Long after the water from the fire engines had extinguished the raging flames that surged through the Hashem Foods factory in Rupganj, the flames still burned in the charred homes of the 54 who died in the fire. Their lives ravaged. Their dreams shattered. Their belief in a just society, torn to shreds.
Predictably, the owners, invariably wealthy people with connections, escape the selectively porous dragnet of our justice system. Their well calculated donations and their constant patronage of the power elite ensure they do not suffer the same fate as the dissenters and critics of the system. They re- emerge as patrons and are feted in social events. Unlike the tombstones of the hapless victims, their’s bear the inscription ‘philanthropists’.
And the victims? What comfort can we give to Nazma Begum mother of the 12-year-old Mohammad Hasnain as she waits outside Dhaka Medical College Morgue to get news of her son. What lies will make her forget the excruciating pain her son would have felt as his skin burned, the fat feeding the flames?
How do we redeem ourselves as a society, knowing we let it happen? If after so many deaths. So much pain. So much loss, we still turn away, surely the lock on the gate that prevented their escape will have our fingerprints.
At least seven workers were killed and dozens were shot after police opened fire at SS Power 1 Limited, a Chinese and Bangladeshi owned joint venture company. Workers demonstrating for unpaid wages and other benefits on the coal-fired power plant premises at Baroghona under Gandamara of Banshkhali in Chattogram on April 17.
Keeping in line with the month’s theme ‘Art as Witness’, MAP in association with the Bangalore International Centre (BIC), brought together two exemplary photographers of social action and change, Sebastião Salgado and Shahidul Alam, in a webinar hosted on 27 June. Moderated by Nathaniel Gaskell, the discussion centred on the photographic journeys of the acclaimed Brazilian and Bangladeshi photographers, and elaborated on the power of photography to catalyse social change. Through an unveiling of their personal journeys and experiences, the discussion also highlighted the positive influence of activism and the use of one’s voice against oppression.
“I was tasked with looking after him for 54 years. Now God has taken over that role” said writer Mushtaq Ahmed’s mother. A dignified woman, she spoke in a quiet controlled manner. Occasionally her voice would break, but she contained herself. Refusing to give in to grief. Mushtaq’s dad broke down more openly. He sobbed as he spoke of his children. Of Mushtaq’s farm, of his love of photography. Of Mushtaq’s sister who had been a student in the school my mother had founded. “Can I show you his camera?” he asked me. He gingerly brought over the DSLR camera with a 70-300 mm lens and placed it in front of me. Mushtaq’s wife Lipa, brought out the memory cards and the battery. They were placed in front of me on the dining table, almost as an offering. As I held the camera, Lipa quipped, “the camera was my shotin” (the other wife). “He loved it more than he loved me.”
An acclaimed photographer who spent more than a hundred days in prison in Bangladesh claims he was tortured by security forces. Shahidul Alam was jailed after giving an interview in which he accused the Bangladeshi government of corruption and intimidation.
While behind bars, Mr Alam says he was blindfolded, shackled and threatened with waterboarding. Our Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson has been speaking to him.
I ALWAYS take a window seat on day flights. The ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign is my cue to peer into the watery landscape that the plane flies over before it lands in Dhaka. Few things give me more pleasure than the sound of the wheels touching land. This Antaeus-like effect only works on home soil. It’s knowing I’m back in Bangladesh which gives that warm inner feeling. Grounded in Dhaka for nearly a year due to COVID-19, I miss those landings.
As I sift through stories on international media, stories about Bangladesh are the ones I home in on. Sadly, they are often stories of natural disasters or the impending damage due to climate change. Stories about corruption, or our migrant workers being mistreated are sad, but as a journalist, these are stories I cannot avoid reading or reporting on. One hopes that by shedding light on such injustice, one can help shape a better future for my countryfolk. Some stories, like a cricket win, or a Pathshala student winning a major photography award bring a smile. A one-hour documentary on Bangladesh on Al Jazeera was a big deal. The trailer suggested it was a dark story, but still I waited eagerly.
‘THE TIDE WILL TURN’ By Shahidul Alam; edited by Vijay Prashad (Steidl). The eminent Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam was jailed for more than three months in 2018 for denouncing the repression of protesters. Released after a mobilization of local and foreign support, he reflects here on his prison experience and a life of fighting for justice (for laborers, survivors of gender violence, Indigenous groups, and others) through image and deed. Some of his finest pictures illustrate the text, as do his selections of noteworthy images by other Bangladeshi photographers. Solidarity and integrity reign, along with tenacious optimism, expressed in a heartfelt exchange of letters with the writer-activist Arundhati Roy. (Read about his current exhibition.)
I entered the giant graveyard. It was quiet except for my
own footsteps but, in my head, I could hear the screams. Rows of blackened
sewing machines, still in orderly lines, reinforced the sense that I was
looking at tombstones. There were no flowers here. No epitaphs. No mourners.
A fire had raged through the Tazreen Fashions garment
factory in Ashulia on 24 November 2012. Workers stationed on the building’s
third and fourth floors had rushed to the exits, only to find them locked, a
regular practice in many Bangladeshi garment factories. Fires and worker deaths
were, sadly, all-too-common. The owners justified the locking of the doors as a
‘security measure’ but workers were effectively prisoners during working hours.
As the heat and smoke built up, the panic-stricken labourers, who were unable
to break down the iron gates, rushed to the windows and somehow managed to
remove the metal grills. It was a long way down, but one by one they jumped.
Some screamed with pain as they fell; others were silent. Each landed with a
dull thud, their bodies crumpled on the uneven ground below. Possible death was
still a better choice than certain death. And some did survive.
CPJ is honored to present its 2020 International Press Freedom Award to Bangladeshi journalist Shahidul Alam.
Alam is a renowned photojournalist and commenter, and the founder of the Bangladeshi multimedia training organization the Pathshala Media Institute and the Drik Picture Library Ltd. He also co-founded the photo agency Majority World and the Chobi Mela Festival, a pioneering photography festival in Bangladesh. His photographs of life in Bangladesh, as well as of protests and the environment, are well known in his country and around the world.