Project Officer, UNHCR, Dhâkâ, East Pakistan 1971-1972
• Bloody Rebellion for independence from Pakistan.
• 10 million fled as refugees to India.
• All refugees returned home and were resettled.
Prevailing Situation in East Pakistan in 1971
1. In 1971 Western Pakistan under the leadership of Mujibur Rahman rebelled against the Pakistani authorities and demanded independence. The violence that was unleashed drove 10 million refugees across the border into India. All efforts at reconciliation failed. India concerned over the violent eruptions on its border and the massive influx of refugees on its soil, declared war against Pakistan on 6th December 1971.Ten days later Mujibur Rahman declared the secessionist province independent. A new nation : Bangladesh came into being.
2. The tension between India and Pakistan over the Bangladesh crisis placed UNHCR High Commissioner for Refugees, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan before a dilemma. On the one hand he was anxious to put an end to the suffering of the ten million Bengali refugees in India by repatriating them voluntarily. On the other, he knew well that this could not be achieved without a successful dialogue and reconciliation between India and Pakistan. He embarked on a shuttle diplomacy between the two nations. He designated an outstanding staff, John Kelly, known for his negotiating skills, accompanied by Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was likewise gifted for diplomacy and dialogue, to undertake a mission to Dhâkâ to establish a UNHCR presence. The team was supported at the Geneva end by the then Programme Officer Catherine Bertrand. The mission to East Pakistan was a success. By the time the massive exodus of returnees begun in India, UNHCR was strategically established to receive them back or resettle them.
3. Sergio's short assignment in Bangladesh coming early in his formative years, was rewarding and the experience would prove invaluable to him in his later career. It is best summed up by his own testimony in latter years to a close friend, "It was an extraordinary experience. I was 23, the age of one of my sons today. I witnessed the painful birth of a nation". If anything, the assignment convinced Sergio more than ever before of the crucial importance of dialogue in creating the conducive environment for reconciliation and sustainable peace and development.
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