Remembering the past: Bangladeshi fighters for Palestine of the 1980s

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Volunteers from Bangladesh fighting with Palestinians in Beirut, Lebanon 1982. (Photo: Magnum Photos-Chris Steele Perkins)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Thursday, July 3, 2014

A photograph and a grave. These are two relics of a time, now mostly forgotten, of when thousands of Bangladeshis came to Lebanon in the 1980s as volunteers and fighters for the Palestinian cause. They were no less important in the struggle for Palestinian liberation than others, and their stories deserve to be remembered.

There are many books, films, and reports of international volunteers and organizations that supported and continue to support the Palestinian cause. From armed groups of yesteryear like the Japanese Red Army and the Irish Republican Army to non-violent, ever-growing contemporary organizations like the International Solidarity Movement and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign, support for Palestine has always been and continues to be part and parcel of the international scene.

But not all stories of these extraordinary men and women, traveling far from their homes, motivated by a strong desire to combat injustice, at times facing great peril, are publicly known or detailed sufficiently.

This seems very true for those from the South Asian region, especially Bangladesh. They came to provide a multitude of supporting activities, ranging from transporting weapons and goods between locations in Lebanon to actively engaging in combat against forces threatening the Palestinian cause.

A memory in black and white

In 1982, prior to the Israeli occupation of Beirut, British war photographer Chris Steele-Perkins was down by the shore line and came across a group of Bangladeshi fighters.

They were and would be the only ones he personally met during his tenure in Lebanon. Steele-Perkins did not exchange many words with them, however, he was able to snap an iconic photograph of these men. It would become one of the few remaining images of these fighters.

The relationship between Bangladesh and Palestine, particularly the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), can be traced as far back to the early years of the Bangladeshi state, after a fight for liberation against Pakistan in 1971. It was a brutal, devastating war that resulted in millions dead, and millions more becoming refugees, but ultimately resulted in the creation of the modern state of Bangladesh.

While at first, most Arab states were hesitant to recognize the newly-established state, relations quickly warmed in 1973 when Bangladesh supported Egypt, Syria, and the Palestinians’ fight against Israel during the October War, including sending a medical team and relief supplies.

Soon after, Bangladesh was included as a member of the Non-Aligned Movement at the Algiers Summit in 1973, and Arab countries mounted pressure on Pakistan to recognize Bangladesh in 1974.

A relationship with the PLO was established around that time period, in which Bangladesh allowed the opening of a PLO office in the capital, Dhaka, and PLO officials were frequent guests at events hosted by the Bangladeshi political and diplomatic corps, a May 1976 US state department cable released by WikiLeaks showed.

The affinity with Palestine became so strong and so entrenched within the Bangladeshi society that in 1980 a postal stamp was created, but never issued, depicting a kuffiyah-draped Palestinian freedom fighter, the al-Aqsa mosque in the background shrouded by barbwire, and words that saluted Palestinian freedom fighters as “valiant” in English and Arabic.

According to a September 1988 US Library of Congress report, the Bangladeshi government reported in 1987 that “8,000 Bangladeshi youths had volunteered to fight for the Palestine Liberation Organization,” an announcement that came after Yasser Arafat visited the country that year and received a warm welcome from media and political circles.

The report also states that a few Palestinian military figures were also sent to Bangladesh to participate in training courses.

Today, there are few documented records in regards to the exact number of Bangladeshi volunteers in Lebanon, or a break-down of what groups they had joined.

Al-Akhbar contacted the Bangladeshi embassy in Beirut in regards to any information on this topic. Although officials at the embassy acknowledged the existence and history of Bangladeshi fighters for Palestine, they stated that detailed information was unavailable.

Similarly, the Palestinian embassy was a dead-end due to the fact that much of the PLO documents were burnt by the Israeli army during its ferocious invasion and occupation of Lebanon.

What lingers of these fighters are but Palestinian officials’ fleeting memories.

“There were around 1,000 to 1,500 of them. There were even some battalions that were completely Bangladeshi, but most of them were spread to different groups,” Fatah's secretary of PLO factions in Lebanon, Fathi Abu al-Aradat, told Al-Akhbar.

“I remember they were highly disciplined. They were known to have incredible will. When the Israelis invaded and captured some of the Bangladeshi fighters, they used to say to them, 'PLO, Israeli No' even when they were tortured,” he said. “They had great relations with the rest of the fighters. They really believed in the cause.”

Although Fatah was known to have a significant number of foreign fighters among their ranks, it was another Palestinian faction, the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), that was a major recipient of fighters, including those from Bangladesh.

