What Really Happened in Bangladesh

Washington, Islamabad, and the Genocide in East Pakistan

The forgotten: refugees in East Pakistan, 1971. Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos

On November 13, 1970, a devastating cyclone struck East Pakistan, a province dominated by the Bengali ethnic group and physically separated from the rest of Pakistan by India. The cyclone killed an estimated 230,000 people, and in its wake, the national government, based in West Pakistan, did too little to alleviate the suffering, further alienating the long-underrepresented Bengalis. A year later, they would declare independence. As an officer in the U.S. consulate in the East Pakistani capital of Dhaka later noted, “The cyclone was the real reason for the final break.”

Several weeks after the cyclone, on December 7, Pakistan held the first direct elections in its 23-year history. East Pakistan went for Mujibur Rahman, who headed a Bengali nationalist party called the Awami League, which was moderately pro-American. Sheik Mujib, as he was known, initially favored autonomy for both wings of Pakistan in a confederation. West Pakistan elected another nationalist, Zulfiqar Ali

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