Working with the Refugees, 1971

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  • November 2021

    In March 1971, I was working on an Oxfam-UK supported Gandhian village development project in Bihar, India, where I had been for almost three years. Through the BBC and some sketchy Indian newspaper reports, I learnt about the unrest in Dacca in the early part of March 1971. Sheikh Mujib’s speech of 7 March was well reported by The Statesman newspaper which always reached Gaya from Calcutta one day late. However, nobody was prepared for what would unfold later that month. Soon after the night of 25 March, Oxfam’s office based in Ranchi in Bihar which, at that time, covered Eastern India and East Pakistan, began to receive reports by telegram from some of its NGO partners near the India/East Pakistan border that hundreds and thousands of refugees were streaming across the border every day. Immediately, some of us visited the border areas, and our reports to Oxfam were so alarming that some people at Oxfam’s headquarters refused to believe the details. One person commented that, ‘Julian is young and inexperienced, and appears to have been affected by the hot Indian sun!’ While reporting the numbers of refugees crossing the border each day, Oxfam’s Head Office officials thought that we, or the telegram operators, had added zeros by mistake ― so 2000 refugees crossing at one border crossing, was thought to mean 20,000!