Every year in August, I remember both my meeting with Sheikh Mujib in 1972 and his violent death in 1975. I remember the shock I felt when I learnt of his death in 1975. I was, then, working with OXFAM, and was based in New Delhi and on August 15 that year, together with my family, I was watching India’s Independence Day celebrations on the television when the programme was interrupted with the news of the assassination of Sheikh Mujib and his many family members. I remember being numbed by shock and burying my head in my hands and weeping.
In 1971, I had had the privilege and responsibility of administering OXFAM-UK’s relief programme for about 600,000 of the ten million refugees who had fled from Bangladesh to India. OXFAM supported relief work in refugee camps in Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam, Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Siliguri, West Dinajpur, Balurghat, Bongaon, and Barasat.
After the return to Bangladesh of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on January 10th 1972, I made plans to bring one of OXFAM’s landrovers, laden with urgently needed medical supplies, to Dhaka from Calcutta. On January 20th, I set off from Calcutta. We traveled very slowly as there were so many people walking back from West Bengal to their homes in Bangladesh. We stayed overnight at a Catholic Mission in Jessore where, earlier, an Italian Father had been killed by Pakistani army personnel as a punishment for giving humanitarian assistance to members of the Mukti Bahini. The next day we continued on our slow way to Dhaka and with the very long delay queuing for the ferry we did not reach the centre of Dhaka until about midnight.
I was advised by other aid officials to pay a courtesy call on Sheikh Mujib. My meeting with him is one I will never forget. I told him that I wanted his advice about what OXFAM might be able to do to assist in the rehabilitation and development of Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujib took his pipe out of his mouth and pointed the stem of the pipe at me. “How did you come here, young man?”, he asked in a booming voice. I told him that I had driven over land from Calcutta. “In that case”, he told me, “You have seen more of my country than I have, as I was a prisoner for over 9 months, so please tell me what my country needs. What have you seen?”
I told Sheikh Mujib that I had seen many villages that had been burnt down, many bridges and culverts blown up and many ferries, large and small, sunk in the rivers. I told Sheikh Mujib that, on behalf of OXFAM, I had already ordered, in India, £ 250,000 worth of C.I. sheets for a big house rebuilding programme and this would arrive by early March. I added that I thought that bridge building and replacement and repairs of ferries were more suited to bilateral and multilateral aid. “No”, Sheikh Mujib said, “Ferries are and will be the lifelines for my people. Please discuss with officials of the Bangladesh Inland Waterways Authority and see what OXFAM can do.”
Before I left him, Sheikh Mujib asked me about my experiences working with the people of Bangladesh in the refugee camps. As I spoke, emotion got the better of me and tears welled up in my eyes. Sheikh Mujib put his arm around me to comfort me and said, “Go young man, be strong, and thank you for coming to me and to Bangladesh.”
As a result of the meeting with Sheikh Mujib, OXFAM was able to procure 3 truck-carrying ferries and to assist the repair of many others. I remember that the Bangladesh Inland Waterways Authority wanted, understandably, to name the ferries after Liberation War martyrs but after the experience of getting to know the flora and fauna of Bangladesh and how they are part of the country’s poetry and music, we requested that the vessels be named after flowers. And so, Kamini, Kosturi and Korobi, were so named and they continue to ply across the Padma river at Goalondo to this day, some 40 years later. Today August 8th), I crossed there, and I felt drawn closely to my memories of that meeting with Bangabandhu.
Sheikh Mujib, I am sure, would strongly approve of the Government’s decision, earlier this year, to honour foreigners who assisted Bangladesh, in different ways, in 1971. I cannot think of any other country that has instituted such an honour. As one of the awardees, I have to say that the experiences of those four days (March 24 to March 28) are truly memorable. For me, it was remarkable to meet the son, daughters and grandchildren of foreign visiting dignitaries whom I had met in the refugee camps of 1971. We were able to share so many experiences. Of the 132, names, by then approved by the Cabinet, I was told that 110 persons could be contacted, and of those, 83 of the actual individuals or their representatives were able to come. Everything was wonderfully arranged and at all the lunches, receptions and dinners, everyone was so friendly and informal. It was an amazing experience that I remember all my life.
On the other hand, many of us were disappointed that at some of the functions we attended, we were asked, for security reasons, not to carry mobile phones and cameras. Imagine our surprise that on the morning of March 28th we were presented with an amazing professional photo album covering our four days of activities. A wonderful effort by all concerned.
Julian Francis, who has been associated with the development of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation, was, till recently, working with the DFID and Australian Aid supported Chars Livelihoods Programme which assists the extreme poor of the Jamuna, Brahmaputra and Teesta river basins to become self-sufficient.