Pakistan Flood Appeal

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The floods raging through Pakistan at the moment have affected more people than the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, the 2006 Asian tsunami, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined.

An urgent mail from Kanak Mani Dixit of Himal Magazine. Photographs forwarded to me by Salma Hasan Ali:

Hello Shahidul, I think it is important to try heighten sensitivity to the Indus Flood 2010 and the ongoing devastation in Pakistan. People in India in particular may find it difficult to send money across the border, and this Nepal-based facility could be useful. Also, I do not know if anyone is doing specific in Bangladesh, though that is quite likely. If at all possible, please consider spreading work on this facility we have put up, as a means of support. Your breadth of contacts would be vital for this.
Kanak Mani Dixit, Editor, Himal Southasia,?

A man marooned by flood waters, alongside his livestock, waves towards an Army helicopter for relief handouts in the Rajanpur district of Pakistan's Punjab province on August 9, 2010. (REUTERS/Stringer)

A girl floats her brother across flood waters while salvaging valuables from their flood ravaged home on August 7, 2010 in the village of Bux Seelro near Sukkur, Pakistan. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images) #

A Pakistani Army soldier rests between air rescue operations on August 9, 2010 in the Muzaffargarh district in Punjab, Pakistan. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images) #

Pakistani flood survivors climb on army helicopter as it distributes food bags in Lal Pir on August 7, 2010. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images) #

A man wades through flood waters towards a naval boat while evacuating his children in Sukkur, located in Pakistan's Sindh province August 8, 2010. (REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro) #

A boy waits for food handouts with other flood victims as they take refuge at a makeshift camp in Sukkur, in Pakistan's Sindh province August 8, 2010. (REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro) #

Pakistani villagers chase after relief supplies dropped from an army helicopter in a heavy flood-hit area of Mithan Kot, in central Pakistan, Monday, Aug. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Khalid Tanveer) #

Flood victims are rescued by boat in Baseera, a village located in the Muzaffargarh district of Pakistan's Punjab province on August 10, 2010. (REUTERS/Stringer) #

Himal Southasian fund collection drive
in partnership with Standard Chartered Bank Nepal
Himal Southasian and Standard Chartered Bank Nepal have set up a fund in Kathmandu for people from Southasia and elsewhere seeking to support the ongoing relief efforts in Pakistan. Please avail this facility to send money to the victims of flood along the Indus. No administrative charges will be applied to your support; every paisa will be transferred to trusted organisations in Pakistan for the benefit of the flood victims.

Please send support to:*
Account title: Indus Flood Relief – Himal Southasian/SCB Nepal
Bank: Standard Chartered Bank Nepal Ltd.
Branches Accepting Deposit: Any Branches of SCB Nepal network
(Credit card payments may be made straight to the accounts below at any of the branches of Standard Chartered Bank in Nepal.)

Account number for Rupees (from India and Nepal): 01-1859293-02
Account number for USD (from elsewhere): 01-1859293-51
Please refer to the Indus Flood Relief page on? for details.

Video by Huma Beg

Salt Water Tears


photography by
Munem Wasif

text by
Francis Hodgson

plus an exclusive?audio interview about this project, plus?another short interviewabout his evolving style as a photographer.

Every ecosystem has its fragile balance. That much we have already learnt. Scientists routinely now seek to document the excesses that will lead to imbalance, even where they can do nothing about them. And sometimes, just sometimes, legislation and implementation and eventually protection may follow.
In the far south-west of Bangladesh, Munem Wasif shows us just what these abstract-sounding paradigms mean in practice. Nobody knows certainly why the water levels are changing in the Bay of Bengal, but they are. In a famously low-lying country, more and more people are under threat of catastrophic flooding. Coastal erosion, too, is accelerating, a matter of grave concern in a country where (under the pressure of population) every inch of usable land is at a premium.
Munem Wasif found a region where changes to a single measurable fact ? salinity levels in the water table ? can be seen to have affected every part of the matrix of balances. Salinity has risen. The old agriculture is no longer possible because the old plants simply can?t grow. Shrimping ? a new industry ? has grown up, largely for export, using fewer workers and threatening the livelihood of many others. Shrimping in turn exposes more land to salt or brackish water. Farmers are reduced to occasional labour. Established structures of work and the societies centred on work change and break down.
Many people have to venture into the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans (a national park on the Indian side of the border, but not yet on the Bangladeshi) to fish or to collect roofing materials which used to be available closer to hand. In the Sundarbans they are exposed to a terrifying catalogue of risk, including attack from dog sharks, crocodiles, king cobras and the Bengal tiger. Women (it?s always the women) have to go ever farther in search of fresh water. New diseases become frequent, obviously connected to all these changes, but not yet provably so. So it goes on, a kaleidoscope of interconnected shifts, not fully understood, and not half predictable with accuracy.
Munem Wasif has not gone to this blighted region to show us the abstractions of climate-change experts or the theories of macro-economists. Photography deals in the particular, and this project deals in the very particular. Wasif is himself Bangladeshi. Not for him the flak-jacket, the adrenaline rush, and five hours in the red zone. These are his people, although not quite in his part of the country. The accent is different but the language is shared. Wasif in fact rented a motorcycle to complete this commission, and when he tells you the names of the people in the pictures it?s because he met them and heard them, and knew them a little.
The pictures, then, are almost by definition subjective. Too much ink has been spilt trying to work out when and whether photographers tell the truth. These pictures are absolutely personal to Wasif, absolutely his expression of his sentiments. But that doesn?t stop them being also a remarkable ? and true ? document of what is happening in the interplay of some of the complex of variables in this corner of Bangladesh.
Photography reads big and small. Wasif shows you Johura Begum?s long arm reaching out to her husband as he dies of cancer of the liver, that simple tenderness is the only available healthcare in a village whose population are in desperate need. It?s a little tiny truth, certainly. The husband died, the woman lived on, widowed. The photographer was there, he knows. But it is also and at the same time a complex of many metaphors. There are many pictures like this because this scene has been played out so many times all over the world. It?s a picture ?about? infrastructure and financing, too, as well as morality and ethics. In another searing picture, containers of fresh water are dragged on foot in boats through clinging sterile mud. Shajhan Shiraj and his brothers from Gabura, we?re told, travel three hours in this kind of way every day. Stunted trees, clear water only in the distance, three men, three boats, and the keel-trail they etch in the mud. It?s not just a beautiful picture: the irony of boats travelling so painfully slowly by land with water as their only cargo is unimaginably painful.
There is a powerful crossover in the way pictures work. Read these pictures only as little truths and they will wrench out your heart. Read them as big truths and they will drive you towards planning practical effort for change. you don?t need to know that Johura Begum?s husband was called Amer Chan to be moved to action by Wasif.
We read about donor fatigue, compassion fatigue. Every viewer of these pictures will have at some point the sense of having seen them before. Salgado in the Sahel, just as shocking, maybe more. Very similar in feel and tonality. But it is not up to the photographers to provide us with new scenes. As long as those scenes are there and look the way they do, photographers will continue to show them to us. Some people will look at Wasif?s pictures here and call them derivative, and they?ll be right. But it isn?t fashion. There is not going to be a new length of trousers this season in the liver cancer business. Photographers can only do so much. If viewers are tired of being harrowed, tired of seeing these scenes one shouldn?t have to look at, perhaps we can understand that it?s the viewers who need to perk up their ideas, not the photographers. Munem Wasif, for one, is doing his bit. Now it?s up to us.
? Francis Hodgson
Head of Photographs, Sotheby’s
Chairman of Judges, Prix Pictet
from the essay Munem Wasif: Tiny Truths, Big Truths
Munem Wasif was shortlisted for the?Prix Pictet in 2008. As an integral element of the prize, Pictet decided to commission one of the shortlisted artists to record a water-related project. These photographs are the result.

