Be Careful What You Wish For

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“I was born in Mirpur, Dhaka, and I have grown up here. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I went to my village home for the very first time. I loved it there. I met my grandparents from my mother’s and my father’s side, and they were very happy to see me. So I asked my mother, why did you leave everybody here and move to the city?”
The words were by Ruhul Amin, a boy the children from the “Out of Focus” group had written a story about, for the Junior Summit Magazine in their New Year issue in 2001. The “Out of Focus” group were no longer children, but young adults, and now my colleagues at Drik. The stories they have told me over the years continue to provide food for thought.
“Desh kothai?” is the most common question a new found Bangladeshi acquaintance will always ask you, unless they have been brought up abroad, or are yuppie urbanites. The question, ‘which land are you from’ is a way of placing you, determining your roots, establishing linkages, forming identity. While many Bangladeshis now live in cities, it is the ‘desh’ that they long for.
Come Eid, or any other of the many holidays we have, the cities become empty, and the rooftops of the outbound buses and launches are packed. Sadly, there are frequent accidents, and many deaths. But still they come to the city. In the hope for a job. In the belief that in the big city, things will change.
So it was that the streets of Dhaka city were quiet on election day. People had gone back to the villages, to their desh, to vote. Rahnuma’s brother Saif, was telling me of how they had to drive in voters in Richmond, in London, and they’d still end up with only 35% voting. Bangladesh’s enthusiasm for elections was exemplary. There was a good turnout all day, and while in every polling centre I visited, many complained about not having been able to vote, it was put down to faulty lists and inefficiency. There wasn’t the suggestion of foul play.

Voting booth in school in Dhanmondi. 29th December 2008. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Voting booth in school in Dhanmondi. 29th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Polling officer in polling  centre in Dhanmondi. Dhaka. 29th December 2008. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Shahidul Alam
Polling officer in polling centre in Dhanmondi. Dhaka. 29th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Woman in voting booth. Dhanmondi. Dhaka. 29th December 2008. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Shahidul Alam
Woman in voting booth. Dhanmondi. Dhaka. 29th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Shahidul Alam

Election updates at Himal Magazine with photos from DrikNEW
Elections posters being printed. Noor Alam
Elections posters being printed. Noor Alam

Attack on Jannat Ara Noor Alam.
Attack on Jannat Ara Noor Alam.

Awami League rally. Amdadul Huq
Awami League rally. Amdadul Huq

Men queuing to vote. Noor Alam
Men queuing to vote. Noor Alam


I met Dadon Mia, the beggar on the pedal chair who staked Satmajsid Road, at one of the polling booths. He didn’t have a fixed address, but his persistence had ensured he was included in the voter’s list. He had voted for the first time. A gentleman I had last seen in Malaysia, when I’d been doing a story on Bangladeshi migrant workers, remembered me. “Do you still cycle? he asked. Yes. “tahole ato mota kan?” (Why are you so fat then?). This Bangladeshi frankness might have been considered rude in other places. But here it was perfectly commonplace. It was with caring concern that he reminded me of my pot belly. The adviser Hossain Zillur Rahman smiled when we briefly met at Dhanmondi Girls School. I had been critical of Zillur in my writing, but on the occasions when we did meet, Zillur had always greeted me with a smile. There was no sign of violence, and apart from the irate, and sometimes tearful voters, who had been denied a vote because the list didn’t have their names, the polling seemed to go remarkably well.
As we stayed up all night, there was initial relief that the visibly corrupt, vote rigging BNP, had not come back to power (it would have given all the wrong signals), and then euphoria upon the knowledge that Jamaat had been routed. But as the enormity of the landslide victory for Awami League sank in, I remembered the? Sir Arthur C Clarke quote that my friend Nalaka Gunawardane often used. “Be careful what you wish for,” Sir Arthur would say, “it can come true.” I had voted for the Awami League. Not because I thought they would form a good government – there was ample evidence to suggest they were incapable of that – but because another five years of BNP misrule would have been intolerable. And since we certainly didn’t want military rule, the Awami League it had to be.
The initial rejection of the results by BNP sounded like the usual sour grapes. Why couldn’t they for once, lose gracefully? But then I started thinking of the excessively high turnout figures. We knew the military needed an Awami League win, but had they overdone it a bit? An Awami League majority was one thing, but could we survive an elected BAKSHAL? As media whispers (not published generally) began to talk of the unreported vendettas being played out across the country, of polling officers having been bought out, doubts began to enter my mind.
My earlier concerns of Jamaat returning to power, or Ershad becoming president again, paled when I considered the horror of an unbridled Awami League let loose on the Bangladeshi public. Sir Arthur had detested astrology, but he was rather good with his predictions. My wish had sadly turned true.
Old woman at voting centre. Firoz Gazi
Old woman at voting centre. Firoz Gazi

Hasina casting her vote. Munira Morshed Munni
Hasina casting her vote. Munira Morshed Munni

Bandarban campaign of shubhashish Barua
Bandarban campaign of shubhashish Barua


Ballot boxes
Ballot boxes

Ballot counting. Amdadul Huq
Ballot counting. Amdadul Huq


SWAT team. Shafiqul Islam Kajol
SWAT team. Shafiqul Islam Kajol

Jamaat, receiving only two seats, were completely routed. Rajshahi. Iqbal Ahmed.
Jamaat, receiving only two seats, were completely routed. Rajshahi. Iqbal Ahmed.


