.Sc., newly appointed administrator of the region soon arrived in the circuit House. In a brief speech he asked everyone to get back to respective jobs so that normalcy can be brought within the shortest period. In his few words he emphasized the importance of re-opening the port so that relief materials including food grain and petroleum products can be received. He also laid lot of importance on communication of inner and central part of Bangladesh with Chittagong by road, rivers and railway.

An announcement from Dhaka appointing Mr Ghulam Kibria as the acting chairman of the port was very helpful. He was formerly the chief traffic manager of Chittagong Port Authority. The government made another announcement appointing Mr Quddus as the acting Port Director of Mongla Port. Mr Quddus was formerly director of ports, BIWTA.  Such quick action on the part of the new government was very praise-worthy considering the fact that ports and shipping were under the central government in Islamabad through Directorate General of Ports and Shipping in Karachi. I understand the presence of Capt. Q A B M Rahman was very helpful in making these prompt decisions.

The Government made another bold decision. It created the BTTG (Bangladesh Transportation Task Group) with Capt. Shafi as its head to ensure fair distribution of food grain to every corner of the country. Mr Shamsuddin Khan and Mr Deen Mohammed were appointed as regional coordinator for the task force.  Despite the war and mass migration nobody died for shortage of food so long BTTG coordinated with WFP and UNDP. Things changed after 1974 when BTTG concluded its work and food distribution were taken over by political forces.

Capt. Shafi also took over as the Director General of the Department of Shipping and thereby relieved Capt. QABM Rahman to become the first (founder) chairman and managing director of the state-owned Bangladesh Shipping Corporation. It was because of determined efforts of Capt Rahman that the Presidential Order was issued on the 5th of February, 1972 establishing the state owned Bangladesh Shipping Corporation. The way BSC spread its business was beyond perception and many called it simply miracle. The first 5 years of BSC would always remain a period of miracle achievements for Bangladesh in shipping.

Despite the shortage of senior and experienced mariners the community kept on providing minimum, whatever it could, to keep the Academy running. Today as we look at the marine community of Bangladesh, we understand how important it was to keep the Academy running. Capt M L Rahman took over as Commandant of the Academy in addition to his duties as head of Chittagong office of the department of shipping. I also came to know that it was through Capt M L Rahman that Mukti Bahini knew about movement of Pakistani ships in Chittagong area.

We shall now focus little bit on how port of Chittagong came back to life. As the surrender ceremony was taking place in Dhaka, the Indian forces were still carrying out aerial bombing of Chittagong port. We do not know why but were always afraid that bombed ships would create wrecks and make the port unserviceable. It was on the afternoon of 17th December that I managed to make some sort of assessment of damages. There was a small ship named “Sonar Tori” anchored near Gupta bend. It had to be removed soon. If this vessel were to sink there it would make the port non-functional. There was a Pakistani ship “Al-Abbas” damaged by aerial bombing in the mid-stream and was threatening to close the channel unless immediate action was taken to save the port.

It was on 19th December, 1971 that I had a long meeting with Capt M L Rahman. Capt Rahman asked me to render my services for the Chittagong port. He said this taking into consideration that until September that year I was the chief officer of the ship “Safina-e-Arab” calling Chittagong once every 3 weeks and undergoing the same process of turning and berthing. With most of the pilots surrendering with Pakistani forces there was no mariner with practical pilotage knowledge of Chittagong. It was on 20th December, 1971 that I went and met Mr Kibria. The acting chairman was very happy with my good intentions but expressed his inability to appoint anyone. He was extremely happy when I smiled and offered my services on voluntary basis. He asked me to do something with “Al-Abbas” so that the port can be saved.

