It was a mixed week. Sandwiched in between the hartals and the ekushey
barefoot walks and the launch disaster, were news items that led to very
different emotions at Drik. Shoeb Faruquee, the photographer from Chittagong, won the 2nd prize in the Contemporary Issues, Singles,
category of the world’s premier photojournalism contest World Press
Photo. The photograph of the mental patient locked by the legs as in a
medieval stock, is a haunting image that is sure to shake the viewer.
However, the stark black and white image tells a story that is far from
black and white. In a nation with limited resources, medical care for
all is far from reality. Expensive western treatment is beyond the reach
of most, and has often been shown to be flawed. Alternative forms of
treatment is the choice of many. The fact that the boy photographed was
said to have been healed, further complicates the reading of this image.
Shoeb is one of many majority world photographers who have attempted to
understand the complexities of their cultures, which rarely offer
It was later in the week, that Azizur Rahim Peu, told me that the
affable contributor to Drik, Mufty Munir, had died after a short illness
at the Holy Family Hospital. I would contact Mufty when I was in
trouble, needing to send pictures to Time, Newsweek or some other
publication. We would work into the night at the AFP bureau, utilising
the time difference, to ensure the pictures made it to the picture desk
in the morning. Occasionally, while hanging out at the Press Club
waiting for breaking news, we would dash off together. Mufty
uncomfortably perched on the back of my bicycle and me puffing away
trying to get to the scene in time.
Wire photography is about speed, and their photographers are known for
being pushy, but this shy, quiet, self effacing photographer made his
way to the top through the quality of his images. We had to push him to
have his first show in 1995, which our photography coordinator Gilles
Saussier and I curated. The show at the Alliance was a huge success, but
Mufty was not impressed by the excitement the show had created. He
simply wanted to get on with his work.
He did have problems with authority, or rather, authority had problems
with him. Despite his shyness, he was a straight talking photographer,
who didn’t hesitate to protest when things weren’t right. Not being the
subservient minion the gatekeepers of our media are accustomed to, he
often got into trouble. But the clarity of his protests played an
important role in establishing photographers’ rights. In the abrasive
world of press photography, where elbows do much of the talking, this
gentle talented practitioner will be dearly missed.
Unknown to the rest of us, the brother of Rob, the gardener at Drik,
died in the launch that sank in the storm at the weekend.
Today on Earth Day we are celebrating by making promises
But I will not
I will not stop throwing paper on the ground.
I will not stop using plastic bags
I will not go to clean the beaches
I will not stop polluting
I will not do all these things because I am not polluting the world
It is the grown-ups who are dropping bombs
It is the grown-ups who have to stop
One bomb destroys more than all the paper & plastic that I can throw in all my life
It is the grown-ups who should get together and talk to each other
They should solve problems and stop fighting and stop wars
They are making acid rain and a hole in the ozone layer
I will not listen to the grown-ups!
[Student of class five of Karachi High School on Earth Day 1991].
It was in the wee hours of the morning. Propped up in our beanbags Nuzhat and I chatted while Zaheer and Ragni clicked away on their keyboards. I was in Karachi doing a story on Abdul Sattar Edhi, the philanthropist I admired greatly. Nuzhat and I had a lot of catching up to do, and our stories wandered in unplanned directions. We talked of when she and Nafisa Hoodbhoy had started the Peace Committee in Karachi and as she remembered this story her bright eyes welled up. Nuzhat was not the sort of person one could imagine being angry. But as she recalled the words of this little boy, she shook with emotion.
It was a week after they had heard the news of the US dropping a bomb every two minutes on Iraq. They had talked in school of how the world was being destroyed, of how the minds of people were being moulded, of how Pakistanis were looked upon at airports, but how the work of Edhi went unreported. She recalled how at the end of her talk, the chief guest, a woman known for her good work, went up to the boy and quietly told him off. How the prizes went to the other kids who had made presentations that no one could remember.
What can we say to the blind & deaf?
What does education & learning mean?
What should we teach & why do we teach it?
These were questions Nuzhat asked that night. Questions we continue to ask.
As we put together the work for this festival, I have marvelled at the range of statements the artists have made to address ?resistance?. At their modes of expression. At their defiance. To resist, to challenge, to question, to go against the grain, to deliberately choose the untrodden path is a conscious decision. It is a risky route fraught with danger, but a route we must follow, if change is to come.
The festival itself continues to buck the trend. Open air marquees without gates or walls bring rarely seen work to a wider public. Billboards on cycle rickshaws take exhibitions to city spaces that have never known gallery walls. Combining innovative low cost solutions with state of the art technology, video conferences link the virtual with the real, while canvas prints on giant scaffolding scorn the air conditioned confines of exclusive openings. Hand tinted prints rub shoulders with pica droplets on digital media. Fine art, conceptual work, installations, traditional photojournalism, coexist in a strange mix, oblivious to attempts to categorise and label. The future, the present and the past huddle, sometimes uncomfortably, to produce a kaleidoscope of images and woven messages, that question, reflect and celebrate aspects of our existence.
When globalisation has become a euphemism for westernisation, it is this dissolution of borders, this resistance to consumerism, this dream of a world where the might of a few, can be effectively challenged, this belief that tanks and stealth aircraft, and media spin will not subdue an indomitable spirit, that characterises this festival. It is this attempt to subvert, through blogs and handbills and word of mouth, the propaganda machineries that dominate the airwaves, that the artists have taken as their inspiration. The festival is a call to resist, and a declaration of the resistance to come.