Khaleda voting. Amdadul Huq
Khaleda voting. Amdadul Huq

No tax on words

Elections are a big thing in Bangladesh. Going back to his village at peak season was an expensive option for my neighourhood fruit seller, Siddique Ali. The election wasn’t so critical in his case, as his candidate was going to get elected virtually unopposed. But he was going to vote all the same.


My workaholic colleague Delower Hossain had also taken leave, not only to vote but to campaign for his candidate. Our electrician was working late into the night so he could get to Dinajpur in time. He too faced a one-sided election, but wasn’t going to take chances.
An Awami League Supporter at Sheikh Hasina's pre-election speech at Paltan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th December 2008. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
An Awami League Supporter at Sheikh Hasina's pre-election speech at Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The euphoria in the streets was contagious. It felt good to be milling with the crowds. The smell of the street had its own magic. Contrary to the usual political rallies, These were not filled with hired crowd fillers or party goons, but people who genuinely loved their party and their leader.

Siddique Ali and Delower, like so many other ordinary Bangladeshis, were hard working, honest and politically astute. When I asked Siddique how well his candidate Shahjahan had done in his previous term, he gave a pragmatic answer. “He was an Awami League MP in a BNP government. You can’t expect him to achieve much.” Still, millions like Siddique and Delower voted. Still, they believed in the power of the people.
The security around the two main leaders, particularly Sheikh Hasina was extremely tight. There have been several assassination attemps on the ex prime minister. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. The 26th December 2008.
The security around the two main leaders, particularly Sheikh Hasina was extremely tight. There have been several assassination attemps on the ex prime minister. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. The 26th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Parking my bicycle near the stadium I followed the crowd into Paltan. There were hundreds of policemen along the way, and everyone was being checked. My camera jacket and my dangling camera allowed me to get through several of the checks, but I did get stopped and politely asked to show the contents of my camera bag. There wasn’t the rudeness that greets one at a western airport, but they were making sure. Times had changed.
In the beginning there was light. One of the climactic moments from Begum Khaleda Zia's victorious election campaign in 1991. Hope burgeons as Bangladesh launches into a rare free and fair election. The latest in a series of military-backed dictators, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, had finally been ousted two months before following an intensive three-year campaign for democracy.
In the beginning there was light. One of the climactic moments from Begum Khaleda Zia's victorious election campaign in 1991. Hope burgeons as Bangladesh launches into a rare free and fair election. The latest in a series of military-backed dictators, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, had finally been ousted two months before following an intensive three-year campaign for democracy. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I remembered crowding around Hasina and Khaleda during the 1991 campaigns. Ershad had just been removed and there was hope in the air. Whoever won, we would have democracy. At least that was what we felt then

As another military government was stepping down, I knew too well, that this elected government was unlikely to yield democracy outright. The young man with Hasina painted on his chest reminded me of Noor Hossain, the worker killed by Ershad’s police, because he had wanted “Democracy to be Freed”. I remembered that the autocratic general Ershad was back, an ally of the Awami League. And the party made up of war criminals, Jamaat, was on course, an ally of BNP.
Mural of Noor Hossain painted in the campus of Jahangirnagar University in Savar. Bangladesh. 1987.
Mural of Noor Hossain painted in the campus of Jahangirnagar University in Savar. Bangladesh. 1987.? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Reminiscent of Noor Hossain, the young worker killed by police bullets on the 10th November 1987, during the movement to bring down General Ershad.
Reminiscent of Noor Hossain, the young worker killed by police bullets on the 10th November 1987, during the movement to bring down General Ershad. He had painted on his back "Let Democracy be Freed". ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

One could have predicted Hasina’s speech. There was not an iota of remorse. Not the slightest admission of wrong-doing. With the arrogance that has become her hallmark, she glorified her previous rule, and villified her opponent. And went on to insult the intelligence of the crowd by promising that every young man and woman would be given a job.

Through her proposed Internet revolution, no villager would ever again need to go to the city. The complete eradication of poverty was thrown in for good measure. The saying in Bangla ‘kothar upor tax nai’ “there is no tax on words” could not have been more apt.
Khaleda Zia at her pre-election speech in Paltan Maidan, chose not to go behind a bullet proof glass while addressing the rally. 27th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh.
Khaleda Zia at her pre-election speech in Paltan Maidan, chose not to go behind a bullet proof glass while addressing the rally. 27th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Khaleda, the following day, had done no less. Her promise of leaving no family homeless, was perhaps less extreme than the promise of a job for every youth, but it was still sheer hype. She too promised the magic of the computer, which apparently, could solve all problems. Having overseen the most corrupt five years of Bangladesh’s history.

