The teeming variety of life on Earth is made possible by the Earth’s heat transfer system. The atmosphere transfers heat by sending cold winds from north to south and hot winds from south to north. And the oceans transfer heat, through underwater currents and through storms and cyclones.

When warm ocean air rises, the air pressure on the ocean surface falls and the winds pick up. Over the open ocean, where there are no obstacles, the winds pick up faster. Sometimes the winds are buffeted by countervailing systems and peter out. At other times, as the ocean creates more and more warm, humid air on its surface, a chain reaction takes hold, creating a storm.

If this happens more than five hundred miles from the equator, the winds are sent spinning by the rotation of the Earth, creating a cyclone.

Water follows the wind. In the open ocean, the wind moves water in currents, underneath the surface, which may ripple with small waves. However, when the wind comes to shore and reaches the shallows, the water under the surface can go nowhere, but up. Into a storm surge.

The height of the storm surge depends on the angle at which the storm or cyclone approaches the coastline and whether the tide is ebbing or flowing. It is higher the more gently the continental shelf slopes away from the coast and the more the coast is shaped like a funnel. Like the Bay of Bengal.

On the chars, the flat islands in the mouth of the Bay fashioned by the ebb and flow of the tide from silt deposited into the estuary, the vast majority of inhabitants have two good options when a cyclone comes their way: evacuate, or take cover in a cyclone shelter. In isolated areas, where evacuation is difficult, there is only one good option.

After the 1960 cyclone in the Bay, the Pakistan government was advised to build cyclone shelters in the coastal areas. Few, if any, such shelters were built.

November 12, 1970

In the Bay of Bengal, November can be the cruellest month. The cyclone of November 1876 may have claimed 4,00,000 lives. Ninety-four years later, sometime in the first week of November, 1970, the winds picked up over the Malay Straits. They formed a tropical storm, and then, a cyclone. Headed down the funnel of the Bay of Bengal.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sent repeated warnings to the Pakistan Met Office: a large cyclone had formed and was headed for East Pakistan. Did the Pakistan Met Office relay the warning to the coastal communities in the Bay of Bengal? If they did, no one on the islands heard it.

Satellite image of Cyclone Bhola. Photo credit: Courtesy/ Dhaka Tribune

Cyclone Bhola made landfall on the evening of November 12, sixty miles west of Chittagong. At high tide. The winds came first, gusting at up to 140 miles an hour (225 km/h). And then the storm surge. A black wave, thirty feet high by the time it reached the coastline.

The black wave engulfed the chars, the flimsy thatched huts, the little plots of rice, the wells. It engulfed the sharecroppers, seasonal harvesters, and fishermen, their wives and children, scrambling out of their rickety beds. It swallowed their chicken coops, goats, and cattle, and everything they owned. To change, in an instant and forever, the matchstick lives of the men, women and children, who risked it all to live on the chars.

Where there was no warning, no shelter and nowhere to run.

November 14, 1970

Archer Blood, the American consul-general in Dhaka, poured some coffee and picked up the morning paper. “Several hundred feared dead as cyclone hits coastal areas,” read the headline in the Pakistan Observer. It was a Saturday morning, but he was not taking any chances. Eric Griffel, the local mission director of the US Agency for International Development, was already in the consular office in Dhanmondi when Blood arrived. They started placing calls. They needed a handle on the scale of the destruction and loss of life. They would be expected to brief the US State Department, and guide the US government response.

Blood and Griffel were puzzled. If repeated warnings had been issued to the Pakistan government, what were people still doing on those islands? Had they not been warned? And surely cyclone shelters had been built, in one of the most cyclone-prone places in the world?

By Monday, the Americans had the organisational structure in place for their response. Blood and Griffel would run the working group in Dhaka. The AID Disaster Relief Division of the State Department in Washington, DC would coordinate the airlift operations and serve as information clearing house.

According to Monday’s edition of the Pakistan Observer, the Pakistan government had disaster response teams up and running over the weekend. Medical teams had been dispatched to remote areas stricken by the cyclone, and navy vessels and army helicopters were distributing relief supplies to survivors.

It did not take long for the Americans to realise that this was not the case at all. There had been no discernible response by the Pakistan authorities. It also became clear that the loss of lives from this cyclone was going to be worse than in 1960. Much worse.

Blood contacted the US Embassy in Islamabad. The ambassador needed to get to Dhaka, as soon as possible.

