Thursday, January 28, 2016

Historic War Cemetery of Chittagong, Bangladesh

Seven hundred and fifty-five soldiers are buried in Chittagong's historic War Cemetery. The 'War' refers to the Second World War and the graves belong to soldiers of the
sub-continent, England and Africa who perished while taking Burma back from the Japanese after years of fierce fighting.
The Burma War lasted from 1941-1945. It began when the Japanese seized the Tenessarim air fields in mid-December 1941, causing the closure of the strategic Burma Road to allied forces. Rangoon fell to the Japanese on March 7, 1942, compelling the allied forces to withdraw up the Irrawady and Sittang Valleys to Mandalay and then to India.
It's worth noting that only one hundred thousand Japanese soldiers conquered Burma in 1942 from the more numerous British and Indian troops. When they marched on Rangoon, the Japanese walked for 45 minutes and slept for 15, such were their steely discipline. When they slept, they made sure their feet pointed toward Rangoon so they didn’t march in the wrong direction when they woke up!
However, in 1943, new air fields constructed in India allowed the British to regain air supremacy, proving a turning point in the war. Supply to China, whose soldiers were fighting alongside allied forces, was resumed from airfields in Assam. In December, the 15th Corps attacked on the Arakan Front. A Japanese counterattack in February, 1944, was decisively defeated.
There was now no stopping the allies who launched offensive on three fronts. The American-Chinese forces attacked from the north. The Arakan 15th Corps captured the airfields at Akyak and Ramree while the 4th and the 33rd Corps captured Meiktila and Mandalay and pursued the fleeing Japanese army southward to Pegu on 1 May, 1945. Five days later, these two Corps linked up with the 15th Corps that had entered Rangoon on May 3 after an unopposed landing. Japan had lost Burma to the allied forces and a formal cease-fire in August, 1945, merely cemented the fact.
A staggering number of 45,000 Commonwealth soldiers lost their lives in the Burma War, of whom 27,000 came from what is now Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. They are commemorated in headstones and cremation memorials in nine cemeteries in Bangladesh, Assam and Burma. The 755 soldiers buried in the Chittagong War Cemetery came from the Chittagong General Hospital in Ander Kill (Inner fort) where they succumbed to their injuries sustained in the Burma War.
As you walk along rows and rows of headstones, you read the names of soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend freedom from fascism decades ago, and you experience a sense of the sacred and the profound.

Muhammad Bahadur of the Indian Pioneer Corps, dead on 13 June, 1945, at age 30.
Muhammad Aziz, a sepoy of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, on 22nd June, 1944, at 25.
Lance Naik S.M. Dada Bai of Indian Engineers, in June ’45, age 18!

Flying Officer M.T.W Pain, with the Royal Australian Air Force, in August ’44, age 21.
“Loved son of Rev. & Mrs. W. K. Pain, of Wahroonga, N.S. Wales”

Sergeant C.C. Young, Wireless Operator/ Air Gunner with the Royal Air Force, in March ’45, age 21 “He was so young, his heart so brave. In the midst of life God called him away.”

Flying Officer W.R. Thomson, a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force, in February ’45, age 21 “In loving memory of our dear Bill”
Pilot Officer E.C. Dowling, Pilot with the Royal Air Force, in August ’43, age 27 “In loving memory of my dear husband Eric. Your wife and son.”

Craftsman Muhammad Ishaq, Indian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, in October ’45, age 19.
Driver Audu Salamu, West African Army Services Corps, in June ’45.
Sepoy Sadiq Mian, Indian Army Medical Corps, in March ’44, age 24.
Sepoy Roshan Zamir, 12th Frontier Force Regiment, in February ’44, age 17!
Sepoy Gul Rahman, Infantry, in March ’45, age 16!
And on and on …

In one corner of the cemetery lie buried  19 Japanese soldiers in unmarked graves, 18 of whose names are recorded in a plaque, "with one of their comrades whose name is unknown."

At the entrance of the cemetery is a Memorial Register, 1939-1945, containing “the names of 6500 sailors and merchant seamen who died in the service of their motherland and have no graves but the sea.”

Bangladesh's port city of Chittagong is home to 8 million people. It is a tragedy that the War Cemetery, constructed and meticulously maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is one of a very few spots that offers Chittagoneans a refuge from the maddening traffic and the impossible gridlocks of a bustling yet utterly unplanned and unkempt city. Students, young lovers and couples of all ages stroll by the bougainvillea hedges or lean against the Champa trees whispering sweet nothings.

But something else has taken over the visitors that I had not anticipated since I brought my wife here 35 years ago and photographed her in this pristine setting, before migrating to America. The Cemetery seems to have become the Selfie capital of the world! Everywhere you look, girls and boys are busy capturing themselves on their smartphones. I have not seen such selfie-frenzy even at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, or at the scenic Carmel-by-the-Sea in Northern California.

So I busy myself reading the headstones as a mark of respect for the dead. As daylight fades and crows gather on the Krishnachura trees, I look around at the laughing couples and playful kids and realize that those who are commemorated here have not given their lives in vain. In a sense, this laughter, this peace, this sanctuary in a troubled world is their fitting legacy.

Epilogue: Abdul Barek has been a gardener at the cemetery for 37 years and Abul Bashar for 12. They have been tending to the roses, the noyontaras, the lantanas, the gardenias, the lilies, and hundred more varieties year after year. They helped me identify the plants that thrive in the cemetery through their care, even though living on meager wages. I offer them some money. Both refuse. "We are well cared for," says Bashar. "We are happy doing what we do. What can beat that?"

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