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OP-ED: A giant of a man with a very big heart

  • Published at 01:38 pm September 13th, 2020
Father Richard William Timm
Father Richard Timm, a former principal of the Notre Dame College and superior of the Congregation of Holy Cross in Dhaka, has died in the US at the age of 97 Collected

In remembrance of Father Timm

It is difficult to know where to start when recalling the life of Father Timm. He contributed so much to Bangladesh over more than six decades, and there are others who worked closely with him over the years that can relate more detailed accounts of the work that he inspired and accomplished.

I first heard of Father Timm as a result of the remarkable relief and rehabilitation work done after the 1970 cyclone undertaken by HELP, the organization set up with the help of the late Fazle Hasan Abed -- when he was still working in Chittagong for Pakistan Shell -- and supported by a number of Dhaka-based people working with the Cholera Research Laboratory (now iccrd,b). Father Timm helped to coordinate and oversee the work in Manpura. He experienced some very tense moments when dealing with the West Pakistani military who did not care if Bengalis died.

Although many foreigners had to be evacuated after the Liberation War starting from March 25, 1971, Father Timm remained in Bangladesh. It may not be widely known that letters and information about the then ongoing genocide sent by Father Timm to United States senators had a significant effect in putting pressure on the US government to stop arms supplies and other assistance to Pakistan.

At a time when millions of impoverished refugees were returning to Bangladesh from January 1972, as an Oxfam representative, I first met Father Timm in Dhaka. 

Father Timm, who always had extraordinary reserves of energy, was deeply involved with the relief and rehabilitation activities of CORR (Christian Organization for Relief and Rehabilitation). It was one of the biggest programs undertaken by NGOs and supported by many international donors. Dr Jon Rohde and his wife Candy, both of whom had been deeply involved with HELP but were now in the US, were encouraging other donors to consider supporting the work of CORR. 

Later on, Oxfam funded the work of CORR to support the training and employment of abandoned and abused women in making jute products; Oxfam and other organizations started buying those products for sale abroad. Although Oxfam closed its business some years ago, the organization, now named “CORR-The Jute Works,” has a thriving export business.

The younger generation knows Father Timm as someone deeply concerned with all aspects of human rights, and for inspiring the setting up of the first association of NGOs. ADAB (Agricultural Development Agencies in Bangladesh) was set up in 1974. In 1983, the name was changed to Association of Development Agencies in Bangladesh.

Over the years, Father Timm was involved with many surveys related to human rights, including garment workers, tea garden workers, and indigenous peoples. He was instrumental in setting up the Coordinating Council for Human Rights in Bangladesh. His work on human rights issues earned him the prestigious Magsaysay Award in 1987.

It is a matter of great regret that successive governments did not approve Father Timm’s applications for Bangladesh citizenship. His strong criticism of human rights abuses and deaths by “crossfire” were said to be the reasons. It was, however, right and proper that the government honoured him with the “Friends of Liberation War Honour” at a ceremony in March 1972.

I was honoured to be sharing the attention with him on the same day. The citation for Father Timm reads: “Father Richard William Timm helped the Mukti Bahini secretly during the Liberation War. 

He tried to create public opinion in the world by sending secret reports of the torture and genocide in Bangladesh. For this humanitarian gesture, Father Richard William Timm is awarded the Friends of Liberation War Honour.”

I will always remember Father Timm’s mischievous sense of humour. He said to me, “How is it that I understand what you say to me much more clearly than others?” I replied, “Father, I know you are deaf and you stubbornly refuse to use a hearing aid. Also, my hearing was damaged by a Tamil Tiger bomb in Sri Lanka so I automatically speak more loudly!” Father Timm replied, “In that case, in my prayers, I will thank the Tamil Tigers for that bomb!”

And millions of Bangladeshis thank God for sending Father Timm to this country. 

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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