5th December 2004
25th March 1971. My eldest niece had just been born the day before. It was a premature birth. Amma had found a Mariam flower and the flower had bloomed, heralding the birth. She had stayed behind at the clinic. We had felt something was afoot, and Babu Bhai and I went out to try and get mother and child back from Dr. Firoza Begum’s clinic in Dhanmondi. Our home might not have been safer, but at least we’d be together. Friends were building roadblocks in the streets by then, and let us through reluctantly, warning us that we had little time.
We went along the narrow road by Ramna Police station to Wireless Mor, it being too dangerous to go along the main road. I climbed over the barbed wires on the boundary walls to get to my sister’s flat, but my brother in law felt it was too dangerous to go out, so I turned back. By then the tanks were on the streets.
I had fallen asleep, but woke up to the sound of gunfire. The wide red arcs of tracer bullets had lit up the sky. The only tall building nearby was the Hotel Intercontinental, where the meetings between Mujib and Bhutto had taken place, and where the foreign journalists were staying. The slum next to the Sakura Hotel and the nearby\ newspaper office were ablaze. We could hear the screams. Those who were able to escape the fire, ran into the machine gun fire waiting outside.
Abba (my father), Babu Bhai and I watched in silence. We had argued with Abba about Pakistan, but he had been victimised as a Muslim in pre-partition India, and would not support what he saw as the break up of the nation. That night he finally broke our silence by saying, “now there is no going back.”
We heard the gunshots all night, and there was a curfew the following day. Eventually when there was a small break in the curfew the day after, Abba went to get supplies, and Babu Bhai and I got my sister and her daughter to Nasheman, in Eskaton where we lived. We called her Mukti, meaning `freedom’. But relatives warned us that it was too dangerous to use that name, even if it was a nick name to be used only amongst ourselves. So Mukti became Mowli, and even after independence, the name stuck.
Twenty five years later in 1996, I tried to put together a collection of images of ’71 for our 1996 calendar. I am reminded of the introduction:
[Twenty five year ago, even longer perhaps, just a camera in hand, they had gone out to bring back a fragment of living history. Today, those photographs join them in protest. Peering through the crisp pages of the newly printed history books, they remind us, “No, that wasn’t the way it was. I know. I bear witness.”
The black and white 120 negatives, carefully wrapped in flimsy polythene, stashed away in a damp gamcha, have almost faded. The emulsion eaten away by fungus, scratched a hundred times in their tortuous journey, yellowed with age, bear little resemblance to the shiny negatives in the modern archives of big name agencies. They too are war weary, bloodied in battle.
So many have sweet talked these negatives away. The government, the intellectuals, the publishers, so many. Some never came back. No one offered a sheet of black and white paper in return. Few gave credits. The ones who risked their lives to preserve the memories of our language movement, have never been remembered in the awards given on the 21st February, language day.
25 years ago, they fought for freedom. They didn’t all carry guns, some made bread, some gave shelter, some took photographs. This is just to remind us, that this Bangladesh belongs to them all.]
Drik Calendar 1996
Today, embedded photojournalists with digital cameras, give us images of yet another aggression. This time, from the other side of the gun. The 50 clause contract that gives them access to imperial military units, like the unwritten rules that allow them access to presidential pools, ensure that `free’ media remains loyal to the warmongers. Will we ever get to see the images taken by the Iraqi photographers? Will their negatives die the same death? Will those images, like the bombed ruins of a magnificent city, be the only tattered remains of an aggression that the world allowed to happen? In ’71, the Seventh Fleet was stationed in the Bay of Bengal. The Mukti’s were not deterred by this show of power. They won us our independence. Today, after 43 more US military interventions across the globe, it is the Seventh Cavalry that bombs Iraq. And our own government, forgetting the lessons of history, forgetting that they tried to kill our unborn nation, turns against the will of its people. Our own police turn against us in our anti war rallies, to protect the biggest aggressor in history. These negatives may not survive, but the collective memory of the people of the world will, and our children will confront us in years to come.
26th March 2003
* A flower from Arab deserts, used during labour to predict the time of childbirth.
** A working man’s cloth of coarse cotton, used as padding when carrying weight, to carry food, and to wipe away sweat.
My questions are many. Why is there no UN resolution against the United States, for blatantly initiating an unprovoked genocide? Whydoes not the UN Security Council, demand that the most habitual aggressor in recent history, disarm and destroy
its weapons of mass destruction? Why is it that despite our collective strength, the most we can muster is a passive condemnation of a mass murder? Whatever may happen after the bombs have dropped, we will not be able to hide our shame. It may not have been in our name, but we sat and watched. We allowed it to happen. It is a guilt that will haunt us. While I sit in anger, wondering how, despite all our rhetoric, we watched a nation being plundered, without raising a finger to stop it, this quiet reflection from Baghdad University campus brings homethe extent of our complicity. These are the people we allowed to be destroyed. Our lives will go on, and we will face another day. They will not. And we will be content because we had said no
Mon Mar 17, 2003
At the College of English, it is most definitely springtime. Co-eds are chattering cheerily and they smile as we pass. "We are intent on finishing the syllabus, war or no war," says Professor Abdul Jaafar Awad. He tells us that during the Gulf War of 1991, he was discussing a doctoral dissertation with a student while American and British warplanes were bombing Baghdad. Jawad's determination to carry on despite the approach of war is shared by the students at his department.
