The floods in the northwest of Bangladesh this year reminded me of the flooded refugee camps of 1971 where we struggled in very unsanitary flooded camps to keep the Bangladeshi refugees alive.
In early late July and early August, 1971, overseas telegrams and telexes were flying in and out of my Oxfam office in Kolkata related to the expected visit to the refugee camps of Senator Edward Kennedy, then Chairman of the US Senate Sub-Committee on Refugees.
Oxfam-America liaised closely with Edward Kennedy prior to his trip to India in August 1971 in his capacity of Chairman of a Senate sub-committee on refugee affairs. He came at a time when many of the camps were flooded and conditions for the refugees as well as the relief workers were appalling. We were able to accompany Senator Kennedy’s entourage as it visited camps in Kolkata, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and Tripura. After his visit, Senator Kennedy was quoted in the London ‘Times’ newspaper, on August 14th, that the refugee problem was “perhaps the greatest human tragedy of our times.” During his visit to the refugee camps, it was clear that here was a man full of compassion and concern, deeply moved and shocked by what he saw.
After his visit to the refugee camps, Senator Kennedy held talks in New Delhi with the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi and the Foreign Minister, Mr Swaran Singh. At the time, the newspapers were full of the news that a secret trial of Sheikh Mujib was underway in Pakistan. Senator Kennedy said, at the time, “I think that the only crime Mujib is guilty of is winning an election.” “The question of the trial being secret is an outrage to every concept of international law and a travesty to those who believe in international law.”
Before Senator Kennedy left New Delhi, he said that he had already opposed American arms supplies to Pakistan, and went on, “I will make every effort in the United States Senate not only to halt arms supplies in the pipeline but also those in the future and also to halt all economic aid until there is a political solution.”
Later that year, in October, in an attempt to shock and wake up the world, OXFAM decided to collect and publish statements of many individuals about the plight of both the refugees in the Indian refugee camps and the people inside East Pakistan who were slowly running out of food and hope. The ‘Testimony of Sixty’ was published on October 21st, 1971, in time to be distributed at the opening of the UN General Assembly. In his statement entitled ‘Mosaic of Misery’, Senator Kennedy pleaded that the entire world should accept the burden of the refugees. He wrote about his experiences of visiting the border crossing at Bongaon/Boyra.
“The very young and very old were exhausted from many days and night in flight-usually on foot. Many were in a visible state of shock, sitting aimlessly by the roadside or wandering aimlessly toward an unknown fate. They told stories of atrocities, of slaughter, of looting and burning, of harassment and abuse by West Pakistani soldiers and collaborators. Many children were dying along the way, their parents pleading and begging for help. Monsoon rains were drenching the countryside, adding to the depression and despair on their faces. To those of us who went out that day, the rains meant no more than a change of clothes, but to these people it meant still another night without rest, food, or shelter.
You see infants with their skin hanging loosely in folds from their tiny bones– lacking the strength even to lift their heads. You see children with legs and feet swollen with oedema and malnutrition, limp in the arms of their mothers. You see babies going blind for lack of vitamins, or covered with sores that will not heal. You see in the eyes of their parents the despair of ever having their children well again. And, most difficult of all, you see the corpse of the child who died just the night before.”
One week after it had been published, Senator Kennedy introduced the ‘Testimony of Sixty’ to the Senate and requested that as evidence of the ‘Crisis in Bengal’, it be reproduced in the Congressional Record. There was no objection and so the entire document forms part of the Congressional Record of the 92nd Congress. This was an example of Senator Kennedy’s commitment to help solve the problems that he had seen with his own eyes.
In August too, we were worried about the cold winter ahead as we knew it would take time to procure and transport warm clothing and blankets for the Bangladeshi refugees. The roads to the refugee camps we were supporting were often blocked with Indian military vehicles and hardware and it was difficult to reach supplies to places as far as Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam and Cooch Behar. Thousands of blankets and woollen clothing were about to be donated by the British people following planned campaigns of OXFAM, “Take a blanket off your bed” and “Send us your sweater: It can save someone’s life”. The advertisements in the British newspapers were to say, “Refugees in India are facing a new horror: death from exposure. Nighttime temperatures in winter can fall below freezing. Children and old people are being killed by the cold now. Healthy adults will not last the winter. Warm clothes are needed with desperate urgency – shawls, sweaters, cardigans – anything woollen.”
What worried me most was that many people were going to die from the cold and death from cold is as terrible as death through hunger. The very young and the elderly were most at risk.
At the same time, some of the senior community members were dreaming of going home to their villages in Bangladesh and, naturally, had a whole range of emotions. Happiness, joy but also some fear. What will they find if and when they get home? I asked one camp organiser what he was feeling about the possibility of going home. He told me, “You have tried your best to help us survive but life has been so hard. If I get back to my village, I will feel good even though my house might have been destroyed. However, home is home. But the memories of the suffering in the camps will be fresh in my mind always. I will remember 50 children fighting for one egg and the child in a queue for milk vomiting and collapsing. I will remember, in the mud, a woman heaving, groaning and giving birth. Oh, how I long to get to my home in Bangladesh.”