Bangladesh: the legacy of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, forty years on
Following World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day on 8 May, two workers of the Movement and a former beneficiary talk about their roles in the humanitarian family.
A life spent tracing missing persons
"It was challenging and exciting at the same time," Monwara Sarkar runs the tracing department at the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS). She looks back on her involvement with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement since 1971.
That year, civil war broke out in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). At just 17, Monwara was recruited to trace people displaced during the fighting. Women were often attacked, and this was a dangerous time for her to be working outside the safety of an office.
"When the air attacks started in the first week of December 1971, my family decided to move away from Dhaka. For my safety, the ICRC delegates organized accommodation for me at what was then the Hotel Intercontinental. This was a neutral zone, accepted by both the Pakistani army and the Muktibahini (Bengali liberation fighters)."
In 1975, after Bangladesh and Pakistan had established diplomatic relations, the ICRC closed down its operation in Bangladesh. The remaining tracing requests from Bangladesh were handed over to the BDRCS and Monwara was given the responsibility of identifying a suitable successor. But she herself carried on with the Movement for the next three decades.
"During the war I saw how the Movement worked to keep people safe, so I continued to help the victims of man-made and natural disasters."
Memories of a reassuring emblem
The Movement gained popularity on the subcontinent in the 1970s when it launched a huge programme to repatriate people stranded in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh after the war.
One of the beneficiaries of that programme was Group Captain Mahbubul Huq, who had been stationed at a Pakistan Air Force base in Karachi when war broke out. After the war, all Bengali military personnel who, like Huq, had declared their allegiance to Bangladesh, were taken to repatriation camps. Huq was held in Shagai Fort, in the north-western province of Pakistan.
"We were not sure if the world knew that we were interned in such camps till the ICRC visited us,” explained Huq. “Since Pakistan and Bangladesh had no diplomatic relations, there was no postal service. Once the ICRC had visited us, we could start communicating with our families using Red Cross message forms.”
For Huq and others like him, the Red Cross brought a reassuring presence into the camps. “From the moment we saw the Red Cross emblem at the camp, we knew that the world had not forgotten us, that the ICRC would make sure we were better treated, and that eventually we would be repatriated."
Huq came home towards the end of 1973. A Red Cross message carrying memories of his grandparents is one of his greatest treasures.
In from the beginning
Khondoker Jakaria Khaled, the Deputy Secretary General of the BDRCS, reminisces about the early days of the Movement in Bangladesh. "I saw the first plane arrive at Dhaka Airport carrying relief materials and medicines. The airport had been destroyed in the war, and mine clearance was still incomplete. Despite the danger, the ICRC cargo plane flew into the airport. It was very exciting to see it landing."
Khaled volunteered with the ICRC in 1972-1973, helping distribute relief supplies in Gopalganj. In 1976, he was just finishing his university degree when the BDRCS asked him to come and work in their Jessore unit office. The young man was delighted to be a part of the Movement again.
In 1978, when thousands of Burmese refugees entered Bangladesh, Khaled was put in charge of a camp called Dechuapalang 1, in the south-east of the country. "There were 25,000 refugees in my camp and we had to give them food twice a day. I had built a thatched hut for myself next to the camp, where I spent the night. It was a challenge for a young officer to make sure that everyone got hot food by 6 a.m."
Khaled enjoyed his responsibilities. In particular, he loved watching over the babies born in the camp health centre, where a team of fifth-year medical students provided medical care.
Over the past 30 years, Khaled has worked in projects ranging from health, disaster management, repatriation, relief and training to the more popular blood programme. The veteran aid worker is positive about the future of the Movement in Bangladesh.
"We are building up our assets and thinking about the sustainability of our programmes. People working here are experienced, motivated and committed. All we need is good leadership to utilize these resources."
For Monwara, the main challenge with tracing has been travelling to remote areas and having to walk miles to locate a missing person or their family. Sometimes the family of a detainee disclaims all knowledge of them because they are embarrassed, or worried about their safety. But most of the time, they are overjoyed to hear news of a family member.
Her face lights up as she talks about her department’s recent achievements. Since the Libyan conflict erupted in 2011, the ICRC and the BDRCS have been providing medical care and telephone services to many of the thousands of Bangladeshis who had been working in Libya and have now returned home. This year, 55 Bangladeshis have returned from the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, and another 33 from Jammu and Kashmir in India. In both cases, the Movement has mediated between the authorities and the families of the detainees.
On several occasions, Mahbubul Huq has moderated the IHL moot court competition that the ICRC’s Dhaka delegation organizes for university law students. "I felt nostalgic to be involved as a judge in the moot court, because I was a victim of armed conflict, a refugee, a displaced person, and I can say that I was rescued by the ICRC."