Students at a class on Shakespeare are discussing Romeo and Juliet when we interrupt them. No, they say, they don't mind answering some questions from the Asian Peace Mission. They are carrying on with Shakespeare, but their answers show that morally they are on war footing. What do they think of George Bush? "He is like Tybalt, clumsy and ill-intentioned," says a young woman in near perfect English. What do they think about Bush's promise to liberate them? Another co-ed answers, "We've been invaded by many armies for thousands of years, and those who wanted to conquer us always said they wanted to liberate us." What if war comes, how would they feel? Another says, "We may not be physically strong, but we have faith, and that is what will beat the Americans." A young professor tells me, "I love teaching, but I will fight if the Americans come." These are not a programmed people. Saddam Hussein's portrait may be everywhere, but there are not programmed answers. In fact, we have hardly encountered any programmed responses from anybody here in the last few days. Youth and spring are a heady brew on this campus, and it is sadness that we all feel as we speed away, for some of those lives will be lost in the coming war. As one passes over one of the bridges spanning the Tigris River, one remembers the question posed by Dr. Jawad: "Why would today's most powerful industrial country wish to destroy a land that gave birth to the world's most ancient civilization?" It is a question that no one in our delegation can really answer. Control of the world's second biggest oil reserves is a convenient answer, but it is incomplete. Strategic reasons are important but also incomplete. A fundamentalism that grips the Bush clique is operative, too, but there is something more, and that is power that is in love with itself and seeking to express that deadly self-love.
An American journalist I meet at the press centre says the people are carrying on as usual because they are in deep denial of the power that will soon be inflicted on them. I wish he had been with us when we visited the campus earlier in the day, to see the toughness beneath the surface of those young men and women of Baghdad University. Like most of the Iraqi we have met over the last few days, they are prepared for the worst, but they are determined not to make the worst ruin their daily lives.
Tomorrow afternoon, March 17, the date of the American ultimatum for Iraq to disarm or face war, we in the Asian Peace Mission will be travelling by land on two vans flying the Philippine flag to the order with Syria. Dita Sari, the labour leader from Indonesia, was offered a ride to the border this evening by the Indonesian ambassador, who was very concerned about her safety. She refused, saying she would leave only when the mission left. We are leaving late and cutting it close because all of us–Dita, Philippine legislators Etta Rosales and Husin Amin, Pakistani MP Zulfikar Gondal, Focus on the Global South associate Herbert Docena, our reporter and cameraman Jim Libiran and Ariel Fulgado, and myself–feel the same compulsion: we want to be with the Iraqi people as long as possible.
Loona Bimberton had recently been carried eleven miles in an aeroplane by an Algerian aviator, and talked of nothing else; only a personally procured tiger-skin and a heavy harvest of press photographs could successfully counter that sort of thing. Mrs. Packletide had offered a thousand rupees for the opportunity of shooting a tiger without over-much risk or exertion. However, when the opportunity came, she accidentally shot the goat, and the tiger died of fright, and she had to settle with Miss Mebin so that her version of the story would be the one to circulate.
?The release of the hostages by the military, had all the hallmarks of Mrs. Packletide?s tiger hunt,? said Ching Kiu Rewaja Chairman Rangamati Sthanio Shorkar Porishod, the local government head. Unlike the story by the Indian born writer Saki, there were no press photographs to show here, but radio and television and the carefully fed press releases had been prepared so that the story of the heroic release of the two Danish and one British engineer in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, would circulated unchallenged. There had been a few hiccups, and the two separate government press releases on the same day, explaining the circumstances of the kidnapping, had cast shadows on the otherwise well orchestrated adventure story.
Ching Kiu Rewaja sat in his big government office, surrounded by a large number of people vying for his attention. He gestured grandly for us to sit in a position of honour as tea and biscuits immediately appeared. He was busy signing things and would stop momentarily to look up and apologise to us for keeping us waiting. ?There is a subtle competition here, civil administration, police, and military all wanting credit. And they didn?t want to share the credit, hence this deceit.? However, while the chairman understood the underlying politics, despite his colourful analysis, he didn?t really know. No one besides the kidnappers and the military knew exactly what had happened on that night, or the subsequent morning. Post release, the Danish engineers in distant
Copenhagen, had reconstructed the hours preceding the kidnapping. ?After a seven hour walk through the jungle we were led to a bamboo cottage, during the night. Then the abductors went into the jungle, and after some hours they heard some shootings, and soldiers shouting, ?you have been released by the Bangladeshi Army?.?
The Brigadier General Rabbani, who headed the military in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, did speak to us, and was extremely cordial, but would not give an official answer. Neither his version, nor the extremely vague government press releases, explained how both the military and the abductors arrived at the same remote spot at the same time, particularly when it takes so many hours to get to. How the abductors escaped, when they had the place surrounded, is mysterious, and the fact that no one from either side was the slightest bit hurt in this confrontation is a bit surprising. Given the secrecy surrounding the issue, the rumours have been flying, but certain significant facts do emerge.
- The incident (which took place less than 500 metres of the military camp) was not an isolated one. People were advised to keep some money, in case they were stopped by hijackers. This was common knowledge.
- In internal discussions, (which the police and military deny), there had been talk of compensation, even for incidents of rape that had been reported.
- Though the government claims that they have advised all donors to take police escorts, there appears to be no document in support of this claim.
- The early mediators had been suspected of being on the ?take? themselves, and later people were shuffled.
- There is resentment in the Chittagong Hill Tracts for some of the ?developments? being planned, particularly the establishment of a 218,000 acre ?reserve forest? which will take over further land from hill people, and the proposed construction of two extra units of the Kaptai Dam.
- There is a certain degree of ?tolerance? for the criminal activities that go on in the military protected zones.