The PFLP-GC, a far-left militant group led by Ahmed Jibril and backed by the Syrian government, had split from the main PFLP party that was led by George Habash, after a dispute over ideological and tactical issues occurred between Habash and Jibril (Abu Jihad) in 1968.

“They were with the PFLP-GC,” Ziyad Hammo, a PFLP official and member of the governing municipality of Shatila camp, told Al-Akhbar.

“They had a lot of military talent but they were mainly supporting services such as transporting weapons or guarding certain offices,” Hammo noted. “If they wanted to fight, they went to fight.”

“I remember three or four of them. There were two who were placed as guards in the Bekaa, and another one in Baablek. People really forgot they were Bengali, they spoke perfect Arabic,” the PFLP official added.

But the question remains: why are there very few accounts of these volunteers’ aid to the cause?

“In the PLFP, we try to remember these men. For example, the Japanese Red Army is very valued and we tried to recover and maintain that history. But with the Bangladeshis, I guess, there aren't many stories and anecdotes about them because their role was limited. At least for the PFLP, I can't speak for other Palestinian factions,” Hammo opined.

“I gather most of them left after 1982, once the UN sent its forces into Lebanon. Some of them died or were captured and later released, and perhaps a few stayed in Lebanon to live the rest of their lives working. It's been 32 years, and I think most of them got old. We all got older,” he added.

Kamal Mustafa Ali: the ‘heroic martyr’

On the outskirts of the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in southern Beirut is the Palestinian Martyr Cemetery, where those who perished struggling for the Palestinian cause lay. Among the many tombstones of Palestinians who have died since the 1970s, those of a few foreigners can be spotted. A few Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, Tunisians, a Russian, a Kurd, and also one of a Bangladeshi man named Kamal Mustafa Ali.

The tombstone of Kamal Mustafa Ali in the Palestinian Martyr Cemetery in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp. (Photo: Yazan al-Saadi)The tombstone of Kamal Mustafa Ali in the Palestinian Martyr Cemetery in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp. (Photo: Yazan al-Saadi)

There is no mention of who Kamal Mustafa Ali was, not even a birth date. What is etched on the marble slab is a Quranic verse from the House of Imran chapter. It states: “And never think of those who have been killed in the cause of God as dead. Rather, they are alive with their Lord, receiving provision.”

Below the verse is his name and nationality, and when and how he died as a “heroic martyr.” Ali died on July 22, 1982 during a battle at the Castle of the High Rock, also known as the Beaufort Castle, located in the southern Lebanese governorate of Nabatiyeh.

The castle, which is said to have been established as a military fortification site prior to the Crusaders’ arrival in the early 12 century – due to its strategically located position on a high hill overlooking a large swath of territory – became a site for many heated battles, quickly exchanging hands from power to power.

The PLO controlled the castle in 1976, using it mainly as a base to conduct resistance activities along the border, deploying around 1,000 fighters within its walls and surroundings.

When the Israelis invaded on June 6,1982, the castle was the site of the first major battles prior to Israel's push north towards Beirut. Even though the PLO lost hold of the castle in the span of two days – after intense pounding by Israeli artillery and airstrikes – the Israelis control of the castle was never easy.

The occupying Israeli forces were met with constant resistance by Palestinian groups, and then Hezbollah and other Lebanese resistance groups, until they were forced to retreat in 2000.

Kamal Mustafa Ali perished, as the tombstone noted, during one of those early attempts to retake the castle.

His body was only recovered in 2004, after an exchange deal between Hezbollah and Israel was brokered by German mediation. Four Israeli soldiers corpses were exchanged for more than 400 prisoners, the remains of more than 50 fighters, and a map of deadly landmines that Israel planted in southern Lebanon and the western Bekaa region.

According to the caretakers of the Palestinian Martyr Cemetery, Ali's bones were sent back home to his family in Bangladesh, and a grave was erected in the cemetery to commemorate his sacrifice.

It rests there side-by-side with other bodies and names of Palestinians and non-Palestinians, watched and cared for by Palestinian hands who do not know much of the man. It is the only remaining, physical marker in Beirut of the sacrifices made by Bangladeshi volunteer fighters for the Palestinian cause during the 1980s.

Addendum: Al-Akhbar has recently received the following response to this report from Naeem Mohaiemen, a visual artist and Anthropology doctorate candidate at Columbia University researching post-1971 Bangladesh history. His films include "United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1)," about the 1977 hijack of JAL 472 to Bangladesh by the Japanese Red Army. He has been investigating the Bangladeshi Lebanese fighters and believes the officially reported numbers are "inflated."