Having had her second attempt at a rigged election derailed by a fighting opposition and a defiant public, she spoke of how, if voted into power, she would shape a corruption free Bangladesh! Bypassing the most blatant misdeeds of her sons and their cronies, she spoke of the ill deeds of her opponents. The master vote-stealer even warned of vote stealing. There was perhaps one significant difference between the two. Khaleda did acknowledge that perhaps some mistakes might have been made, and if so, apologised for them. Even such half admissions of blatant misdeeds, is a landmark in Bangladeshi politics.
Apart from briefly emerging above the bullet proof glass, Sheikh Hasina chose to shelter behind her see-through armour during the rally at Paltan Maidan on the 26th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Apart from briefly emerging above the bullet proof glass, Sheikh Hasina chose to shelter behind her see-through armour during the rally at Paltan Maidan on the 26th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The security was less stringent for Khaleda, and I was able to get to the inner corral without being frisked or having my camera bag checked. Significantly, she chose not to use the bullet proof glass that had protected Hasina the day before. I had been surprised by the lack of women at Hasina’s rally, where I estimated less than a thousand women had gathered.
At Khaleda’s a rough head count yielded figures well below one fifty. Predictably however, there were many white capped men, and the yellow head bands of Jamaat’s militant student wing Shibir. Her’s was a more jubilant crowd, with slogans and chanting going on right through the rally, even during her speech. In comparison, Hasina’s rally had been a more reserved affair. Perhaps an indication of Khaleda’s younger following.
Many people recorded the speeches of their leaders and took videos of the rallies using mobile phones. By Dhaka Stadium. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Many people recorded the speeches of their leaders and took videos of the rallies using mobile phones. By Dhaka Stadium. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

They had plenty of ammunition. Hasina reminded voters of the foreign bank accounts of Khaleda’s sons, and that the BNP had teamed up with war criminals. Khaleda reminded them of the one party rule of BAKSHAL, and the irony of Hasina’s statement that the partners of autocrats were traitors to the nation. Despite Khaleda’s tangential reference to ‘possible mistakes’, neither leader made any direct admission to any of the misdeeds that had ravaged the nation.
Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was part of the security team at Paltan during the pre-election rallies. RAB is believed to have been responsible for over 300 extra judicial killings over the last two and a half years. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was part of the security team at Paltan during the pre-election rallies. RAB is believed to have been responsible for over 300 extra judicial killings over the last two and a half years. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I felt insulted and humiliated. But I could not deny, that both leaders had their followers. Many of the people in the crowd did love them dearly, though there was little evidence to suggest that their leaders deserved, or respected this unrequited love.
Members of Chatro Shibir, the militant student wing of Jamaat e Islam, an ally of the BNP lead coalition. Jamaat is accused of harbouring war criminals of the 1971 war of liberation. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Members of Chatro Shibir, the militant student wing of Jamaat e Islam, an ally of the BNP lead coalition. Jamaat is accused of harbouring war criminals of the 1971 war of liberation. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

So why this great longing for an elected government? Why this great love for undeserving leaders? An election offers the one hope for a disenfranchised public to be heard. They cling on to these unlikely champions of democracy as their only real hope for a system of governance that may eventually value their will.
BNP supporters climb a tree to get a better view of their leader Khaleda Zia. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
BNP supporters climb a tree to get a better view of their leader Khaleda Zia. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Hopefully the misadventures over the last two years has taught the military that the Bangladeshi public is a tough nut to crack. Even these two arrogant leaders face a more robust media and a more questioning public than they’ve been used to. Delower and Siddique Ali might not get the democracy they deserve, but their love for democracy, will eventually force a change.
Relatively few women attended the pre-election rally of Khaleda Zia. The female attendance at Sheikh Hasina's rally the earlier day, while larger than at Khaleda's was still low. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Relatively few women attended the pre-election rally of Khaleda Zia. The female attendance at Sheikh Hasina's rally the earlier day, while larger than at Khaleda's was still low. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

More election pictures at DrikNews.
Current election photos from www.driknews.com
Current election photos from www.driknews.com

The Barren Banana Tree

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Singapore Airlines warned of “protests by university students developing in Dhaka” as we boarded the plane. But emails from Delower and Rahnuma during the brief stopover in Singapore talked of the curfew in place in the six main cities. This was no longer a small skirmish in Dhaka University. Joshim was going to be at the airport with my accreditation card and we would try and find a way back home.
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Students at Dhaka University under teargas attack, throwing bricks at police. 22 August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
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Students at Dhaka University shielding themselves with sheets of tin, during fights with police. Photographer anonymous.
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Protesting students gather at Dhaka University campus during violent clashes with police. Photographer anonymous.
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Student hit by police shotgun bullet being carried away by fellow students. Photographer anonymous.
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Enraged students burn a car at the Teacher’s Student’s Centre (TSC). Photographer anonymous.
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Members of Dhaka University Teacher’s Association protesting against the attacks on campus by police and army, and demanding withdrawal of the state of emergency. Two of the teachers in the front row have since been arrested. 22 August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
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Rocketing prices of essentials create extreme distress for people with low earnings, like the people pictured in the foreground. The military of Bangladesh, which has not had to fight since the birth of the nation in 1971, has in the meanwhile, had increasing budgetary allocations in each successive regime. Numerous allegations about corruption in military purchase, has gone uninvestigated. 22 August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
The government had taken all mobile networks off the air. With only official press releases for information, the person in the street was in for a rough time. It was easy to find Joshim in the empty car park. Only the occasional long distance truck plied VIP road. I put the video camera on record mode, but relied on my less conspicuous LUMIX to photograph the empty streets. Though I stopped on the Mohakhali flyover to take pictures, I was nervous when the RAB vehicles passed below. There was never a good time for being arrested, but this was as wrong a time as it could get.
Aaasteeey! The policeman strode over lazily. Ki bapar? I did have my card dangling from my neck, and from previous experience, used my confident, ‘I belong here’ approach. That usually worked best with low tier security people.
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The Mohakhali Junction, one of Dhaka’s busiest traffic spots, is empty on the night of the 22nd August, when the government called an indefinite curfew. Dhaka Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
I’d stopped to take pictures by the near-empty Tejgaon rail station. Stepping carefully through the people sleeping on the floor, I came up to Shahjahan and Neela. Unaware of the curfew, they had brought their sick child Shamim from Tangail, but got stranded in Tejgaon. There was no food, no doctor, no place to sleep, no way of knowing how long this would go on. Each visit to the toilet cost 5 Taka.
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Stranded passengers at Tejgaon Railway Station, sleep on the floor. 22 August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
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Shahjahan and Neela tend to their sick child Shamim, whom they had brought to Dhaka for treatment. Along with other stranded passengers at Tejgaon Railway Station, the family had no food or drink, or a place to sleep. 22 August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
The next checkpost was slightly more hostile, but the expired accreditation card dangling from my neck was working overtime. We passed without much harassment. Dropping Joshim home, I went past the Shonar Bangla Market in Karwan Bazaar. The busy market place had a haunted look. No cackle of chickens, haggling for prices, or calls from vendors. Just one man counting loose change.
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Shonar Bangla Market at Karwan Bazaar is one of the busiest market places in Dhaka. The shops are empty on the night of 22nd August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
The brightly lit Square Hospital in Panthapath stood out in the dark. Government orders to turn down the lights after dusk to save electricity was presumably for commoners only. The street was empty, but this time as I approached with my camera police converged from all directions. I fumbled a bit, but recovered in time to get one shot. This was not the time to look for best angles. Rattling off important sounding words like ministry of information, and dropping the occasional names I could think of, I got into the car and drove off before the uniformed men had gathered their wits. A government adviser’s business interests in Square Pharmaceuticals – while undeclared – was well known. Students had already attacked the building the previous day. The approaching police knew whose business interests to protect.
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The Square Group, one of the wealthiest business enterprises in Bangladesh owns the Square Hospital. Government regulations prohibit the excess use of electricity and non-essential shops are required to close by 8 pm. Several people were killed by the police when they came out in protest, demanding adequate electricity. The Square Group is owned by the family of one of the advisers of the caretaker government. 22 August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
The road through Dhanmondi was eerie. The women who walked the streets near Abahani playground were nowhere to be seen. Like the many others who struggled to make a living, they too would not be earning tonight.
The junction near ULAB was scarred by burnt tyres. The convoy of police vans deterred me from getting my camera out and I turned into road 4A. It was time to go home. Kamaler Ma, Joigun, Zohra and Rahnuma were all up waiting. With the mobile network off, they didn’t have any news about me. There must have been others in many more homes who were up worrying.
Rahnuma and I talked of the events over the last two days, of the army camp in Dhaka University. Of a soldier slapping a student. Of the vice chancellor (acting) being beaten up by police. This had never happened before, not even during the Ayub or Ershad military regimes. The reference to ‘evil doers’ in the chief adviser’s speech to the nation was worryingly close to the ‘axis of evil’. Independent media channels were then still defiant. That night the information adviser advised the media to practice ‘self censorship’.
Despite their claims, this government had never been called in by the people. We had no say in who the advisers would be. It was not military rule the people had welcomed, but the cessation of violence and the fear of further anarchy if the rigged elections were held. Banana trees would have made equally good replacements. However, banana trees would not have sold national interests. Closed down environmentally-friendly jute mills. Made slum dwellers homeless, or tortured and killed adibashis protesting the military acquisition of their ancestral lands. So while there was initial relief, as the price of essentials soared, news of nepotism and the partisan manner in which Jamaat -e-Islami was being shielded soon made people realise this banana tree would never bear fruit, let alone run a government.
Warrantless arrests by plainsclothes army under the cover of curfew. Dissenting teachers picked up in the middle of the night. Making threats to independent channels ETV and CSB are hardly the character of a saviour government pledged to the return of democracy. As the behind-the-scene military decides it will now take centre stage. As Bangladeshis realise that a democratically elected autocratic government has simply been replaced by an unelected autocratic one, the tune in the streets is changing.
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Symbols of fascist oppression drawn on university road. 21st August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh ? Munem Wasif/DrikNews
Multiple demands of students and teachers have been whittled down to one – withdraw emergency rule. Underground pamphlets are spreading like wildfire. With the Internet down, text messages are filling up the ether. The information adviser’s suave statements to the media faltered as he snapped, “why such a fuss about a slap or two?”
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The photograph that was being shown here has been removed on the request of the photographer
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In unprecedented scenes, soldiers in uniform were seen being chased out of the Dhaka university campus by students. In two days, the myth of the army’s omnipotence was all but laid to rest.” BBC. Photographer Anonymous.
The US has declared support for the chief adviser’s statement. What he lacks is the support of the people.

The Trojan Horse

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Standing in the grand parliament building in Karachi, built by his grandfather, veteran Pakistani MP Qamar Zaman reflected on the irony of it all. He had long campaigned against the militarization in Pakistan, but recent developments in Bangladesh worried Zaman. ?They saw what went wrong in the Pakistani experiment and decided to fine tune it? he lamented. The election commissioner in India, SY Quraishi, repeated the sentiment. Bangladesh following in Pakistan?s footsteps was not something he welcomed. Kunda Dixit, in Kathmandu, talked of how the same blueprint was being used in all our countries. Despite the rhetoric of democracy, the militarization of South Asian countries was the flavour of the day. Aided by chaotic situations created by political mismanagement, the anti-corruption Trojan Horse brought in its deadly military content.

As in Troy, the people had welcomed them with open arms. Years of mismanagement and corruption had worn down their patience. People wanted respite, regardless of where it came from. This was just the window the military needed. Not wanting to lose out on the lucrative UN placements, they needed a mask. The ?neutral? caretaker government was the perfect foil. The arrests of corrupt politicians, businesspeople and godfathers provided a much needed relief. Few worried about the flimsy, and sometimes concocted accusations used to reel them in. None dared to speak of the glaring omissions. Curbing media freedom took care of the main obstacle. The military or the Jamaat were strangely absent from the list. Amongst the largest and most controversial deals made during previous regimes were the MIG and the Frigate purchases. Yet neither had featured in the cases being investigated. ?kaker mangsho kak khai na.? (A crow doesn?t eat crow?s meat).

After much foot dragging, and over two months of delay, a one member body was asked to probe into the death of adivasi activist Choles Ritchil in the most gruesome killing while in military custody. The Shadarghat launch disaster, in contrast, had three separate investigation committees ordered to submit reports within 24 hours. Choles on the other hand had resisted a multimillion dollar deal to take over adivasi land. It was a different ball game.

Tasneem Khalil was one voice that they had not been able to silence. His incisive, well researched investigations flew against the culture of silence that prevailed. Mahfuz Anam, the editor of the leading English daily, The Daily Star, had proudly told me, ?In all these years, not a single story had been spiked.? That was some time ago. Things were different now. The story of military involvement that Tasneem had revealed was pulled back from the press in the last minute. A commentator on the roundtable at Drik on the 3rd May, International Press Freedom Day, had equated the Daily Star and the Daily Prothom Alo with a new political party. The newspapers had elaborate reporting on the US ambassador’s love for democracy and a free press. The Drik roundtable, featuring some of the bravest journalists working in the land, went unreported. The roundtable had discussed the military, the corporate deals taking place, the heavy hand of foreign countries. It talked of deals being pushed through in the absence of dissent. Tasneem had deliberately not been asked to speak. That would be inviting trouble.

That didn?t protect Tasneem for long. In my room in Shangri La Hotel in the early hours of this morning I received an SMS from a student. Tasneem had been picked up from his home. This is a risk that all journalists speaking against the?government are prepared to take, but given what Choles Ritchil went through, this arrest is more ominous. A suicide note for an epitaph is too likely an outcome to let the system take its course.

Shahidul Alam

Kathmandu

11th May 2007

From SAJA list:

Daily Star reporter (formerly with New Age), and CNN Dhaka stringer, Tasneem Khalil was
picked up by men in plain clothes @ midnight, claiming to be from
“Joint Forces”/Army.

Tasneem Khalil Picked Up By “Joint Forces”
CNN Reporter Picked Up
Tasneem’s Blog
Tasneem, We’ll Come Get You
http://salamdhaka.blogspot.com/
Human Rights Watch Issues Alert
Tasneem on Choles Ritchil Case
Tasneem on Modhupur
Tasneem quoted in Washington Post
Sabash Bangladesh!

Reselling Your Soul to the Devil

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20th anniversary of Ain O Salish Kendra and National Museum auditorium, Dhaka. Bangladesh
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Fazle Hasan Abed (left), Muhammad Yunus (centre) and George Soros (right)
Muhammad Yunus, Amartya Sen, Fazle Hasan Abed, George Soros Sultana Kamal. I could hardly have asked for a better photo op. Well it is Christmas! If ever a nation was in need of a pick me up, this was it. The twentieth anniversary of Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK) had a special significance. This was an organization that has been relentlessly fighting for the rights of the downtrodden. Despite the central bank predicting a 7 percent growth in the coming year, with both parties poised to contest the upcoming election choosing to woo the autocratic general the people had fought to overthrow, and the traditionally secular Awami League (AL) selling out to the Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish (BKM) for supposed electoral gains, the people needed the assurance that at least some still believed in a secular state and the interests of common people.
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Amartya Sen lauded ASK and women?s agencies for the role they had played in upholding the rights of women and talked of the importance of freedom of speech.
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Muhammad Yunus reminded the audience of ASK?s role in preserving the legal rights of the poor. Both Nobel laureates stayed clear of commenting on the decision that had been made by the major opposition party, which had just buried all of these ideas for political convenience.
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Sen gave an eloquent speech, weaving history and his own characteristic economic analysis to point to the role civil society could play in creating a more egalitarian world.
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His witty anecdotes about Salma Sobhan, the diminutive but feisty human rights activist who had founded ASK, and his frank accounts of the attempts by him and his friend, our own celebrated economist Rehman Sobhan, in winning over Salma Banu, before she became Salma Sobhan, was a warm and sincere tribute to one of Bangladesh?s finest citizens. But despite the joy of celebration, the mood in the audience was less than ebullient. The high court ban on fatwas had been a hard won battle and the gloom caused by AL?s entente with the other side of the fundamentalist coin, had left everyone shattered. My activist friends were surprisingly unperturbed. ?Well, they have unmasked themselves? said Khushi Kabir, ?it is time we woke up to what the parties really represent.?
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Sultana Kamal was similarly defiant but also brought up her concerns. ?It has always been our fight, and now we know what alliances to avoid. But they have effectively robbed me of my voting rights. If I now want someone in parliament to stand up for the rights of women, or the Ahmadiyyas, or for free speech, whom do I turn to? The candidates too have no choice. The few who might have wanted to enter the fray because they wanted to change things, now have no party to turn to.?
Politicians are not known for honesty and candour. AL?s win at any cost deal was defended by Abdul Jalil, the general secretary of AL who signed the document, as he tried to wriggle his way out of the hole he had dug himself into. ?It is an understanding based on an election strategy? and ?any decision is a fatwa? he rambled.
This particular election strategy seems to have left out the voters from the equation. The latest ?fatwa? by the Awami League is a ?decision? that will haunt them.

Judge on the docks

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?Come out we won’t shoot?, they had yelled out over the megaphone. Not the most alluring of invitations, particularly when it is from a police van surrounding your flat at midnight. They had thought we were hiding someone and after searching our rooftop had come into our flat. As they left, I had gone out to take pictures from our verandah. Rahnuma had turned up the television volume to hide the sound of the shutter on my Nikon 501, but it still seemed to make a very loud click. Luckily, I wasn?t noticed. It was the 2nd December 1990. Ershad?s autocratic government was feeling the heat. inside-baitul-mukarram-mosque-f7-118-frame-no-24.jpg
Two days earlier, after the Friday prayers, they had opened fire on the Baitul Mukarram mosque killing a man.
Lawyers had played an important role in our democracy movement. They had upheld writ petitions against the government, and when the government tried to flex its muscles, they came out in protest, united in their stand.
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On this day, exactly sixteen years ago, barrister Shahjahan, Sarah Hossain and other lawyers were meant to meet at Drik. We were monitoring the government action, and were ourselves under scrutiny. My colleagues had warned me that plain clothed detectives were looking for me at the office. The detectives seemed to know we lived in Lalmatia, and my colleagues suggested that we stay elsewhere that night. Ma (Rahnuma?s mum), Rahnuma, Tehmina (a lawyer friend of ours) and I went over to Saif and Rini?s flat in Dhanmondi Rd 8. This was not the time for taking chances. The media too had played their role. When censorship became intolerable, they refused to publish. It was that night that Ershad had announced on television that he was going to step down. People were rejoicing in the streets. The following morning the first newspaper was out.
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We all went out into the streets. Altaf on his motorbike, me on my bicycle, and the others in whatever transport they could find.
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A little girl walked down Mirpur road with a bouquet of flowers in her hand. She too was celebrating the return of democracy. People were dancing in the streets. In Paltan, too often the scene of violence, people gathered in ones and twos.
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Men and women in their sleeping clothes, some with children, gathered in the winter night. Chatpati wallas sensing a business opportunity appeared out of the fog. At about 1:30 am Shimul Billa, Bangladesh’s Shirley Temple, sang out ?Bichar poti tomar bichar korbe jara, aj jegeche ei jonota?.
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The song ?O judge, the people have risen, it is now the day of your judgement?, was strangely prophetic.
And now in 2006, the chief justice of the supreme court intervenes to prevent a decision
going against a political party, lawyers ransack the court, a president with zero credibility heads a caretaker government, and of all people, Ershad himself is in the streets, demanding the removal of the current president, while Moudud, the chameleon survivor, then Ershad’s right hand man, now holds hands with the chief justice.
4th December 2006
Delhi

The Campaign Begins

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“We travel to Dhaka, in Bangladesh for a celebration of South East Asian photography thanks to a festival called Chobi Mela, on its fourth edition so far. Their theme this year is ‘boundaries’: ideas, aspects, images that divide peoples and cultures. Perfect backdrop for the violence in the country ahead of forthcoming elections…” http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/programmes/the_ticket.shtml. They did a hatchet job on Anita’s interviews, but at least the BEEB did give coverage to Chobi Mela IV.
Besides Cristobal (asleep on the rickshaw) and Norman, all the others have gone back.
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Richard, Wubin and Cristobal, testing out environmentally friendly modes of transport.
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Rupert claims his neighbours need sunglasses to cope with his glistening green punjabi from Dhanmondi Aarong.
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The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) motorbike cruised slowly past Drik in the morning. Earlier I’d seen them cruise in Gulshan and Baridhara. It was like a scene from Easy Rider, though the ‘crossfire’ victims might not think so. I’ve never seen them in the troubled areas of Paltan, or Muktangon, or anywhere there are clashes between the public and the police. The RAB seem to have different priorities. For the moment at least, the elite force seems only concerned with protecting the elite.
Meanwhile, a Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) takes a strange and undefined ‘leave’, with veiled threats of “I shall return”, and the fighting gives way to election frenzy.
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The Police in a different role
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The campaigner, a new kid on the block
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Hired supporters, a new form of employment
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Employment for all
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And the inevitable traffic jams
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For those trying to avoid the winter chill, the priorities are somewhat different. A girl cooks dinner at Russel Square. Earlier the burning cars provided the flames.

