First-ever international report on the Dhaka atrocities as seen by a witness

Last updated: 5 October 2017 From the section 1971 Muktijuddho

Two young international journalist hide from Pakistani military

The first major expose of what had happened in the early hours of 26th March was done by Simon Dring, a 27-year-old reporter of the 'Daily Telegraph' newspaper from London. He had flown into Dhaka on 6 March 1971 to cover the growing political tension.

For us we were young journalists those days and we still didn't really have a very strong perception of what was happening here. But when I arrived I had the priviledge of 7th March standing in Race Course Maidan on the podium where Sheikh Mujib was giving that famous 18-and-a-half-minute speech and, even though I didn't speak Bengali, I understood it. 'The struggle now is the struggle for our emancipation, the struggle now is a struggle for our independence. Joi Bangla.' When I heard that, I understood it even though I didn't understand Bengali.

Simon Dring on the personal impact of Sheikh Mujib's "Ebarer Sangram" speech

By early evening of 25th March Simon and the other 200 international reporters knew that things were getting serious. When the eventual Pakistani military attacks came few hours later, all the journalist watched with horror from the windows and rooftop of Intercontinental Hotel. They also suspected that it's highly unlikely that the Pakistani administration would allow them to document the massacre once the curfew was lifted.

On the afternoon of 26 March 1971 the Head of the press department of the army, also a member of the Pakistan Intelligence Agency, Major Siddiq Salek, came to the hotel and informed all journalist that since "a civil war" has started it was very dangerous to go on the street and for their "own safety" they would be safely evacuated to West Pakistan.

However, Simon Dring was still keen to stay and probed Major Salek about the possibility of staying.

I remember going upto him [Major Siddique Salek] and saying to him, "Excuse me Major, do we have to leave?"

[Major Salek] "Oh no - you don't have to leave, [but] it's for your own good. Your own safety."

"If I chose to stay is that all right?"

"Yes, if you choose to stay it's upto you but you might find that we prepare a special party for you so it might be better that you left."

So I said "OK, thank you".

Dring recalls Major Salek's indirect and chilling response

After receiving an indirect no from the Major, Simon went upto his room, packed his bag and pretended to go. In order to elude the Pakistani search parties who were entrusted with the task of expelling foreign correspondents, Simon escaped at the hotel's rooftop and hid there for couple of hours. He thought if the Major didn't count the journalist there's a good chance that his disappearance would go unnoticed. As fate would have it, he was proved correct. Simon hid and watched from the rooftop as the journalists were loaded onto army trucks and whisked away to the airport. Fortunately for him the Major and his men did not count the journalist and he got away with it. After a little while, Simon crept back into the hotel which was now empty of all the army officials. An ecstatic Bengali staff members of the hotel notified Simon that there was one other person who had hidden just like him - 24-year-old French photojournalist Michel Laurent.

All the Bengali staff in the hotel were very helpful and very excited that I had taken this step, and they said there was one other person here too - he's a photographer from AP [Associated Press news agency], Michel Laurent. So we got together and we decided we better hide overnight somewhere in the hotel and the Bengali staff helped hide us and protect us. We decided the next morning that we had to go out and document what had happened.

Simon Dring on how the Bengali staff hid him and Michel Laurent from Pakistani military

Both Simon and Michel hid at the lobby, kitchen and on top of the roof of Intercontinential Hotel for 32 hours. When the curfew was lifted on 27 March 1971, they dared to go out of the hotel and document the situation in Dhaka. Dressed in kurta-pyjamas, they were able to extensively tour Dhaka and managed to capture the harrowing details of the brutality that took place at Dhaka University’s Iqbal Hall, Rajarbagh Police Line and parts of old Dhaka. However, they were spotted by a Pakistani army patrol at Iqbal Hall of the University. Fortunately for them, they weren't captured but the officers were now aware that there were Western journalists still roaming around. Consequently they came to Intercontinental Hotel to search for Simon and Michel and other journalist. But once again the Bengali staff hid them and they escaped capture. However, as the situation worsened both men flew out of the country and were able to present to the outside world their first-hand account of the fighting that had broken out in the stricken state. Simon flew out of Dhaka on the weekend after 26th March and filed a special report from Bangkok on the extent of the sudden mass crackdown.

