Sunday, September 4, 2011

SOUTH ASIA: The Forgotten Hostages of Peace

EVER since the end of the Indo-Pakistani war in December 1971, a true peace settlement on the subcontinent has been blocked by disagreement over what to do with three groups of political hostages, totaling more than 500,000.

> India is the increasingly unwilling custodian of 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war, whose upkeep so far has cost more than $20 million.

> Bangladesh, the new nation formed by dissident Bengalis in the former province of East Pakistan, has 250,000 Biharis (non-Bengali Moslems) who want to be repatriated to Pakistan.

> Pakistan, in turn, is holding about 200,000 Bengalis who were trapped in the country at the war's end and want to go to Bangladesh.

Last month India and Bangladesh proposed a new settlement calling for simultaneous repatriation of the P.O.W.s, the Biharis and the Bengalis. To sweeten the offer, Bangladesh's Prime Minister, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, dropped his insistence that Pakistan formally recognize his country prior to negotiations. Dacca also scaled down the number of Pakistani soldiers it wants to try for atrocities committed during the war from 2,500 to less than 200.

Pakistan's initial response to the offer was quite favorable. A government spokesman said that the proposal "purports to be inspired by a vision of a durable peace in the subcontinent." President Zulfikar AH Bhutto invited India —but not Bangladesh—to send representatives to Islamabad to discuss the exchange further. But that hopeful response was never followed up, and last week prospects for a quick resolution of the conflict seemed all but dashed.

The reason: in midnight raids that smacked of Nazi Germany, Pakistani police invaded the homes of several thousand Bengalis in Islamabad, loaded them on to buses and trucks and hauled them off to internment camps in northern Pakistan. The victims were all former Pakistani government employees. Officials offered a number of lame explanations, though none for the terror tactics involved in the action. The housing was needed for others, it was said. But the claim was also made that the Bengalis were being taken away "in preparation for their eventual repatriation to Bangladesh."

There were strong hints that the Bengalis would be defendants in a series of "show trials" if Bangladesh carried out its threat to try Pakistani military officials. Pakistan has adamantly opposed such trials on the ground that soldiers who committed atrocities should be tried by Pakistani military tribunals. Since General Tikka Khan, who led the military suppression of the Bengalis, is now Pakistan's army Chief of Staff, Bangladesh is unmoved by that argument. Dacca last week denounced the raids on the Bengalis as "barbarous," and Indian Foreign Minister Swaran Singh said that Pakistan's action "can only retard the process of normalization in the subcontinent."

Though public attention in recent months has been largely focused on the fate of the P.O.W.s, the plight of the Bengalis, who are plainly being held by Pakistan as hostages for the P.O.W.s, is, if anything, far worse. Having fought for neither Bangladesh nor Pakistan, they are perhaps the most innocent victims of the war's residual bitterness. As East Pakistanis, they came to what was then West Pakistan for a variety of reasons, primarily better job opportunities. Many of them found work in the textile mills or as small traders and domestic servants. Thousands of others were teachers, doctors and government employees, who naturally gravitated to the nation's capital.

Virtually all of them have lost their jobs. Many are barely subsisting in the crowded, steaming slums of Karachi; others have been forced to double up two and three families to a house. There is no mail service between Pakistan and Bangladesh, 1,000 miles away, and those who left their families behind have no way of knowing whether their wives and children survived the war. Says one Bengali, a former civil servant: "The police come by after midnight and wake us up just to see if we are in the house. We did not fight against Pakistan, but we are treated as prisoners. The world has forgotten us."

In the marketplaces, Bengalis say they are forced to pay twice as much as Pakistanis do for fruits and vegetables. They dare not complain to police for fear of reprisals. "My hair has grown gray overnight," says a pediatrician who helped organize medical clinics for the Bengalis. "We have all lost weight. We are not beggars yet, but we have sold everything. We cannot stand this political insecurity and social isolation."
All Bengali schools and colleges were closed by the government last year, and civil servants fired from their jobs. Senior government employees are now being moved into a single residential area in Karachi, where they will be un der constant police watch. Even worse, some 40,000 members of the armed forces and their families are being held in military detention camps, just as if they were ordinary prisoners of war. Pakistani authorities refuse to allow anyone in to see them.

Their growing desperation has prompted thousands of Bengalis to pay hundreds of dollars to frontier tribesmen to smuggle them across the border into Afghanistan. But the risks are great. The journey entails a week's walk through desolate and dangerous terrain. Those who get caught—as have about 4,000 so far—wind up in Pakistani prisons. For those who have not resorted to such extreme measures, the outlook is almost as grim. As last week's brutal roundup proved, they have ample reason to fear that a wrong turn in political events could any day make them the object of bloody reprisals.