The Other Shaheed Minar

By Saydia Gulrukh

Sodork or Totteleng

Shahid Minar at Rupkari High School. It is forbidden to place flowers at this memorial. Saydia Gulrukh Kamal

As our bus entered Khagrachari Sadar, the graffiti on the wall caught my eye. I don?t remember exactly the name of the school. It was a government high school.? The main gate almost broken, but the boundary wall seemed recently painted. On this newly painted white wall were colorful images, of Shapla, Ilish, Doyel, and of course the Royal Bengal tiger. They grabbed my attention, because these flowers are not indigenous to the Chittagong Hill Tracts but were adorning this wall. Sodorok, Bhat Jourha or Hurug flower, flowers common to Jumma land were not to be seen on the wall. Jumma children while fishing in the Chengi river catch Totteleng or Pinon Fada, not Hilsa fish. These were icons of Bengali culture, engraved on the landscape of CHT.
Our bus driver was trying to make up for the delay we had faced on the Chittagong road. He did not stop for long at the Khagrachari bus stop. I had been curious to find out if there were Chakma alphabets hidden in the crowd of Bangla barnamala on that wall, but there was no time. We barely managed to have a cup of tea.? I was going to Baghaichari. It was the first time, after thirteen long years, that the Hill Women?s Federation would be able to hold a public rally protesting Kalpona Chakma?s abduction day (June 12, 2009) in her own home town. I wanted to attend the protest meeting.? Baghaichari was another two hours from Khagrachari.
The changed cultural landscape became more evident as we drove deeper into the town.? Around the Bazaar area, the smiling images of Bengali women on billboards, for Pepsodent toothpaste or Pride textile, made me wonder about the explicit and implicit ways in which Bengali presence is ensured in the CHT. Of course, there were more than just posters and billboard of products that are largely meant for Bengali consumers. There were political graffiti, slogans and counter slogans on the walls, written by members of Jana Sanghati Samiti (JSS) and United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF).? I found the images of Shapla, Doel and Pepsodent unsettling as they signified the increased marginality of all things Jumma.
A statue of late President Ziauar Rahman, standing awkwardly, somewhat disproportionate, waved at us, as we read the sign, ?good bye Khagrachari.? The pedestal on which the statute stood was covered with a colorful poster of some Awami League campaign. It had a portrait of the father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. I wondered whether it would be possible for people in CHT to install a monument for Manabendra Narayan Larma. I saw his photograph in nearly every Jumma house that I visited. I saw calendars hanging on the wall with his photograph and his famous quote, ?Under no definition or logic can a Chakma be a Bengali or a Bengali be a Chakma? As citizens of Bangladesh we are all Bangladeshis, but we also have a separate ethnic identity, which unfortunately the Awami League leaders (the then-ruling party) do not want to understand (T.K. Oommen, Nation, Civil Society and Social Movements, 2004).” I saw small replicas of Shaheed Minar all over CHT, but I did not come across any public monument memorialising the political contribution of MN Larma.
The politics that unravelled in the CHT followed by Larma?s launching of Parbattya Chattogram Jana Shonghati Shomiti (1972) is not a seamless narrative of heroism. His politics and position was contested by many jumma people in the CHT, and later, he was killed by members of another faction of his own political organization (10 November, 1983). But, despite differences and contestation, he is accepted by jumma people as the father of the Jumma nations. While the images of Shapla and Hilsa, the awkward statue of Ziaur Rahman appeared to be a symbolic display of Bengali occupation, the calendars with Larma’s portraits were silent tributes to his courage, they seemed to reiterate his demand for constitutional recognition of other ethnic groups, other than the Bengalis, which too, is an ethnic group, although we seem to forget that, since we, ARE the nation. While thinking about memorializing practices and monuments in the CHT, I am reminded of Rahnuma Ahmed?s piece in the International Women’s day supplement (New Age, March 8, 2010), where she writes about Bangladesh’s ethnically singular nationalist narrative. The courage of ethnic others, she says, are excluded from the stories of our national past. I would like to push her point further. Not only are these excluded, they are seen as a threat, as disrupting the hegemonic Bengali narrative.
The bus braked suddenly. It had stopped at Baghaichari Bazaar. I got off, and wandered off to the near-by tea stall for a cup of tea. A portrait of M.N. Larma hung on the rusted tin-wall. It said, ?Jumma Jatir Janak Manabendra Narayan Larma (founding father of the Jumma Nationalities, Manabendra Narayan Larma).? Two fathers in one nation state? That is probably too much to ask.

