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OP-ED: The nightmares return

  • Published at 05:16 pm June 18th, 2020
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Remembering epidemics of the past in our country

Although everyone is rightly concerned about the Covid-19 pandemic and how much further havoc it can wreak on our country and our population, there are many of  us who take a bit of time to reflect during this “World Refugee Week” on how we were deeply involved in another epidemic, that of cholera, all those years ago in June 1971. 

A cholera epidemic which at that time threatened to sweep through Kolkata from the refugee camps of West Bengal. At one time, the director-general of health services of West Bengal appealed for millions of doses of cholera vaccine in order to vaccinate a “belt” of the population on one side of Kolkata. 

Within 72 hours, quite miraculously, the organization I worked for, Oxfam, and some American charities had managed to bring two million doses to Kolkata. As Thomas Jamieson of UNHCR said at the time: “The containment of the cholera epidemic was little short of a miracle.”

Repeatedly, I remember the June 1971 cholera situation which could have exploded and compare it to the current challenge of preventing an epidemic of Covid-19 in the Rohingya camps of Cox’s Bazar. It is to the great credit of all those working in Cox’s Bazar, the Bangladesh government, the UN, and the many national and international organizations that everything has been kept under control until now. 

It is also very important to recognize and understand the mental strain under which the personnel in the refugee camps are working. Even now, nearly 50 years after 1971, I have frightening nightmares and every time the nightmare ends the same way, with me standing ankle deep in a muddy West Bengal refugee camp holding the body of a dead Bangladeshi child.

It was on June 13, 1971 that Anthony Mascarenhas’s remarkable and lengthy article, “Genocide,” came out in the London Sunday Times: “Why the refugees fled: The first full eye-witness report of the horror when the troops went into E Pakistan.” 

By mid-June, an estimated 5 to 6 million refugees had come to India and on June 19, 1971, the Guardian newspaper, in an editorial, wrote: “ … in addition left behind in East Pakistan at the mercy of Yahya’s bayonets, there are further millions of whom at least many thousands must be in terror, misery, and near starvation. The event is a human outrage that, by any reckoning, is as monstrous as the whole war in Vietnam; and it is happening in an area of chronic poverty, sickness, and national disaster.”

People often ask me why do I write so much about the past and my reply is that it is most essential that everyone knows the correct history of this country and the struggle that millions endured. Also, as I have recently been informed, about 80% of the current population was born after 1971, so it is even more important to impart the correct history and to highlight eye-witness accounts of that time.

The late Marilyn Silverstone, an outstanding photographer with MAGNUM at the time, in Oxfam’s 1971 publication The Testimony of Sixty, wrote of her visit in June that year: “At one crossing point in West Bengal, a slippery track through flooded fields, in mud and pouring rain we counted refugees passing at the rate of 70 a minute in a continuous stream. That is over 30,000 a day from this one point alone, day after day. It is difficult for a Western mind to conceive the enormity of these numbers. Many had walked for four or more days. Saddest of all are the old people.”

The late Jim Howard of Oxfam, a legendary disaster expert, who visited our work in the refugee camps in 1971, wrote: “The people of East Pakistan are the people who do not move easily, whose only survival is to stay where they were born. Nothing has moved them; through the yearly floods and cyclones and then the great cyclone disaster last year, they have remained tenaciously on their land so there is something, some great power that is moving them now. The power is fear, the fear of death.

“My great concern at the moment apart from danger to India’s development program is that the world will regard these people as expendable. They are not. They must survive, they must not only be helped to survive, but finally they must be allowed to go back to their homes.”

In 1971, many of us tried heart and soul to keep everyone alive in the refugee camps which were often flooded but thousands of Bangladeshis very sadly perished. It is vitally important to ensure that during “Mujib Borsho” nobody dies of hunger because of the dislocations caused by Covid-19. Everyone should join hands in this regard and those government officials who have been “suspended” for alleged theft of relief supplies should be arrested and, if found guilty, punished. 

Suspension is NOT the same as punishment.

In the refugee camps of 1971 we also had to handle another epidemic, that of an eye infection -- conjunctivitis. Millions of tubes of chloramphenicol ointment and eye drops were flown in. The infection became known as Joi Bangla, and all of the refugees felt proud to be connected with the infection because of this! Memories can bring both tears and smiles to my face! 

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.

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