As Coordinator of the refugee relief programme assisting 600,000 Bangladeshis, I was sitting in my OXFAM Refugee Relief Office near Park Circus, Calcutta on 21st February 1972 when I was informed by a very alarmed office messenger that a few hundred men, women, and children were outside waiting for me and were shouting my name. Had they come from one of the camps to make a complaint, I wondered?
I went outside and the spokesman of the group of nearly 500, told me that they had decided to start for home on an auspicious day. He proceeded to explain to me the historical importance of ‘Ekushey’ and how that year was the 20th anniversary of the day when, because of the Bangla mother language, people had lost their lives due to Pakistani police firing. “Ekushey is one of the main reasons we have our own country now,” I was told. The refugees had come from a camp quite near Calcutta, called Digberia.
The organisers of this large group of refugees reminded me of how grateful they all were during the monsoon months of 1971, that I had arranged to provide harmoniums and tablas in all the refugee camps connected to OXFAM. They said that this music had not only helped to improve the health of all inhabitants of the camps, especially the children, but also helped them keep Bengali music, culture, and language very much alive. With this they felt, they were always going to have a better future when they were able to return home.
They explained that they had come to say goodbye and to thank OXFAM for everything that had been done to assist them. One of them had carved a vase made of bamboo and some woollen flowers on wire stems had been placed in it. It is a gift that I have treasured for many years.
My visitors that day had heard that I had gone by road to Dhaka a couple of weeks earlier, and asked me to tell them in detail about my journey and what I had seen. Therefore, I was able to prepare them for the worst while hoping, against all odds, for the best. In my own mind, the spirit of Bangladeshis like the ones who came to see me today, 43 years ago, is how Bangladesh has progressed and developed so much ever since. The sky is the limit and so much more is possible.
This is how I remember ‘Ekushey 1972.’
Julian Francis has had an association with Bangladesh since 1971, and the Government of Bangladesh awarded him with “The Friends of Liberation War Honour” in 2012 in recognition of his role in the country’s War of Liberation in 1971.