Posts Tagged ‘Liberation War’

We didn’t know what to expect from Bangladesh. It’s not really the kind of country that gets major press back home. In fact, all you really here about are the frequent natural disasters that seem to plague it’s national consciousness. In India we discovered that Bangladesh was originally part of India but the British put pay to that when Lord Curzon carelessly, though with apparent good intention, divided the country for the 1947 Partition. The predominantly Muslim area around Bengal was hived off as part of Pakistan though it was separated from the larger West Pakistan by thousands of km. We knew that East Pakistan became autonomous from Pakistan in the 70s but had no concept of how or why. In Dhaka we were to discover the brutal truth.

A bloody massacre and a proud nation

Today (18th Feb) we visited the Liberation War Museum in central Dhaka, walking distance from the impressive and highly modern University. Having stopped en-route to add my best wishes to a large mood board supporting the Bangladesh Tigers for the Cricket World Cup (a wonderful experience in itself as the people in the queue wanted to know all about us), we eventually found the museum entrance down a narrow side alley in an unassuming building.

When we left 2hrs later we were slightly shell shocked and emotionally tired. The museum objectively maps the history of the Liberation War between Pakistan and Bangladesh, from its social and political roots in the early 20th Century through to the commencement of the war in 1971. The museum is incredibly well thought-out, with Bangla and English explanations for all exhibits.

If the early days read like an informative who’s who of Indian politics, the lead up to and aftermath of the war are quite brutal. The displays pull no punches. You move from a bio of a leading Bangladesh political visionary to shocking photos of human bodies decimated by warfare and shredded by bullets. Gradually the scale of the atrocities becomes clear; over 1m people lost their lives to liberate Bangladesh from Pakistan, most of whom were massacred, tortured or clandestinely killed to remove ‘dissidents’.

The treatment of the people by the Pakistan army, supposedly their Muslim brothers and sisters, was shocking. And all this because East Pakistan failed to adequately integrate the Bengali people into its constitution and culture. The Muslim League that ran Pakistan refused to acknowledge Bangla as a language and insisted on Urdu as the sole official language of Pakistan. Equally sad is the initial unity between Muslims and Hindus in Bangladesh that was torn apart by agitators with a vested interest and their own political/social agenda. I’m not going to rant over the shameless self-interest of world leaders but there were people like Nixon in the US who supported the Pakistani government despite the appalling violence inflicted on the Bangladeshi people.

On the other hand, it was warming to learn of the support people in the west lent to Bangladesh, with rallies across Europe and US and famous celebrities like George Harrison using their influence to raise awareness and funds.

From decades of conflict and a long brutal struggle for independence, a beautiful country has emerged with people who are amongst the friendliest around. We’ve been blown away by the welcome and hospitality we’ve received. I know I’ve written this a few times but Bangladesh is even friendlier than Egypt, Nepal and India. We can’t put our finger on it and perhaps words can’t do their kindness justice, it’s just something special and you can only understand if you come and visit.

Soaking the atmosphere of Old Dhaka

Our classic tourist trip in Dhaka involved walking the streets of Old Dhaka, the heart of Muslim land. From the Lalbagh Qila, where the local resistance battled the English troops, to the ancient mosques and the Sadarghat quay adorned with traditional wooden boats, we found history on every corner.

Abandoning the trusty guide book, we got ourselves lost in the cobweb of alleys that knit the roads together. Here you will find the bazaars, the trading lifeblood of Dhaka, where you can buy almost anything. Shops are organised by the commodity they sell, so you will be walking through row after row of car tyres and then suddenly be hit with the towering smell of fresh vegetables and spices.

We had so many enjoyable encounters with the locals I can’t possibly write about them all. The one that sticks in our memory is of Iqbal, a 32 year old shop manager, who sat us down and got his assistant to buy us a coke. We chatted for ages about London and Dhaka and then, as we stood to leave, he insisted on walking us to where we needed to go. He then waved down a cycle rickshaw and paid for the 3 of us to go to the northern part of Old Dhaka. When we parted, he gave me a huge hug and told Muneeza that he hopes his son will grow up to be like me because I am a good man. It almost brought tears to my eyes being honoured with that kind of genuine affection.

Meeting a local family

We met a cool Dutch couple at our B&B and Rahima was born in Bangladesh but adopted at the age of 4 because her family were incredibly poor. She recently managed to trace her family and was here for her 3rd visit, sadly for the funeral of her father. Having only met them at breakfast, she invited us to meet her family in Dhaka and visit their home in the Mirpur district, the heart of local town and far removed from the wealthy Gulshan where we are staying. Needless to say we accepted immediately; it’s a great honour to be invited to someone’s home here and it is quite rude to turn the offer down unless you have good reason. Animal Planet, said Muneeza, was not good reason.

The journey was fun. We took a rickshaw to Mirpur 12, the area where her family lived. All street signs are written in Sanskrit, so no chance of navigating ourselves. We ended up asking a young dude in a shop who we reasoned would speak some English or Hindi. No chance. However, being the super helpful people that they are, the dude went a found a wise old man by the nearby mosque. This kind man listened to the address, then pointed in the direction. He insisted on walking us there to make sure we found it ok. Behind him followed a trail of people intrigued to see visitors to the area; this is not a place you would come as a tourist unless you had an invite, it’s far off the trodden path. True to his word, he found the house, knocked on the door and asked for our guest. As we said our thank-yous and ‘alaa hafiz’, we stepped into the world of a Bangladeshi family.

The evening was wonderful. For a local family they would be considered middle-class. However, when you compare their wealth to that of the English middle-class, the wealth gap seems incredible. 9 people share 3 bedrooms, large enough only to house a bed. There is one toilet, a narrow concrete room you can barely squeeze into with a hole in the ground. The kitchen is the hallway and the tin roof doesn’t meet the walls, so there are gaps all around. This is not meant disparagingly, it is simply a description of where they live.

Rahima’s family were so lovely it filled us with happiness. They gave us fresh coconuts to enjoy the juice, apparently good for stomachs. We sat and discussed life in Dhaka over tea and got to know more about the family. They were intrigued to know about life in the UK. The language barrier was evident but it didn’t matter; with such lovely people, who cares if you can’t understand everything?

What struck us the most was the level of hospitality. For a family with relatively little, they wanted to give us so much. Her uncle told us he was honoured by our presence (easily pleased!), a comment I’ve never had from any of you. The culture here is quite special and guests are considered important and treated like royalty. Isn’t it amazing that the people with the least so often give the most.

Parting thoughts on Bangladesh

It has been a truly beautiful time in Bangladesh. The people are incredible, we can’t thank them enough. The common theme on this trip is that wherever we find the Muslim quarter of a city, we meet the kindest and most affectionate people you could hope to meet. And this isn’t because Muneeza comes from a Muslim family; they are just warm-hearted people and feel a sense of duty to look after visitors and guide them safely. It has taught me that I should be more welcoming in my own country and not so quick to avoid having to make an effort.

love jamer & muneeza x

New friends in Dhaka