I came and boarded the ship in mid-stream and shall never forget what I saw with my own eyes. I saw Capt K Mehbub, the former harbor master (a Pakistani) working with a few others had been trying to pump out the flooded hold so that the ship could be brought alongside (to save the channel). During the conversation I found out as to why he was still working there. He said he earned his bread through Chittagong port and now he could not betray. He could not sit idle when the port was being ruined. Besides, he was a professional man and he thought it was his duty to do something. Yes, Capt Mehbub was successful and the channel was saved. Mean time “Sonar Tori” was already removed from Gupta bend to a safe distance. There was another Pakistani harbor pilot Mr Sarwar Bukhari who was trapped there and we utilized his services as well. I very much wished that Mr Kibria and Capt Mehbub were still alive to see that the history is not totally forgotten.

In a week’s time I was formally appointed by the Port Authority as an Assistant Harbour Master. However, I happened to witness lot of drama within the first few days. On one occasion a Captain of the Indian Navy approached Mr Kibria if the port of Chittagong should be temporarily closed and Calcutta should start accepting cargo destined for Chittagong. On another occasion the same captain again approached Mr Kibria to state that Hoogly River Pilots were stand-by to come and help us re-open Chittagong port. The name of the Indian Navy Captain was perhaps Baba or Khanna. I still remember how Mr Kibria thanked the officer for their kind offer and said that situation was being monitored very closely and we shall contact our good friends if anything is necessary. His response reflected his maturity, judgment and diplomatic skill. I cannot forget how Mr Kibria managed to slowly bring the port back to operation in those days of chaos and confusion.

Within about two weeks of liberation of Bangladesh, a few more mariners joined the port. They were – Capt. Ramzan Ali, Mr Mizanur Rahman (2nd batch), Mr  Jalil (First batch) and Mr Shafi. Mean time Capt. S Y Kamal came to join as the new Harbour Master & Deputy Conservator. With some assistance from Mr Subhan, a retired marine pilot we managed to handle one or two ships and managed to reopen the port. I was hurriedly issued with a pilotage licence (the first one after liberation of Bangladesh) and slowly we brought the operation of the port to almost normal level. I should perhaps mention here that a few SCI ships were the first to call at Chittagong to take prisoners of war and surrendered war materials. One of those ships – mv Vishwa Kusum was hit by a mine in outer anchorage and eventually lost.

In response to the call made by the United Nations, a Norwegian tanker mt Sarita diverted for Chittagong with petroleum cargo. However, the master was so worried about mines that he anchored nearly 80 miles away from the river mouth. At that time we only had a few bay-crossing coastal tankers and those tankers could not make such sea passage. Two days already passed by and no solution was found. Eventually I agreed to lead a number of coastal tankers to Sarita. The brave masters of our inland tankers agreed to follow me in the mine infested waters of Chittagong. We created a chain of vessels linking Sarita with Chittagong. After discharging about ten thousand tons of cargo I managed to convince the master to bring the vessel little closer to Chittagong and the vessel finally left Chittagong after completing its mission of delivering the first consignment of petroleum oil after the war.

It was during the Sarita operation that I came across the first mine laid during the war. I saw it with binoculars floating with the tide and going towards Chittagong. I immediately notified the port control to issue necessary alert and arrange for its removal, if possible. Two days later I read in local newspaper that a mine like object exploded in the fishermen’s village leaving more than a dozen dead.

I have to still tell one more incident of mine. There was a small inland tanker named Esso Ark moored in the oil mooring. Another similar tanker belonging to BIWTC (perhaps named Kalindi) was tied up alongside. It was on a bright sunny morning that Esso Ark was suddenly blown away. The impact was so heavy that pieces weighing ten to twelve tons were blown across the road to perimeters of the oil company. The other tanker caught fire on the deck, got detached from the blown up vessel and was floating mid-stream. When I went there I found two tugs belonging to the port authority spraying water to the burning tanker to extinguish the fire. Capt. M L Rahman called me and explained that it was far more important to save the channel than the tiny tanker. If the burning tanker were to sink mid-stream it would block the cannel and the port. Instead of pouring water on the tanker it was necessary to push that tanker towards the other bank of the river to keep the channel clear. I took the proposal to Capt Kamal and he agreed with the idea but said that it was such a risky operation that he could not ask anyone for it. I told him that I would put the wire on the bit of the tanker if the tug takes me along. Capt Kamal still would not tell anything to the tug directly. Finally on the VHF he told the tug master to take orders from me and I did it. In my life I do not remember to have done anything so risky and dangerous. I do not know how Allah provided me with that moment of strength. Today as I think back about it, I cannot believe that I did it. God is great.