First news of genocide

Simon's vivid report was published in The Daily Telegraphy on 30 March 1971 under the heading "Tanks Crush Revolt in Pakistan: 7,000 Slaughtered, Homes Burned". It was the first news of the genocide and the first-ever international report on the atrocities as seen by a witness. Simon Dring also became the first to point out that more than 7,000 Bengalis had been slaughtered in Dhaka over 48 hours. It was also clear from his article that the army had struck without warning, under the cover of darkness - and that these factors were responsible for enormous casualties. In the report Simon also refers to all the foreign journalists being "confined at gunpoint in the Intercontinental Hotel" and of being deported to Karachi.

In the name of 'God and a united Pakistan', Dhaka is today a crushed and frightened city. After 24 hours of ruthless, cold-blooded shelling by the Pakistan Army, as many as 7,000 people are dead, large areas have been levelled and East Pakistan's fight for independence has been brutally put to an end.

It is really tough to ascertain the number of innocent people who have died, but adding the number of deaths in Chittagong, Comilla, Jessore and Dhaka it may stand at 15,000. What is assessable is the ruthlessness of the military crackdown as students have been killed in their beds, butcher at their small shop, women and children burnt alive at homes; the Hindus have been killed after being tacked together, and houses, markets and shops set afire.

...the first target as the tanks rolled into Dhaka on the night of Thursday, March 25, seems to have been the students. An estimated three battalions of troops were used in the attack on Dhaka - one of armoured, one of artillery and one of infantry. They started leaving their barracks shortly before 10 p.m. By 11, firing had broken out and the people who had started to erect makeshift barricades - overturned cars, three stumps, furniture, and concrete piping - became early casualties.

As the university came under attack, other columns of troops moved in on the Rajarbagh headquarters of the East Pakistan police, on the other side of the city. Tanks opened fire first, witnesses said; then the troops moved in and levelled the men's sleeping quarters, firing incendiary rounds into the buildings. People living opposite did not know how many died there, but of the 1,100 police based there not many are believed to have escaped.

Extract from Simon Dring's report

Simon Dring receives State Honour from Government of Bangladesh

Simon Dring returned back to Bangladesh after it gained victory on December 1971. He was in Dhaka when Sheikh Mujib returned from his exile in Pakistan on 10 January 1972. Sheikh Mujib recognised him as they had met 2-3 times during March 1971. In fact, Simon was on the back of the truck which took Sheikh Mujib from Dhaka airport to Paltan Maidan. The next day was Simon's 28th birthday. To his excitement, Sheikh Mujib had sent him a surprise birthday cake to the Intercontinental Hotel where he was staying.

In 2012, after four decades, Simon was invited to Dhaka by the Government of Bangladesh and awarded a State Honour along with many other 'Friends of Bangladesh' for his valiant effort during 1971. Though Simon was honoured to have received such a prestigious award, he urged the Government to recognise the Late Michel Laurent as he was not accorded the honour. Michel was killed on 27 April - some say 28th April - 1975 in Vietnam whilst trying to rescue fellow news reporter Christian Hoche when they were both ambushed by North Vietnamese troops. It was the last day of the war. Michel was only 28 years old. His body was not recovered for three months, and was finally exhumed from the roadside grave between Bien Hoa and Xuan Loc and repatriated. He was buried at Montparnasse cemetery in Paris, France.

Meanwhile, following the Friends of Bangladesh award ceremony a special luncheon was held in Ruposhi Bangla Hotel - the then name for the former Intercontinental Hotel.

That night on 25th March [1971] when the Pakistani army moved in and began systematically to kill, to maim, to savage this city, it made us [journalists] angry because we realised that the Bengali people really did want their independence. I'd like to say thank you for honouring me, but I'd also like to say, I think we should honour the Bengali people who founded within themselves to rise up against all the odds and win their independence with much bloodshed and tremendous effort and spirit.

In a small way, I remember the people in this hotel on 27th March when the curfew was lifted who weeped for Bangladesh. Thank you - I'm proud to be a part of your history.

Simon Dring told a luncheon organised in the honour of the foreign friends by the foreign ministry (2012)

In 2013 a 40-minute documentary was directed by Parvez Chowdhury which followed Simon Dring as he revisited those killing spots in Dhaka and recounted the horrific memories of that time. During the documentary Simon was accompanied by former freedom fighter Akku Chowdhury, now a trusted member of Muktijuddho Jadhughar (Liberation War Musuem) in Dhaka. The documentary was aired on Desh TV on the 42nd anniversary of Bangladesh on 26 March 2013.