While in general people in the government and others who are seen to be recipients of foreign aid clearly want aid to continue, there are hill people who question this development process. ?Who is the development for? If there is no peace then what will it solve? Once development funds were given, crores of taka were given. Bungalows and roads were given, but what did it do for the average person? The roads made it easier for the military, and for bureaucrats to live in, but these did not affect the general people. It might appear that a road will lead to progress, but it has been seen that roads have been used for taking away the forest resources, the trees and the wood, it has made the forests barren, now we even have floods in the hill tracts which we have never had. This increased inflow of people have pushed the people further back. The local people do not get the benefits of this development,? says Prasit Bikash Khisha: Convenor UPDF, who?s party has been accused by some of having orchestrated the kidnapping. An association that UPDF vehemently denies.
Others like engineer Kjeld J Birch, Senior Advisor, CHT Water Supply and Sanitation disagrees with the withdrawal of Danish development aid. ?The hospitality here is very good and kind, so it is difficult to understand that things have to be closed down. I don?t feel unsafe. On a personal level I wouldn?t feel worried. We never used an escort, except when the ambassador was here. Never have I had any untoward experience. Neither my wife. The people we have been in touch with, have been very protective. I think there is an overreaction.? But Birch, who left an attractive job offer in Bhutan to come to one which offered him ?a challenge? and his wife who left a job to accompany him are now both unemployed, so they too have personal interests to protect.
It is therefore difficult to sift the ?truth? from this rubble. But certain changes will have to be in place before development in whoever?s definition can be in place. Information has to flow to the people. A misinformed public will construe the worst, and the rumours currently circulating within the Chittagong Hill Tracts certainly do not favour the government. There has to be a greater degree of transparency in the way things are conducted in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The military will have to be more accountable to the people in both Bangladesh at large and the hill people in particular. People not affiliated to the government, or not necessarily in full agreement with the peace accord, need to be involved in matters affecting the future of the hill people, and that the zone must no longer be treated as a military zone. Within Bangladesh and within The Chittagong Hill Tracts, a democratic system has to give weight to marginalized communities. If these issues get addressed, maybe the kidnapping will have done more for Bangladesh?s development than the players involved had originally envisaged.
If the billions of dollars in aid to Bangladesh over the last?three decades had been given directly to the poor, it would?have made a major difference to their lives. As it is, the poor?continue to struggle while the rich flaunt their ever-increasing?wealth. Shahidul Alam visits the homes of people?at opposite ends of this great divide.
The guard at the gate hesitates before questioning me. My white friend walks on. Her right to entry is beyond doubt. A cough by someone nearer the door, and higher up in the chain of command, signals my credentials and the hesitant guard makes a smart salute. I?ve been here before. At the gate of the British High Commission or the office of the UN Development Programme, for example. These are places where the?bideshis(foreigners) and the well-to-do Bangladeshis have ready access. My sloppy clothes and the fact that I did not alight from a fancy Mitsubishi Pajero were enough to give my position away. Besides, I walked differently, made eye contact with those outside the chosen circle, and was clearly not supremely confident of my position.
Hasib?s palatial home is in Baridhara, a part of town with the most intriguing architecture. Here Tudor houses rub shoulders with Spanish villas, with the occasional Greek columns thrown in. What are missing are the lavish gardens one might expect. Land is expensive here and homes are often built up to the edge of an individual plot and sometimes even beyond it. Only the very special ones have a patch of green, perhaps a swimming pool.
This is a land of tranquillity. No?hartals (general strikes) affect the normal flow of life. The American International School where Hasib?s children study is perhaps more expensive than the average private school in Britain, but does give his heirs the sort of training needed to blend seamlessly into the high-powered positions they will surely come to occupy. The school holidays prioritize Hallowe?en over Eid. No adulteration of ?higher cultures? by local practices is tolerated here. The one discomfort that the inhabitants face are the slums by the edge of the lake, the hungry stares from across the metal fence, the huts between the palaces, that have not yet been cleared out. The dark glass of the Pajero does reduce contact, but even the air-conditioning doesn?t quite clear the smell.
The interior d?cor of Hasib?s home matches the fantasyland exterior. This is a home appropriate to a wealthy media person whose companies receive funding from UN agencies, who is an agent for a prominent US company in the energy sector, and who is well-connected to all the major political parties. Hasib is not a person you would want as an enemy. The presence at this party of the ?lite of the city, the aid givers and takers, and a sprinkling of ?intellectuals? testifies to his acceptance in the circles that matter. Smiling photographs with former leaders Mujib and Ershad, with the US Ambassador and prominent heads of state, adorn his office, though they are appropriately changed to suit the political clime. Ershad at his most powerful visited Hasib?s office, though he was later to comment jokingly in Parliament on Hasib?s smuggling links.
These are well-travelled people, and all that is best in the world outside is present here. Cut-glass chandeliers in abundance. Leather-bound classics neatly arranged in teak shelves. Expensive paintings, mostly by artists who have died, but also by Shahabuddin, the current?enfant terrible, hang in gilded frames.
The well-dressed waiter snakes through the crowd distributing wine, beer and whisky, technically illegal in Muslim Bangladesh. This is a place for men of the world and emancipated women.
Nadia, Hasib?s wife, tosses her hair back in her revealing dress as she laughs with the US Ambassador. She gently acknowledges the minister as he walks by, excusing herself to talk to the editor of the most popular daily. She looks out for the World Bank chief, and relaxes as she spots him out by the swimming pool, talking to the head of the largest NGO. She only wishes she didn?t have to invite the MP who was found making bombs in his house. Such people give others a bad name.
The MP was a minor embarrassment to the ruling political party, especially as it had just embarked on a clean-up campaign. Fourteen-year-old Rimon was at the other end of the spectrum. He was one of several young men arrested when they were trying to make the clean-up campaign look good. They had to plant a knife in his hand in order to make the arrest. He had no previous record and the witnesses all denied in court that they had seen Rimon with weapons, but these were not insuperable problems. The fact that he was a minor was, on the other hand, a technicality that might have proved awkward. Fortunately he was too poor to make an issue out of being under- age or about being kept in jail for two years without a trial.
