Death Traps: Tales of a Mega Community

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By Abir Abdullah

Vice Principal Pathshala

(Abir was a student of the first batch of students of Pathshala)

A fire broke out on 03 june 2010 night at about 9pm after the electrical transformer at Nawab Katra in Nimtali in Dhaka City burst into flames that raced through several apartment complexes, feeding on flammable chemicals and plastic goods in a string of small shops lining the street beneath, fire officials said. Dearh toll rose to 119 while many are struggling in the hospitals for life.


Fire is an ever present death threat for the entire community of Dhaka city. From homes and workplaces to shopping malls and public spaces, a lack of building codes and fire protection have created a situation where residents are living in a continual death trap. And due to lack of training and proper rescue equipment for the fire service authority, fire accidents are responsible for the destruction of assets and homes as well as lives. The widespread lack of equipment and protection means fire deaths affect nearly everyone, from working class to middle class, and even the elites.



I have been documenting the important issue of fire risks faced by residents of Dhaka for the last couple of years. Through my work, I have seen civilians risking their lives to save others in rescue operations. Firefighters with lack of training and proper rescue equipment are also part of the rescue operation, bringing injured and panicked victims of fire to safety. I believe my photo essay will raise awareness, and hope that it will act as a catalyst for the authorities to take prompt action to save the life and property of an entire community. I hope it will help the policy makers and administrations to consider how Dhaka city has become the ?second worst? livable city in the world. I want to show how reversing the trend of inefficiency and neglect by the authorities can help bring an end to the needless loss of many lives in the peaceful, beautiful city of Dhaka.




Abir Abdullah
Photographer
european pressphoto agency b.v. (epa)
Bangladesh Bureau
Mobile: 8801715105546
More pictures at:

INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY AND THE FREEDOM FLOTILLA MASSACRE