Rupan Chakma?s Mother

A member of Hill Women?s Federation was waiting at the bus stop. We took a rickshaw to the public gathering. The school yard was full and bursting at the seams, but people were still coming. There were posters of Kalpona Chakma. A big red banner demanded the punishment of those who had abducted her. Placards demanded an end to harassment by military personnel, an end to violence against women by both army and settler. I breathed a sigh of relief; I was saved from shameless displays of Bengali culture here.
The speakers were gathering on stage, a friend whispered in my ear, that’s Rupan Chakma?s mother, in the front row. Rupan was studying in class six, in Rupkari Bahumukhi High School. After Kalpona’s abduction, he became very active in Pahari Chatra Parishad (PCP).? Two weeks after her abduction (June 28, 1996), when civil and military authorities had been equally busy in covering up their involvement, three Pahari organisations called a blockade, in Marishya, to protest her abduction. During the protest, police opened fire, Rupon was killed along with Monotosh, Shukesh and Shomorbijoy Chakma.
That evening, I went to Rupan?s house. His mother told me about the nightmare she had the night before Rupan Chakma was killed. In her dream, she saw herself killing a dog mercilessly, with a dagger. She was full of anguish and an untold fear the next morning. She was unable to do anything, to concentrate on anything during the day. She had asked her elder son to go look for Rupan. As she spoke, she brought a photograph of Rupan. It was a studio photo, Rupan was sitting on a motor cycle. As she passed me the photograph bound in a wooden frame, she said, ?It?s been thirteen years, his face is fading.?
There are eye witnesses to Rupan?s killing. I met them at the Rupakari High School playground. We sat in a circle. At the other end of the play ground stands a Shaheed Minar, this one commemorates the sacrifice of Rupan, Manotosh, Shukesh and Samarbijoy Chakma. They had all been students of this school when they had been killed. Rupan?s friend began, ?In those days, the PCP had student wings even at the school level, military harassment was an everyday matter. Rupan was not an active member, but he was a strong supporter of PCP. Kalpana?s abduction was so unjust, so cruel, we thought we must do something. We just had to. I was there with him at the rally, it could have been me, I saw a Bengali settler snatch a rifle from a BDR, and he just began shooting.? After a slight pause, he asked me, ?What kind of administration is that that allows an ordinary person, one who has no authority, grab a weapon, and open fire on us, on unarmed civilians?? Even though I knew the answer, I still asked him, ?Was there ever a police case, have you ever given your testimony?? He replied, ?No. No one has asked me to testify.?

Our Circle of Grief

Since 1971, we have been absorbed in building a nation-state exclusively for Bengalis. Our circle of grief reflects that. It excludes all others. We are unable to inhale the fragrance of any flowers but Shapla, Shaluk or Kathal chapa. Our hearts weep only for Bengali mothers, not for Rupan?s mother. Today, on Independence Day, I want to remind our Bengali-self that there are other lives which need to be memorialised; that there are other Shaheed Minars too, awaiting jumma flowers.

The Mandela moment that changed South Africa

Nelson Mandela’s release from prison 20 years ago opened negotiations which finally ended the racist segregation of the apartheid system. The BBC’s diplomatic editor James Robbins, who was in Cape Town to report on the release, has been back to talk to key figures in the country’s transformation.
“Nelson Mandela’s first steps back to freedom…”
I can vividly remember the excitement of being able to say those words as I reported on the moment that transformed South Africa for ever? as Nelson Mandela started that long walk which eventually led him from prison to the Presidency.

Former South African president FW de Klerk

Nelson Mandela had spent more than half his adult life in prison. As he walked to freedom, already 71 years old, his largest task still lay ahead. The ANC leader had to negotiate an end to white rule. Twenty years on, I returned to Cape Town to look back with FW de Klerk – the last white President and the man who finally set Nelson Mandela free – and to revisit Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led the protest the helped make Nelson Mandela’s release inevitable.
Mr de Klerk is in no doubt about the significance of his decisions to unban the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party and to free Mr Mandela at last:
“I realised that after the announcements which I made, South Africa would be changed for ever.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu heaped praise on Mr de Klerk for breaking the white stranglehold on power. “He deserves all the credit that you can imagine. He showed incredible courage,” the Archbishop said. “Not every country has a Nelson Mandela. We were blessed, I think. We could so easily have gone up in flames.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “Not every country has a Nelson Mandela; we were blessed.”

And I’ve been back to one of those black townships in the Cape – which was so often in flames. I often used to go there to report violent clashes with the army and police.
At the time, they fired shotguns from their armoured vehicles, or charged with teargas and whips at anyone daring to demand basic rights in a racist society.
This time, I’m meeting Zongs Liwani. He was one of those protesters. He was just 21 years old when Nelson Mandela was released, and he went to the City Hall in Cape Town to see him that first day. Zongs realised immediately that his life, too, could change:
“The way Nelson Mandela was so sure or – how could I put it? – aggressive about changing South Africa, I knew that he would actually come out and make a difference,” he said.
Poor but free
And the difference for Zongs himself? He proudly took me into the new township supermarket. It’s large, it’s thriving and it’s his.
“I’m standing in my own shop,” he said.
So I asked him if something on this scale could have happened under apartheid. His view is clear: “That was something way far from us getting into then.”
Outside, though, much in Nyanga has not changed. There are many of the same shacks and leaking corrugated iron roofs. There is still a housing crisis in South Africa. There are still squatters living here. There’s still poverty, but at least the people are free.
I met South Africans with very strong memories of the day Nelson Mandela was released, but the future of the country belongs, of course, to those too young to know that day except as a day in history.
So I went to the University of Cape Town, which was overwhelmingly white when I lived here, to talk to a group of 20-year-olds of all races and backgrounds.
Neliswa Dludla got a place at this prestigious university after a childhood in the townships. She is in no doubt of the disadvantages she had to overcome, including a lack of the sort of support white children have been used to.
“You don’t necessarily have a study room, so you find yourself having to push yourself,” she says.
I asked her if she had had to be a fighter.
“Ya, basically,” she replies.
Her friend Rachel Mazower, who is from a privileged white background, is delighted to be growing up in a free, non-racial South Africa, but acknowledges it’s going to be tougher for her.
“Oh, definitely it’s more difficult for us than my parents’ generation,” she said. “They tell me they just had to scrape through everything. The best jobs were guaranteed for them in those days.”
‘Need for reconciliation’

