William A S Ouderland: The Australian freedom fighter of 1971

William first set foot in Dhaka, in 1970, as Production Manager for the Bata Shoe Company. He’d just been promoted to Executive Director for the company when our War for Liberation broke out. Any sensible man, if presented the opportunity, would have taken flight-back to the safety of his country.

But “Bir Protik” William A S Ouderland, the only foreigner to be honored as such for his role in the War for Liberation, chose instead to stay and fight with the people of this country at great risk to his own life. It may seem odd that he chose to fight for a people that he seemingly had no direct connection. However, a closer look at his life reveals a tapestry of personal tragedies that may have informed his decision to take up arms for Bangladesh.    

Life of a spy

Ouderland came from a poor working-class Dutch family of shoe-shiners. Born in Amsterdam during World War I, he was all too familiar with the horrors of war. Prior to Hitler’s invasion of the Netherlands, he had joined the Dutch National Service. Soon after, he become a sergeant in the Royal Signal Corps. He was captured by Nazis and interned in a POW camp. He managed to escape the camp, to become a spy for the Dutch Underground Resistance movement.

“As the events of March 1971 unfolded with the tanks and Pakistani forces rolling into Dhaka, I was re-living the experience of my younger days in Europe,”

He wrote to his friend Anwar Faridi about 2 decades after ‘71.

Role in the liberation war

Fast forward to March 25 1971. As the Pakistani army systematically butchered the sleeping residents of Dhaka in cold blood, in “Operation Searchlight”, Ouderland was in Dhaka as the Executive Director of Bata. He used his special privileges from his position to securely pass through the city during the curfew. He quietly photograph the trail of death and destruction the Pakistani army had left in their wake. Strongly reminded of the atrocities he had seen in his early years in Europe committed by the Nazis, he felt compelled to document the atrocities to the best of his abilities. He then sent the photographic evidence he had compiled to the international media.

At that time, he also had connections from his experience as a spy for Dutch Underground Resistance during World War II. Ouderland established relationships with many high ranking officers within the Pakistani Army including Tikka Khan, Rao Farman Ali. He even became a “distinguished friend” of AAK Niazi – people who were personally involved in orchestrating “Operation Searchlight”. Part of his strategy included tlattering the Pakistanis with high praise and improved his access to the high ranking officials. He then clandestinely forwarded key intelligence from these contacts to Col (retd) M. A. G. Osmani, Commander-in-Chief of the Mukti Bahini, through a den in Zinzira.

Drawing from his experience in World War II as a guerilla commando, he organized and trained members of the Mukti Bahini. He shared techinques in Sector 2 in secret locations in Tongi, including the premises of the Bata Shoe Factory. At one point, he put his own life at risk by becoming actively involved in the missions in Sector 2. He planned and coordinated various missions in and around Dhaka, most notably destroying the Bhairab-Tongi rail line bridge and culvert. According to a document in the possession of Major Haider, Ouderland would regularly supply provisions to Mukti Bahini fighters, hiding weapons in his rooftop water tank and regularly sending shoes, blankets and medicines to them.

He had fully adopted this country as his own, going so far as to fight for it in a war that wasn’t his.

For the safety of his staff and their families, he had many of them move to the Bata Shoe Factory compound. When the Pakistani Army took over the Telephone Industries Corporation adjacent to the factory, he recognized the looming danger from being precariously positioned right next to an army encampment and created two bunkers for his staff on the grounds of the factory.  The bunkers would save the lives of more than 50 people later in December when the Indian air force attacked the Pakistani camps next door. He even went as far as opening his doors to the Mukti Bahini after sending away his wife and their daughter to Australia.

Life after the war

However, his request for citizenship was denied and in 1978 he retired from his role as the Executive Director of the Bata Shoe Company and settled in Australia with his family. To honour his bravery in our Liberation War, he was twice invited to Bangladesh – once in 1992 and again in 1998- to officially accept his “Bir Protik” award. His health, however, prevented him from travelling to Bangladesh to accept the award in person. When the award eventually reached him, he donated the 10,000 BDT endowment to the Bangladesh Freedom Fighters Welfare Trust.

Ouderland passed away in Perth, Western Australia on May 18, 2001, at the age of 83. Many Bangladeshis attended his funeral and sang the national anthem as his coffin was draped with a flag in Bangladesh’s national colors. A library at the Bangladesh High Commission in Australia and a road in front of the Australian High Commission in Dhaka is named in his honour.

He may not have been a Bangladeshi on paper, but he was through and through a Bangladeshi to his very core. We owe you a great debt, sir. 

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh

My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes
Told me that he wanted help
Before his country dies;
Although I couldn’t feel the pain
I knew I had to try.
Now I’m asking all of you
To help us save some lives
Bangla Desh, Bangla Desh

It’s been 48 years and a day since George Harrison crooned “Bangla Desh” over his guitar at a pair of benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden. Forever memorializing both his friendship with Ravi Shankar and the image of the recording artist as a good global citizen.

The harrowing backgrounds

In November 1970, the Bhola cyclone had ravaged East Pakistan and West Bengal. Killing 500,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Then, as if to conspire with nature, the Pakistani army launched one of the most brutal military slaughters in modern history against the people of the East. Machine-gunning crowds of civilians, destroying whole villages and putting the torch to the dense slums of Dhaka.

An artist’s call of duty

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh

Helplessly staring at the events from afar, Ravi Shankar set about to raise around $25,000.

First through the sale of his album, Joi Bangla, and then through a charity concert of his own. In the depth of his melancholy, he reached out to his friend George Harrison one day in Los Angeles.

“I was in a very sad mood, having read all this news, and I said, ‘George, this is the situation. I know it doesn’t concern you, I know you can’t possibly identify…’ But while I talked to George he was very moved, he felt very deeply, and he said, ‘Yes, I think I’ll be able to do something.’” Harrison himself later reflecting on the momentous occasion said, “The Concert For Bangladesh happened because of my relationship with Ravi … I said, ‘If you want me to be involved, I think I’d better be really involved,’ so I started recruiting all these people.”

As Shankar himself recounted in an interview published in the Rolling Stones magazine in 1971

The project began in earnest during the last week of June 1971, five or six weeks before the event took place on 1st August with Harrison as the principal mover, gathering musicians, making the phone calls, getting the commitments and setting up the show.

Concert for Bangladesh

Around the middle of July, the upcoming concert by “George Harrison and Friends” was announced, via a minuscule ad buried in the back pages of the New York Times.

On Sunday, August 1 1971, Shankar, Harrison and those “friends” – among them Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Ringo Starr and the band, Badfinger – staged rock’s first mass act of philanthropy, for the 400,000-capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden, New York.

Steering clear of the complex geopolitics that was behind the near radio silence of the American media, Harrison chose instead to focus on the human face of the crisis. His audibly distraught voice was an appeal to the basic humanity of the people listening, a call for solidarity that defied the limitations of human compassion.

Red tapes

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh 3
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Marty Lederhandler/AP/REX/Shutterstock (6596757a) Harrison Shankar Former Beatle George Harrison, left, is shown at a press conference at the Abkco Industries offices in New York.

Hosting the concert might have had its difficulties. But getting the nearly $243,000 it raised to the people it was intended for was a monster of a task in its own right.

Despite Harrison’s noble intentions, Pattie Boyd, his first wife, reported that Harrison believed that some of it “went walkabout”. “It was uncharted territory, the scale of it,” said Jonathan Clyde, of the Beatles’ Apple group in an interview with The Guardian in 2011. “The money did eventually reach Bangladesh, although perhaps not in time to help the refugees at that point. The big mistake was that Unicef wasn’t chosen beforehand, and so the IRS [the US tax service] took the view that because the charity wasn’t involved in the mounting of the concert, they’d take their cut. This distressed George hugely, it really angered him. There was an ongoing tussle for years, but I’m afraid even now the IRS still take their slice.” 

The legacy

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh 4

But the legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh did not end there; rather, it expanded. The concert and subsequent album and film have since raked in millions for Unicef. It went on to fund projects not only in Bangladesh but in trouble spots from Angola to Romania, and even in the Horn of Africa. According to music journalist Mikal Gilmore, Harrison drew heavily from his experience from his entanglement with the IRS. He gave Bob Geldof “meticulous advice” to ensure that Live Aid’s estimated £50 million found its way, as intended, to victims of the Ethiopian famine.

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh 5

Even more critical than the money that was raised from the concert, however, was the widespread support it garnered for the fledgeling nation of Bangladesh.

Suddenly, everyone was talking about a nation that had for so long been desperately seeking to break-through the near radio silence of the media.

Equally important, was how the endeavour redefined the role of the artist from one who was bound by a sacred contract with the audience to produce art that was good, to one who was expected to stand against injustice and use one’s voice to proclaim the unspoken truths of the world aloud.

In a year in which the press was rightfully decrying “the motives of the musicians and the level of the audiences, with each neo-Woodstock more avaricious than the last”, the Concert for Bangladesh, -was –to paraphrase the editors of Rolling Stone – through the sheer splendor of its music and the wholesomeness of its motive,proof that the spirit of music was well and alive.

One minute blackout for all the lives we lost

25th March. 48 years ago on this fateful night, the sky of major cities in Bangladesh lit up in fires, muzzle flashes and explosion flames. As the invading Pakistani army barged into the peaceful night of the city dwellers, the nation witnessed one of the blackest nights in its history.

“Operation Searchlight” as it was called by the invading army, took the lives of 7000 people that night, according to American journalist Robert Payne.

In Dhaka, The army stormed the residential dorms of Dhaka University and open fired on general students. They attacked the East Pakistan Rifles, Rajarbagh Police lines and set the Hindu-dominated areas of old Dhaka ablaze.

Citizens were trapped into a deadly trap of fire and gunshots and killed mercilessly on the streets and even from their homes.

Following the invasion, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared independence and the country plunged into a bloody nine month long war.

On 25th March, the blanket of the night was torn apart by screams, gunshots and explosions. It was one of the worst genocides ever recorded in world history. The next morning, the streets were flooded with blood, corpses and debris.

“In Dhaka, where soldiers set sections of the Old City ablaze with flamethrowers and then machine-gunned thousands as they tried to escape the cordon of fire, nearly 25 blocks have been bulldozed clear, leaving open areas set incongruously amid jam-packed slums.”

-said  a Time magazine report a few months later.

48 years later, we now observe this day as genocide remembrance day. Tonight, the nation will observe a voluntary blackout for one minute from 9:00 PM to 9:01 PM, in memory of all the lives we lost in that fateful night.