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Editorial, The Electronic Intifada, 31 May 2010
Early this morning under the cover of darkness Israeli?soldiers stormed the lead ship of the six-vessel Freedom?Flotilla aid convoy in international waters and killed and?injured dozens of civilians aboard. All the ships were?violently seized by Israeli forces, but hours after the?attack fate of the passengers aboard the other ships?remained unknown.
The Mavi Marmara was carrying around 600 activists when?Israeli warships flanked it from all sides as soldiers?descended from helicopters onto the ship’s deck. Reports?from people on board the ship backed up by live video?feeds broadcast on Turkish TV show that Israeli forces?used live ammunition against the civilian passengers, some?of whom resisted the attack with sticks and other items.
The Freedom Flotilla was organized by a coalition of?groups that sought to break the Israeli-led siege on the?Gaza Strip that began in 2007. Together, the flotilla?carried 700 civilian activists from around 50 countries?and over 10,000 tons of aid including food, medicines,?medical equipment, reconstruction materials and equipment,?as well as various other necessities arbitrarily banned by Israel.
As of 6:00pm Jerusalem time most media were still?reporting that up to 20 people had been killed, and many?more injured. However, Israel was still withholding the?exact numbers and names of the dead and injured.?Passengers aboard the ships who had been posting Twitter?updates on the Flotilla’s progress had not been heard from?since before the attack and efforts to contact passengers?by satellite phone were unsuccessful. The Arabic- and
English-language networks of Al-Jazeera lost contact with?their half dozen staff traveling with the flotilla.
News of the massacre on board the Freedom Flotilla began?to emerge around dawn in the eastern Mediterranean first?on the live feed from the ship, social media, Turkish?television, and Al-Jazeera. Israeli media were placed?under strict military censorship, and reported primarily?from foreign sources. However, by the morning the?Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli soldiers who?boarded the flotilla in international waters were fired?upon by passengers. Quoting anonymous military sources,?the Jerusalem Post claimed that the flotilla passengers?had set-up a “well planned lynch.”
(“IDF: Soldiers were?met by well-planned lynch in boat raid”)?The Israeli daily Haaretz also reported that the Israeli?soldiers were “attacked” when trying to board the?flotilla. (“At least 10 activists killed in Israel Navy?clashes onboard Gaza aid flotilla”)?This narrative of passengers “attacking” the Israeli?soldiers was quickly adopted by the Associated Press and?carried across mainstream media sources in the United?States, including the Washington Post. (“Israeli army:?More than 10 killed on Gaza flotilla”)?Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon stated in a?Monday morning press conference that the Israeli military?was acting in “self-defense.” He claimed that “At least?two guns were found” and that the “incident” was still?ongoing. Ayalon also claimed that the Flotilla organizers?were “well-known” and were supported by and had?connections to “international terrorist organizations.”
It is unclear how anyone could credibly adopt an Israeli?narrative of “self-defense” when Israel had carried out an?unprovoked armed assault on civilian ships in?international waters. Surely any right of self-defense?would belong to the passengers on the ship. Nevertheless,?the Freedom Flotilla organizers had clearly and loudly?proclaimed their ships to be unarmed civilian vessels on a?humanitarian mission.
The Israeli media strategy appeared to be to maintain?censorship of the facts such as the number of dead and?injured, the names of the victims and on which ships the?injuries occurred, while aggressively putting out its?version of events which is based on a dual strategy of?implausibly claiming “self-defense” while demonizing the?Freedom Flotilla passengers and intimating that they?deserved what they got.
As news spread around the world, foreign governments began?to react. Greece and Turkey, which had many citizens?aboard the Flotilla, immediately recalled their?ambassadors from Tel Aviv. Spain strongly condemned the?attack. France’s foreign minister Bernard Kouchner?expressed “profound shock.” The European Union’s foreign?minister Catherine Ashton called for an “enquiry.”
What should be clear is this: no one can claim to be?surprised by what the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights?correctly termed a “hideous crime.” Israel had been openly?threatening a violent attack on the Flotilla for days, but?complacency, complicity and inaction, specifically from?Western and Arab governments once more sent the message?that Israel could act with total impunity.
There is no doubt that Israel’s massacre of 1,400 people,?mostly civilians, in Gaza in December 2008/January 2009?was a wake up call for international civil society to?begin to adopt boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS)?against Israel similar to those applied to apartheid-era?South Africa.?Yet governments largely have remained complacent and?complicit in Israel’s ongoing violence and oppression?against Palestinians and increasingly international?humanitarian workers and solidarity activists, not only in?Gaza, but throughout historic Palestine. We can only?imagine that had former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi?Livni indeed been arrested for war crimes in Gaza when a?judge in London issued a warrant for her arrest, had the?international community begun to implement the?recommendations of the UN-commissioned Goldstone Report,?had there been a much firmer response to Israel’s?assassination of a Hamas official in Dubai, it would not?have dared to act with such brazenness.
As protest and solidarity actions begin in Palestine and?across the world, this is the message they must carry:?enough impunity, enough complicity, enough Israeli?massacres and apartheid. Justice now.

Anti-semitism, and the 9/11, Israel-Mossad Connection Part II

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By Rahnuma Ahmed

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,”
an unnamed Bush official told reporter Ron Suskind,
quoted by Eric Alterman, Bush’s War on the Press, The Nation (2005)