It’s?left to Lynn Leigh-Brandt to inject one note of caution. She’s hesitant about voicing it, but then:
“OK, I’ll be completely honest? What if Nelson Mandela dies? What could happen,” she says.
“Is it still going to be equality for all? Will there still be black economic empowerment?”
And Lynn readily agreed when I suggested that Nelson Mandela was such a unifying force that people behave better as long as he’s here.
The last words belong to the former President and the Archbishop.
FW de Klerk is in no doubt: “The commemoration of Mr Mandela’s release. It reminds us all of the need for reconciliation,” he says.
And Archbishop Desmond Tutu gives me a huge smile at the end of our interview:
“Hey man, God took some time creating God’s own country,” he breaks into a huge, rolling, infectious laugh.
“Fantastic country? fantastic country.”
My meeting with Mandela on his 91st birthday

Horror and grief: a nation besieged

Text by Rahnuma Ahmed

Photos by DrikNews

One of the factors that is said to have contributed to the rebellion. The previous government (under emergency rule) had initiated a programme of providing subsidised food to tackle the unprecedented increase in food costs. The army is said to have whisked away huge amounts of money through the programme, while BDR staff complain of not even receiving legitimate payment for extra work. Dhaka, Bangladesh. December 03 2008. Muniruzzaman/DrikNews
One of the factors that is said to have contributed to the rebellion. The previous government (under emergency rule) had initiated a programme of providing subsidised food to tackle the unprecedented increase in food costs. The army is said to have whisked away huge amounts of money through the programme, while BDR staff complain of not even receiving legitimate payment for extra work. Dhaka, Bangladesh. December 03 2008. Muniruzzaman/DrikNews

The military cordoned off parts of Dhanmondi in an effort to quell the uprising. Soldiers in Satmasjid Road. Dhanmondi. 9:30 am. 25th February 2009. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shafiqul Islam Kajol/DrikNews
The military cordoned off parts of Dhanmondi in an effort to quell the uprising. Soldiers in Satmasjid Road. Dhanmondi. 9:30 am. 25th February 2009. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shafiqul Islam Kajol/DrikNews

BODIES of army officers had been found, they had been dumped in the sewage canals that lay underneath the BDR headquarters in Pilkhana. Two dead bodies had been the first ones to surface, far away, in Kamrangirchar.
Three civilians had died too, on the very first day. But as news of fifteen more dead bodies of army officers surfaced the next day, the civilian deaths seemed to pale away.
While the extent of the conflict was unclear bodies of slain police and civilians were found. Many lay unattended as sniper fire prevented medical help from reaching. 25th February. Dhanmondi. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Adnan/DrikNews
While the extent of the conflict was unclear bodies of slain police and civilians were found. Many lay unattended as sniper fire prevented medical help from reaching. Later bodies of soldiers were found, in water bodies near Dhanmondi as well as in mass graves. 25th February. Dhanmondi. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Adnan/DrikNews

And then a mass grave was discovered in the BDR grounds. Thirty-eight dead bodies were unearthed, including that of the director general Shakil Ahmed. A couple of other bodies were found, killed and dumped in ponds, drains, and sewage lines.
Many innocent civilians got caught up in the fight. Bus helper Muhammad Babu talks of his near escape. One of his compatriots died while two others were hit by bullets. 25th February 2009. Dhanmondi. Noor Alam/DrikNews
Many innocent civilians got caught up in the fight. Bus helper Muhammad Babu talks of his near escape. One of his compatriots died while two others were hit by bullets. 25th February 2009. Dhanmondi. Noor Alam/DrikNews

As the long hours passed, the whole nation seemed to be holding back its breath, aghast at the enormity of what had happened. At the carnage that had accompanied the rebellion. People gathered around to listen to the radio, watched breaking news spots on television, read aloud newspapers. News travelled through word of mouth. Collective sighs of relief were heaved when family members who had been held hostage were released. But the discovery of more mass graves, the news of family members also having been killed, of the many scores still missing, leave people speechless.
The conflict spread to other parts of Bangladesh. The BDR of Baitul Izzat BDR Training Centre, Satkania, rebelled on the 26th February. There was heavy gunfire inside the camp 9.30 am spreading panic in the area. After the shooting BDR took control of the training centre. BDR claimed that army started the gunfire. Trainee BDRs discarded their uniforms and ran away to nearby villages. Chittagong, Bangladesh. February 27 2009. Raj Aniket/DrikNews
The conflict spread to other parts of Bangladesh. The BDR of Baitul Izzat BDR Training Centre, Satkania, rebelled on the 26th February. There was heavy gunfire inside the camp 9.30 am spreading panic in the area. After the shooting BDR took control of the training centre. BDR claimed that army started the gunfire. Trainee BDRs discarded their uniforms and ran away to nearby villages. Chittagong, Bangladesh. February 27 2009. Raj Aniket/DrikNews

As the conflict spread, rebel BDR soldiers took position with heavy guns in Sylhet BDR camp. 26th February. Sylhet. Bangladesh. A H Arif/DrikNews
As the conflict spread, rebel BDR soldiers took position with heavy guns in Sylhet BDR camp. 26th February. Sylhet. Bangladesh. A H Arif/DrikNews

