Following a violent tropical cyclone that smashed into the southern coast of then-East Pakistan in November 1970, causing the deaths of over half a million people, the Disasters Emergency Committee, a consortium of British overseas aid charities, raised millions of pounds to finance a humanitarian relief program for the affected people.
Resources poured in from all over the world. I saw on television news reports of the relief work that was being carried out and the aid being sent to Dacca (now Dhaka) – tents, blankets, milk powder and medicines. The public was generous and so was the British government. At the time, no one suspected that something worse, something more sinister, was soon to happen in East Pakistan. Something more devastating and manmade was about to take place there.
Huge resentments had built up in the East at the perceived sluggishness and feeble reaction of the central government in West Pakistan to provide an effective relief and rehabilitation program to tackle the devastation. It was as if East Pakistan did not matter.
To some extent, this triggered a revival of Bengali nationalism. In response, the Pakistan army launched “Operation Searchlight” to crack down on dissent, which was deemed a threat to the territorial integrity of the Pakistan state.
Birth of Bangladesh
Military operations commenced in March 1971 and there was an immediate reaction to counter this by various guerrilla groups, known as Mukti Bahini, trained and armed by India. Eventually, in December, India flexed its muscles and stepped in.
It was all over in a week and a new country was born – Bangladesh. The human cost was estimated between 3,00,000 and 30 lakh fatalities, as well as tens of thousands of rapes.
At the time these events were unfolding, I was working on a school nutrition project in New Delhi, India, operated by Freres des Hommes, a French NGO, and Mobile Creches, a local organisation. I was asked to transfer to the organisation’s Calcutta (now Kolkata) operations and then on to Dacca to see what contribution we could make to the relief and rehabilitation efforts in the aftermath of the devastation left by the war.
On arrival in Dacca in early January 1972 with Rs 5 lakh in my briefcase ($35,000 at the time and about a third of a million dollars today adjusted for inflation), I booked into the Intercontinental Hotel on Minto Road. From my room on the fourth floor, I could look north towards the distant Tejgaon airport. I was tired and went to bed early, only to be awoken by the sound of small arms being fired on the street outside.
Looking out of the window, I saw hundreds of men brandishing guns and firing into the air. I called the reception: they told me the men were from the Mukti Bahini and they had come to Dacca to hand in their weapons – they were firing off the last of their ammunition.
I went down to the restaurant to eat. It was early evening, and the place was already packed. I was ushered to a table where two gentlemen were seated. Pleasantries were exchanged. They asked what I was doing in Dacca. Was I a journalist? I explained my role. One of the men gave me his card and suggested I give him a call.
The gentleman, Rab Choudhury, was the head of the Prime Minister’s Secretariat and I did, indeed, call him the next day. He suggested that I might be interested in meeting the Prime Minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He picked me up later that morning and drove me to Bangabhaban, then the Prime Minister’s official residence.
Meeting with Bangabandhu
Rab pulled the car up near the entrance to Bangabhaban. We walked up the steps through a milling crowd into a large white-painted house, past khaki-uniformed armed police, to an anteroom where we sat down for a couple of minutes. Rab then led me to a door that opened into a large room, its walls covered in pale marble.
There, sitting in a slightly raised position, was Sheikh Mujib, wearing his trademark black sleeveless jacket with a stand-up collar with a white panjabi. His glasses had very thick lenses, which slightly magnified his eyes. He stood up, offering his hand as we walked towards him, and I saw that he was about my height (1.75 m), perhaps a little taller and powerfully built. His hair was glossy and brushed straight back from his forehead. I had the impression of a kind, thoughtful, avuncular gentleman.
Yet, I knew him to have lived through dangerous events with his life at risk. Surely, a man of some steel. He gestured to us to sit. He asked the purpose of my presence in Bangladesh. I explained and he advised me not to loiter in Dacca but to go to the countryside. But first, I should talk to the ministry of relief and rehabilitation for guidance, he advised. We had tea and chatted for about 10 minutes. He was warm and friendly. I liked him.
I met Mujib once more a few months later when he kindly agreed to officially open the blood bank we had established at the Post Graduate Medical Institute Hospital (now Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University Hospital) with Professor Nurul Islam, the hospital’s then director, who also happened to be Mujib’s personal physician.
I left Bangladesh in October 1973 to work in what was then South Vietnam, but I returned to Dacca for a private visit in April 1975. My original plan was to stay for a few days, but due to a change in circumstances, I ended up remaining for over a year to work on a mother and child health project.
Bangladesh PM’s assasination
On August 15 that year (1975), I was living just off Sat Masjid Road in Dhanmondi when I suddenly woke up in the night – to the sound of gunfire. It lasted just a few minutes and I drifted back to sleep, only to be awakened again by a colleague about 10 minutes later. He told me that soldiers had attacked the Prime Minister’s personal residence (on nearby Road 32) and killed him along with members of his family. They had been slaughtered. I was stunned.
After breakfast, I walked the short distance from our staff house towards Road 32 to see what was going on. A tank was drawn up in front of Sheikh Mujib’s house. There were soldiers standing around who “salaamed” me. The house looked typical of other residences in the area, except it had a hole in the top left-hand corner at the front. It was about a foot wide. I was later to learn that the tank commander had fired one round at the house that went through the wall and out the other side, exploding on another building about 100 metres away.
Subsequently, some years later, the house was turned into a museum dedicated to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. An automatic weapon fired at close range makes a mess of a body. This is evident from the human tissue and hair splattered on the walls and ceiling (now preserved under sheets of perspex) of Sheikh Mujib’s house, which I visited with my wife in 2002.
I found some of the exhibits (slippers, a pipe) possessing a certain poignancy that quite moved me, given my experience of being in Bangladesh at that time and having met the man and shaken his hand.
Michael Pickett is a 75-year-old Irishman, retired from 30 years with an NGO that provided advocacy services to immigrants at their appeal hearings in UK courts. Before that, he was a humanitarian aid worker in India, Bangladesh, Cambodia and former South Vietnam, though he originally trained as a mechanical engineer. He currently lives in Crawley, UK.
This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune.