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How war and life as a refugee inspired me

Proprietor of LeSpice Merchant Imran a. Chowdhury describes the long journey that ended with him working in and serving the community of Northamptonshire…

The journey of my life has been an odyssey for me. From the time of my boyhood onwards I have been through many waves of calamity and crossed many deserts of misery. But nothing dampened my resolve, determination, zeal, and enthusiasm.
It all began in the month of April 1971 during the war of liberation of Bangladesh. Our father was a border security rifles officer revolted with his company of troops and defected to join the freedom fight to liberate the country from the clutches of the military junta and their local collaborators.

Life became untenable to stay inside the country and one fateful evening my family had no choice but to evacuate our house to flee the occupying forces and their local agents; the fifth columnists. An exodus of 19 days took us to India ( Agartala – Tripura State) to seek refuge there.

We ended up finally in a 12 feet by 12 feet Shanti makeshift room in a refugee camp – a far cry from the pristine 5-bed room colonial bungalow made for the indigo planters. What a twist of fate and fall from grace to misery: no breakfast, no batman to take us to school, no school to go and no amenities of life whatsoever. Life was in the worst state of affairs. The family of five of us cooped up in that small bamboo-made, thatched row of terraces with no window and no furniture.

After a few days, my 17-year-old brother decided to go and sign up as a freedom fighter too. That left me at that age of 11 to look after my family. I was the only male member of the family to go and stand in the cue for ration, cut branches of trees from the thick jungles to bring them home and dry them in the sun to use for firewood for cooking. Which was the harshest chore that I have ever endured. Above all the psychological stigma of that tremulous journey of the exodus left me engulfed with a massive of fear of death. The fear was haunting me every day.

The great escape to safety was done in such a haste that we were almost running to avoid the advancing marching columns of the invading army. Ironically, those who were trying to annihilate us were also from the same fraternity of religion. Yet, when we poured into the shores of India who were of different faith and religion but that did not stop them embracing the ocean of refugees with open arms. Providing them with food, shelter and money to buy essentials. This was an act of humanity beyond any religions. Humanity stood above all and triumphed to the pinnacle.

Life in a refugee camp was perhaps the worst time for me . There is no respect for becoming a refugee. No school to go to, no sport to play and no amenities of life; life seemed stood still; at the lowest of its ebb.

In the coming months, we managed to pull ourselves together and started a host of activities to engage in life to overcome those impediments bugging us at the back of our minds. There were more than a 1000 families housed in that special refugee camp to accommodate the government officials, members of the parliaments, bureaucrats, elites, acclaimed artist and poets. They encouraged the youngsters like me to join a team of Nursing helpers at the hospital where thousands of wounded freedom fighters were treated every day: limbless, blinded, amputated, severely bullet injured patients from the war zones. I was helping a Hindu homeopath doctor’s surgery one day a week, I became a member of a cultural team to sing patriotic songs by visiting the freedom fighters training camps and frontier outposts, joined a newly formed cub-scouts troop to carry out all sorts of civic amenity works in within the camp and during the last leg of the war spent most of my time distributing newspapers to the refugee community to uplift morale spreading the news of our imminent independence with a mammoth victory by dislodging the occupying force and their civilian politically motivated army of psychopaths.

Luckily with the great humanitarian and military assistance from India the war ended in nine months and rescued me from the unfathomable ocean of misery. After repatriation back to my newly independent Bangladesh; a broken, war torn, dilapidated country where freedom fighters were reuniting with their families, sadly my brother did not make it home. He scarified himself at the altar of our freedom. A young man paid the ultimate price for the independence of his motherland. Slowly and gradually life got back to normal. But those lessons of humanity and the teachings of harshness of life taught me great lesson which still remains heavily embedded in my mind. Life remains a mystery and every musing leaves a sense of introspection to reflect on to those tutelages.

After all these years I am grappling with the idea of how to create interfaith harmony – establish a synergy in between the multi cultural communities in the UK. How best to eradicate those stigmas to make Britain a safer society and build a stronger Britain? The communities and various faiths live in a cohesive society where all are equal and every one carries out their social, civic and communal shared responsibilities. From the backdrop of my own experience of religious extremity and attempt of annihilation I engage with all communities specially with my Bangladeshi community to say no to extremism and make them aware of the dangers of that ideology.

Make the youngsters aware of those predators who are polluting these young brains to stay away from that path of destruction. Although there is no evidence of it happening on the surface yet it is of paramount importance to educate them from the pitfalls of that entrapment. Inculcating a sense of belonging to make the society strong is my quest. Those tempestuous past imbibed in me these sense of building and empowering a community to face the 21st century in cohesion and thrive in excellence.


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