Chittagong still remained a port infested with mines and wrecks. On the other side some young mariners like Zahir, Belayet and Ferdous went to reopen Mongla port. They did a wonderful job. Our Russian friends came to clear Chittagong port and I was appointed to coordinate with them. The Russian salvage team did a professional job and cleared Chittagong port from all traces of the war. During the operation, one of their comrades died. I salute the Russian Salvage Team.

With just over a year’s service, I had to leave Chittagong port so that I could get back to my career and complete master mariner. Mr Kibria and Capt Kamal requested me to continue until at least four licensed pilots are available. I worked hard to train new pilots and then left the port.

The Government has rightly provided the national award to Russian Salvage Team. I feel the Government should have rewarded BTTG for their work. It was BTTG that took food to every corner of the country and nobody died for shortage of food and we never heard of any corruption.

We know of many Pakistanis who supported the Bangladesh movement but I do not know of anyone having gone to the extent Capt Mehbub went. This man (friend and well-wisher of Bangladesh) should have been given a national award to recognize his contributions. In the early days of Bangladesh, a number of people both professional and non-professional contributed their bit because of which Bangladesh could make such remarkable headway in ports and shipping sector. They are – Capt QABM Rahman, Mr KIbria, Cpat M Shafi, Mr QMS Zaman, Capt M L Rahman, Mr Zahedur Rahman, Mr Ayenul Haq and many others. When ports and shipping were under central government and the Dhaka administration had no clue of these matters, Capt QABM Rahman provided all the missing in-put. It was on his advice that the department of shipping was established. He was again the pioneer in establishing the state owned Bangladesh Shipping Corporation. Capt Rahman’s name is linked with the maritime evolution of Bangladesh in every respect. A national award for Capt QABM Rahman would be an inspiration for the entire maritime community of Bangladesh. I call up on the minister to arrange to place a bust of Capt Rahman on the main entrance of BSC Bhaban with the following “the first chairman and managing director”.

Capable and competent mariners are expected to make meaningful contributions to ports, shipping and inland waterways system. Years of service coupled with world-wide experience give them an initial advantage. However, such jobs at higher level of administration should never be restricted or confined to any group of technocrats or civil servants. They should always be open for those with knowledge, skill and wisdom – whether career civil servants or ex-mariners or even ex-naval personnel. In Bangladesh it is now evident that mariners are not wanted anywhere. The port authorities, maritime administration, shipping corporation or even BIWTC or BIWTA – there is no trace of mariners anywhere. It appears everyone other than mariners know all about it. This is a conspiracy not only against a community but also against the country. It now appears that to become a chairman of a port authority or director general of shipping or managing director of Shipping Corporation one has to be a commodore or admiral of the navy. This military expertise appears to be the only qualification recognized for such civil posting. In the meantime the defence forces are competing with each other for the number of senior civil administration jobs they can grab and the number of universities they can operate. Such diversions, nasty politics and conspiracies are destroying our armed forces.

Having no future opening or opportunity in the country, the mariners have landed abroad. Hong Kong, Singapore, Myanmar, Malaysia, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, UK, USA, Canada and Australia – they are there everywhere. They are in responsible positions. They are doing what they could not do in their own country. They even represent their new country of adoption in many international forums. The conspiracy is deep-rooted and is going to cripple maritime sector of Bangladesh. It will be explored wide open in the next issue under the same title. Remember, they (mariners) did not leave; they have been compelled to leave.

London, 15-January-2022.                                                                     <[email protected]