Horror, incredulity, and a sort of numbness have set in. Scores still remain missing, as the gagging stench of decomposing flesh hangs over Pilkhana grounds.
After the military was initially kept back, tanks were deployed. More than 10 tanks and one APC (armed personnel carrier) took position in front of Abahani sports ground, while soldiers took position inside the field. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews
After the military was initially kept back, tanks were deployed. More than 10 tanks and one APC (armed personnel carrier) took position in front of Abahani sports ground, while soldiers took position inside the field. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

How could the jawans go on such a killing spree to right the wrongs done to them? What on earth could have possessed them? These are questions that are repeated endlessly by people in all parts of the country. Yes, they did have grievances (over not being given full rations, not being sent abroad on UN peacekeeping missions, over low pay, unpaid daily allowances promised for extra duties rendered, recruitment from the army to the higher, decision-making positions, etc, etc) but surely, their course of action was disproportionate by all accounts. Not to mention, suicidal (as I write, the idea of disbanding the BDR is being considered).
Is there more to it than meets the eye? In a crisis as grave as the one that faces the nation now, where does one seek answers to the truth? It is better to know some of the questions than all the answers. But what if some of the questions being raised are seen, especially by powerful sections, as blaming the victims of the tragedy? Do we have the resources, the intellectual capacity, the political will, and above all, the courage, to raise the right questions? Will these be tolerated, in moments of such deep grief, where passions rage high?
Were unseen forces at work? Wild conspiracy theories are doing the rounds. Do these not block off hard-headed attempts at understanding whether unseen forces were really at work? Surely we need to know the truth, in the interests of the nation-state, and in the interests of the survival of the many millions who live within its boundaries. It is a nation whose citizens are proud of their hard-earned and fought-for independence, and of their sovereignty, notwithstanding the deep fractures that cause long-standing divisions.
A girl just released from the BDR headquarters in Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews
A girl just released from the BDR headquarters in Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

I see women and children seated on the pavement or standing outside the BDR gates, keeping long hours of vigil, for news of their loved ones. I see a few faces break down in tears as yet another body is identified. I see some women reach out to console, while others, who still have shreds of hope, lower their heads in shared grief. Hoping against hope that their husbands, or fathers, or brothers or sons will return. Alive.
Family members of the hostages were released in front of the BDR headquarters in Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews
Family members of the hostages were released in front of the BDR headquarters in Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th February 2009. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

Army tanks moved into the BDR headquarters in Pilkhana. After 33 hours the rebel BDR soldiers surrendered and went back to their barracks, and police and army took over the BDR headquarters. A woman waited outside the headquarters for news of missing relatives. 27th February 2009. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shafiqul Islam Kajol/DrikNews
Army tanks moved into the BDR headquarters in Pilkhana. After 33 hours the rebel BDR soldiers surrendered and went back to their barracks, and police and army took over the BDR headquarters. A woman waited outside the headquarters for news of missing relatives. 27th February 2009. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shafiqul Islam Kajol/DrikNews

I see a mother holding up a wedding photograph of her missing son and his newly-wed bride. I grieve for them, just as I grieve for much-respected inspector general of police Nur Mohammad?s daughter, widowed, at two months. Scores remain missing, still.
I read of the Indian government?s offer to send a peace mission to give security to the Calcutta-Dhaka-Calcutta Moitree Express that runs between the two cities on Saturdays and Sundays, to be manned by Indian paramilitary forces such as the Central Reserve Police Force, the Railway Protection Force, maybe, even the Border Security Force (The Telegraph, February 27).
I listen to balance in reporting being urged, particularly in the case of the electronic media, since the accusations of the BDR jawans had been highlighted on the first day of the rebellion in some of the private TV channels. It is being said, the other side?s version, that of the army officers, had not been sought, that it had not been reported. But surely the lack of press briefings, either from the government or the Home Ministry, or from the ISPR, contributed to this situation? I listen to a discussant argue that command failure, intelligence failure and corruption should not be mentioned. I cannot help but wonder, how does one seek out the truth where such a besieged mentality operates, where collective grief, horror and condemnation can be offered and accepted but only on terms that are acceptable to the recipient? Where narratives of grief and pain and horror seem to be overlaid with other narratives, that of the right to rule.
A candlelight vigil to mourn the dead in a park opposite the BDR headquarters. People of all religions offered silent prayers for the victims. 1st March. Dhaka Bangladesh. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews
A candlelight vigil to mourn the dead in a park opposite the BDR headquarters. People of all religions offered silent prayers for the victims. 1st March. Dhaka Bangladesh. Amdadul Huq/DrikNews

The dead cannot be brought back to life, nor can the brutal happenings be erased from the nation?s history. We can only console the bereaved. We can only learn lessons from it, as a nation.
It is the nation ? as a whole ? that grieves for the army officers, and their family members. It is the nation that must stay united, since the crisis seems grave enough to threaten our existence. It is the nation that must come together to seek answers, and to discover the truth. A unity of interests must prevail, rather than that of any particular institution. Or else, I fear, we would be doing injustice to those who lost their lives at Pilkhana.

Against Surveillance: More on the National ID Card

by: Shahidul Alam and Rahnuma Ahmed

Rahnuma Ahmed writes?

My last column had ended with these words: ‘The current regime?s voter registration list has, in all probability, lessened the likelihood of fraudulent votes. But it also has, in all likelihood, laid the groundwork for installing a new regime of surveillance, one that will be deployed against the citizens of Bangladesh‘ (National ID Cards. In the Interest of Surveillance?, New Age, 29 September 2008). ?