One could look at it as a democratic process. The system doesn?t really care about class, race or gender. If one has money, one stays out of jail. Without money, one stays in. Rimon?s mother Fatema works seven days a week as a domestic help in the home of a top civil servant. Low-paid and with no benefits, she has had to borrow over 20 times her monthly salary to try to get a fair trial for her son. The process of trying to bribe judges, paying high fees to lawyers and regularly paying the police is something she seems to have accepted. Her biggest sorrow is that the food she buys for her son doesn?t always get through to him, despite the bribes she pays to the wardens. ?I used to serve food in four plates for my children. Now I serve only three. The pain burns within me every day.?
The justice you are likely to get is directly linked to the money you are able to muster. Hasib was suspected of smuggling gold, but no-one made too much of his going scot-free on that count. Now Hasib is into bigger things. An agent for a leading US gas company, his other hat as a major media baron comes in handy. Press releases by the US gas companies appear dressed up as news reports.
He has even ?written? a book. The senior professor and the archeologist who ghost-wrote it do not seem too perturbed by the mismatch between the book?s content and the official author?s credibility as a writer. At the press launch, leading?litt?rateurs talked of the talent of the man, his contribution to society.
Rimon never even went to school. Long before his body had fully matured, he was pulling a rickshaw, helping to support the schooling of his two sisters and younger brother. Ironically, on a per-square-metre basis, his mother Fatema pays more rent for her shack than the standard rental in wealthy Baridhara. In many slums, access to water is a privilege you pay for separately. Sanitation, electricity and other amenities are all extras.
Being important vote banks, slums are controlled by local strongmen with affiliations to the major political parties. Fires rage through them on a regular basis: sceptics claim that this is a convenient way to evict unwanted residents. Sometimes fires precede a sell-out to developers.
At least Fatema has a roof of her own. More vulnerable are the domestic servants who live in their employers? homes. Many of them are children or young women. Murder, rape and inhuman torture are commonly reported. A far greater number go unreported.
The slums are the entry points for the millions who converge upon the metropolis from the villages in search of work. In the countryside the divide between rich and poor is similarly reinforced by foreign money.
Wasim Ali, a wealthy shrimp farmer in Khulna, goes around in a gunboat warding off and occasionally killing trespassers. His guard points out the shrimps, saying ?dollars swim in the water?. The World Bank assists Wasim and others in setting up shrimp-processing units and Japan buys much of the shrimp.
Lokhi Pal?s family, who used to grow paddy, were forced into selling their land to Wasim once the entire area became salinated due to the new embankments that had been built. ?We had cows and a vegetable patch,? she told me. ?All we needed to buy was oil and clothes.? Now they go during?hat (the weekly market day) to a neighbouring village to stock up on food and basic supplies once a week. The family eats well for the first three days then hangs on till the next hat day. Still attached to their cow, they send it off to a nearby village to graze but have to pay for the privilege.
Back in the city Fatema worries about her son?s health, about the money she will somehow have to repay. She worries most that unless she finds some way to get her son out of prison he will soon end up embittered. Then when he does come out he could be forced to do the kind of thing for which he could be arrested again. Right now, however, she longs to have an extra mouth to feed. For Hasib and Wasim, of course, the dollars continue to swim freely.
The feature is based on facts, but the names have been altered.
New Internationalist Magazine Issue 332, March 2001.
The issue was co-edited by Shahidul Alam and the NI editorial team.
When US Senator Tom Harkin proposed a boycott of the products of child labour,
Western campaigners applauded. But there were unforeseen consequences
for the children of Bangladesh, as Shahidul Alam reports.
No. No photographs. Saleha is scared. Many a time she has hidden under tables, been locked up in the toilet, or been sent to the roof in the scorching sun for two or three hours. It happens whenever foreign buyers enter the factory. She knows she is under-age, and doesn?t want photographers messing things up ? she needs the job. The whole industry has suddenly become sensitive. Owners want their factories open. The workers want their jobs. The special schools for former child labourers want aid money. No photographs.
Neither Saleha nor any of the other child workers I have interviewed have ever heard of Senator Tom Harkin. All they know is that pressure from the US, which buys most of Bangladesh?s garments, has resulted in thousands of them losing their jobs at a stroke.
According to a press release by the garment employers in October 1994: ?50,000 children lost their jobs because of the Harkin Bill.? A UNICEF worker confirms ?the jobs went overnight?.
The controversial bill, the ?Child Labor Deterrence Act?, had first been introduced in 1992. A senior International Labour Organization (ILO) official has no doubt that the original bill was put forward ?primarily to protect US trade interests? ? Tom Harkin is sponsored by a key US trade union, and cheap imports from the Third World were seen as undercutting American workers? jobs. ?When we all objected to this aspect of the Bill,? says the ILO official, ?which included a lot of resistance in the US, the Bill was amended, the trading aspect was toned down, and it was given a humanitarian look.? It was when it was reintroduced after these amendments in 1993 that the Bill had its devastating impact in Bangladesh.
The child workers themselves find it particularly hard to interpret the US approach as one of ?humanitarian concern?. When asked why the buyers have been exerting such pressure against child labour, Moyna, a ten-year-old orphan who has just lost her job, comments: ?They loathe us, don?t they? We are poor and not well educated, so they simply despise us. That is why they shut the factories down.? Moyna?s job had supported her and her grandmother but now they must both depend on relatives.
