Ouderland Editorial- Kamrul Ahsan Khan
As we celebrate the 40th year of Bangladesh’s independence, the name of WAS Ouderland has a unique place in Bangladesh’s history. As a Dutchman, who later settled in the Western Australian city of Perth in 1978, he was the only non-Bangladeshi winner of the Bir Pratik, one of the highest gallantry awards of Bangladesh, for his role in Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971.
Yet, most of Mr Ouderland’s legacy was lost in the turbulent history of Bangladeshi politics. Only when he was contacted by a Bangladeshi-Australian in 1997 did details of his role in Bangladesh’s liberation re-surface. By then, Mr Ouderland was almost blind and unable to write in detail about his activities in 1971. But from what little has emerged from his own salvaged recollections, is a rich trove of photographs and stories of how a 54-year old Dutch CEO had become a Bengali guerrilla in 1971.
Scarred by the Nazi occupation of Holland in the Second World War, during which he served as a sergeant in the Dutch Royal Signals Corp, Mr Ouderland recognised the face of evil. In the murder of thousands of Bengalis by the Pakistani army, he recognised the indiscriminate murder he witnessed in the Rotterdam Blitz of 1940. In the guerrilla resistance of the Mukti-Bahini, he recognised the moral power of the underground resistance movement he was part of against the Nazi occupiers.
Mr Ouderland’s own words on the events that unleashed the very powerful personal forces at work were described in a letter he sent to a Bangladeshi-Australian acquaintance in 1997. In the letter Mr Ouderland recalled, “[W]hen the events of March 1971 started with the Tanks of Pakistani forces rolling into Dhaka, I was reliving my experience of my younger days in Europe. I could fully appreciate the predicament of the Bengali people and this motivated me to string into action on their behalf. As a result of indiscriminate and cruel actions of this invading Pakistani Junta, thousands of Bengalis died in the ensuing week. I felt that someone had to make the world aware of what was happening.”
What followed was extraordinary and unique in the history of Bangladesh’s Liberation War.
Mr Ouderland’s experiences as part of the resistance movement in Holland were critical to young guerrilla fighters, such as myself, who were strangers to the world of arms and tactics. Not only did Mr Ouderland train the Muktijoddhas (freedom fighters), but he fought with them. In secret, he fought alongside the freedom fighters all around sectors 1 and 2. More importantly, perhaps, he considered these freedom fighters his own sons and sis home became a safe haven for the fighters.
Of course, Mr Ouderland’s role in 1971 was so much more than a guerrilla. His contributions were as diverse as they were important. Contributions, perhaps, that only a man in his position, as the CEO of Bata Shoe company, could provide. Allowed to freely roam around, he became a photographer when hardly any photographers were allowed in the country. As he sent those photos around the world, he became a window through which the world received the rare macabre pictures of the atrocities. Mr Ouderland also became a spy for the freedom fighters as he used his position as the CEO of Bata to pry critical military intelligence from the Pakistani high command and passed it on to the guerrillas.
This publication is a timely reminder of these great achievements. As we celebrate the 40th year of Bangladeshi independence, and move toward a new era in Bangladesh’s relationship with the world, it is a timely reminder of the links of the past. Writing the history of Mr Ouderland’s contribution to the birth of Bangladesh also allows us, and especially the new generation, to understand the spirit of freedom and justice that united both Bengali and non-Bengalis in 1971. By recalling his story, we can see Mr Ouderland as the embodiment of the highest levels of the humanitarian spirits of empathy, compassion and sacrifice.
Mr Ouderland continued to live in Bangladesh until 1978, by which time the country he helped liberate was ravaged by military coups and assassinations. But, as Mr Ouderland had once written, “All these actions were taken as a result of my deep love and affection I felt for the Bengali people”. As the Bangladeshi flag was draped over his coffin at his funeral in 2001, it was a symbol of recognition from a country that his acts kindness and bravery in 1971 meant that he was accepted as become a Bangladeshi himself.
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