The story of the 10 million refugees taking shelter in India forms an important chapter in the history of the Liberation War of Bangladesh and I was fortunate to be part of this story in a very small way, thanks to the great work done by Oxfam
Clearly upset by the resounding electoral success of Awami League under the leadership of Bangalee nationalist leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and in no mood to hand over power to the leader of the elected representatives, the Pakistan Army started its 'Operation Searchlight' on the night of 25th March, 1971 to quell the independence movement of the Bangalees in the then East Pakistan.
The Pakistan Army unleashed a wave of brutal atrocities against the innocent and unarmed people of Bangladesh (the independence of the country was declared by Bangabandhu just before he was arrested by Pakistan Army on that fateful night in March, 1971).
The Pakistan Army launched a pitiless and fierce crackdown, lining up hundreds of Bangalee men before firing squads, exterminating many in colleges and universities, raping women and burning villages after villages, forcing a tidal wave of people to cross over the border to neighbouring India.
It is estimated that nearly 10 million people fled their motherland with painful memories of carnages and atrocities to the bordering states of India – mainly to West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura.
Hindus were specially targeted as the Pakistan Army blamed them for supporting the Awami league that led to their electoral victory in December, 1970. There was a sizeable number of Muslims too who fled the wrath of the Pakistan Army.
This influx of millions of refugees was a huge burden for India to shoulder, affecting it both economically and socially.
But the Indian government and also the general public did welcome the refugees with open arms and made all efforts to help them.
A number of international charitable organisations took prompt action to alleviate the sufferings of those who had to take shelter in overcrowded make-shift camps dotted around the border states. A small number of refugees stayed with friends and relatives.
My family also had to take refuge in India after undertaking an arduous trek through the hills of Chattogram Hill Tracts and finally reaching Ramghar and crossing the border at Sabroom.
After being looked after at a college hostel in Agartala for three days, we took another strenuous journey by bus and train for four days from Agartala to Kolkata, through the states of Meghalaya and Assam.
Eighteen members of our joint family used to sleep in two rooms in a building in Meher Ali Road, Park Circus, Kolkata.
It was in Kolkata that I got myself associated with the international charitable organisation Oxfam which had been looking after an estimated 600,000 refugees in the camps, mainly in West Bengal, but also in the border states of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura.
During that period, Kolkata became the hub where international relief agencies had set up their offices.
One day, I bumped into Brother Raymond Cournoyer, a former principal of my Alma Mater, St. Placid's School, Chattogram. I was delighted to see Brother Raymond and, he in turn, enquired about my family and took me to the New Kenilworth Hotel where Oxfam had set up its office to co-ordinate its relief operations.
Brother Raymond, as we used to call him, returned to Canada in 1965. He later joined Oxfam-Quebec and in 1971 was appointed Field Director, Oxfam, Eastern India and East Pakistan.
As refugees started arriving in India, Raymond Cournoyer very quickly set up an administration office in Kolkata to oversee the relief operations. It was in the New Kenilworth Hotel that I was introduced to a young Englishman, Julian Francis, who was the coordinator of Oxfam's relief operations.
My initial responsibility was that of Store-in-Charge. Oxfam had set up a huge warehouse in Dharmatala, Kolkata, to store its relief materials that included blankets, utensils, medicines and other household materials.
My duties entailed receiving the goods and dispatching them to the various camps operated by Oxfam. After a month, I was called to the office by Julian and was entrusted with a bigger responsibility.
My new assignment was to visit all the Oxfam-operated refugee camps bordering West Bengal, reviewing and assessing the work and then preparing need assessment reports.
As a young man and a refugee myself, I felt lucky to have been given this extremely responsible role in Oxfam's huge relief operation in helping fellow refugees.
Julian Francis was really instrumental in all these and helped me throughout. I had to travel six days a week and visit various camps where my duties included talking with people, stock-taking, monitoring, etc. The reports I prepared were sent to Oxfam's head office in Oxford to help them in identifying the future requirements.
I was once asked if I had encountered any extraordinary event during my visits to the camps. Each visit was extraordinary, because whenever I saw people queuing up for help, which included food, medicine, warm clothes and blankets, I felt very emotional, as I was also one of them.
I would tell myself that these people were not supposed to be in this condition. The heaviest days for me were when I saw people I knew queuing for relief materials.
But, at the same time, I felt proud that I could be of some help to them as a fellow refugee and Oxfam was there to help them. I thought, that was my small contribution to my country's War of Liberation.
Apart from its relief operations, one of the biggest tasks that was accomplished by Oxfam in 1971was the publication of "The Testimony of Sixty on the Crisis in Bengal".
This was Oxfam's effort to shock the world's leaders into opening their eyes and waking up to the growing tragedy. These were eye-witness accounts of the tragedy, statements and articles written by famous persons, such as Mother Teresa and Senator Edward Kennedy and well-known journalists such as Anthony Mascarenhas, John Pilger, Nicolas Tomalin, Clare Hollingworth and Martin Woollacott.
Only a week after it was published in October 1971, Senator Edward Kennedy brought "The Testimony of Sixty" to the attention of the US Senate, and it was published in full on October 28, 1971 in the Congressional Record.
Julian Francis played a pivotal role in the compilation of this historic document. He worked hard to collect some of these statements and wrote one himself as well.
The scenes of jubilation in the refugee camps at the news of the surrender of Pakistan's armed forces to the Allied forces on 16th December, 1971 will forever remain with me.
The slogan 'Joy Bangla' was reverberating from all corners of the refugee camps, more so, because the refugees were eagerly looking forward to returning to their motherland, which has now become an independent country after nine months of an armed struggle.
Oxfam undertook a huge repatriation programme for the refugees as millions were trying to return at the same time and this created health and sanitation problems at the borders.
I remember seeing thousands of people stranded at Bongaon for days before they could return to Bangladesh and we had to deal with the immediacy of the problem by providing food, drinking water and sanitation facilities on an urgent basis.
The story of the 10 million refugees taking shelter in India forms an important chapter in the history of the Liberation War of Bangladesh and I was fortunate to be part of this story in a very small way, thanks to the great work done by Oxfam.
The writer is a senior journalist, political commentator and sports analyst