Other children have had no alternative but to seek new kinds of work. When UNICEF and the ILO made a series of follow-up visits they found that the children displaced from the garment factories were working at stone-crushing and street hustling ? more hazardous and exploitative activities than their factory jobs.
?It is easier for the boys to get jobs again,? Moyna complains, pointing to ex-garment boys who have jobs in welding and bicycle factories. Girls usually stay at home, doing household work and looking after smaller children; many end up getting married simply to ease money problems.
In the wake of the mass expulsion of child garment workers it was plain that something had gone very wrong. UNICEF and the ILO tried to pick up the pieces. After two years of hard talking with the garment employers they came up with a Memorandum of Understanding. This guaranteed that no more children under 14 would be hired, that existing child workers would be received into special schools set up by local voluntary organizations and would receive a monthly stipend to compensate them for the loss of their wages.
Some garment owners feel that, instead of doing a deal, they should have called the US bluff and continued employing young children. ?We export 150 million shirts a year to the US,? says one. ?The K-mart $12 shirt would have cost $24. Bill Clinton would have lost his job.?
As of now 10,547 of the estimated 50,000 children have been registered, and of these 8,067 have enlisted in school. Most weren?t registered initially, as few garment owners admitted having children working in their factories. Many lost their jobs before the registration process began. Unregistered children, regardless of their age or their schooling, are not admitted into the scheme.
Saleha is tall for her age. Though in her factory there are quite a few under-age children, in most factories children that look small are no longer taken. This is what Moyna and Ekram and the other children repeatedly say: ?We didn?t make the size.? In a country where births are not registered there is no way of accurately determining a person?s age. Children with good growth keep their jobs. Children who look smaller, perhaps because they are malnourished, do not.
The reliance on size rather than age means that many children are still at work in the factories ? and many have no inclination to take up a place in one of the special schools. Take Sabeena. Her factory is colourful with tinsel when I visit and many of the girls have glitter on their faces. It is the Bangla New Year and Eid all in one and they are celebrating. Sabeena proudly shows me the machine she works on. She is almost 14 and, like Saleha, big for her age. She has been working at a garment factory ever since she finished Grade Five, about 18 months ago. Until then, schooling was free. There was no way her parents could pay for her to go to school and, with her father being poorly, Sabeena needed to work to keep the family going.
Taking home 2,200 taka ($52) a month (with overtime) Sabeena, at 13, is now the main breadwinner in the family. She is lucky to have work, though she would rather study. She laughs when I talk of her going to school. She has mouths to feed, and to give up her job for a 300-taka-per-month stipend for going to school simply wouldn?t make sense. Besides, the special schools only teach up to Grade Five. The better students, who have studied that far, find they have neither jobs nor seats in the school. So Sabeena?s studies begin at around eleven at night, with a paid private tutor, usually by candlelight. At seven in the morning she has to leave for work. Seven days a week.
Money is a key concern even for those children who have been received into the special schools. At the school run by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) in Mirpur, the children gather round a worker doing the rounds. ?When do we get paid, sir?? they keep asking.
Despite the promises, not a single child that I have interviewed has received the full pay they are owed. In some cases field workers, eager to improve their admission rates, have promised considerably more than the stipulated 300 taka ($7) per month. In others, unfounded rumours have created expectations that the schools cannot meet.
Shahjahan (pictured on the facing page) was one of the lucky ones admitted to a BRAC school. The 300 taka per month is a small sum for him too, but he works in a tailoring shop from nine till eleven in the morning, and again from two-thirty in the afternoon till ten at night. He doesn?t complain. Though the scheme does not encourage it, he feels he is getting the best of both worlds: free schooling, including a stipend, as well as paid work and a potential career.
A strange question
Did they like working in garment factories? The children find this a strange question. They earned money because of it, and it gave them a certain status that non-working children did not have. They put up with the long hours. The exceptions remind me that it is children we are talking about. ?I cried when they forced me to do overtime on Thursday nights,? says Moyna. ?That was when they showed Alif Laila (Arabian Nights) on TV.?
Child workers are popular with factory owners. ?Ten- to twelve-year-olds are the best,? says Farooq, the manager of Sabeena?s factory. ?They are easier to control, not interested in men, or movies, and obedient.? He forgets to mention that they are not unionized and that they agree to work for 500 taka ($12) per month when the minimum legal wage for a helper is 930 taka.
Owners see Tom Harkin as a well-meaning soul with little clue about the realities of garment workers? lives. ?As a student, I too hailed the Bill,? says Sohel, the production manager at Captex Garments. ?I was happy that someone was fighting for children?s rights. But now that I work in a factory and have to turn away these children who need jobs, I see things differently. Sometimes I take risks and, if a child is really in a bad way, I let them work, but it is dangerous.?
The notion that a garment employer might be helping children by allowing them to work may seem very strange to people in the West. But in a country where the majority of people live in villages where children work in the home and the fields as part of growing up, there are no romantic notions of childhood as an age of innocence. Though children are cared for, childhood is seen as a period for learning employable skills. Children have always helped out with family duties. When this evolves into a paid job in the city neither children nor their families see it as anything unusual. In poor families it is simply understood that everyone has to work.
The money that children earn is generally handed over to parents, who run the household as best as they can. Most parents want their children to go to school. But they also feel that schooling is a luxury they cannot afford. The garment industry has increased the income of working-class families in recent years and this has also led to a change in attitudes. Many middle-class homes now complain that it is difficult to get domestic ?help? as working-class women and children choose to work in garment factories rather than as servants. This choice ? made on the grounds not just of better economics, but of greater self-respect ? is one many children have lost because of the Harkin Bill.
