Simon, who has died at the age of 76, was a brilliant foreign correspondent and television presenter who worked for many news agencies for over a career of 40 years, covering major stories and events, but in particular, over 20 wars and revolutions around the world.
In 1971, at the age of 26, Simon was in Dhaka in East Pakistan working on the launch of 'Jamuna Television'. While there, he witnessed the speech given by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the 'Founding Father of Bangladesh' at the Ramna Race Course Maidan to a gathering of over a million people. Simon later recalled : "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 privilege of 7th March standing in Race Course Maidan on the podium where Sheikh Mujib was giving that famous 18-and-a-half-minute speech".
He said :"I was actually on the platform only a few yards away from him. I don't speak Bengali, but I have to say that in that 20 minute speech, listening to him, seeing the reaction of that huge crowd there, I understood everything that was going on." (link) Simon can be standing on the extreme left in the still photo. "It was extraordinary. There was that one phrase in particular where he said : "The struggle now is the struggle for our emancipation. The struggle now is the struggle for our independence. Joi Bangla". When I heard that, I understood it even though I didn't understand Bengali'. The hairs almost stood up on the back of my neck, because I didn't understand it, but I understood it. It was at that moment I really began to get a feel for what was happening, in what was then, East Pakistan and the conflict that was evolving between the West and the East". (link)
He wasn't to know it at the time, but he would, within weeks, cover the horrors of the country’s war of independence from Pakistan. He was among about 200 foreign journalists confined to their hotel, 'The Intercontinental', in Dhaka on March 25th and designed to hide the journalists from witnessing 'Operation Searchlight'. Major Siddiq Salik (link) addressed the journalists in the room where they were confined and said : “Civil War has broken out and for your own safety we are going to take you out of the country.” Simon stood up and after introducing himself he asked : “I heard that we have to leave. Is it an order?” Major Salik replied : “Oh, no, it’s not an order. It’s just for your own safety.” Simon continued : “Then I don’t have to leave. I can stay”. Salik answered : “You can stay, but it might be dangerous for you.” Simon persisted : “What will happen if I stay?” Major Salik responded with his veiled threat : "Yes, if you choose to stay it's up to you, but you might find that we prepare a special party for you. So it might be better that you left". Simon replied : "OK, thank you".
Simon said : "I personally felt very angry about this. (link) Angry professionally, that we were being denied the opportunity to go out and document the scale of the killing and personally I knew many Bengalis and I knew a lot of innocent people had been killed. And somehow you couldn't allow this to happen and the Pakistan Army thought they could get away with it and that was really appalling and it did make you angry".(link) After a little while, Simon crept back into the hotel, which was now empty of all the army officials. He recalled : "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 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 recalled : "We thought we had to keep moving, keep hidden as much as we could. We went to the Hindu area and the older part of the city. A market area had been attacked and about two hundred yards of houses had been burned down. There were people dead in front of their shops. I counted four or five bodies there, but many more had been killed in the burnt out shops. When we got to the Hindu area, quite clearly, again, there had been a very deliberate attempt to kill people". (link)
Simon and Michel estimated that in the region of 7,000 were killed in that 24 hour period. They then managed to board on a flight to West Pakistan. Security personnel stopped Simon a couple of times, but he somehow held on to his notes hidden in his socks and taped to the back of his trouser belt.(link) Simon recalled : "We ended up in Karachi (in East Pakistan) and we thought for sure a message would have come from East Pakistan and said : 'Detain these people take everything off them'. But there didn't seem to be, but 'Customs' were suspicious of us. We were taken into separate rooms. I was made to take all my clothes off. They stuck a pencil up my bottom, obviously looking for film or something like that and I was sitting there naked with all my clothes and my notes in my socks". (link)
Simon said : "It was a very important story, personally, but for us professionally, and its not often in your life that you can report a story that individuals get value from. Its not just a war story. There's something very, intensely personal, about it and you felt you were able to serve people in a way you couldn't normally do as a journalist". (link)
Simon flew to Kolkata from London in November 1971. His mission was to collect war news and he entered Bangladesh in December with a Bangladesh-India Joint Force and he went to Dhaka where Pakistan Army was preparing to surrender. (link) When he, again, met Major Salik he said : “Major Siddiq, how are you? I am really sorry that you have ended up here. For your own safety now you are here”. With an embarrassing smile on his face Major Salik replied : “Things do change”. Another account of their meeting suggested that, when Simon asked the Major what he would have done if he would found him, he answered : “We probably would have killed you”. (link)
Simon became the 'UK Reporter of the Year' for his eyewitness accounts in The Daily Telegraph of the massacres in Dhaka during the Liberation War of Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Government expressed its gratitude to Simon for his outstanding role during its War of Liberation. He returned to Bangladesh after it gained victory for its independence in December 1971 and 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. "It was very special and particularly exciting because when he arrived at the airport I was able to clamber on to the back of the truck and I actually drove into town on the back of the truck Sheikh Mujibur was on . (link) And of course mass crowds and the excitement and mass crowds and enthusiasm, you were caught up in that. It was a very special moment". 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 2002 Simon was Managing Director of the TV station, but was forced to leave Bangladesh after the Government, led by the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, issued a deportation order. Ekushey Television went off the air the same day, after the Government shut down its transmission facilities. At the time, ETV insisted that its news and current affairs coverage was neutral and objective, but the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party believed it was biased against them. Before his departure, Simon was given a farewell reception, at which many of Bangladesh's leading cultural personalities were present and told the audience that it was the second time he was being deported from Dhaka.
In 2012, in Dhaka, the Bangladesh Government awarded ‘Muktijuddha Maitree Sammanana’ (Friends of Liberation War Honor) to Simon for his outstanding role during the great Liberation War in 1971. Though Simon was honoured to have received such a prestigious award, he urged the Government to recognise Michel Laurent as he was not accorded the honour. Michel had been killed w in April 1975 in Vietnam whilst trying to rescue fellow news reporter when they were both ambushed by North Vietnamese troops. It was the last day of the war and Michel was 28 years old.
Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said : "Simon Dring was a man of commitment, an upright man of high moral, ethical standard and values, who reported the massacre in Dhaka in 1971 with objectivity and courage. He trained a group of young journalists of Bangladesh at ETV that dynamically changed the TV journalism in Bangladesh. We salute him again and again."
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