November 16, 1970

The president of Pakistan, General Yahya Khan, peered out of the cabin window. They would be leaving Chinese airspace any time now. What a trip it had been. A “major event,” the Chinese press had called it.

It was one of the most lavish welcomes ever given to a foreign head of state. Zhou Enlai himself had greeted him at the airport. Hundreds of thousands had lined the streets on the drive into Beijing, loudspeakers blaring Pakistani songs. And in the city, something few leaders received: a parade in his honour at the vast square in Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

The trip had been a smashing success. The weapons they had received from Beijing over the last four years had equipped three Pakistan army divisions, not counting the tanks and anti-aircraft guns and the Chinese-made MIG-19s. But they needed more arms. On terms, they could afford. And Yahya had gotten them.

For sure, the Pakistan military build-up was taking longer than the army leadership would have liked, but what could they do? With the American and British embargos on arms shipments to Pakistan still in place, and Russia supplying India with weapons, China was one of the few options left to them.

Of course, the real reason for the ostentatious welcome was a closely guarded secret. Outside of the Chinese leadership, only four people in the world knew about it. No one, not the press, not even the US State Department, had any inkling. Only Nixon, his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, the Pakistan Ambassador to the US Aga Hilaly and Yahya himself were privy to it.

The US had no diplomatic ties with China, so Nixon needed a go-between. Yahya was ideal: the head of a military regime allied with the US in the Cold War, in a cash-strapped country dependent on foreign aid and foreign arms, across the border from China.

Kissinger had initially approached Yahya in 1969. “Help me visit China and meet with their leaders in absolute secrecy and President Nixon will be very grateful,” Kissinger had whispered. Yahya did not need a second invitation.

Operation Marco Polo, the Americans called it. Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing would be the first-ever visit to Communist China by a cabinet-level American government official. And Yahya was the man that the most powerful nation on Earth had entrusted with the job of arranging it. A meeting that would shake the world when its purpose was revealed. But that was in the future.

Right now, Yahya had some good news to deliver to his paymasters in the White House: Beijing had given the plan the green light. Kissinger would tour Asia next summer, with Pakistan as the last stop. Yahya would provide cover while Kissinger flew to Beijing, alone. As far as the world was concerned, Kissinger would be recovering from a bout of food poisoning at Yahya’s retreat in the hills above Islamabad. No one could know the truth. Not even their own governments.

Yahya was counting on Nixon to be grateful for his services, and for the gratitude to be expressed in the form of money and weapons. Embargo or no embargo. US dollars and potentially American fighter planes. Oh, the boys in uniform back in Pindi were going to like that.

He yearned to head straight back home, but there was a stopover to make in East Pakistan. A cyclone on the coast, apparently. He was expected to inspect the disaster and make some sort of statement. Well, it was cyclone season after all. What did they expect? And there was a provincial government in East Pakistan, was there not? What did this have to do with him?

East Pakistan Governor Ahsan and Relief Commissioner Anisuzzaman were waiting for Yahya when he landed in Dhaka. The helicopter would be the best way to inspect the disaster site. That will take too long, Yahya said. As the three of them jetted over the disaster site, Yahya gazed down at the expanse of water stretching to the horizon. It was hard to make things out from three thousand feet in the air. What was that, a cow? Who knew they could float like that?

Survivors of Cyclone Bohla begin the clean-up after the massive storm hit South Asia in November 1970. Photo credit: Courtesy/ Dhaka Tribune

The plane banked to the north and returned to Dhaka. The press was waiting. Very sorry for what happened, he told them. I have instructed the governor and the relief commissioner to spare no effort to help the victims. But it does not look too bad. With that, he climbed back into the jet. There was a lot of celebrating to do. Peerzada and the boys were waiting for him. But why wait? He poured himself a scotch and settled into his seat.

The presidential plane accelerated down the runway, took off, and disappeared from sight. It would be ten days before the president of the country was seen in the disaster-stricken province again.

November 18, 1970

The US ambassador to Pakistan, Joseph S Farland, made his way to the consul general’s residence in Dhanmondi. The State Department had decided to organise a US military airlift to the disaster area. He needed to be in the province to oversee the operation.

Floodwaters had blocked roads and rail lines, leaving crores on the coast without adequate food, drinking water, clothing and medical supplies. With no functioning roads or runways, the only way to reach them was by helicopter. There were four Pakistan government helicopters in East Pakistan, but only one of them worked. Finding helicopters was the first order of business.

