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Op-Ed: Why Oxfam produced the ‘Testimony of Sixty’

  • Published at 01:13 am October 21st, 2020

Today marks 49 years since the publication of a collection of eye-witness accounts from 1971

October 21, 2020 marks the 49th anniversary of the publication of the “Testimony of Sixty,” a collection of eye-witness accounts of the tragic situation in Bengal (East and West) at that time, in 1971. 

In addition, October 28, 2020 marks the 49th anniversary of the publication in the United States Congressional Record of the full text of the “Testimony of Sixty.”

The “Testimony of Sixty” of 1971 was an attempt to shock and wake up the world to the ongoing crisis in Bengal. The world, again and again, needs to be rudely woken up to the current Rohingya crisis. “The Centre for the Study of Genocide and Justice” of the Liberation War Museum brought out, in 2017, a “Testimony of Sixty” related to the Rohingya refugees and, to shock the readers, used the 1971 format. 

The Centre for the Study of Genocide and Justice also published a powerful report entitled “The Rohingya Genocide: Compilation and Analysis of Survivors’ Testimonies.”

As I am the only person, currently living and working in Bangladesh who was personally involved, in 1971, with the collection of many of these eye-witness accounts, I thought readers would be interested to learn how and why Oxfam decided, in 1971, to publish this document.

Planning ahead

In 1971, I had the responsibility of coordinating the relief efforts of Oxfam-UK, which was assisting approximately 600,000 Bangladeshis in many refugee camps in the border areas of Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam, Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Siliguri, West Dinajpur, Balurghat, Barasat, and Bongaon. 

As we were unsure how long the tragic situation would last, at any one time, we were always planning and budgeting for six months ahead, and in September 1971, we were assessing the future cost of assisting the refugees through the winter which, in many areas, would have been severely cold. We needed regular and large sums of money each month.

This campaign, Oxfam’s biggest ever relief operation after Biafra (1968-70), and before Kampuchea (1979), meant that Oxfam’s fundraising effort and publicity had to be second to none -- better than ever. 

To raise funds for a crisis which appeared to be never-ending needed a sustained fundraising strategy using advertisements which would both inform but also shock people into giving. As the winter of 1971 approached, and with it the need for blankets and warm clothing, Oxfam ran campaigns to “take a blanket off your bed,” “buy a new sweater for Christmas and throw your old ones to Oxfam,” “you know what a lot of people are praying for this Christmas? A swift and merciful death.” 

The British Post Office, at the time, charged nothing for sending blankets and warm clothing by parcel postage if addressed to Oxfam, and the Royal Air Force air-freighted the blankets and warm clothing to Kolkata.

Difficult to comprehend

For those of us who have forgotten or are too young to remember, there were an estimated 10 million Bangladeshis existing in about 900 refugee camps. The logistics of feeding and caring for such a large number of people even now, after so many years, are difficult to comprehend. How was it done? It was done through the heroism of so many, and these men and women never sought fame or credit but insisted that they were just doing what had to be done. Most of them were refugees themselves.

To those who, in 2020, still question if genocide by the Pakistan army and their collaborators took place, I can only say that on numerous occasions, over a period of seven months, when I visited the refugees, I saw traumatized families who had witnessed the murder of their loved ones. 

On my visits to the refugee camps where Oxfam was making some sort of difference, I became used to seeing dead bodies, mostly children, lines of people queuing up to use latrines and some, with acute diarrhea, not making it in time. In the camps where there was no supplementary support to the aid being given by the Indian government, the situation was much worse. 

I saw many refugees dying, mostly the very young and the very old. They did not die in peace or with dignity. They died of hunger, in the mud. They died of cholera and they died of cold.

It was difficult to keep the crisis on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. The news of the genocide of March 25, 1971 put it on the front pages, and with the outbreak of cholera in May and June, the humanitarian crisis was front page news once more. Again, when the camps got flooded that year, it was front page news. By September 1971, the British newspapers had headlines of “carry on dying,” “can the refugees ever go home?” and “Pakistani famine is worse than Biafra.” 