Even when the US hadn’t been the only empire around, powerful members of the American administration had collectively attempted to create their “own reality.” One such plan, Operation Northwoods, consisted of staging terror attacks. To justify the launching of a war against Cuba. To (of course) defend America.
The secret plan was drafted by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1962, signed by its Chairman, and sent to Robert McNamara, secretary of defense. Declassified in 1997 by a federal agency overseeing records relating to president John F Kennedy’s assassination, the plan proposed real or simulated actions against various US military and civilian targets: landing `friendly’ Cubans to attack US base (Guantanamo). Sinking a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida. Building a Soviet MIG aircraft to be flown by an American pilot, which would attack and destroy a US military drone aircraft. Launching a wave of violent terrorism (bombings, hijackings) in Washington D.C. In Miami. Elsewhere, too. The desired result? To convince Americans and the larger western public that the Cuban government was not only “rash and irresponsible” but a threat to peace in the Western Hemisphere. That America had no option but to `retaliate.’
Operation Northwoods was not implemented because, as the story goes, Kennedy had rejected it. But other false flag operations designed to create America’s own reality?to deceive the public, to manufacture support?have been successfully conducted. Of course, America is not the only culprit, as history attests. The Japanese blew up a section of the railway to annex Manchuria in 1931; kidnapped one of their own soldiers to invade China proper, 1937. The Soviets shelled their own village near the Finnish border, 1939. The Israelis secretly sponsored bombings of US/British interests in Cairo to sour relations between Egypt and the West, 1954.
Central to America’s “our own reality” story are two myths: it is America’s enemies who are `sneaky.’ The government goes to war only to `save the lives’ of US soldiers. Historical research proves otherwise: president Roosevelt let the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor (1941). Nearly three thousand American service men including civilians were killed which by fuelling public outrage at Japan’s so-called sneak attack, enabled FDR to overcome massive opposition to war.
According to America’s ideologues, if Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not been bombed?still described in official history as the “least abhorrent choice”?the lives of 500,000 American soldiers would have been at risk. But in reality, as people connected to history know, Japan was ready to surrender.
Dissenting opinion did exist, and in powerful circles, too: Japan was already defeated, dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary (Dwight Eisenhower). The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare are frightening (Admiral Leahy, chief of staff to presidents Roosevelt and Truman). The use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul. (Herbert Hoover, 31st US president). There was no military justification. I was not consulted (General Douglas MacArthur).
More than 103,000 people died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were unrecorded deaths. There were slower deaths, caused by radiation.
But surely, just because previous US administrations have committed false flag operations, it doesn’t mean that 9/11 too, is an inside job? Granted. True. Except that when one looks at the mass of evidence, including oral testimonies, diligently gathered by physicists, pilots, architects, structural engineers and a host of other professionals (firefighters, whistle-blowers) over these last couple of years, also by grassroots people, under the rubric of what has come to be known as the 9/11 truth movement, even the blind are bound to be convinced.
What persuaded me most was the strange response of the Bush administration. Why was the government reluctant, why should family members of 9/11 victims have to insist that a commission be established to investigate the failures that made 9/11 possible? Why did Bush want someone as disreputable as Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state (who should be tried for war crimes in Bangladesh and Cambodia for starters), to head the Commission? Why should Bush and vice-president Cheney agree to testify before the Commission on the condition that they should not have to take the oath, that their testimony should not be electronically recorded nor transcribed, nor made public? Why did the Commission co-chairmen allege later that the CIA had not cooperated with the Commission? Why did NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) officials provide inaccurate information in their testimony to the Commission, and in media appearances? Why should the Commission have to use subpoenas and force NORAD and FAA to release evidence? Why did the Commission chairmen say that the Commission was “set up” to fail? Why did the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) not hold enquiries into any of the 4 plane crashes, which is required by law?
Another thing that I find odd, like many others, were the words blurted out by Bob Kerrey, a 9/11 Commission member. Several months ago he was pressed by a member of We Are Change who said, according to the constitution, a cover-up of an act of war is treasonous, the Pentagon continually changed its story, the country needs to get to the bottom of 9/11 etc., etc.,
Bob Kerrey: It’s a.. the problem is that it’s a 30 year old conspiracy.
Jeremy Rothe-Kushel: No, I’m talking about 9/11.
Bob Kerrey: That’s what I’m talking about too. Well anyway, I gotta go.

Listening to Kerrey reminded me of what the Bush official, who I quote at the head of the column, had gone on to tell Suskind, “And while you’re studying that reality?judiciously, as you will?we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
General Leonid Ivashov, former joint chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces did just that. Having found the free-fall collapse of the towers disturbing, he instructed his staff to search for answers. Three days later he came to the conclusion that the 9/11 attack was the result of “a clash of interests among US leaders.”
While more recently, a Vietnam war veteran, former director of studies of the US Army War College, Dr Alan Sabrosky, has come out with the bold statement that 9/11 was not only `an inside job,’ but more specifically, a CIA-Mossad job. Nine-eleven would have been impossible to stage without the full resources of the CIA and the Mossad. Its Building 7, he says. It was not hit by a plane but still went down. “If one of the buildings was wired for demolition, all of them were wired for demolition.”
And it was my column on Sabrosky that yielded me accusations of being anti-Semitic. I wonder whether part of the problem lies in the strong western belief, an indissoluble one, that `the government loves them.’ Despite the history of false flag operations.
May be the Bush official, utterly contemptuous and disdainful as he was, knew what he was talking about. We create our own reality. And our people fall for it.
First published in New Age

