January 6, 2021.
I sat glued to the television watching hundreds of people, armed and angry, storm the Capital Building in Washington. They had been incited by Donald Trump to overthrow the recent presidential election results, the election that Trump claimed had been stolen from him by Biden and the Democrats. This violence could not possibly be happening in America. This was Third World stuff.
I no sooner said the words then my mind was yanked back sixty-four years to a Third World insurrection I had witnessed as a teenager.
In seventh grade, at the age of twelve, my father accepted a job overseas with an engineering company, part of an international consortium contracted by the Pakistani Development Corporation to build a paper mill on the Ganges Delta. Khulna, the town selected for the mill, was situated in East Pakistan known today as Bangladesh. The logs were to be hauled by boat upriver in huge booms from the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans (home of the Bengal tiger) to be made into the pulp necessary to produce various paper products.
The salary for a four-year contract was considerable, deposited in a Canadian bank account and not taxed by either country. A house was provided, a school, leisure facilities, servants, and first-class transportation there and back. On the way out we sailed to England on the Empress of Britain, flew to Dacca, the capital of East Pakistan, and finally driven by car to the site. We returned home with stops in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Honolulu, truly an “Around the World Adventure”.
Dad saw this contract as the opportunity to give his three children the university education he never received following the bankruptcy of his father’s bookstore during the Depression and the necessity for he and his brothers to support the family. My parents were certainly adventurous to take their children to live half way around the world but, in hindsight, very naïve about international contracts, particularly in southern Asia.
We arrived at the site in 1957 during the construction phase of the mill. India had only acquired Independence from Britain ten years earlier becoming India and Pakistan (East and West sections) in 1947. East Pakistan then began a drawn-out process of separation from West Pakistan, largely for religious and linguistic reasons, to eventually become Bangladesh in 1972. The years in between were full of political unrest and civil disobedience. East Pakistan was placed under marshal law in 1958 shortly after our arrival. Uprisings continued, growing ever-more dangerous.
The attack I witnessed was against the construction of the mill. I was much too young to understand the whys of what was happening. All I saw was the huge mob of rioters trying to access the compound. As they attempted to break down the gates and climb the protective walls, they were beaten off by soldiers, local police and compound guards. The mob grew larger and larger and those who fell under the blows were trampled. The noise of the crowd was unforgettable – continuous chants I didn’t understand, sounds of batons pounding flesh and cement, screams of pain and barking dogs, all under the heat and humidity and the everyday smells of south Asia.
For a short while the company families huddled on the upper deck of the Newsprint Club overlooking the scene until company employees escorted us to safety. My heart pounded – surely it would pound right out of my chest. By the time the time the fighting was finally over, the streets outside the walls were littered with dead and bloodied bodies.
Although we continued to see evidence of uprisings in and near the village until we left the country in 1960, never did the violence come as close again. The company purchased a river boat to keep onsite should an emergency evacuation be required. Thankfully, it was there when my four-year old sister had to be evacuated to a hospital in Dacca to save her life from amebic dysentery. It was the only time it had to used.