SENDING HOME HOPE : FROM TRAFALGAR SQUARE TO WAR -TORN BANGLADESH
Syeda Samira Sadeque
‘We chose to come back. We made a conscious decision. We were hopeful for the country’
It was April 1971, in London.
“There was a knock on the door in the middle of the night. When I opened the door, he panted: ‘Dosto (friend), our country is finished! What do we do?’ And, handing me his car keys and documents, he said he was leaving for Bangladesh. In a few days, he did,” says Mohammad Alam about Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury.
We’re sitting at a cafe, far away from that April night in 1971 when a patriot decided he’d had enough and needed to rush back home. We are in 2014, sipping coffee early on a Friday winter morning. Dhaka isn’t even awake yet.
But this December morning, some old memories come alive. I sit down with Mohammad Alam and Shahana Khan, both of whom were in London during the Liberation War, to hear about their involvement in and contribution to the formation of an independent Bangladesh – all the way from London.
“And that’s where [Dr Zafrullah’s] hospital project began,” continues Alam, currently the CEO of Natasha Corporation. “He mobilised many doctors in the UK and the US to gather support for Bangladesh.”
“We’d collect free medicine samples from our local general practitioners, and send them to the Air India office. And they would distribute to Zafrullah Bhai,” says Alam.
In the wake of the war in 1971, Bangali supporters came out to the streets all the way in London, to share and express their support and hope for their home country – a country that was yet to be born.
Being away from home has its own challenges. But being away from a home caught in a war – one that seemed impossible to fight in the beginning, given the sheer imbalance between Pakistan’s equipment versus ours, was excruciating.
“We felt very separated,” says Shahana, who had just moved to London with her husband. “We’d been following the news, and studying what was going on. We were worried about our families.”
Unheard stories, unknown glories
“In the beginning it was just shock,” Shahana says.
However, they decided to come out on the streets and gather support for their very own desh, even from a distance.
Many Bangalis living in London joined them, translating their passion for an independent Bangladesh into different forms of protest.
“Our biggest gathering was at Trafalgar Square in the beginning of August,” says Shahana.
“It drew about 2,000-3,000 people. Many had come from outside of London,” adds Alam.
They also spoke of the strong support system of friends that included people with Irish, Goanese, and British backgrounds. Pakistani author and journalist Tariq Ali was very supportive of the protests and movement in London.
The rally was organised and led by Action Bangladesh, but drew donation from different sources such as local restaurant owners. Action Bangladesh was an organisation led by Mariatta Procope and Paul Connett, which sent an ambulance to Bangladesh. Both Connett and Procope played crucial roles in mobilising the Bangladeshis in London. Procope provided food on a daily basis for about 60-70 protesters, says Alam.
“We tried to know about any actions being taken in London,” says Shahana, currently an architect. We protested outside the Pakistani High Commission in London. We wrote letters home.”
“I’d thought I wouldn’t have my own country,” adds Alam, who was then a student. “At one point, I thought I’d lost my country.”
Yet, amid this sense of helplessness, they did what they could from a distance.
“We heard about people starting off newsletters, such as Janamat. The editor lived close by and we would meet at his place,” says Shahana. “Everybody was in touch with other Bangalis in London. Eventually we renounced our citizenship.”
“…. and burned our [Pakistan] passports,” Alam adds.
Birth of a new hope
Fighting your own war from home is different from fighting it from miles away. The reality is almost imaginary – especially in an age without the internet circulating war images. And when hope is banked on something imaginary, it is a hope much stronger, much more tenacious.
Both Shahana and Alam eventually moved back to Bangladesh.
“Looking at the destruction, I was absolutely shocked. Still, I was very happy,” says Alam.
“When we moved back [in 1980], a lot had happened politically,” says Shahana. “But we felt like it was a new beginning. We chose to come back. We made a conscious decision. We were hopeful for the country.”
DECEMBER 16, 2014