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