In 1971 the Indo-Pakistani war erupted though depending on your perspective, the causes of the war might be different. Oppression, genocide, and nationalism are all potential, if not unusual culprits, and tensions were building in the region for some time. But if the causes weren’t completely clear, the results certainly were and at the end of the conflict, East Pakistan was no more, replaced by the new nation of Bangladesh.
Perhaps because of the brevity of the war or because it occurred just a few years before I was born, it seems to have escaped my notice. How many civil conflicts in regions lacking strategic importance to the US have been left out of public school text books? How many histories have been left untold?
So, it was with a relatively blank slate that I approached Khawaja Azimuddin’s book, The Boy Refugee: A Memoir From a Long Forgotten War.
The Boy Refugee recounts this little told story from the most unique vantage point imaginable. Azimuddin is a practicing surgeon in Houston, TX, but in 1971 he was a young boy living in East Pakistan, the son of a successful factory manager dependent on Bengali labor. And then…
The Bengalis were furious and years of misgivings and unrest erupted into violent civil war. They no longer wanted to have anything to do with the West Pakistanis and declared independence in March 1971. The new country they envisioned was called Bangladesh or ‘The Land of Bengal.’
Azimuddin would soon be a child POW, living in an Indian camp, for though the war officially ended in just 13 days, it took several years for those in power to work through the details.
While little has been written about the 1971 genocide, even less has been told about the fate of ninety-three thousand POWs in the aftermath of the 1971 war. This was the largest number of POWs taken during any war in history, with the exception of World War II.
A well-researched book, it is not unbiased, painting the Bengalis and Indians in a harsh but probably fair light. Most interesting though, is this book is not based on the memories of a surgeon but on those of a child, and for that reason alone the book is fascinating.
Consider, for a moment, your own memories from when you were 8, 9, 10 years old. How accurate are they? Are they perfect histories, factual in every way or are they colored by stories retold at family gatherings, particular details embellished or left out for emphasis, to the point that they become legend? Do certain people seem larger than life, even today?
This is the effect of time and distance on us all and it is present in The Boy Refugee as well. I do not intend this as a criticism of the book, but instead is an endearing feature allowing you to be transported back in time, to see the events of the day not as an impersonal work of history, but through the eyes of a young boy, struggling still to make sense of all he witnessed and experienced.
The people in Cage #1, Camp #34 came from all walks of life and backgrounds. But as months passed, they became friends and developed a sort of camaraderie. They cared for one another and looked after each other’s needs and despite the fact that we’d been herded together into a room with no walls or boundaries; everyone tried their best to be respectful and to allow others their privacy. We became like a large family and for the most part, got along quite well.
What a remarkable, naïve perspective. And yet…
Once a week, an Indian military truck would take volunteers to the Roorki Railway Station to get coal and wood for the kitchen. They would spend hours manually loading coal into the truck and by the time they got back, their skin and clothes would be blackened with coal dust. But the prisoners still fought each other to go to this fatigue, as it was a good excuse to leave the cage even for a few hours.
I can hardly imagine the mindset and experiences of the adult POWs who had largely been living privileged lives in East Pakistan, at least relative to the Bengalis, now incarcerated, ”fighting” one another to engage in manual labor, just for a change of scenery.
As I read this book, I kept wondering to myself how this conflict had escaped my notice. How could it be that so many people had been POWs and I’d been taught nothing about it?
And then I read…
On Voice of America, we heard that President Nixon and his administration were heavily embroiled in the Watergate scandal. Pakistan was an American ally in those days and Pappa used to say that America would use its influence to broker a deal for our release. After all, a hundred thousand prisoners in POW camps were a challenge to the free world and we prayed that the world leaders would intervene on our behalf. But now with the political turmoil in America, President Nixon was less likely to get involved in our plight. We were sad to hear this news and felt hopelessly stranded on the international scene.
…and it became clear. Yet again, the American political system was so dysfunctional that we were focused inward, mud wrestling ourselves, when there were those in the world who needed, who prayed, for the US to help them. How disappointing.
The Boy Refugee: A Memoir From a Long Forgotten War by Khawaja Azimuddin, MD is an important and eye opening book that I encourage you to read and share with others. For me, it is also a bit of a warning if not a catalyst. How many other stories have we missed? How many other similar conflicts are underway right now that we know little to nothing about? How many other human beings are currently praying for the US and other powerful, freedom loving countries to intervene on their behalf?
And maybe more importantly, how many people do we interact with every day who have lived through events and atrocities we cannot imagine? To many people, Khawaja Azimuddin is simply Dr. Azimuddin, their physician. Their neighbor. The gentlemen they see at the grocery store or at a local restaurant. He is a real human being, just like the rest of us, and The Boy Refugee is his story.
It deserves to be read, to be heard, to be remembered.
And so do all of the other stories. The Vietnam vet, the Sudanese immigrant, the fourth generation NYC Jew, the Chinese programmer in the cubicle next to yours who just became a US citizen. We are surrounded by the most remarkable stories, but most never get heard.
Note: I was provided a copy of this book for the purposes of this review. Still, if I didn’t like the book, I never would have reviewed it. Promise.
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