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Ishurdi Compound 1969
Transcript of Ishurdi Compound 1969
The Beginnings of Memory
From early 1967 to the end of 1969, my family lived in Bangladesh. I was born there while my parents worked as missionaries. At that time Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan and was under the rule of what was then West Pakistan, despite the agreement at Partition that East and West should each be fully autonomous regions. I remember only fragments of my time there, my sister a little more, but it had a profound effect on my parents, particularly my father, who fell in love with the place and never wanted to leave. My mother was lonely and felt very isolated, but put her energies into raising us and making what friends she could - often mothers with children the same age as us - it is ever thus, no matter where in the world you go. We were first in Pabna, a large town in the Rajshahi Division, and then later moved to Ishurdi (now Ishwardi), a village by comparison, but still in the Pabna District. Mum hated the Pabna house. We shared it with other families and there was no glass in the windows, only shutters which let in all the dust. It was also very old and slowly crumbling in the tropical heat. Ishurdi was "a palace by comparison", as Mum puts it. It had screens on the doors and glass in the windows, and each room had french doors that opened onto the verandah, to let in as much air as possible. The house was long but only one room deep. To go from one room to the next you had to exit and enter via the verandah. This is the house I first remember, albeit vaguely, and this map is of the compound in which it stood. As a toddler, the compound was often the extent of my world. There were garden beds along the front of the house and a rose circle which Dad and the gardener, Tokon Das, worked to maintain. My sister and I often played with the village children. The Monsoon would break in a sudden torrent, and stop just as quickly. Butterflies were huge and coloured like jewels. The Call to Prayer sounded five times a day. When I am troubled or down it is this sound, above all others, that calms my soul.
By: Megan Hitchens
Half the Goat. The extent of her tether can be clearly seen. She was a good lawnmower and gave lovely milk
Dad set up an experimental deep litter chook system, to show the locals a way to increase the health and productivity of their chickens. Local workmen were employed to build the specialised hen house. This is the roof being delivered. Others carried bricks onto site and built the walls.
Still trying to get away from that snake?
Playing at the pump, the compound's water source
Our faithful Land Rover that went anywhere and everywhere, back when Land Rovers were spartan, tough, working vehicles and not the luxury items they have since become
The pond behind the house. Each monsoon this would get larger as the banks were eroded.
The verandah was where a lot of life happened. In the stifling heat of the dry season, the verandah was shaded but open to breezes. There was no local church, so church services and Sunday School were on our verandah. We had birthday parties and friends to play. When mistris (tradesmen) came (and yes, it is pronounced "mysteries", they worked on the verandah. The wood mistri (carpenter) made a table on the verandah and then it was carried to the room where it was needed. An umbrella mistri came and mended the broken umbrella. The electrical mistris had to deal with problems at their source. One day a snake charmer showed up. He was told to leave and so emptied his basket of snakes onto the verandah. He refused to put them away until he was paid, and told my parents his monkey would bite the babies (my sister and me) if he wasn't paid enough. Life on the verandah was never dull.
Our cook, Profullah. We called him Profullah dada ("pappa Profullah"). He was 19 when he came to work for us. Illiterate, he put all his younger siblings through school, some through to university. My mother taught Profullah to read and write Bangla, which I think also helped her with her language skills. He survived the war, but died in his early 50s from TB. For a long time after we came to Australia, my sister and I missed Profullah terribly and would often talk of him and wish we could see him again.
Our gardener/caretaker, Tokon Das and his wife, Martha. I don't know where the vegetable garden was, and Mum can't remember. Gardening was not without its challenges. My sister was in amongst Tokon's cabbages and was bitten by a snake. Fortunately it was a only grass snake and not a cobra. Tokon must have faced such hazards every day.
A raised pathway, called a bund, marked the back boundary of the compound. Dad trod on a cobra on the bund. He bolted in one direction, the snake in the other, both shaken but living to fight another day.
What happened after we left?
In 1970 there was a cyclone that killed about 500 000 people. West Pakistan gave little aid and mishandled what aid it did provide. The election later that year, the first since Partition, delivered a landslide win to the Awami League, a pro-autonomy party of East Pakistan. Lahore refused to allow the leader, Mujib Rahman, to be Prime Minister. Rahman continued to push for autonomy and on 25 March 1971 West Pakistan began Operation Searchlight - the systematic murder of Bangladesh's intelligentsia which soon became mass slaughter of the population. The Liberation War had begun.