The second order of business had little to do with the survivors. The world’s press was making a beeline for East Pakistan. And they were asking obvious, if inconvenient, questions.

Why had the Pakistan army not been mobilised to provide disaster relief to their own citizens? Why had Pakistani military helicopters not been sent from West Pakistan to the eastern province? The US had previously supplied the Pakistan government with C-141 military cargo planes, designed precisely for tasks such as airlifting helicopters, had they not?

The Pakistan regime replied that it was too expensive and impractical to ship helicopters from one province to another, especially with the ban on Pakistani aircraft over Indian airspace. Other countries could surely supply the helicopters for relief operations. The State Department said nothing.

More questions from the press. Why were the Americans sending choppers to East Pakistan from an air force base in North Carolina, on the other side of the world? There were American helicopters in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, including hundreds in Vietnam. Would that not be quicker? The State Department sent instructions to staffers: tell anyone who asks that sending helicopters from the US is actually more efficient.

Worse, the press was reporting that helicopters already offered by the US had not been deployed, because the Pakistan government was insisting that only their military pilots could fly them. Coming on top of the regime’s refusal to send their own helicopters from West Pakistan, this did not look good at all.

The US was caught in the crossfire between the international press and the Yahya regime over the disaster response. The State Department cables to Dhaka became increasingly agitated. We are being blamed by the press here for the Pakistan government response, Washington complained. Please urge the authorities in Pakistan to do more, and please ensure the American relief efforts obtain positive press coverage, they pleaded.

Farland and the State Department did their best to refute the helicopter pilot story. The Pakistan foreign ministry chimed in. We never made any such demands, they claimed. It was all an unfortunate misunderstanding, apparently. It was the British who had been asked to turn over their army helicopters to pilots from Pakistan, not the Americans. Two days hence, the first batch of American choppers began airlift operations.

The American government was caught in a bind. For the more the US did for the disaster relief effort, the more problems they created for the military regime they were allied with. Especially in East Pakistan.

November 20, 1970

Jon and Candy Rohde stepped out of the plane and onto the landing strip at Chittagong Airport. This was the nearest airport to a devastating natural disaster, yet the only sign of activity, other than their fellow passengers from Dhaka snaking their way into airport arrivals, were two pilots loading what looked to be sacks of grain into their single-engine Pilatus Porter crop dusters.

The storm devastated countless offshore islands, wiping out entire villages and destroying crops, livestock. Photo credit: Courtesy/ Dhaka Tribune

The American couple strode across the landing strip to the little planes. The pilots introduced themselves as Noel Kinvig and Bill Sharp. Bill and I flew over the disaster area immediately after the cyclone hit, Noel informed them. The people in the remote areas are in bad shape. So we asked our employers if we could suspend the crop dusting and drop food to survivors instead, he continued. So far, we are the only ones flying out of here to the disaster site.

The next morning, Jon was riding along in the frigid cabin, as Noel banked the little plane over the chars, barely twenty feet above the flattened paddies. At each shout of “Now!” from the cockpit, Jon kicked another 80-pound (36 kg) burlap sack of grain out of the open door. They had to fly low, or more sacks would burst on impact. And Noel had to be careful not to drop a sack on top of someone. It would be fatal. It was a crude game, in many ways, for only the strongest could run after the sacks. Getting relief to survivors and distributing them equitably, Jon realised, were two different things.

It had all been Candy’s idea. We have got to do something, she had exclaimed, the day the news had broken about the cyclone. She was with her good friends and neighbours Runi and Viquar Choudhury, in their unfinished house in the Gulshan neighbourhood of Dhaka.

Viquar’s income as a public defender was nothing to brag about, but their home was filled with art, conversation, and friends. Runi and her sister Putul were immediately on board. Why don’t you and Putul go to Chittagong, Runi said to Candy. I will call our friend Fazle Abed. I am sure you can stay with him there.

Jon had been sceptical at first. Disaster relief required serious resources, he pointed out. What could she accomplish? And I have work to do at the cholera hospital, he reminded her. I cannot just drop everything and leave for Chittagong.

Jon and others at the Cholera Research Lab were promoting a cholera intervention that had the potential to save tens of millions of lives, across the world. The solution would come to be known as “orsaline” and Cholera Research Lab would eventually be called International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh. We can help one village, Candy insisted, and that can inspire others. Besides, she pointed out, someone had to do something.