Chhatra League's Sexual Offences. A Widespread State of Denial

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By Rahnuma Ahmed
While working on last week’s column, `The Nation, or Chhatra League…?’ (published on Monday, April 12, 2010), I had been in two minds.
Should I include sexual offences?aggressive behaviour, molestation, physical assault, violence, rape, asking a buddy to video the incident of rape for subsequent commercial release as pornography, gang-rape?allegedly committed by Bangladesh Chhatra League leaders and activists?
No, it deserves a separate column, I thought.
I was unaware of media reports on Eden college. For over two months, I’d been totally absorbed in researching and writing the Weather series (1 February – 29 March), and had been oblivious to much of what was happening around me. This included allegations against BCL’s women leaders and activists at Eden. But more on that later.
By all accounts, there seems to have been a sudden and horrific increase in nationwide violence, largely against girls and young women, over the last couple of months. Ten year old schoolgirl Shahnaz Begum of Digalbagh village in Mymensingh was raped by two brothers. Killed. October 2009. Eti Moni, a class ten student of Jaldhaka municipality in Nilphamari was raped. Strangled to death. October 2009. A schoolgirl of class three was raped at Ramanandapur village in Pabna sadar. October 2009. Nashfia Akand Pinky, a class IX student, committed suicide by hanging herself because she had been mercilessly teased and harassed, Pashchim Agargaon, Dhaka. January 2010. Nilufar Yasmin Eeti’s parents were shot dead by a young man after they turned down his proposal of marriage, Kalachandpur area in Gulshan, Dhaka. March 2010. Fourteen year old Umme Kulsum Elora, a student of class VII, committed suicide by taking pesticide because of continued harassment. April 2010. Mariam Akter Pinky, a student of class ten, died of burn injuries fuelled by kerosene in Konabhaban village in Kishoreganj; her mother says, she saw the young man who had harassed her for the last two years run out of the room. April 2010 …. there are many more. I stare uncomprehendingly at the horror of it all.
As I scan the newspapers, a recent headline catches my eye, Man stabs himself over refusal of marriage proposal. One lone man. He had preferred to kill himself. Not the woman.
And what about sexual offences which, according to media reports, have specifically been committed by BCL leaders and activists? Ahsan Kabir Mamun, also known as Mamun Howladar, information secretary of Pirojpur district committee of BCL, raped a class X student in Pirojpur, Barisal. September 2009. The incident was recorded on cellphone by his childhood friend `Ganja’ Monir, who happens to be a BNP activist. It was later available as a pornographic CD for sale in local video shops. Mamun insists it was recorded “secretly,” while Monir says he was carrying out Mamun’s instructions. Mamun did not deny having raped the girl, but added, the recording (not committing the crime itself, mind you) had been done to “tarnish” his political and business image. The two families, he said, were closely related. He was to be married to her soon. Her family responded by demanding that he should receive “exemplary punishment.”
A group of 16 young men, in September 2009, abducted a class VII student of Pakhimara in Kalapara upazila in Patuakhali. The young girl was returning home from a Puja mandap accompanied by her cousin Nasir, whom the men beat up and drove away. They took her to a nearby garden. According to media reports, she was gang-raped, allegedly by ten of her abductors. All BCL activists. More recently, in February 2010, four students of Chittagong Medical College, all BCL leaders and activists, allegedly raped a girl on a hill adjoining CMC campus.
Young women, who are either university students, or walking through campuses, have complained of being physically assaulted by BCL activists. In early November, a Rajshahi university student was assaulted and confined for an hour. One of the assaulters was Kawsar Hossain, a fellow student of the same university who had declared his love for her but had been turned down. A similar incident had occurred several months earlier, on the same campus, when another BCL activist, accompanied by his associates, assaulted a woman student and her companion. On February 21, BCL activists beat up a young girl and her friends who were returning from the central Shahid Minar, in front of the Dhaka University vice-chancellor’s residence. A BCL activist of Jasimuddin Hall approached the young girl, and began harassing her. Her companions and passersby came to her aid but other BCL activists, from nearby halls, joined in the attack. Five people were injured. This month, in April, students of statistics department of Jagannath university refused to attend classes until a BCL activist, who had reportedly asaulted a woman student belonging to their department, was punished.
What is wrong with BCL? Or, more precisely, what wrongs do its leaders and their followers commit? Violence. Extortion. Tenderbaji. Sexual offences are never mentioned. Not by the prime minister, nor by any high (let alone, low-) ranking AL member. It is an offence that has no name. And therefore, it does not exist. If it does not exist, its existence need not be acknowledged… That is how denial has worked. And at the ground level, someone or the other obliges, whether it be party functionaries. Or local-level police. Or the college principal. For instance, in the case of Pakhimara, where the gang-rape occurred, local-level AL leaders fined the 16 young men 10,000 taka each for having “tortured” the girl. Their offence was characterised as `intent to rape.’ Not gang-rape, no. The victim’s family was forced to declare this at a hurriedly called press conference. Forced to file a defamation case against the publisher, editor and reporter of a Bangla daily for having reported the rape as rape. AL leaders pressurised the editor of a local daily to sack his reporter for having reported the rape. The culprits were not arrested. The victim’s family fled in fear of reprisal. The allegation of gang-rape had been manufactured to taint the ruling party’s image, said Rakibul Ahsan, Kalapara upazila AL secretary.