Little did I know when I wrote it that Bangladeshi bloggers had intensely debated the pros and cons of national ID cards four weeks earlier. The discussion in had been generated by Ashiq’s Amra O Pari post, eulogising the electronic registration of voters, a feat that was termed a ‘silent revolution.’ Ashiq wrote, at first, no organisation had expressed its willingness to complete the task within the period stipulated by the government, not even foreign companies. Sky-high figures had been quoted. But fortunately, the Bangladesh army had submitted its own proposal to the government, just like any other organisation. Its budget was also the lowest.

A person who writes under the name of Incidental Blogger had raised these questions:?

— The Bangladesh army’s budget was the lowest — what is your source of information? Do you know who were the second and third bidders? Do you know why the latter failed to secure the contract??

— Who was in charge of the selection process? Who were the commitee members? Could you tell us how much freedom they had in reaching their decision, and your source of information? Was any internationally-recognised independent evaluator assigned??

— What was the criteria for selection??

Chor, another blogger, commented further down, the national ID card project is the task of the Election Commission. Of course, the EC can request the help of the army, this is not the problem. The problem is when public money is used to charge the public for services rendered. ?

Incidental Blogger further wrote, the ID card issue is linked to the issue of individual freedom, privacy etc., this is why western governments are finding it difficult to get their own electorates to agree. Not mincing words, he wrote, does the caretaker government in Bangladesh have the right to make a decision on something as fundamental as the national ID card, something that is a matter of state policy? Did it not happen very conveniently, almost too easily? Are you sure this information will not be shared with western intelligence agencies? He went on, you may look at it positively, but I look at it as the first step in Bangladesh turning into a fascist state. ?

I read and re-read the blog. It is good to know that my fears are shared by others. ?

While researching for my previous article, I had surfed the internet for information, and learnt that the voter roll project in Bangladesh was a “co-operative venture” between BIO-Key in the US, TigerIT in Bangladesh (their “systems integrator on the ground”), and the Bangladesh army.? ?

I had asked Shahidul when he came home whether he knew of TigerIT Bangladesh. No, never heard of them, he said. Hmmm, I said, their webpage says, the Cofounder and Chairman is Ziaur Rahman, it lists a Joseph Fuisz, as the Cofounder. And guess what, a Daily Star Weekend magazine article on Info-Tech says, `TigerIT Bangladesh Limited is an offshore technology campus of TigerIT, USA, with its corporate headquarters located in Northern Virginia’ (March 2, 2007), but this is not mentioned in their website. ?

Shahidul became curious. Read what happened next, in his words.

Shahidul Alam writes?

I knew about Tigers. There were the Bengal Tigers, our cricket team, even Tiger Beer. TigerIT was new. Having initiated DrikTap, the pioneering email network in Bangladesh in the early nineties, I thought I knew about the IT scene in the country. So when Rahnuma told me about this ‘cutting edge’ Bangladeshi company, I asked around amongst IT savvy peers. No one had heard of TigerIT. A quick search of the ‘who is’ database revealed that the domain had only been registered on 21st August 2007. So when on the 1st May 2007, the chief election commissioner had said the “countdown of the 18-month timeframe starts from today,” the domain did not even exist! ?

A quick search on Joseph Fuisz the co-founder of the company revealed that he was based in Washington DC. Since I was scheduled to give a presentation at the National Geographic in DC, I dropped Mr. Fuisz a line asking if I could interview him. The “out of office” response was followed by a mail saying he was away on a family holiday in Miami. It just so turned out, that I was presenting at Miami University on 30th September. I suggested we meet in Miami and provided my itinerary. Upon arrival at Miami, I received the following mail, “Unfortunately, I have been tied up in meetings all day today. Thus, I am sorry that it does not appear I will get to see you in Miami.” This was the man who was away on a family holiday for a week. I offered to meet papa Fuisz (Richard C Fuisz, MD), in Washington DC. I should have anticipated the response: “I am so sorry — your prior email did not come through (I just found it) and so I did not forward it to my Dad’s assistant. I think it is too late to schedule now.? Please accept my apologies.? I will email you some things about Tiger and hope to meet in you Bangladesh some day — very best, Joe Fuisz.” ?

I’ve had no further correspondence from Fuisz.?

Rahnuma Ahmed writes?

If you had met him, what would you have wanted to know, I ask Shahidul. His list of questions was ready: ?

(1) What were the factors leading to a newly formed company, TigerIT BD, being able to obtain such a prestigious and lucrative contract?

(2) What are the implications of having a biometric database for Bangladesh? Who might benefit from this data, nationally and internationally?

(3) Does your company TigerIT (the parent company of TigerIT BD) have any previous experience of working in Bangladesh or the region?

(4) Why did you choose to work with relatively inexperienced people in Bangladesh and set up a new company rather than teaming up with existing IT companies with a track record?

(5) Who are the main clients of your company TigerIT (the parent company)?

(6) What is your equity in TigerIT BD??

He grinned and added, but of course, I sent him a very general note saying we were fascinated by the news of what they had done and wanted to do a feature on the company for DrikNews.?

So, why are western citizens concerned? As Peter Boyle asks, what’s the fuss behind another little piece of plastic? What is dangerous is not the card itself, he says, but “the mother of all databases that is behind a compulsory national ID card system.” Chris Puplick, a former Liberal Senator who was a member of the joint select committee on the Australia Card, speaking of his `fear’ of national ID card systems wrote, “Should 20 million Australians have their liberties trashed so that we might — I repeat might — detect the two or three mad jihadists in our midst? Will files now be created on the basis that people belong to a certain religion, attend particular places of worship or hold specific political opinions?” ?

Does the national ID card system help to combat terrorism? Privacy International (PI), a global human rights group, in a 2004 study on the relationship between national ID cards and the prevention of terrorism was unable to “uncover any instance where the presence of an identity card system” was a significant deterrent to terrorist activity. I remember coming across a blog comment somewhere: `Want to be rid of terrorism? Pull troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq.’ Another blogger had said, ‘Governments quite often frighten me more than terrorists.’?

Some Bangladeshis — still carried away by the present military-backed caretaker government’s drive against corruption — may think that it will help clean up corruption. As a blogger had commented in drishtipat: `Like driver?s license renewal or getting cars inspection every year, the national ID card… will have huge impact on and spectacular change in the society.’ Those pro ID cards probably don’t know that computer disks containing detailed personal information on 25 million individuals, and 7.25 million families in Britain, went missing last year. Personal information included names, addresses, national insurance numbers, and data on almost every child under 16. According to experts, the information “could allow crimes beyond identity theft,” since some people use a child’s name or part of their address as password on their bank account. In other words, a combination of these details could allow criminals to break their code. Another critic says, if a government or criminal wanted to frame someone, amending, erasing, or adding to the details on one’s medical records, employment history, could be easily done, since all information would be stored on a single device.?

Khushi Kabir had left a comment on my column at Shahidul’s blog, speaking of her own disturbing experiences: `What was also worrying was the religious and other profiling done, albeit arbitrarily in majority of cases, despite that this information was not asked for in the form filled up prior to getting photographed or finger printed. My big teep must have confused them, so they asked for my religion, which I did not find necessary to provide them, or any other information that was not on the form. Others were not asked but religion was put on the basis of their ?assumption?. When challenged as to why they needed my religion or to keep it blank they stated that they were required by the ?authorities? to profile it. Shireen Huq had a similar experience. They informed her there was only space for four religions in the database ie Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian. No scope for others. This kind of information can be potentially frightening.’ ?

Of course yes, Khushi. As Jim Fussell of Prevent Genocide International points out, ethnic classification on ID cards in Rwanda, instituted by the Belgian colonial government and retained after independence, spelled a death sentence for Tutsis at any roadblock. No other factor, says Fussell, was more significant in facilitating the speed and magnitude of the 100 days of mass killing in Rwanda, that left 800,000 dead. ?

The near-deafening silence of Bangladeshi human rights organisations and activists on the national ID card issue, is remarkable. I wonder why? Are their campaigns waged aganist ‘locals’ only — the neighbourhood bully, the local rapist, the village acid-thrower? Do they shy away when human rights violations are caused by ‘big’ actors? Does speaking out against Big Brother’s `war on terror’ fall outside the prescribed terms of reference? ?

Do not misunderstand me, fighting against local power structures has not always been easy or convenient, as their own records of struggle show. But it is a global world, and we should learn from the African feminist who had said, I am oppressed not only by my patriarchal village headman, but equally so by the IMF and the World Bank. And I add, by western regimes who are waging terrorist wars against the world’s peoples.?


Chobi Mela photographers excel at Nat. Geo.

You may be forgiven for thinking that the results of the National Geographic
All Roads project ( had been
fixed by me. Two out of the four main awardees and two out of the five
honourable mentions were from my list! Those of you who were here for Chobi
Mela III will recognise the work of three of the photographers listed here.
Shehzad was not involved in the festival, but has been a regular contributor
to Drik for many years. Neo spent a year at Pathshala as a Fredskorpset
participant. I am enclosing my introductions to the photographers that I had
submitted to the National Geographic.
The festival opens at the Egyptian Theater in LA on the 21st September 2005.
Or else you could come to the 2nd part of the festival at the National
Geographic headquarters at Washington D.C. from the 29th September to the 1
st October. There is a morning seminar on the 30th. You will get to meet All
Roads Advisory Board members, photo program awardees, magazine editors,
filmmakers, and artists from around the world.
The blurb from Geographic:
Photographer Panel Discussion
*"Camera and Culture: The myth of objective documentation"*
Is documentary photography inherently objectifying? Can comprehensive
documentation be done through non-native eyes? Is there an unspoken
universal morality in documentary work?
Please join us for a candid and interactive panel discussion exploring
these issues and more at both festival venues. Panelists will include *All**
Roads Photographers Program 2005 Awardees*, world-renowned photographer *
Reza*, and award-winning International Editor & Curator *Shahidul Alam*; the
discussion will be moderated by National Geographic Magazine, Senior Editor
*John Echave*.
Please see below for times at each location:
Saturday September 24, 2-3:15 pm, Egyptian Theater
Saturday Oct.1, 2-3:15 pm Grosvenor Auditorium
And now the photographers:
Neo Ntsoma (
Neo Ntsoma is a complex person. High strung, energetic, intense,
passionate, laughing, crying, running, leaping, she is in the middle of
everything and everywhere. A spring ready to uncoil. She is also deceptively
perceptive. Having faced racism, in every guise, she has toughened herself
to face life's challenges. But it is her black identity that has emerged as
the soul within her work. She rejoices in her colour and rejoices in colour.
Her search for identity within the black South African youth, is no
nostalgic trip down memory lane, but rather a buoyant leap at the crest of
the wave of youth which captures
the energy, the dynamism, the joy of a youth determined to find its own
expression. It is the raw energy of her work that attracts me.
Sudharak Olwe (
Olwe's photographs have a Dickensian construction that reflect the
complexities of the lives he portrays. Fine detail. Frames crammed with
information. Seemingly superfluous data spilling over the rim of the frame.
Photographs charged with an energy that perhaps talk of the people he
portrays. People who eke out everything they can from a life that has had
the nutrients pulled out a long time ago. With visual elements jostling for
space, Olwe's multilayered images reflect the layered hierarchy of a class
and caste system that have permanently relegated those in the bottom of the
rung. A rung is perhaps a deceptive metaphor, as a ladder suggests the
ability to climb. For Olwe's characters, there is no exit. No happy ending.
Tomorrow is no different from today. So the characters themselves, squeeze
every inch out of life. Ironically, in dealing with a life with very limited
options, they live life to the full. Much as the frames of Olwe's
Abir Abdullah (
There are few photographers I have come across who have maintained as high
a level of integrity as Abir Abdullah. I have observed him as a student, as
a fellow photographer, as a colleague, a fellow tutor and a friend. At all
stages, he has been exemplary in the way he has upheld the values that
photojournalists live by.
A fine photographer, Abir is also a sensitive individual whose work
reflects the attachment he has for his subjects. Though he is currently
employed as a wire photographer, his approach has never been superficial,
and he has relied on his ability to build relationships with his subjects.
It is this sensitivity, and the respect that he has for people that I feel
comes through in Abir's work, and is eventually the underlying strength of
his photography.
Shehzad Noorani (
Noorani's life has shaped much of what he photographs. A child worker who
got caught raiding a neighbour's kitchen for food, is an unlikely candidate
for a successful career in photography. But statistics are very poor at
predicting life as it unfolds. A need to feed the family led to Shehzad
having to ensure that the money kept flowing in. This he did with consummate
ease by being one of those rare photographers who always deliver on time, to
specification and to highly exacting standards. This thorough professional
however, is also a skilled artist, who has combined his human skills with a
wonderful eye that finds things other eyes may have missed. It is the
subaltern that Shehzad has photographed, but not through pitiful eyes, or
some romantic notion of charity, but through a genuine understanding of what
being poor is. His tenacity, his ability to push himself and his unusual
duality between the disciplined professional and the gifted artist, makes
Shehzad special.
Dear Shahidul:
We would like to thank you for taking the time to send in your nominations
for the 2005 class of the *All** Roads Photographers Program*. On Monday
July 18th four Awardees, and five Honorable Mentions were selected from a
very talented and diverse pool of nominees. As a matter of fact, having five
Honorable mentions is a testimony to the high quality of the photoessays.
The final awardees are: *Marcela Taboado*: Women of Clay (Mexico); *Sudharak
Olwe*: In search of Dignity and justice: the untold story of Mumbai's
conservancy workers* *(India); *Neo Ntsoma* South African Youth ID ? Kwaito
Culture (South Africa); and *Andre Cypriano*: Rocinha, An Orphan Town (
And the honorable mentions are: *Shehzad Noorani:* The Children of Black
Dust ? That child who wants to live (Bangladesh), *Abir Abdullah*: Old Dhaka
(We were born here and will die here?) (Bangladesh) , *Walter
Mesquita:*Viva Favela Project (BrazilMahalla,)
*Rena Effendi:* Faces of Change (Azerbaijan) , *
Gia Chkhatarashvili:* Ushguli, A Village at a Crossroad (Rep. of Georgia)
We were most pleased with the nominations and encourage you to please start
thinking of qualified photographers for next year!
Warm Regards,
Chris Rainier and Eduardo Abreu
All Roads Photographers Program