By the middle of the week following the cyclone, the Pakistan government was still claiming the death toll was 40,000, but press estimates of fatalities had skyrocketed, into the hundreds of thousands.

His work at the hospital could wait. Jon grabbed a nine-horsepower motor from the Cholera Research Lab supply depot and took his seat on the flight to Chittagong, next to his wife. When governments downplay the scale of a disaster, Candy thought to herself, they only serve to delay the appropriate response.

Candy and Putul had already set up shop in Fazle Abed’s house in Chittagong, earlier in the week. The tastefully decorated company residence was turned overnight into an impromptu staging base and go-down for a make-shift disaster relief operation.

Candy’s energy and enthusiasm rubbed off on the young Shell Oil executive, and soon he was on the phone to the local Lions and Rotary clubs, as well as his company managers. Two aluminium dinghies were quickly delivered, from the Shell supply depot at Kaptia dam. Lighter boats would be needed to reach some of the chars.

On Friday morning, Candy watched as their first shipment of relief goods was loaded onto the boat out of Chittagong, bound for Hatiya Island, one of the larger disaster-stricken islands, 80 km into the Meghna estuary.

The rice, fuel, pots and pans, matches, saris and lungis had been bought with funds raised from their friends in Dhaka and the Lions and Rotary Clubs in Chittagong.

It was one week after the cyclone, yet their shipment was the only visible relief goods that were loaded onto the boat.

They needed a way to deliver more relief goods, more efficiently. Back at Abed’s house, Candy and Putul came up with a plan. With Noel’s cooperation, they could airdrop supplies to the chars, especially the ones that were difficult to reach by boat.

With air support, their relief operations would expand exponentially. But they needed a way for the volunteers on the ground to communicate with Noel. They needed signal flags.

The next day, Candy and Putul tore apart white sheets and a red sari. They needed a large flag to mark the drop zone, and flags to signal to Noel what to bring on the next sortie.

They cut the sari into red letters. W for water, M, MB, MO and MP for various medical supplies, C for clothes, F for food, FO for cooked food, G for glucose and S for salt. Candy and Putul worked feverishly, stitching late into the night. Jon and his crew of volunteers were leaving for the chars first thing in the morning.

November 21, 1970

The first reports were coming back to the US Consulate in Dhaka from the American helicopter overflights and landings on the island of Bhola. Homes and structures made of concrete had survived the cyclone, but little else.

There were no indications yet of cholera or typhoid outbreaks. Contrary to expectations, few survivors appeared wounded. But up to half the population of some villages had perished.

On the day of the incident, the number 10 great danger signal was announced on the radio. Photo credit: Courtesy/ Dhaka Tribune

The American pilots reported seeing bodies of men, women, children and livestock strewn over the beaches and shorelines. One army colonel reported that the devastation was worse than anything he had seen in four years of combat in Vietnam.

For the survivors, the pressing need was food, especially food that could be consumed quickly. Rice crops within two miles of the shore were all destroyed. Farther inland, some crops survived and survivors managed to salvage some rice. But most were starving.

Food was available, piling up in storage in Dhaka and elsewhere. But how to deliver it to survivors? The Pakistan military could do it, as they had done after the 1960 cyclone. But they were nowhere to be seen. The national press reports suggested that Pakistani army units were repairing roads in Bhola. The American reconnaissance missions found no trace of those units, anywhere.

The civilian authorities appeared to have only a vague grasp of the situation. Relief Commissioner Anisuzzaman had first requested blankets, warm clothing, tents, wheat and money for building materials.

Now he made a call for field hospitals. But starving people needed food, not building materials or hospitals. Without reconnaissance from the field to inform decisions, the Pakistan authorities were relying on guesswork.

By now, the airport at Dhaka was buzzing with soldiers wearing uniforms of many countries. But few wore Pakistan army uniforms. Locals noticed Pakistan army soldiers weeding and watering plants in their barracks.

And where was the president of Pakistan? Or any Pakistan government minister, for that matter? There was no sign of them, anywhere in East Pakistan.

It was nine days after a disaster that had left as many as 5 lakh dead in East Pakistan. And the Pakistan government and its military were nowhere to be seen.

