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.
The invitation said `informal’, but I had put on my Friday best. After all, the party was at the French Ambassador’s residence. I had even swapped my bicycle for my 1982 reconditioned Toyota Starlet. It had a fresh coat of paint and looked quite respectable. Road 99, Gulshan, was chock ‘a block. Cars with flags, cars with yellow number plates, cars with flag-poles, cars with drivers. Mine fell at the bottom of the chain, a black number plate, flag/flag-pole less, driver less, private car. Not much better than my bicycle in terms of hierarchy. Since all the other cars were chauffer driven, I had to park my car right at the end of the road, near the lake, and walk
back to the fairy lights. The drivers did look at one another as I walked up the long road. What was a non-chauffer driven person doing at the residence of the French Ambassador?
Not shaken by any of this, I strode up to the brightly lit gate. After all I did have an official invitation. To my horror, I realised that I had left my invitation in the car. The Frenchman at the gate asked me who I was, and I suggested that I go back to the car to get the invitation, but luckily his Bangladeshi colleague recognised me and tried to usher me in. By then, however, the damage had been done.
The Frenchman’s gaze had gone all the way down to my naked toe-nails. Sandals! No longer did he need to know who I was. I obviously didn’t belong there. The Bangladeshi tried to protest, but with a furtive glance, the Frenchman made eye contact with the extremities of my feet. Oh, said the Bangladeshi. There was no need for further conversation.
The glitterati walked past me as they stepped out of their chauffer driven cars. Peering ghostlike through their air condition cooled spectacles which had misted up in the humid monsoon air, they casually shook my hand with one hand as they wiped their glasses with the other. Some did ask why I was walking the wrong way. That I was being turned away because my attire wasn’t considered suitable for such an august occasion seemed quite a reasonable explanation. Some did pat me on the back in a fatherly sort of way for some recent award I had won. Mustafa Zaman Abbasi, the director general of Shilpakala Academy, kindly offered me a pair of shoes to wear. He didn’t live too far away, and had plenty of spare pairs. He seemed hurt at his generous offer being spurned.
The drivers nodded knowingly as I entered my reconditioned car. This was Gulshan. National costumes could hardly be suitable clothing for a party here, and a diplomat’s party at that! So what if my dress code was known to those inviting me. It was after all, the French National Day, and my principled stand of wearing non-western clothes had broken their boundaries of tolerance.
Dhaka. 14th July 2002.
The word “terrorist” was not in fashion in 1971. The Pakistanis called them “miscreants”. They called themselves the “Mukti Bahini” (freedom fighters). The ordinary Bangladeshi also called them “Muktis”, and therein lay their strength. They had limited resources, and very little training. They survived because the people risked their lives in giving them shelter, food, money, and a place to hide. They waved from the rooftops when the Mukti planes came to attack Dhaka. Trenches had been built, but they were too busy cheering to remember them, for in some ways, they too were Muktis.
Rejoicing in our independence, we quickly forgot those nine months, and treated the people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts much as the Pakistanis had treated us. The same oppression, the same genocide. The Bangladesh government called them “insurgents”. They called themselves the “Shanti Bahini”, (Peace Brigade), as did the other hill people. Shanti Bahini, years later, fought the Bangladeshi military junta, much as the Muktis had fought the Pakistanis, years before. Again the junta retaliated by killing the most vulnerable. It was the military that the people were terrified of. The Muktis and the Shanti Bahini were their saviours.
The main “terror” today is from the guns in the streets, the knee-capping, and the acid throwing. We call the people who do this, “shontrashis”. While the Muktis did strike terror in the hearts of the Pakistani soldiers, the goal was to liberate the people. The Shanti Bahini tried to defend their people from genocide. The shontrashis use terror to subjugate people into paying protection money, to gain control, to remove competition for government contracts, and to satisfy their lust. Protected by the politicians in power, the shontrashi and the junta are the only terrorists we have known.
Terror is not about danger itself, but about the fear of danger. Does the ordinary New Yorker, wake up in the morning expecting to die? The answer is no. Does the ordinary Afghani child lie sleepless at night in fear of the bombs from the sky and the ones lurking in the ground? The answer is a sad yes.
First published in ‘Banglarights” Bangladesh Human Rights Portal
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.