Looking through a friend’s eyes
Abu Tayub Mohammed Farhad

Lars Leijonborg never wavered in his support for Bangladesh. This is the concluding part of yesterday’s long form

  • The Swede in good company 
    Photo- COURTESY

On October 30, they left their hotel around 6am and started for Bangaon, an Indian city near Bangladesh border, said Lars, adding that the Washington Post journalist, Mr Hogland had also joined them.  

But the car carrying them broke down halfway through.

They, however, set off on foot with the help of a representative of Bangladesh government-in-exile whom they managed to contact and seek help from.

They came across a collapsed bridge by a small river where they met some other foreigners, including two American film-makers and a French photographer.

Boarding a makeshift ferry service arranged by a team of engineering corps working there, they crossed the river.

“We kept on advancing through villages across fields, until we reached Bangladesh. After walking a few more miles, we encountered a check-post where we were received by a small group of freedom fighters, who had earlier been informed about us,” he said.

Though he could not recall the name of the place they visited in Bangladesh territory after long 44 years, he said it was not very deep inside the country and close to the India-Bangladesh border. “The West Pakistani troops were about five kilometres away. On some occasions, we heard gunshots.

During our short stay in the liberated area, we met Mukti Bahini, saw bullet-riddled buildings, talked to some locals, and visited a post office,” said the then youth leader with a spark of excitement in his eyes.

As the darkness shrouded the night, both Lars and Thomas started moving towards India, and reached Kolkata in the morning.

On their way back, he said they had also seen herds of refugees moving towards the Indian border due to insecurity and uncertainty caused by the offensive of the West Pakistani military in other parts of Bangladesh. Later, they came back to Sweden, where Lars became active in creating public opinions for Bangladesh.

After independence, Lars, former Swedish minister for higher education and research, said he along with Thomas, who later became a businessman, visited independent Bangladesh in 1972, being invited by the Bangladesh embassy in Sweden.

“We were received as statesmen. There was a Bangladeshi flag on the limousine we were given for use,” said the then 22-year-old Swedish youth leader, adding that he had been honoured for his role, which he never thought of.   

After these long years, he could not recall all the places he had visited during his maiden visit to independent Bangladesh.

“Though I mostly stayed in Dhaka and met ministers and government officials there, I went to Chittagong Hill Tracts and visited the hydroelectric power station (situated in Kaptai); there was a sightseeing tour by boat, among others,” said the then youth leader, who graduated from Stockholm University in 1974.

His fascination for Bangladesh was so profound that he wrote his Bachelor’s thesis on the newly-adopted Bangladesh constitution. With a smiling face, he said he had the only copy of the Bangladesh constitution in Sweden then; therefore, the instructor borrowed the copy from him to evaluate his thesis.

His prior activism for Bangladesh and knowledge about the country motivated him to choose the topic of thesis.

Terming the killing of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman “horrible,” Lars opined that Bangladesh should stick to the basic principles which inspired the country’s Liberation War, and which were later included in the country’s first constitution.

Bangladesh has honoured a total of 338 foreign nationals and organisations as an expression of gratitude in three categories -- Bangladesh Freedom Honour, Bangladesh Liberation War Honour, and Friends of Liberation War Honour -- for their outstanding support and contribution during the country’s independence.

A total of three Swedes received such awards from the Bangladesh government for their roles that boosted the country’s freedom struggle significantly.

Swedish citizen late Gunnar Myrdal had been awarded the “Liberation War Honour” (posthumous).

On October 20, 2012, Lars received “Friends of Liberation War Honour” award at a state function in Dhaka.

Another Swede, Sven Strömberg, also a journalist and television coordinator, received the same award on the same day for creating public awareness and sympathy towards the cause of Bangladesh’s Liberation War in the Scandinavian countries.

Comparing his two official trips to Bangladesh in 1972 and 2012, Lars said: “Bangladesh has progressed unbelievably over the years.”

There were enormous changes in every sector of the country.

People were richer -- there were more cars in 2012 than in 1972, he optimistically said. On the other hand, the country is plagued with multi-layered social problems, including overpopulation, poverty, and corruption, which should be addressed in a right manner, he pointed out.

In spite of different problems in the country, the friend of Bangladesh said: “People are still very friendly.”

Interestingly, after so many years, the 65-year-old former politician has not stopped soul-searching: “Sometimes I ask myself whether my role in favour of a free Bangladesh in 1971 was right or wrong.”

“When I see that Pakistan is fighting with different problems, including terrorism, suicide bomb attacks, military dictatorship, and so on, I feel very good inside that my activity for a free Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) from the oppression of West Pakistan (now Pakistan) was absolutely right,” he said.

“I am proud of the honour Bangladesh gave me,” the friend of Bangladesh added. 

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Abu Tayub Mohammed Farhad

Abu Tayub Mohammed Farhad is pursuing his Master's degree in global journalism from Örebro University, Sweden.