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Keep up to date with the latest news, insights and research from CPPP by reading Chief Executive, Imran Chowdhury’s blog.

Refugee to activist: How war fuelled my fight against extremism

The journey of my life has been an odyssey for me. From the time of my boyhood onwards I have been through many waves of calamity and crossed many deserts of misery yet nothing seems to have been able to dampen my resolve, determination, zeal, and enthusiasm.

It all began in the month of April 1971 during the war of liberation of Bangladesh. My father was a border security rifles officer revolted with his company of troops and defected to join the Freedom fight to liberate the country from the clutches of the military Junta and their local collaborators. Life became untenable and it became increasingly difficult to stay inside the country. One fateful evening my family became deserters; we had no choice but to evacuate our house to save our souls from falling prey into the hands of the occupying forces and their local agents; the fifth columnists. An exodus of 19 days took us to India ( Agartala - Tripura State) to seek refuge there.

We finally ended up in a 12 ft by 12 ft Shanti makeshift room in a refugee camp from the pristine 5-bed room colonial bungalow made for indigo planters, we used to live in. What a twist of fate and a falling from grace to misery; no breakfast, no batman to take us to school, no school to go and no amenities of life whatsoever. Life was in the worst state of affairs. The family of 5 of us cooped up in that small bamboo-made, a thatched row of terraces given to each family with no window and no furniture. 

After a few days, my 17 year old brother decided to sign up as a freedom fighter. That left me to look after my family at the age of 11. I was the only male member of the family to go and stand in the queue for rations, cut branches of trees from the thick jungles to bring them home and dry them in the sun, to use for firewood for cooking - this was the harshest chore I have ever endured. Above all, the psychological effect of that tremulous journey and exodus left me engulfed with a massive of fear of death. This fear was haunting me every day. The great escape to safety was done in such haste that we were almost running to avoid the advancing marching columns of the invading army. Ironically, those who were trying to annihilate us were also from the same fraternity of religion of we were. Yet, when we poured into the shores of India, those who were of different faith and religion embraced the ocean of refugees with open arms. Providing them with food, shelter and pocket money to buy essentials. This was an act of humanity which is beyond any religion. Humanity stood above all and triumphed to the pinnacle.

Life in a refugee camp was perhaps the worst time for me. There is no respect given to those who become refugees. No school to go to, no sport to play and no amenities of life; life seemed as though it stood still; at the lowest of it’s ebb.

In the coming months, we managed to pull ourselves together started a host of activities to engage in life to overcome those impediments, bugging us at the back of our minds. There were more than a 1000 families housed in the refugee camp to accommodate the government officials, members of the parliaments, bureaucrats, elites, acclaimed artists and poets. Youngsters like me joined a team of nursing helpers at the hospital where thousands of wounded freedom fighters were treated every day, limbless, blinded, amputated, severely bullet-injured patients from the war zones. I helped at a Hindu homeopath doctor’s surgery one day a week, became a member of a cultural team to sing patriotic songs by visiting the freedom fighters training camps and frontier outposts. I also joined a newly formed cub-scouts troop to carry out all sorts of civic amenity works in within the camp and during last leg of the war spent most of my time distributing newspapers to the refugee community to uplift morale, spreading the news of our imminent independence with a mammoth victory by dislodging the occupying force and their civilian politically motivated army of psychopaths.

Luckily with the great humanitarian and military assistance from India the war ended with 9 months and rescued me from the unfathomable ocean of misery. After repatriation back to my newly independent Bangladesh; a broken, war torn, dilapidated country when every freedom fighter was reuniting with their families, sadly our brother did not make it home. He sacrificed himself at the altar of our freedom. A 17 year old young man paid the ultimate price for the independence of his motherland. Slowly and gradually the life got back to normal. But those lessons of humanity and the teachings of harshness of life taught me a great lesson. This lesson remains heavily embedded in my mind. Life remains a mystery and every musing leaves a sense of introspection to reflect on to those tutelages. 

Now after all these years I am still grappling with the idea to create the interfaith harmony and establish a synergy in between the multi-cultural communities in the UK. How best to eradicate those stigmas to make Britain a safer society and build a stronger Britain. The communities and various faiths live in a cohesive society where all are equal and every one carries out their social, civic and communal shared responsibilities. From the backdrop of own experience of religious extremity and attempt of annihilation I engage with all communities but especially with my Bangladeshi community to say no to extremism and make them aware of the booby trap of extremist ideology. I aim to make the youngsters aware of those predators who are polluting these young brains to stay away from that path of destruction. Although there are no evidence of it happening on the surface, it is of paramount importance to educate them of the pitfalls of that entrapment. Inculcating a sense of belonging and to make society strong is my quest formed from my past experience of my own life. This tempestuous past has made me want to create a sense of building and empowering among communities, make them cohesive and thrive in excellence.

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