However, Oxfam at its Oxford-based head office decided that it must find a way to shock the world’s leaders to an even greater extent, to make them open their eyes and wake up. In a surprisingly short space of time, eye-witness accounts of the tragedy were collected and published as “The Testimony of Sixty on the Crisis in Bengal.” This carried statements and articles written by famous persons such as Mother Teresa and Senator Edward Kennedy, and well-known journalists such as Anthony Mascarenhas, John Pilger, Nicolas Tomalin, Clare Hollingworth, and Martin Woollacott. 

I personally collected many of the statements from people in Kolkata and I remember one day sending a telex to Oxfam full of statements which took 75 minutes to send over the wires. Copies of “The Testimony of Sixty” were handed over to many heads of governments, and its publication coincided with the opening of that year’s General Assembly of the United Nations where it was distributed to all ambassadors to the UN. 

The day before the official publication date, October 21, 1971, the British Post Office assisted Oxfam with telephone directories from all over the UK to pile up 49 million names on the pavement outside an Oxfam shop, which was situated at 49, Parliament Street, London. 9 million represented the number of Bangladeshi refugees at that time in India, and the other 40 million names represented the number of people displaced inside (then) East Pakistan who were facing extreme hunger.

Senator Edward Kennedy brings it to the US Senate

It is interesting to record that, although the US was firmly supporting Pakistan in 1971, Senator Edward Kennedy, who had visited India and the refugee camps in August 1971, brought “The Testimony of Sixty” to the attention of the US Senate, and it was published in full on October 28, 1971 in the Congressional Record, only one week after it was published by Oxfam in the UK. Introducing the “Testimony of Sixty” to the United States Senate, the Congressional Record states the following:

“Mr President, the crisis in East Bengal is a story of human misery on a scale unequaled in modern times. It is a story of systematic terror and military repression, of indiscriminate killing and the killing and dislocation of millions of civilians. It is a story of death and disease, of too little food and water, of fetid refugee camps without hope, and a countryside stalked by famine.

“And throughout it all, the world has barely murmured a word.

“Perhaps this is because we are conditioned in the world we have created to accept such suffering and injustice. To many, the plight of the Bengali people is just another link in the chain of war-ravaged populations stretching around the world in recent years.

“But perhaps, Mr President, the public is silent because it does not know.

“To bring the facts more forcibly to the public’s attention, the noted British charity, Oxfam, has recently published an impressive brochure entitled ‘The Testimony of Sixty’ on the crisis in Bengal. No one who reads this document can remain unmoved or uninformed as the plight of the Bengali people.

“To share this eloquent statement with members of the Senate, I ask unanimous consent that it be printed at this point in the record.”

It is important to place on record that, although the US government supported Pakistan at that time, there was a huge outpouring of generosity and concern by the American people who put the fledgling Oxfam-America clearly on the map at that time. In addition, over half a million dollars of medical supplies donated by American companies were sent to Oxfam for use in the refugee camps, and later, after liberation, in Bangladesh. 

Documenting the suffering

In 2007, the Liberation War Museum brought out an English facsimile edition so that more people could learn about the history of how this nation was formed and the pain and suffering that was involved, and on December 16, 2009, Prothom Alo published a Bangla facsimile edition which has reached many more readers.

This, then, is the story of how this historical document was prepared and why it was prepared. As someone who witnessed the very painful birth of Bangladesh, I am astonished that there are many who still deny that genocide took place in Bangladesh in 1971. 

I strongly recommend that they read “The Testimony of Sixty” wherein the eye-witness accounts will bring tears to their eyes.

Not long ago I was reminded that about 75% of Bangladesh’s population was born after 1971, so it is important that they know some of the true history of the emergence of Bangladesh and to also ensure that everyone comes to terms of the genocide which has over the last few decades, and particularly since 2017, taken place in the Rakhine State of Myanmar.

Julian Francis has worked for many years in Bangladesh with poverty alleviation programs and disability related programs. In recognition of his work in 1971, the Government of Bangladesh bestowed on him ‘The Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in 2012 and in July 2018 he was honoured with the Citizenship of Bangladesh.

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