It is narrated by Aesop that once a crow dressed in peacock’s feather came to the assembly of peacocks. The peacocks, who jealously guard their bright colors, quickly identified the pretender and chased her away. I am aware that like Aesop’s crow, I came with borrowed plumage to this assembly of eminent persons. May I plead in my defense that I have no special credential to be at the rostrum let alone address this august gathering. The lone credential that legitimizes my presence here is that I was born in a remote village in Sylhet, Bangladesh and in that village, I spent a chunk of my life. I had my elementary schooling in that area before my parents relocated me to Maulvibazar to have better education. Then I moved to Sylhet and studied at the Murari Chand College for two years. My parents felt that I should seek higher education and the Dhaka University would be the best option for me. I see some familiar faces in this hall with whom I have had the privilege to be associated during my days at the Dhaka University.
Following the Liberation War, I joined BRAC, now the largest NGO in the world, and was assigned to remote areas of Sunamganj which went through colossal destruction at the hands of the occupation army. I led a massive reconstruction program in the area and facilitated the rehabilitation of schools and construction of community centers. Cooperative societies were reorganized restoring the rights of the members, who hitherto were treated as workers and paid on daily basis. By creating a cadre of health workers villagers were provided, for the first time, health care services. Women were organized to take lessons on vocational training and teach the same to others. Teachers were recruited and trained to conduct functional education to adult population in villages. Girls graduated from the Dhaka University were hired and assigned to work with the women in the villages on subjects ranging from child care to population control. I feel pride that at the beginning of my career I was able to serve the population of the region I came from.
I would receive the officials of donor agencies in the project area and many, while admiring the resilience of our people, would ask how long Bangladesh would need foreign assistance to support its growing population given its meagre resources. The 1974 famine which killed, according to government estimate 62,000 people but other sources put the casualty at 100,000, brought this question of our economic survival at the center of discussions with donor representatives.
My journey with the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) began in 1977 in Dhaka. I crisscrossed the country from Teknaf to Teutulia. I saw the magnificent house of the Maharaja of Gauripur and the people living in the mud-houses in Jamalpur. This belied the long-held myth that human beings are born equal. Human beings were never born equal- it was true at the dawn of the civilization and remains true even today. My assignments with BRAC and later on with WFP enabled me to remain engaged with the people and gave me unique opportunity to be acquainted with their hopes and aspirations.
Kurigram was one of the areas severely affected by 1974 famine though the rest of the country was not spared. Unclaimed dead bodies were seen lying in the streets of Dhaka and other cities. Anjumane Mofedul Islam, the philanthropic agency, did a commendable job in collecting the dead bodies and arranging the burial. Government efforts to mobilize food grains in the remote areas met with limited success.
The famine receded with the arrival of imported of food grains and harvest of winter crop. But it dealt a severe blow to the government. People had experienced food shortage many times in the past, but a famine of this magnitude was unprecedented since 1943 Bengal famine. The shock generated by famine and the unrest orchestrated by JSD perturbed the government. The opposition political parties who had unsuccessfully challenged the government in the past adopted a different strategy. They persuaded Banghabandu to introduce one-party system to lift the country from the poor state of affairs. They assured unconditional support. In January 1975, one party system was promulgated through a resolution (Fourth amendment) in the parliament.
Famine raised ominous signals again in 1979. The government kept a watchful eye on the availability of food grains and its movement especially in the northern part of the country. It sought WFP’s assistance, in advance, to circumvent any catastrophe. Reports appeared in the newspapers on food situation in Kurigram were sometimes worrisome and raised anxiety in the government and the donor community. My boss told me frankly that if required, I should relocate myself to Kurigram, to keep him updated on the food situation in northern region. WFP Headquarters in Rome was alerted on the situation unfolding. The safety net program was expanded in different areas and large number of people were provided basic food rations for months. Preparedness and timely intervention averted an impending food crisis.
I left Dhaka in 1984 and moved from one country to another for nearly 24 years. I became nomadic like Upen of “Dui bigha jome”. “Shonyasi beshe firi deshe deshe hoya shadur shishya, koto herilam monohar dham koto monohar drisha. Vudere shagore vojono nagare jhakon jhekhane vromi, kobu vulite parene shai dui bigha jhomi.” There is insignificant difference between Upen and me. Upen was evicted from home and became an acolyte of a monk. I however, made a conscious decision to leave the country in search of bread and butter, and became a musafeer.
My first international assignment was in Cambodia. The country was just healing from the oppression of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. A new regime was installed jointly by the Soviet Union and Vietnam. But the insurgency remained active in the outlying districts. The members of the international community used to stay in Phnom Penh, the capital city, with opportunity to visit the outlying districts infrequently. Mr. Hun Sen, the current Prime Minister, was Foreign Minister at that time. I met him on number of occasions. He would not speak English and our conversations were always routed through an English-speaking Director of the Foreign Ministry. Despite generous assistance channeled through UN agencies Hun Sen maintained profound disdain against us. He was critical of UN agencies lavish assistance to 200,000 Cambodian refugees living in the camps in Thailand. Hun Sen suspected that insurgents were having access to humanitarian assistance provided by the international community.
WFP, on the other hand, would come under intense criticism for not doing strict monitoring on the utilization of food assistance in Cambodia. The donors and especially the countries hostile to Cambodian government were suspicious that Hun Sen administration was diverting humanitarian assistance to support its own military and Vietnamese troops deployed in Cambodia. Though diversion of humanitarian resources was conceivable, the criticism was more political than substantive.