November 23, 1970

As the coastline of Hatiya Island slowly disappeared behind him, it occurred to Jon that this might not have been such a good idea. They were out in the open seas, with no means of navigation, in a 12-foot aluminium dinghy, fitted with a nine horsepower motor. In cyclone season.

All those weekends Jon had spent on boats would be useful now, for sure. How his two shipmates, Viquar and Mahmoud, felt about the situation, he was not sure, but if the tension on their faces and in their shoulders was anything to go by, they were having similar thoughts.

They had met Mahmoud the previous day. He and his group of engineering students had just returned to Hatiya island from a devastated char west of Hatiya. There is no one helping them there, the students informed Jon. He turned to the good professor: could you guide us to this island tomorrow morning?

They had chosen the direct route to Manpura island, risking the mud banks and shallows. The country boats, heavy with their relief supplies, were taking the safer passage, through the deeper channels.

On board the motor launch that towed the country boats were the other volunteers Jon and Candy had rounded up in Dhaka: Al, Richard, Geoffrey and Asheque from the Cholera Research Lab, Steve from the Ford Foundation, and their friend Zakaria.

Like the other chars, Manpura lay inches above sea level. Jon had barely spotted it before he was assailed by the smell. The fetid, wretched odour of decomposing bodies and putrefying flesh.

There were so many bodies sprawled on the beach, it was difficult to find a landing spot without running over the other bloated, disfigured remains of what had been one of the island inhabitants. There was not a sound coming from the shore. Was anyone alive?

They did not have to wait long before survivors emerged. Silent, befuddled, unsure whether to believe that someone may have come to help them.

They had survived by clinging to the tops of palm trees, long enough for the storm surge to subside. Their clothing hung in strips from their emaciated bodies and their chests, arms and thighs were macerated from the bark of the trees.

They were younger, sinewy men. Not the elderly, not women and not children.

Once the country boats arrived, word spread through the island. More bedraggled survivors turned up, some of them using the last reserves of their energy.

Jon and the rescue team formed them into lines and spent the rest of the day distributing food and supplies and treating palm tree burns.

In four hours, they tended to 1,400 survivors. All but four were men. Only one was a child.

All the rice crops were destroyed. All that was left of their homes were bits of bamboo, thatching and corrugated tin hanging dismally from the palm trees. The only structures on the island still standing, they learned, were the school building and one concrete residence.

The survivors had stayed alive for eleven days by drinking polluted water and eating rice that they clawed out of the mud, along with the occasional coconut. When the hunger became too much to bear, they gnawed on the roots of banana trees.

At the end of the day, the volunteers cooked their own dinner of stew and rice. Jon had not eaten since five in the morning. But he could not eat. Overwhelmed by the odour of rotting corpses, the thought of eating turned his stomach.

He wandered down the beach. Two little boys, naked, clung to their father. How had they survived? He placed a pot of food in front of them. The children did not move. Go ahead, eat, Jon said. They stared at him, eyes glassy and fearful. What were they afraid of? Why did they not eat?

They have not eaten for eleven days, sahib, their father explained. They cannot believe this food is for them. He coaxed his two sons into digging their scrawny fingers into the bowl. The children began eating, frantically.

It had been a long day. The hardest day of his life. Jon lay down on the desolate beach, next to the uncomprehending misery of the survivors, alongside the putrefying corpses of humans and animals, blanketed in the all-enveloping stench of death, under the inky blue night sky of the Bay, glinting with stars coursing through the heavens. He closed his eyes and wept.

November 26, 1970

Two weeks after the cyclone, helicopters had become a common sight in the skies above Bangladesh. Twelve American helicopters were in operation by November 20, and choppers from Britain, Germany and France now joined them.

Fourteen Bell UH–1H (“Huey”) helicopters had been disassembled and loaded onto C-130’s at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina, unloaded and reassembled in Dhaka, and then flown to their staging base in Begamganj, Noakhali.

The Hueys, familiar the world over from the nightly television news footage of the ongoing Vietnam War, were the workhorses of the American military, able to carry 1,800 kg of cargo up to 450 km without refuelling. The US Mission in Nepal had sent two smaller choppers.

The sixteen helicopters, along with crews, ground vehicles, and relief workers from the US Army’s 182nd Aviation Company formed Task Force 182, under the command of US Air Force Colonel Charles Parsons.