The US is wielding power without responsibility. A nation with a history of genocide and slavery, and a reputation for being a bully in international politics, suddenly proclaims itself a champion of people?s rights, but refuses to make concessions over the rates it will pay. The dollar price-tags on the garments produced in some factories suggest a vast profit being made at the US end. The buyers claim that what they pay for the garments is determined by ?market forces?. The garment owners make the same claim with regard to the conditions of employment for their workers. Both are simply justifying their own version of exploitation ? and to address child labour without addressing exploitation is to treat the symptom, not the disease.
The garment-industry experience has led to an active debate amongst development workers and child-rights activists. ?What we have done here in Bangladesh is described as fantastic,? says a senior ILO worker. ?I wonder how fantastic it really is. How much difference will these two or three years in school make to these children? In three years, the helper could have been an operator, with better pay and more savings. Even if the manufacturers keep their word and give them back their jobs at the end of their schooling, the Memorandum children will hardly be better off, while their peers will have gotten on with their careers. We have spent millions of dollars on 8,000 children. The money itself could have transformed their lives. This is an experiment by the donors, and the Bangladeshi children have to pay.?
The children?s names have been changed to protect them.
Letter from Bangladesh
Shahidul Alam travels with the poor who chase a dream to distant lands.
They all have numbers. Jeans tucked into their high-ankled sneakers. They strut through the airport lounge, moving en masse. We work our way up the corridors leading to the airplane, but many stop just before boarding. The cocky gait has gone. The sad faces look out longingly at the small figures silhouetted on the rooftops. They wave and they wave and they wave. The stewardess has seen it all before and rounds them up, herding them into the aircraft. One by one they disengage themselves, probably realizing for the first time just what they are leaving behind.
Inside the aircraft it is different. They look around at the metallic finish of the interior, try on the headphones and drink lemonade. They have seats together and whisper to each other about each new thing they see. Abdul Malek, sitting opposite me, is in his early twenties. He is from a small village not far from Goalondo. This is his second attempt. He was conned the first time round. This time his family has sold their remaining land as well as the small shop that they part-own. This time, he says, he is going to make it.
As in the case of the others, his had been no ordinary farewell. They had all come from the village to see him off. Last night, as they slept outside the exclusive passenger lounge, they had prayed together. Abdul Malek has few illusions. He realizes that on $110 a month, for 18 months, there is no way he can save enough to replace the money that his family has invested.
But he sees it differently. No-one from his village has ever been abroad. His sisters would get married. His mother would have her roof repaired, and he would be able to find work for others from the village. This trip is not for him alone. His whole family, even his whole village, are going to change their destiny.
That single hope, to change one’s destiny, is what ties all migrants together ? whether they be the Bangladeshis who work in the forests of Malaysia, those like Abdul Malek, who work as unskilled labour in the Middle East, or those that go to the promised lands of the US. Not all of them are poor. Many are skilled and well educated. Still, the possibility of changing one’s destiny is the single driving force that pushes people into precarious journeys all across the globe. They see it not merely as a means for economic freedom, but also as a means for social mobility.
In the 25 years since independence the middle class in Bangladesh has prospered, and many of its members have climbed the social ladder. But except for a very few rags-to-riches stories, the poor have been well and truly entrenched in poverty. They see little hope of ever being able to claw their way out of it, except perhaps through the promise of distant lands.
So it is that hundreds of workers mill around the Kuwait Embassy in Gulshan, the posh part of Dhaka where the wealthy Bangladeshis and the foreigners live. Kuwait has begun recruiting again after the hiatus caused by the Gulf War, and for the many Bangladeshis who left during the War, and those who have been waiting in the wings, the arduous struggle is beginning. False passports, employment agents, attempts to bribe immigration officials, the long uncertain wait.
Some wait outside the office of ‘Prince Musa’ in Banani. He is king of the agents. His secretary shows me the giant portraits taken with ‘coloured gels’, in an early Hollywood style. She carefully searches for the admiration in my eyes she has known to expect in others. She brings out the press cuttings: the glowing tributes paid by Forbes, the US magazine for and about the wealthy, the stories of his associations with the jet set. She talks of the culture of the man, his sense of style, his private jet, his place in the world of fashion.
Apart from the sensational eight-million-dollar donation to the British Labour Party in 1994 ? which Labour denies, but which the ‘Prince’ insists was accepted ? there are other stories. Some of these I can verify, like the rosewater used for his bath, and the diamond pendants on his shoes (reportedly worth three million dollars). Others, like his friendship with the Sultan of Brunei, the Saudi Royals and leading Western politicians, are attested to by photographs in family albums.
He was once a young man from a small town in Faridpur, not too distant from Abdul Malek’s home or economic position, who made good. Whether the wealth of the ‘Prince’ derives mainly from commissions paid by thousands of Maleks all over Bangladesh or whether, as many assume, it is from lucrative arms deals, the incongruity of it all remains: the fabulously wealthy are earning from the poorest of the poor.
Whereas the ‘Prince’ has emigrated to the city and saves most of his money abroad, Malek and his friends save every penny and send it to the local bank in their village. Malek is different from the many Bengalis who emigrated to the West after World War Two, when immigration was easier and naturalization laws allowed people to settle. Malek, like his friends, has no illusions about ‘settling’ overseas. He knows only too well his status amongst those who know him only as cheap labour. Bangladesh is clearly, irrevocably, his home. He merely wants a better life for himself than the Bangladeshi princes have reserved for him.
An old friend of the NI, Shahidul Alam is guiding light of Drik, a remarkable photographic agency in Dhaka.
|Feminist writer Taslima
Nasreen in hiding after receiving
a death threat from Islamic fundamentalists
|Third World activists
are using global
connections to pressure
and even save lives.
has little doubt
about the subversive
potential of the Internet
in his country.
