“Why have you come here today”, asked a young woman at Shahbagh last Friday. “What do you think of it all”, he added. I replied, “I came to absorb the atmosphere here and I think that this is an important part of the history of Bangladesh.” I went on to explain that I was present in Dhaka when democracy ‘returned’ to Bangladesh in December, 1990 and I remember how Mirpur Road in Dhanmondi was packed with rejoicing people after midnight on the day that President Ershad stepped down. The emotions then and at Shahbagh now are, in some ways, similar. The most striking aspect is that most of the people leading everything at Shahbagh were born after 1971 and so, even though it is early days, it appears that the spirit behind the Liberation War and the emergence of Bangladesh is going to be in safe hands in the future.
It is most unfortunate that a section of people in Bangladesh continue to deny that there were millions of collaborators in 1971 that assisted the Pakistan Army in acts of gruesome violence and genocide. In 1971, I was responsible, on behalf of Oxfam, for supplementary care of about 600,000 Bangladeshi men, women and children living in refugee camps, and I saw with my own eyes and heard the verbal evidence of acts of brutality experienced by the refugees from the hands of the Pakistani soldiers and their helpers, the so-called Peace Committees, the Razakars and the para-military members of Al-Badr and Al-Shams.
It is particularly poignant that this outpouring has started in the month of Ekushey. After all, the young led the Language Movement in 1952. They were fearless then and they fear nothing now even though there is a section of misguided youth determined to unleash a reign of terror, attempting to silence those at Shahbagh. It is also significant that the day of One Billion Rising takes place at this time too, because this movement itself has a strong link with the Liberation War when hundreds of thousands of women endured unbelievable suffering at the hands of the Pakistan Army and their collaborators. Lines of men and women joined hands on February 12th for 3 minutes of silence to press for war crimes justice and I joined the line of young men and women where Kemal Attaturk Road links Gulshan with Banani. Later, some asked me to spend time with them in a nearby coffee shop and to recount my memories of 1971 and the early, difficult, days of Bangladesh. The young are determined to learn the accurate history of the birth of Bangladesh.
What has particularly struck me is the friendliness of the young people in the crowds at Shahbagh. They were sitting, sometimes for hours, next to complete strangers and all were helping each other with snacks, water and sometimes a shoulder on which to sleep! This great community spirit is something Bangladesh needs in all walks of life. Helping each other and one’s neighbours, keeping the community free of litter and pollution, driving safely and politely, to mention a few. I anticipate that the youth of Bangladesh will bring forth more shining examples in the days to come.
Julian Francis has had an association with Bangladesh since 1971, was honoured in 2012 as a foreign friend of Bangladesh for his role in the country’s War of Liberation in 1971