In Pirojpur, Mamun was expelled from his post of information secretary. His membership was cancelled for life, but he, alongwith Monir, is still absconding. In Chittagong Medical College, an emergency academic council meeting suspended the four alleged rapists. News reports add, the identity of the girl was not known. Hence, no rape case was filed. In RU, although Kawsar was expelled from the university, was imprisoned, he was still allowed to take his exams. On flimsy grounds. The departmental chairperson had not received his expulsion order from the university authorities. In DU, although BCL activists who caused assault and injury on February 21 have been suspended, they are still staying in the residential halls. Two have been given executive positions in the newly-formed BCL hall unit.
But after the Pohela Boishakh concert fiasco at Raju chottor in DU, it has become increasingly harder to deny that which has no-name. According to newspaper reports, 20 female students were molested. By BCL cadres. Also, by outsiders. Women concert-goers complained. They were pinched. Grabbed. Breasts. Buttocks. Two women students kameezes were ripped, forcing them to accept shirts offered by male concert-goers, to cover themselves. Police rescued fifteen young women from among dense crowds, encircled by men. The concert was abruptly closed down as things threatened to get out of control. According to newspaper reports, groups of BCL activists had battled with each other over splitting 40 lakh taka given by a private mobile phone company. To DU BCL leaders, for having organised the concert. But no, the university authorities claimed not to know anything about it. Neither did the BCL leadership. No, they hadn’t heard anything.
A Bangla proverb, shaak die maach dhaka, the (foolhardy) attempt to cover live fishes with spinach leaves, expresses well the attempts of DU authorities post-concert. The DU vice-chancellor professor AAMS Arefin Siddique inaugurated a 3 day Rover Scout campaign. Petitioning signatures. Processions. Rallies. The slogan? `No to Eve teasing.’ Surely this undermines last year’s High Court ruling? A ruling which was heartily welcomed by women’s organisations in Bangladesh. Any kind of physical, mental or sexual harassment of women, girls and children at their workplaces, educational institutions and at other public places, including roads, is a criminal offence punishable by fine and/or imprisonment. The ruling has the status of law. So where does this all this drivel about Eve-teasing come from? As feminists have repeatedly pointed out, eve-teasing is a western and Christian construct, it refers to the temptress nature of Eve, thereby placing the responsibility for sexual harassment on women. On the victims, not the perpretators. From earlier denial, looking-the-other-way, to victim-blaming? Is this the new AL strategy being fashioned by its ideologists? Why should women’s organisations and women’s rights activists who have struggled hard for women’s right to public space for many long years be a party to undermining our hard-won HC ruling? One which we had all agreed was a `revolution’?
There are other things that I find deeply troubling. The recent revelations sparked by squabbles over dividing the loot earned from admission profiteering at Eden Women’s University College. According to newspaper reports, factions opposed to BCL unit president Jasmine Shamima Nijhum and general secretary Farzana Yasmin Tania, have alleged that besides admission profiteering, these women leaders are involved in tenderbaji, wheeling and dealing, buying up BTV slots, and lobbying. They use first year students, those from village backgrounds, telling them that this is the way to fulfill their dreams of becoming leaders, and becoming wealthy. The girls are encouraged to dress up. They are taken to the houses of different leaders. Sometimes to hotels. And asked to entertain them. According to the allegations, the BCL leaders leave the hostel after 10 at night. Returning the next day, at 10 in the morning. Women students who refuse to do as told are either turned out of the hostel, or their room is broken into, or locked-up. The principal of the college, according to news reports, is fully complicit in these happenings.
Both Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition (`the girls of Eden college are being used to entertain the ministers and MPs whose salaries and allowances have been raised’) and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, Jamaat secretary general (`women students are used to satisfy the leaders’) have capitalised on these stories, using them as opportunities to attack the government.
While AL apologists shush the leader of the opposition for having defiled the honor of `all’ students of Eden college for a bad apple or two, while a journalist friend tells me that one or two students of Eden have since retracted their statements, I return to my memories of Jahangirnagar university, to the anti-rape movement in 1998 when the university authorities, to quell the movement, had barked: which one among you have been raped? Come, stand up, be identified.
Hundreds of women students had spoken up in a single voice: we have all been dishonored. Both the prime minister, her women cabinet ministers, and the leader of the opposition could take lessons from that.
Published in New Age April 19, 2010