Masterpieces To Go


Another non-terrorist Pakistani story.

Under the shade of a colossal banyan tree, Karachi truck painter Haider Ali, 22, is putting the finishing touches on his latest creation: a side-panel mural of Hercules subduing a lion, rendered in iridescent, undiluted hues of purple, yellow, red and green. His 10-year-old nephew, Fareed Khalid, applies a preparatory undercoat of white paint to the taj, the wooden prow that juts above the truck?s cab like a crown. Like Ali?s father, who first put a brush into his son?s hand at age eight, Haider is carrying on a master-apprentice tradition with Fareed, who spends his afternoons in the painter?s workshop after mornings in school.

The Human Spirit

Shanika clung on to her dad Priantha, when she realised we were near to the sea. She had been in her aunt’s house in Hikkaduwa which had survived the waves, but had felt the fury of the sea. It had taken away her mother, her twin sister and her two other sisters and their home. The sea was to be feared. She did not want to go back there, photographs or no photographs. Priantha tried to explain that it would be safe, but Shanika was not convinced.

It was my digital camera which changed things. Most people in the sub-continent love being photographed. The joy of seeing her own image instantly brought a smile to Shanika’s face, and soon we were friends. She took photographs of her dad, her aunt and of me. Soon she was taking photographs of me by the sea, but telling me to be careful!

There are no direct flights from Dhaka to Colombo and I left on the 29th December, the first flight I could get. I didn’t have a very clear idea of what I would do once I got there. Dominic put me in touch with wildlife photographers Rukshan, Vajira and some other friends who had all gotten together to try and get relief goods to the worst affected areas. Margot and others had also helped. Dominic and I had bought some stuff, but it was pale in comparison to the truckloads ! that Rukshan and his friends had put together. Our convoy of twelve vehicles followed the two lorries though Ratnapura, Pelmadulla, Timbolketiya, Uda Walawe, Thanamalwila, Wellawaya, Buttala, Moneragala and Siyambalanduwa until we came to the Lahugala military camp.

It was there that we realised that our planning was less than perfect. The initial outpouring of support had resulted in places being overstocked, while we heard of other places which had received nothing. A military anti landmine vehicle helped pull one of our lorries from the rainsoaked fields, and except for a small amount of rice, lentils and medicine which we left for families in most need, we put things back on the lorries to be returned to Colombo until we had a better idea of what to do. Soaking in the rain we piled back the tons of rice, milk powder, medicine, soap, clothes and all the other things we had emptied from the vehicle. While the others headed back, Rukshan, ! Vajira and I went on to the eastern coast of Pottuvil. There was an eerie emptiness. Only the scattered toys and other remnants gave away the fact that there had been a vibrant village. There were no bodies, no sounds, no wailing for the dead.

As a Bangladeshi, I was used to disasters, but the spontaneous collectives that would form when we were kids, singing songs, collecting old clothes from door to door, forming community groups who tried in their own way to stay by the needy, seem to have given way to the more ‘official’ methods of relief. Nowadays NGO efforts and organised disaster management seem to be our standard responses. Our own efforts seem to be restricted to the prime minister’s relief fund. In Sri Lanka, I could still sense the outpouring of sympathy that people felt for their fellow being.

I came across wonderful stories of human compassion and bravery. And while I lamented the lack of early warnings and the bureaucracy that prevented those who knew, from warning those who didn’t, I still came back convinced that it would take much more than tsunamis to tame the human spirit.

Shahidul Alam

Dhaka 7th February 2005

While on the subject of humanitarian aid, look up my work on Edhi in Pakistan at: 200406/