He argues that, "Prime Minister Sheikh Mujib's attendance of the 1974 Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) meeting was a realpolitik move for the damaged, new state– aligning with the Arab Bloc was also a question of survival, via influx of oil dollars. His successor, the military government of General Ziaur Rahman, pushed Islamization (via Arabization) even further. The inflated numbers come from this context of wanting to signal a significant contribution to the Palestinian cause, and PLO commanders then replicated those numbers as part of a logical strategy of projecting internationalist military strength. Such inflation of numbers temporarily won the PLO a media war, but it also blindsided them about the potential scale of defeat during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon"

Comments

Yasser Arafat was a frequent visitor to Dhaka. My dad met him once at the residence of the long serving Palestinian ambassador. He said Bangladesh was his second home.

Thanks for posting. Whatever the issues of partisanship and various other criticisms, this little piece of history was useful to know about.

Really proud of them!

As a Bangladeshi National I feel proud for them

I m from Bangladesh. I know such a volunteer in person. He confirmed this extraordinary courage of my people to fight for Palestine. I felt pride and tears reading this article.

I am from Bangladesh and i feel proud. we are always with Palestine.

I am a Poet/Writer from Bangladesh, providing hearty thanks for this excellent coverage of History. Will you pl give us some more info or let me have the contacts of the Writer/ It would be a great privileged for me if you help me in this regards....BS

Bangladesh's links with Palestine goes far back. much before its annexation by India in 1971. or even before 1947 if you will. the undivided Pakistan had close associations with Palestinians and other Arab allies. East Pakistan (pre-1971 Bangladesh) provided some of the finest army officers and pilots to give training or serve alongside the Arab forces.

a notable East Pakistani fighter pilot is Flt. Lt. Saif ul Azam who volunteered to serve for Iraqi, Jordani, Misari and Syrian Air Forces during the successive wars for Palestine, and received great distinction from all of them.

What the hell are you on about? Annexation by India? We were annexed by the British into India, then we got independence from India. While the Brits constructed Pakistan and Israel their two projects. Pakistan with Israel's backing murdered 3 million Bengalis (many Muslims) in 1971.

And Saiful Azam was a bengali pilot, our identity for thousands of years, not some fake construct "pakistan". Bengalis have always stood with Palestine, We know that the British and Americans back Israel, Saudi and Pakistan, sot hey are definitely monafique nations.

This is what we are. This is we the Bangladeshi. We were there for the Palestine and we will be. Once we were a poor nation but we are rising. We have much more to give to the rightful cause of the Palestinians.

Arabs mistreat the Bengalis including Palestenians no less.

Wow it makes me so proud of my homeland after reading this. We woukd be helping Palestine now even, if it wasn't for that b**** Sheik hasina

Dear Fatima. Surely, you are ignorant and do not have any idea about the history of Bangladesh. It was Sheikha Hasina's father who had great friendship with PLO leader Yasir Arafat. Both Awami League and PLO believed in democracy and secularism. Hasina's father United all people of Bangladesh Muslim, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists etc. In the same way, PLO believed in uniting all the people irrespective of religion.

Dear Hassan, you are completely unaware of the reality of situation. Mujib was a sleazy greedy asshole who conspired with India to break up Pakistan. Were the West Pakistani rulers just and fair to the East Pakistani/Bangladeshi people? OF COURSE NOT. India exploited this and caused a civil war in the erstwhile Pakistan. Yes, Mujib did try to make better relations with Arab countries. But he tried to build relation with any country he could after East Pakistan/current Bangladesh was separated because Bangladesh need as much support as it can gather to get official recognition as a country.

Mujib was a traitor. And his daughter Hasina is now running a dictatorship in Bangladesh and killing people everyday. Her government want to completely marginalize the Islamic identity and establish extreme fascistic Bengali nationalism. That way people, as they hope, will not resist Indian hegemony.

Bangladeshi people love Filistin. We cry for you Filistin. You are in our hearts. But the Awami League (Hasina's party) is not a friend of Muslims.

No, Pakistan is a Zionist concept itself. Both created by the British and always allies of America and causing murder and mayhem. Bhutto and Yahya and Ayub are the bastard traitors. Mujib was a good man. The things destroying Bangladesh now is you Pakistanis. The ISI is causing more murder after they've already killed millions. This is why we hate Pakistanis.

Hasina is trying to get justice for 71, because Pakis still haven't recognised the Genocide and handed over the fat punjabi war criminals.

This story caught my interest. Usually, Bangladeshis don't care about what is happening in Palestine and especially the settlements problems and as well as they don't know main history of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When people think of Bangladeshis in Arab nations like Qatar, Saudi and other Gulf nations, they think of them as labourers which is true. But this, this is fascinating. Thank you for doing this report. I am so grateful of my own identity.

