The presence of Rohingya refugee camps at Ukhiya and Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar’s has brought back painful memories for many survivors of the Liberation War in 1971, when millions of Bangladeshis became refugees and took shelter in India.
According to UN and Indian government statistics, more than 10 million people crossed into the neighbouring Indian states of West Bengal, Meghalaya, Tripura and Assam during the nine-month conflict.
Forty-six years later, some 655,000 Rohingya refugees now reside in Bangladesh, according to International Labour Organisation (ILO).
The Cox’s Bazar district Civil Surgeon, Abdus Salam, told the Dhaka Tribune that according to their statistics, there are 152,000 children aged under five among the newcomers. Of these, at least 11 had died in the shelters from malnutrition, diphtheria and pneumonia.
According to several INGOs operating in the region, the number of children aged under 18 could be well over 300,000.
For people who lived and worked in the camps in 1971, the sight of children suffering carries an element of déjà vu. Children, in plain sight, were one of the worst victims of the atrocities in 1971.
During a seminar in Dhaka in November, Indian war veteran Brigadier (retd) RP Singh evoked his own painful memories of 1971.
He said: “During those nine months, I witnessed the most cruel and brutal behavior of Pakistani Army against innocent, unarmed Bangladeshi civilians. Small babies were flung into the air by the Pakistani soldiers and impaled by rifle bayonets. The sadistic perverseness of Pakistani Army had crossed all limits.”
However, the magnitude of the suffering of children during Bangladesh’s Liberation War remains largely neglected. How many children were abused, killed or died as a consequence of the war and displacement has never been accurately documented.
Several studies, research and reports by the media have drawn a harrowing picture of the refugee camps in India, describing children dying from malnutrition, diphtheria and pneumonia. But there are no statistics anywhere.
A 2012 report titled “Bangladesh 1971: A Genocide and Refugees – Ripples in the Pond”, by researcher Bina D’Costa, said gender-based violations of rights of the displaced communities, especially in the highly militarised, violent and chaotic environments, received almost no attention from justice advocacy groups working in Bangladesh in 1971.
The US-based “Women Under Siege Project” of the Women’s Media Center have reported that girls as young as eight and women as old as 75 were detained in Pakistan military barracks, where some became victims of mass rape. The report was based on interviews with survivors.
Australian doctor Geoffrey Davis was brought to Bangladesh by the United Nations and International Planned Parenthood Federation to carry out late term abortions on rape victims. He believed the quoted figures of 200,000 to 400,000 rape victims were “an underestimation”.
However, no statistics indicate how many girls were raped during that time.
Julian Francis was the coordinator for Oxfam in Kolkata during 1971. He worked at the refugee camps situated at the Bangladesh border, especially in West Bengal.
In recent years, he has written several articles in the Bangladeshi media where he has said that, at least in the first few months of the conflict, it was difficult for the head offices of the UN and international NGOs like Oxfam to accept the scale of the crisis portrayed in the reports that were coming to them from Kolkata.
He said he would never forget the babies with their skin hanging loosely in folds from their tiny bones, lacking the strength even to lift their heads. The children with legs and feet swollen with edema and malnutrition limp in the arms of their mothers.
Liberation War and history researchers say the government has no initiative to discover and preserve the statistics of child rights violations during 1971.
Now that 46 years have passed, it is nearly impossible to accumulate the records of tortured, raped and killed children, they said.
Liberation War researcher and Professor of History Muntasir Mamoon said one of the reasons why there are no separate statistics is that the accounts of child rights violations were merged with either genocidal rape or killing.
According to Muntasir, there are no records of how many children were killed by the Pakistani military, how many died during the escape to India with their families, or died while they were returning home from refugee camps.
“Before the Awami League government took office in 2008, no government had bothered to preserve the history of the war,” Muntasir said. “Since 2008, the government has been working to preserve the history but the efforts have not been comprehensive.”
The professor alleged that the number of rights violation that took place during the Liberation War has not been touched by the government yet.
Maj (retd) Qamrul Hasan Bhuiyan, chairman of the Centre for Bangladesh Liberation War Studies, also lamented the lack of records. “Only some of the case studies or stories of young freedom fighters were documented by researchers”, he said.
Noted writer-researcher Mofidul Haque said after the Liberation War, the primary task for the country was to rebuild and keeping systematic records was very difficult.
“When it was difficult to ensure basic human rights, keeping records was a daydream,” he said. “However, the government should have taken effective initiatives later to preserve history accurately.”
Rights activist and lawyer Sultana Kamal said child rights violation statistics that were recorded after the Liberation War were mostly oral statements from women who were raped.