Bangladesh: ICRC honoured for helping victims of 1971 conflict
The government of Bangladesh has paid tribute to the work of the ICRC during and following the 1971 war. The Friends of Liberation War Honour was given to 75 foreign individuals and organizations from across the world for their support during and in the aftermath of the conflict. The ICRC’s Onchita Shadman reports from Dhaka.
Mr François Bugnion, a member of the ICRC`s governing Assembly, received the award in Dhaka on 27 March 2012 on behalf of the organisation’s President, Dr. Jakob Kellenberger.
The ICRC carried out a humanitarian operation in Bangladesh from 1971 to 1975 to alleviate the suffering of the victims of the conflict that had displaced millions. In a press conference held on 28 March, Mr. Bugnion – himself a delegate in Bangladesh in 1973 and 1974 – spoke about what was at the time the ICRC’s biggest operation.
The war of 1971 had left 120,000 Bengalis stranded in Pakistan, mainly military personnel and civil servants from former East Pakistan, and their families; thousands of Pakistani civilian internees and prisoners of war remained in Bangladesh. On 28 August 1973, the governments of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh concluded an agreement in New Delhi arranging for the repatriation of Bengalis in Pakistan and Pakistanis interned in Bangladesh.
The ICRC was asked to register people who were eligible for repatriation to Pakistan and Bangladesh. It went on to facilitate the return home of 118,070 Bengalis to Bangladesh and 117,727 people to Pakistan, an operation taking several years.
Mahbubul Haq, then an Air Force officer, was serving in Karachi when he was detained and taken to a camp in Pakistan. He recalled the difficult conditions under which they were interned, and how things improved once the ICRC started visiting the detention centres to distribute essentials.
Since the Bangladeshi postal service did not deliver mail to the camps, the ICRC distributed around 2.8 million Red Cross Messages between 1972 and 1975, which led to several hundred families being reunited. Huq still treasures a Red Cross Message that his grandparents had written to him while he was detained.
During the post-war crisis, the ICRC had initiated a large-scale relief operation with the support of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (then the League), 25 National Societies and the Bangladesh Red Cross Society, as it was at the time. To many Bengalis, this programme distinguished the Red Cross as a symbol of hope. In the five years of its operation, Red Cross medical teams provided treatment to an average of 112,000 people a year, caring mainly for under-nourished children and people suffering from scabies.
François Bugnion believes that the Red Cross emblem contributed to the acceptance of ICRC's work in Bangladesh: "I think the Red Cross was perceived as a symbol of protection. When the ICRC set up the neutral zone in the Hotel Sheraton and Holy Family Hospital, people saw these as places of safety where they could be protected from the danger they were facing".
On 18 April 1972, the ICRC and the Bangladesh Red Cross Society signed an agreement, transferring responsibility for supervising the relief to the national partner, which later became the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS).
“Today, the BDRCS remains ICRC's main operational partner in Bangladesh," says Christoph Vogt, who heads the ICRC delegation in Bangladesh. "We are working closely with the BDRCS to build its capacity in disaster preparedness and response; in promoting greater understanding and implementation of international humanitarian law and principles; and in assisting people who are adversely affected by tension or violence."