You obviously don't know much about bangladeshi ppl and of its great achievements in both winning there freedom and becoming and independent country even they were smaller in size. Alhamdu lillah. But I sniff Pakistan in yr comments and I'm sure all who are proud about this report sniff u out too..... If u can't bare to hear something good and Bangladesh then keep from commenting altogether. Best for ppl with black hearst

Interesting article, with an intriguingly bizzare addendum, which pours a narcassistic and politically very partisan context to the fighters which is pretty much an advert for the Columbia overgraduate.

Yeah apparently he is an ultra secularist who was from an element of society very much opposed to the nation having an Islamic identity. They were even opposed to us joining the OIC. (My father knows of him apparently)

agreed!

Thanks a lot 'al-akhbar' for publishing this article. actually we had a big battalion in that time fighting for Palestine in Lebanon but in by the passage of time they have been forgotten. There was a PLO fighter group in Dhaka also, taking training at Bangladeshi army cantonment. Major Mohammod Afsaruddin who was the cheif of Bangladeshi mujahid fighter in Lebanon wrote important memories and information in his book. He published photos with the commander of PLO fighters also in that book. Thanks to al-akhbar again and we hope someone other also will come forward from Arabs/Non-Arabs to unveil the history more clearly.

I will be glad to find a copy of the said book by Maj Afsaruddin. Is it possible to let us know how to collect a copy of the book? Many thanks!
On a different note, Bangladeshi people during late 70s and early 80s were indeed very concerned about the causes of Palestinian people. Newspapers used to highlight their on going struggle, TV covered their news and a very popular TV show, titled, Jodi Kuchhu Mone Na Koren, anchored by Fazle Lohani presented an exclusive, touchy and long documentary on their sufferings.

Thank you ever so much for the article. Reading about their heroic actions makes me feel proud to be a Bangladeshi. This is a part of history which must not be forgotten. We need to share this article to create awareness. The articles demonstrates the Unity of the ummah.

I was in Canada when Israel invaded Lebanon. Three of us were watching a story on TV about the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. The footage showed many people in that camp and I saw a few people wearing lungi, a Bangladeshi dress. I looked at them very carefully and recognized Shafiq. He was my classmate at Dhaka College. I did not see him in years but still remembered him. I was told he became a medical doctor and volunteered to serve in a PLO camp in Lebanon. I remember him as a very intelligent and idealistic young man. I also remember a few times dead bodies of Bangladeshis who were martyred in Lebanon were brought to Bangladesh and were given funerals where thousands attended. Palestine is always very close to the hearts of most Bangladeshis.

Thank you for this part of history that most people don't know about. Thanks to all the people of the world that believe in our just cause. And who sacrificed on our behalf

I am a Bangladeshi and writing from Dhaka. I feel proud to see the report. I want to know more about this issue. Thanks to the Reporter and Al-Akhbor.

I first came to know about these Bangladeshi fighters in 1984 at a conference in the United States. An Israeli scholar Dr. Raphael Israeli claimed that Israel had captured documents showing the presence of as he put it Bangladeshi mercenaries fighting for the PLO.

Thanks for raising this Yazan,

There is a politics to this that I have written about here.
http://fugstar.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/bangladeshi-fighting-for-plo-and.html

Simply put, according to a political memoir, it provided a struggling opposition party with a method of training up cadres into militants as part of a wider design to gain power in Bangladesh.

Would be interested in your feedback.

Long live Palestine

Fugstar

Fugstar

You put some of the story of why the Bagladeshis were fighting in Lebanon into perspective. Thanks for that.

Assalmu alaikum...

This piece of writing is what needs to be spread more than pictures of wearing captions on Syria and Palestine.

Such a beautiful story MashaAllah and sad at the same time where it shows evidence of the Ummah in decline.

Dear Yazan,
Thanks for writing on this, and hope to see more of that as we often forget to register the support Palestinians received and continue to receive from peoples in in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Please continue these reports, and I would very much like to receive from you any suggestions about books/articles already written on the subject, but also those you come across and do not manage to publish them.
Magid

Thank you al-akhbar for remembering contributions and sacrifices of Bangladeshis for Palestine.

Thank you for sharing this slice of history.
Quite a few times had to wipe tears.
A similar story that needs to be widely known in Lebanon has to do with Sabra & Shatila massacre.
it can be found at the following location.
http://www.counterpunch.org/2006/07/24/sabra-and-shatila-and-the-brave-w...
I wrote the piece and I think counterpunch.org, where it was published, would not resist allowing it to be published by Al-Akhbar.

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