Come out, we won’t shoot. The sound of a police megaphone jolted us to attention. After they left our little flat in Dhaka I went up to the roof to try and find the person they thought we were hiding. I found no-one, but the raid made us realize that the nine-year-old dictatorship of General Ershad was feeling the pressure.
Running Drik, a photo library set up to promote a more positive view of developing countries, we were already in the business of disseminating information. Up to this point we had managed quietly to distribute our photographs abroad through helpful friends. Now the need was more urgent: we had to prevent further bloodshed. We couldn’t phone or fax since none of us had an overseas line. Two days later in December 1990, when General Ershad did finally step down, we began collecting the money for the line.
The need came quickly. The new government elected a few months later turned out to be less than democratic after all. So in 1994 we decided finally to take the leap into high-tech communications. We linked up with TOOL, an overseas NGO, and set up our own electronic mail network, called DrikTAP. There was no way we could afford faxes, let alone telephone calls and mail was much too slow. Now with an ordinary telephone line we could send messages overseas cheaply.
We soon discovered that others were keen to jump into e-mail too, so we began to offer it as a service to local NGOs and activists. UNICEF and the Grameen Bank were amongst the first to join. Grameen was in the business of giving loans to the poor and had a wide rural base. UNICEF had field offices all over the country. They used our network to link up all their offices country-wide. Then Drik began to send photographs via e-mail. Something that could only be done earlier by big Western agencies like AP, AFP and Reuters.
Now our little network was beginning to connect to other like-minded groups and Drik was becoming known as an organization out to change the way the poorer countries were perceived. Our ‘bulletin boards’ were useful for everyday things like renting a flat or locating an expert but crucial when we needed to stay in touch in times of danger.
Two months later the Bangladeshi feminist writer Taslima Nasreen received a death threat from Islamic fundamentalists and was charged with blasphemy by the Government. We needed to move quickly – to create national and international pressure so Taslima could come out of hiding and defend herself in court. We managed to alert PEN (the international writers support group) and Amnesty International and the campaign took off. Our fragile network was working. Later one of our members showed us how to use traditional ‘search engines’ to locate human-rights groups and Bangladeshi ‘newsgroups’ overseas (Bangladesh.Soc.Culture is a good one). We knew things were going to get rougher politically and we needed a way of getting information out fast and cheap. If some of us got arrested, others could mobilize enough pressure to stop us simply ‘disappearing’.
Our network became more popular by the month. Major NGOs, universities, research groups, UN agencies, even government organizations and embassies all joined. Conferences on a wide range of subjects sprang up: music, child rights, job applications, even buy-and-sell. We had begun talking to each other and to learn to be comfortable with the medium. We started to use Bangla (albeit in roman script) so we could at least speak our own language. Overseas friends were posting our human-rights messages in the popular Bangladesh newsgroups. When police raided the university to arrest student leaders the news was round the world in hours. Letters to the Prime Minister poured in from all over giving us some breathing space and sparing some lives.
Realizing how fragile our link was (a single telephone line connected up all our users, local and overseas) we campaigned for treating e-mail providers as special clients requiring quality lines. Though we were the leading e-mail provider in Bangladesh, DrikTAP was not fully legal – we had no ‘official’ government permission. On the other hand we were surprised that despite the amount of critical information we were pumping out over the network we had not faced any direct censorship. There had been doubts when one Drik worker was attacked and wounded and again when our server telephone line had been cut for a week. But on the whole we were getting away with it. I suppose shutting down the largest and most popular e-mail network in the country was something even the Government was reluctant to do, particularly with an election looming.
Gradually we began to find other uses for the technology. We set up training programs and eventually an e-mail club where we would meet and discuss problems. We would share the responsibilities of the network and decide collectively on future plans. It was a strange mix. The computer whiz kids and the computer illiterate, both came. Those comfortable with the technology took turns training newcomers. Political activists took on the role of lobbying for extra telephone lines and Internet access.
When Drik could no longer cope with the demand for technical support many of our more experienced members volunteered to help out answering queries. Some set up a system so users outside the capital could access the network using local calls. We began to work more as a family and the network took on a more human shape. We put up a notice for help from a local school that was struggling and a doctor offered his services. Others provided teaching aids, some gave money.
However, e-mail is still very expensive for most Bangladeshis – even local ?lites. A computer costs as much as half a year’s average salary and a modem costs more than a cow, never mind the price of a telephone line. So we began performing like an electronic post office. People come in with a floppy disk; we send their e-mail and they come back later to collect their reply. And not everyone who uses the service is an activist. Our oldest user, Golam Kasem, had just turned 103 and had never seen a computer before. I would cycle over to his house in Indira Road with a printout of a message from his grandson in Canada and next day pedal up to collect his reply. I remember the frail old man, straightening up the computer printout and adjusting his thick glasses as he held the paper by his tungsten lamp.
There are some areas though where we totally failed. Our ‘bulletin boards’ were entirely dominated by men and many of the jokes were sexist. Some even racist. When a woman user objected to a sexist statement the men retaliated viciously. A few loud voices dominated the bulletin boards. The technology was new to many people. Often private mail would get posted accidentally on a bulletin board, sometimes with embarrassing consequences – making the system scary for novices.
On the whole however, DrikTAP has become a powerful way of talking to the outside world. And, more importantly, to each other. When our ‘node’ in Bangladesh grew bigger than the one in the head office of our Northern partner in Amsterdam we argued, for political reasons, that the head office should be in the developing world. Last July we proposed re-locating the head office of our global network in Bangladesh. In a small way we are witnessing a shift in the balance of power.