Stretching the Deadline

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An extra day! Not unusual in itself, but considering that a deadline had been announced so long ago, it seems a strange thing to ask for. What could happen in that extra day that could not have happened before? This extra day brings fresh violence, and while the advisers give us hope of ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, it is unfortunate that yet more loss of life continues while the politicians do their tap dance. If the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) is to step down, he should do so soon. The presence of a party appointee as head of state, head of military and head of government is bad enough. An appointee Chief Election Commissioner armed with a rigged voter list simply cannot be the basis of a fair and free election.
If there be a genuine belief in a multiparty system, the process must involve, putting in place a caretaker government with backbone, and accepting a free and fair election regardless of the outcome.
Providing electricity, ensuring wage increase for garment workers, eliminating rampant corruption and ensuring freedom from extortion and ?crossfire? are far better means of ensuring support, than empty rhetoric, paid goons and spineless sycophants in key positions. There is more blood on the streets today. It is time politicians were made accountable.
It was Nasreen’s birthday on the 18th, but though friends gathered in their Dhanmondi home and sang songs, and Jamila stayed her chirpy self, gloom pervaded the air. The article in the Daily Star brought up renewed doubts about corruption, cover-ups and selling out the country.
Pathshala alumni Monirul Alam is on vigil outside President House. The expectation is that the CEC will be bringing his resignation letter. Drik photographer Shehab Uddin is in Nepal following the peace agreement. Perhaps we too can hope for peace.
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Burning car at Russel Square, close to Pathshala earlier in the afternoon.
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Singing in Mirpur Road
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Protesting lawyers coming out of the Supreme Court
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Open air concert at Russel Square last night.
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Friends singing on Nasreen’s birthday
Chobi Mela IV continues despite it all. Rashid Talukder opened the splendid exhibition resulting from Morten Krogvold’s workshop, at Shilpakala Academy.
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Despite my scraggly beard, Torsten thought I was Father Christmas when I went to drop off the Chobi Mela gift packs at the Goethe Institut, insisting that he teach me the German song that Santa Claus would have sung.
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Two and a half years after the opening of the gallery, the airconditioners had still not been installed, but the viewers were not to be deterred, nor were the rag pickers outside Drik, Shanta and her friends, who decided the cool open space of Drik’s new gallery was the best place to try out their break dancing routine.
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I am sure my pictures on the walls enjoyed their dance. I know I did.

Taking care of the caretaker

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It was a dramatic ending to Robert Pledge?s presentation. Via Topu and Omi, I?d received the news that the military had been called out. Robert wanted to finish the presentation, but once I?d announced the government?s decision, the auditorium of the Goethe Institut quickly emptied out. This particular Chobi Mela IV presentation had come to an abrupt end. It was 1987 revisited.

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Noor Hossain had painted on his back ?Let Democracy be Freed? and the police had gunned him down on the 10th November 1987. But the people had taken to the streets and while we were scared the military would come out, there was no stopping us. It had taken three more years of street protests, before the general was forced to step down. The people had won. But then it had been a military general who was ruling the country. This was a civilian caretaker government. The general mistrust of a party in power, had resulted in this unique process in Bangladesh where an interim neutral caretaker government headed by a Chief Adviser (generally the most recently retired Chief Justice) and consisting of other neutral but respected members of the public were entrusted with conducting the elections. Why then the military? Yes, the president was a Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP, the largest party in the outgoing coalition government) appointee, there are ten advisors who are meant to be neutral.

A free and fair election hasn?t yielded the electoral democracy we had hoped for. After each term, the people have voted out the party in power, only to be rebuffed by a political system that has never had the interest of the people on their agenda. Still, the elections were held, and despite the fact that there had been one rigged election in 1996 (rejected and held again under a neutral caretaker government), an electoral process of democratisation, was slowly developing.

This time however, the total disregard for the electoral process has created a sham, and the three key people in this electoral process, the president, the chief adviser, and the chief election commissioner (CEC), are colluding against the people. The first two, being represented by the same person, was a BNP appointee. He also happens to be the head of the military. The CEC, now a cartoon character, had also been appointed by the BNP while it was in power. Coupled with a clearly flawed voters list, this has removed any hope of a free and fair election. Can the caretaker government genuinely conduct a fair election? I believe it still can, if given the chance, despite the president?s lack of credibility. But for that to happen, the military, the bureaucracy and the police need to remember that it is with the people that their allegiance lies.

However, it does depend upon the removal of the other obstacles. The election commissioner cannot constitutionally be removed, and his removal is central to the opposition demands. What then can we do? There is only one body higher than the constitution, the people themselves. The advisors need to be empowered if they are to pull off this election. Sandwiched between a partisan executive head and another partisan CEC, the advisers risk becoming irrelevant. The only way this can be checked is if people come out in droves. Not ?hired for the day? supporters but ordinary people committed to civilian rule, and a multi-party system.