At the US base in South Vietnam, the US Army 314th Tactical Airlift Wing loaded C-130 transport planes with medical supplies, rations, lanterns, tarpaulins, generators, radios, trucks, trailers and other supplies and equipment. By December 13, the Airlift Wing would send seventeen tons of equipment and supplies to Dhaka, and Parsons and his Task Force 182 pilots, flying constantly back and forth between Begamganj and the disaster site, would distribute 4.5-lakh kg of food and other supplies to cyclone survivors.

The Bengali public was grateful for the American humanitarian effort. But the more that they saw Americans, and other governments, doing to help the survivors, the more it fueled their anger towards their own government.

A ship lies half-submerged after Cyclone Bhola. Photo credit: Dr Alfred Sommer/ Dhaka Tribune

On November 26, two weeks after the cyclone, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned to Dhaka from the disaster zone. At a packed press conference, he thanked the foreign nations that had come to their aid.

But this help and support, he continued, only underlined the criminal negligence of the Pakistan government. A government, Sheikh Mujib continued, that was guilty of cold-blooded murder in its response to the disaster.

He ended with a warning: if the elections were delayed once again, East Pakistan would leave the union.

Three days earlier, at a rally in Dhaka, MaulanaBhashani, leader of the National Awami Party, had called for Yahya’s resignation. It was the first time a major political figure in East Pakistan had been heard to say such a thing, at least in public.

Bashani did not have the mass following or influence of Sheikh Mujib, but he had his finger on the pulse of the Bengali public. The political situation had become explosive.

November 27, 1970

Yahya hurried to East Pakistan. The elections would go ahead as planned on December 7, he announced at a press conference.

There may be some delays in the disaster affected areas, but I have no doubt whatsoever that they would take place at all other polls, he said. He pivoted to his government’s disaster response. I understand people have criticised our response to the cyclone. It is an emotional situation, he acknowledged.

He defended his decision to stay in Islamabad. In a disaster of this magnitude, it takes time to mount an operation, he explained. And the place to do that is from the seat of government. You cannot run around like a madman. My government has done its best for the survivors, he concluded, but there were people writing sensationalist stories to cash in on human misery. Look, a cyclone came, and people died. That is not my fault.

December 7, 1970

Almost 40 helicopters, from Britain, France, Germany, the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia as well as the US, were clattering back and forth between their staging bases and the devastated coastal communities by the time the country went to the polls for the long-awaited national elections.

Voting in nine seats in the disaster zone were postponed until the following month, but all other polling stations were open, on schedule, on election day.

Never before in Pakistan had so many turned out for an election. For the first time in the country’s history, all adults, including women, could vote in a general election. There were few reported incidents. By all accounts, the election was free and fair.

The regime was confident. With so many parties contesting the election, they expected the vote to be fragmented. With no single party gaining a majority in the National Assembly, any agreement on a new constitution was unlikely.

At any rate, the Legal Framework Order that the regime had created for the elections gave the generals veto power over any new constitution and any new legislature. Whoever took the reins of civilian government would do so only at the army’s pleasure.

A few days before the election, Hilaly had visited East Pakistan to see the cyclone relief efforts. He took the opportunity to dispense some wisdom to Archer Blood.

Are you Muslim, Mr Blood? Blood admitted that he was not, indeed, a Muslim. Do you know how Muslims think? Again Blood answered in the negative.

Then let me explain, Hilaly went on, warming to his subject. Muslims in villages do what their local religious leaders tell them to do. And what they will have been told is to vote for the Muslim League parties and the parties loyal to the government. Do you think people there will listen to some college student from the Awami League? They will do as they are told, he concluded.

The final tally would come in more than a month later, after polling in the nine seats in the disaster zone were completed. Out of the total of 162 National Assembly seats that were contested in East Pakistan, the Awami League won 160. The Muslim League and other parties loyal to the regime won one seat.

Cyclone Bhola had offered the military regime an opportunity to bring a divided country together. The regime had pointedly turned its back on it. In so doing, they had crossed the Rubicon. Nothing would ever be the same.

It was ten days after the cyclone that my men and I were sent to the disaster zone, Major Rafiqul Islam of the East Pakistan Rifles would recall, many years later. We could not believe what we saw. That was when my men and I realised that we could not stay together as one country. That was when we realised how much they hated us.

In the Bay of Bengal, November can be the cruellest month.

Rezwan Hussain is a writer and researcher in Dhaka.

This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune.