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.