It is we the people who need to take to the streets. And it is time we sent out the message to all political parties, that an entire nation cannot be appropriated. They need to be told that we did not liberate our country in vain, and despite the poverty and the hardship that we go through, we will not be cowed down, and will not blindly tow a party line, when the party itself has disengaged from the people. If tomorrow, every woman man and child takes to the street of Bangladesh, there is no power, not the military, not the president, not the advisers, not the CEC, not the BNP and not AL that can stop us.

There is hope yet. The advisers have had the good sense to reverse the home ministry?s unilateral decision to call out the army and the president and chief adviser has been challenged for taking such a step. Whether the advisers can continue to take such bold steps depends on our ability to bolster their nebulous position.

Blockades and hartals do hurt the economy, and ironically, it is the person in the street who is the most vulnerable. But faced with an attempt to take away the only chance she has to exercise her right to elect the government of her choice, she has little option left but to take to the streets. As the world is finding out, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and wherever else there is conflict, a military victory is never a victory. If the anger of the people is to be quelled, then the underlying causes of discontent need to be solved. Flexing the muscles of the military, will only put a lid on the boiling pot, and the longer the lid is pressed down, the bigger will be the eventual explosion. More have died today, and with every death, the flashpoint looms closer.

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Chobi Mela IV has continued despite it all. The dancing in the all night boat party,

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the heated arguments at every meeting point, the mobile exhibitions, all went on despite the turmoil. The presentations on the night of the 11th, with Yumi Goto, showing work by the children from Bandar Aceh, Neo Ntsoma showing her work on youth culture in South Africa, Chris Rainier showing his long term projects on ?Ancient Marks?, and the deeply personal, but very different accounts of Trent Parke

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and Pablo Bartholomew, made one of the most intriguing evenings I can remember. The packed audience that had braved the blockade had perhaps an inkling of what was to come. Morten had a full house for his ?gallery walk? at the Alliance Francaise and Trent?s workshops were packed out. The grand opening was at the National Museum, where we had one fifth of the cabinet opening the show. Kollol gave a passionate rendering of his song ?Boundaries? written especially for the festival. The rickshaw vans designed to take the festival to the public, plied the streets of Old Dhaka, Mirpur and other areas not used to gallery crowds.

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The chief guest, adviser C.M. Shafi Sami, the special guests adviser Sultana Kamal and Robert Pledge, photographers Morten Krogvold and Trent Parke and the scholarship recepient Dolly Akhter all spoke eloquently. Little did the audience know about the drama that had taken place the night before. With the museum functionaries doing their best to keep us from putting up the Contact Press Images show (http://www.chobimela.org/contact_press_images.php), we were under pressure, but working all through the night and sleeping on the museum floor, we managed to put the show up on time.

Last night, the empty streets, looked ominous as I dropped off Chulie, Robert and Yang, and people have been dying in the streets.

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Since then we have had Morten Krogvold?s passionate presentation at the gallery walk at Alliance, Rupert Grey?s clinical dissection of the law and his dry British humour,

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both at the British Council and the Goethe Institut, Saiful Huq Omi?s disturbing but powerful images of political violence, Cristobal Trejo?s poetic rendering of an unseen world, Richard Atrero De Guzman?s honest response to difficult questions about representation and my own presentation on natural disasters and their social impact have all been well attended, despite the tension in the desolate Dhaka streets. The evening presentations close tonight with an insightful film by Indian film maker Joshy Joseph, presentations by Norman Leslie and a behind the scenes look by the photographers at the Drik Photo Department, Md. Main Uddin, Shehab Uddin and Amin, Chandan Robert Rebeiro, Imtiaz Mahabub Mumit and Shumon of Pathshala and Mexican exhibitor Cristobal Trejo. The shows go on as they always do at Drik.

In 1991, a woman with her vote had avenged Noor Hossain’s death.

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A fortnight ago, the city was in flames, and a stubborn chief election commissioner is stoking the flames again. It is a fire he and his allies will be powerless to stop.
Shahidul Alam
Dhaka
Chobi Mela site
Blog by Australian curator Bec Dean
Short video on Chobi Mela IV


Dhaka Burns

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Well I’m finally stumped for words. A party affiliated president, now
has the triple roles of president, head of the military and head of
the ‘neutral’ caretaker government. While rumours of a military
takeover abound, and the prime minister’s son threatens that they will
not go to the streets ’empty handed’, the news that the leader of the
opposition has not threatened immediate protests, but has rather opted
to see how the new head of the caretaker government conducts himself,
is a healthy sign. Too many lives have already been lost.
A lot of changes need to take place to erase the mistrust created. A
genuinely non partisan group of advisers need to be selected, the
election commission and the voters list, both clearly not neutral,
need to be changed, and he has to clearly demonstrate that he is no
longer a puppet. Unlikely based on his track record, but one can hope.
Given the current mood, another sham election will surely light the
fuse.
Shahidul Alam
29th October. Dhaka
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Clashes between opposition and Jamaat due to demand for neutral head of caretaker government. (upload incomplete)
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Above photographs taken on 28th October 2006 by Shahidul Alam.
And today 29th October 2006, a party affiliated president, makes himself president, head of military and head of ‘neutral’ caretaker government. Today’s photographs taken by Shehab Uddin. No unauthorised copying of any kind. To publish these or high res images, contact library@drik.net. More pictures and text to follow.
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