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OP-ED: Remembering the fallen

  • Published at 09:28 pm October 29th, 2020
war rubble ruin

Wars and killings never seem to go away

“Why on earth are you wearing an artificial red flower on your shirt?” someone asked me the other day as I waited for treatment at a local hospital. I explained, at quite some length, that every year in Britain and other countries of the world, we remember those who gave their lives in different wars to keep the world free. 

I explained that the second Sunday of November is observed as Remembrance Sunday in the UK. The First World War (1914-18), known then as “The Great War,” was regarded at that time as “a war to end all wars,” meaning that many people believed that such a war would never happen again. 

Many of the fallen soldiers lost their lives in the poppy fields of Belgium and many of the military cemeteries are in those areas too. A few years after the end of this war, in which about 10 million members of all armed forces perished as well as 10 million civilians, the poppy flower was adopted as a symbol to remember those (of all countries-allies and enemies) who lost their lives, and November 11 is observed as the Day of Remembrance because the Armistice or cease-fire was effective at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, November of 1918. With the addition of the Second World War, Remembrance Sunday became much more important as the loss of life worldwide, military and civilian, rose to 50 to 70 million.

Remembrance Sunday eight years ago actually fell on November 11, and so felt a little more special for me to observe. 2018 was also particularly important, as it was the centenary of the end of “The Great War.” My maternal grandfather lost his life in May 1918 at the age of 33, and left my grandmother and three small children behind. 

A paternal great-uncle, after whom I am named, also lost his life during the same war. In the Second World War, my father was one of a handful of radar scientists who kept ahead of the Germans in the development of radar for fighting by air. One of my uncles was a fighter pilot and another in the army in Europe. So, I think of them and remember them all.

As children, we grew up in the 1950s, when post-war rationing was still in force, and learned from our parents about the horrors of war. Our parents hoped and believed that wars would not happen again, but in fact, there have been wars, big and small, going on, somewhere in the world, nearly every year since then.

As a young man of 26 years, I came, unexpectedly, face to face with the horrors of war when I was responsible, on behalf of Oxfam, for the care and welfare of about 600,000 Bangladeshi refugees in many of the more than 900 camps in the Indian states bordering Bangladesh. The many individual stories of the murder, torture, and rape of Bangladeshi civilians by Pakistani soldiers and their Razakar and other helpers, which I heard, are still clearly etched in my memory and I still often have sleepless nights.

It is also significant that I am writing these few lines of my memories and feelings a few days before November 3, “Jail Killing Day” -- one of the blackest days in the history of Bangladesh when four men, who had been involved in masterminding the Liberation War and had served in the government of Bangladesh, were brutally murdered inside the Dhaka Jail. In 1971, I had the great pleasure of meeting two of them, Tajuddin Ahmed and AHM Kamaruzzaman, in Kolkata, on a few occasions to seek their help and advice which was invaluable in terms of distribution of relief materials in “free and liberated” Bangladesh. 

I particularly remember the warmth and friendliness of Tajuddin Ahmed, who was prime minister of Bangladesh at the time. A meeting had been fixed for me to meet him at his Theatre Road office. When I reached his office, he was not there, because he had been called to a meeting with Indian government officials. 

The next day, I received a beautifully handwritten letter from Tajuddin apologizing for not being able to keep the appointment. He went on to say: “I understand that you work late at night and often walk home to your flat in Auckland Square. Please drop in at any time for a cup of tea.” 

This I did, and established a wonderful relationship with him. Much later, in late January 1972, when I came to Dhaka, Tajuddin and Kamaruzzaman welcomed me with great warmth and friendship and arranged for me to have a memorable meeting with Bangabandhu.

Many people say “never again,” meaning “no more war,” but somehow wars and killing never seem to go away…

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.