Remembering the things that mattered to him
When I came to Dhaka in January 1972, I was advised by the UN, and British and other aid officials to pay a courtesy call to Bangabandhu. My meeting was organized by Tajuddin Ahmed who I had met a few times in Calcutta in 1971 when he was prime minister of the Mujibnagar government.
My meeting with Bangabandhu is one I will never forget. I told him that I wanted his advice about what a relatively small organization like Oxfam might be able to do to assist in the rehabilitation and development of Bangladesh. Bangabandhu 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 Kolkata. “In that case”, he told me, “you have seen more of my country than I have, as I was a prisoner for over nine months, so please tell me what you think my country needs. What have you seen?”
I told Sheikh Mujib that I had seen hundreds of villages that had been burned down, many bridges and culverts blown up, and many ferries and launches, large and small, sunk in the rivers. I told Sheikh Mujib that, on behalf of Oxfam, I had already ordered, in India, 250,000 pounds worth of CI sheets for a big house rebuilding program and these would arrive in Bangladesh 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 exclaimed: “Ferries are and will be the lifelines of food supplies for my people. Please discuss with officials of the Bangladesh Inland Waterways Authority and see what Oxfam can do.” As a result of Bangabandhu’s urgent suggestion, Oxfam was eventually able to cover the costs of three ferries -- Kamini, Korobi, and Kasturi -- and also the repair of many more.
Bangabandhu’s concern for children
Before I left him, Bangabandhu asked me about my experiences working with the people of Bangladesh in the refugee camps and what I would remember most. It was as though he wished to share the pain of his people. As I spoke, emotion got the better of me and tears welled up in my eyes.
I told him that I would always remember most of all the plight of the children and that so many thousands never lived to see, enjoy, and appreciate their new country. They perished because of acute hunger and disease (a rough estimate is that over 1 million children perished in the refugee camps in India and among the 20 million internally-displaced people inside Bangladesh).
Bangabandhu wiped his own eyes and put his arm around me and asked me more details about the state of the children in the camps. “I will always remember 20 children fighting over one boiled egg and on another occasion 10 children fighting over one chapati,” I told him and added, “In the same camp I saw a child in the milk queue vomit, collapse, and die and nearby a woman groaning and giving birth in the mud.”
I told Bangabandhu that I had met parents who had given up hope of ever seeing their children well again. I told him that I will never forget seeing infants with their skin hanging loosely in folds from their tiny bones-lacking the strength even to lift their heads. Also, seeing the children with legs and feet swollen with edema and malnutrition, limp in the arms of their mothers.
From my time with Bangabandhu in early 1972, it was so very clear how concerned he was about the children, particularly the new generation of Bangladeshis.
In 1975, still with Oxfam, I was based in New Delhi and on August 15, together with my family, I was watching India’s Independence Day celebrations on the television when the program was interrupted with the news of the assassination of Bangabandhu and his family members. I remember being numbed by shock and disbelief and burying my head in my hands.
Now, 45 years later, I still get very emotional when I remember that day in 1975.
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.