3 000 000 people dead
10 000 000 people fled to India as refugees
Even more internally displaced
Operation Searchlight began with the midnight shelling of the student dormitories at Dacca University and then moved onto all intellectuals and students that the Pakistani Army could find. At the Pabna Compound there was a hostel for the boys who were studying at the Christian college. My parents knew many of them. None survived.
It wasn't just the educated. Very quickly, anyone was a viable target, particularly young men, from as young as 13. Tokon was captured in the compound, put against my sister's bedroom door and machine-gunned. I do not know what happened to Martha, his wife.
The plan had always been for us to return. Coming to Australia was supposed to be temporary, to get treatment and recuperation for my father, rest for my mother and a chance for both of them to see their families and us children to visit grandparents. But it didn't work out that way. There was reluctance to send us back into the political turmoil, especially as US backing of Pakistan was making it dangerous for any Westerner. And then Dad was told that he could not live in a tropical climate again.
I know I was not born a Bangladeshi, merely born within the country, and culturally I sit in some strange in-between place, more Australian than anything else, but not fully so. My birth place has always loomed large in my life.
Only a toddler, I was blissfully unaware of the trouble that had been brewing for over 20 years as East Pakistan pushed for autonomy and West Pakistan screamed "pro-India secessionists". My childhood idyll could not last. In December 1969 we were sent to Australia to address my father's repeated bouts of illness.
Playing on the steps to the roof
ABMS Mission House, Ishurdi, known to the Ellem family as Home.
I don't generally like proselytizing, but the foreign missions played an important role during the war. West Pakistan had expelled all foreign journalists in the lead up to the start of Operation Searchlight, and kept out foreign observers. It was the missionaries who kept up a steady stream of information to counteract West propaganda. They also worked hard to protect and sustain the people around them, to keep them safe as best they could. It wasn't always possible, but at least they were there trying at a time that many governments around the world were ignoring the situation, wringing their hands or giving aid to the generals in Lahore.
View from the roof in the wet season. The yard was fenced to keep us in.
We had left most of our belongings in Ishurdi, packed up in the mission house, waiting for our return. When the war broke out the house was looted and most of what we had was stolen or destroyed. The war ended on 16 December, 1971, with Bangladesh a country in its own right. My father went back for a brief visit in 1974-1975, leading a team of Australian mistris wanting to help rebuild what the war had destroyed. He took the opportunity to find the fate of friends and colleagues, to track them down if possible, and to return to Ishurdi to salvage what he could. There was very little left.
While Australia is now home, Ishurdi will always be my
home of memory, and I will always carry a part of Bangladesh within me, no matter where I am or how old I become.
The people of Pakistan I do not blame, they have long suffered under generals and dictators, but the government of the time will never be forgiven.
It has also taught me how easy it is for the powerful to destroy and to hurt, and their eagerness to do so, particularly when they realise they cannot win.
Its fate has fostered in me a strong sense of the injustices in the world, and what is possible when people are determined to set their own path.
Bangladesh facts and figures
Population in 1970: 66.3 million
Population in 2016: 156.6 million
Area: 147 570 sq. kms
2% the size of Australia
Population density 1970: 450 people per sq km
2016: 1237 people per sq km
(Australia: 1970: 2 per sq km
2016: 3 per sq km)
Main language: Bangla
Main religion: Islam
The roof was not just a roof. It was also an extra room. The men in this photo had come to repair the roof. The dancers (young men dressed as women) and the singer and drummer kept time as the work was carried out, and also provided entertainment afterward to celebrate a job complete. A wooden beater to tamp down the surface can be seen just above this text. And yes, this all took place on the roof itself.
Profullah at work in the kitchen. Everything was cooked on a kerosene stove. None of the wall sockets in the house were earthed. I put my finger in a socket in the kitchen and was thrown across the room. My sister one day picked up a chilli from the table and bit it. Profullah shoved banana into her mouth between her screams to reduce the heat. Best remedy for chilli burn.
Inspecting their new residence
Playing at the pump, the compound's water source