There was a weekly flight to exit from Phnom Penh via Saigon, renamed as Ho Chi Minh city. Air France flight would, once a week, take hundreds of Vietnamese immigrants to Bangkok on way to the United States. After the fall of Saigon, Vietnamese married to American troops and service men and their relatives could immigrate to the United States. Under the arrangement, called Orderly Departure Program (ODP), about half a million Vietnamese migrated to Europe and the United States during 1980s.
After serving three years in Cambodia I was transferred to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was undergoing a two-front civil war. Tamil guerrillas (LTTE) were fighting for separate homeland encompassing northern and eastern regions predominantly inhabited by Tamils. At the same time an extremist group, known as JVP, was spearheading armed rebellion against the government in southern districts to establish a kind of socialist society. LTTE acquired significant strength with the help of India and by 1987 the writ of Sri Lanka’s government virtually ceased in the northern and eastern parts of the country. At the mediation of New Delhi, a peace agreement was reached between the government and LTTE in 1987 granting autonomy for the Tamil regions. LTTE was disarmed and Indian troops were deployed in the north and east to protect the civilians and LTTE cadres. A semblance of peace dawned in the North and Eastern regions.
The peace was, however, short lived. Armed confrontations broke out between the Indian troops and the LTTE. Indian troops with its superior fire power pushed the LTTE into deep forests but LTTE continued to inflict severe casualty to Indian troops. Meanwhile, Premadasa became the president and he demanded withdrawal of Indian troops from Sri Lanka. New Delhi, after some hesitation, acceded to Colombo’s request and troops were withdrawn. LTTE and government representatives began peace talks which lasted for months. LTTE regrouped and returned to the battlefield in 1990. The peace talks collapsed.
JVP led a ruthless fight against the government. Once a soldier took leave and went to see his ailing mother in the south. JVP cadres stormed his house at midnight, put the barrel of the gun in the mouth of the mother and asked, “where is your son?” The boy came out. He was killed, and his dead body was left in front of the mother to mourn. President Joyverdana lamented at Lahore SAARC summit and said, “This is how human beings are behaving after hundreds of years of teachings by Jesus, Prophet Mohammed and Buddha. JVP leader Vijayvera was arrested in 1990 from a hideout not far away from Colombo. He was summarily executed. The movement gradually died down.
LTTE continued its offensives against the government troops and Sinhalese politicians. By 1992 most senior Sinhalese political leaders were annihilated by LTTE. In the May Day parade in 1993, President Premadasa was assassinated.
The brutal civil war came to an end a few years ago. It is far from clear how much reconciliation the government has made to restore confidence in the Tamil community. According to Amnesty International, Tamils continue to be discriminated by the government. We tend to forget history is always relevant. The mirror of the past gives a better view of the present.
During my days in Dhaka I have heard about the Jalalabad Association. It was a club of the seniors. The association would honor prominent citizens from Sylhet. Following my retirement, I took residency in the outskirts of Washington D.C. Jalalabad Association does not exist in the D.C nor in the neighboring states.
In New York, Jalalabad Association exists in addition to numerous upazilla associations. On the top of it, our community members have been vigorously pursuing the political agendas of major political parties of Bangladesh in the United States and Canada. Consequently, the community is being fragmented.
Jalalabad Association should revisit its objectives. It cannot ignore the sufferings people are undergoing in different parts of the world? Look at what is going on in Yemen, Syria, Palestine. Pregnant women and women with new born babies are running to escape airstrikes in Yemen. Not all are lucky- many are killed while fleeing. There is food shortage, shortage of water, shelter and medicine. Humanitarian assistance are not adequate and whatever is available cannot be sent to the people in need. Yemen has been an impoverished country and the civil war has only worsened the situation.
Situation is Syria is equally heart breaking. The Washington Post published an interview of a recently arrived Syrian woman. She said her family had a furniture shop in Damascus and was having good time. One afternoon a group of people with flowers in hand came out in the street and demanded good governance. Police opened fire, and some were killed and many were arrested. On the following week, bigger demonstrations came out and there were more bloodsheds. She was pregnant, went to a hospital and gave birth to her third child. She returned home with the baby. Weeks later, she took the baby to the hospital for medical care. The hospital was bombed and her baby was killed. Now she came to the United States with her family as refugee. She complains, “they killed my baby.” Seven years of war has killed about 400,000 people and displaced half of the population. Four million became refugees.
Over a million Rohingya have been expelled by Burma and they are now living in the makeshift camps in Bangladesh. There has been worldwide condemnation against Burmese army’s atrocity on the Rohingya population. UN, OIC and EU have urged Burmese government to create conducive environment for the refugees to return home. This will take time. They need food, shelter, clothing and health care as long as they remain in the camps.
My question is what have we done for these people? Have we done enough? I believe Jalalabad Association should mobilize the community and urge the Canadian government to exert diplomatic and economic pressure on belligerent governments to restore peace and stop expulsion of the people from their homelands. Jalalabad Association will better serve the community and by extension the humanity, if it remains united under single leadership. Unity breeds strength.
The participation of women in the conference has been painfully negligible. Their attendance is utmost important to convey the message to our next generation. The members of the Association should enlarge socialization with compatriots from other districts as well. We are an integral part of Bangladeshi community.
I regret for not being chronological in my narrative. I express my deep gratitude to the organizers of this event. I strictly observe the etiquette of a stranger and a guest. I apologize for my ignorance and admire my host’s handiwork.
*The writer is a former official of the United Nations.