Ghosts

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By Ian Buruma

Volume 55, Number 11 ? June 26, 2008

The New York Review of Books
Two photographs, taken by digital camera at Abu Ghraib prison, on the night of November 5, 2003. The first picture shows a person in a ragged black poncho-like garment standing precariously on a tiny box. Hairy legs and arms suggest that this person is a man. His head is covered in a pointed black hood, his arms are spread, and his fingertips are attached to wires sticking from the concrete wall behind him. The pose hints at a crucifixion, but the black poncho and hood also suggest a witch or a scarecrow.
The second picture shows a young woman hunched over the corpse of a man. The corpse lies in a half-unzipped black body bag filled with ice cubes wrapped in plastic. His mouth is open; white bandages cover his eyes. The young woman grins widely at the camera. She holds up the thumb of her right hand, encased in a turquoise latex glove.

The photographs look amateurish, a crude mixture of the sinister and lighthearted. When they were published, first in The New Yorker magazine, we were provided with some background to them, but not much. The anonymous man in the first picture had been told that he would die of electric shock if he fell off the box. Hence the wires, which were in fact harmless. Information about the second picture was sketchy, but the woman seemed to be gloating over the man’s death. The bandages suggested serious violence. There were other Abu Ghraib photographs, published widely on the Internet: of terrified Iraqi prisoners, stripped of all their clothes, being assaulted and bitten by dogs (“doggie dancing”); of a naked prisoner on all fours held on a leash by a female American guard; of naked men piled up in a human pyramid; of naked men made to masturbate, or posed as though performing oral sex; of naked men wearing women’s panties on their heads, handcuffed to the bars of their cells; of naked men used as punching bags; and so on.
The photographs evoked an atmosphere of giddy brutality. The reputation of the United States, already tarnished by a bungled war, hit a new low. But interpretations of the photographs, exactly what they told us, varied according to the observer. After he was criticized for failing to apologize, President Bush said in a public statement that he was “sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners, and the humiliation suffered by their families.” But he felt “equally sorry,” he said, “that people who have been seeing those pictures didn’t understand the true nature and heart of America.” Donald Rumsfeld deplored the fact that the pictures had been shown at all, and then talked about charges of “abuse,” which, he believed, “technically is different from torture.” The word “torture” was carefully avoided by both men. President Bush, confronted much later with questions about a damning Red Cross report about the use of torture by the CIA, spelled out his view: “We don’t torture.”[1]
Susan Sontag, writing in The New York Times Magazine, had a different take on the pictures. She thought the “torture photographs” of Abu Ghraib were typical expressions of a brutalized popular American culture, coarsened by violent pornography, sadistic movies and video games, and a narcissistic compulsion to put every detail of our lives, especially our sexual lives, on record, preferably on public record. To her the Abu Ghraib photos were precisely the true nature and heart of America. She wrote:

Soldiers now pose, thumbs up, before the atrocities they commit, and send the pictures to their buddies. Secrets of private life that, formerly, you would have given anything to conceal, you now clamor to be invited on a television show to reveal. What is illustrated by these photographs is as much the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality.[2]


Many liberal-minded people would have shared instinctively not only Sontag’s disgust but also her searing indictment of modern American culture. One of the merits of Errol Morris’s new documentary on the Abu Ghraib photographs, and even more of the excellent book written by Philip Gourevitch in cooperation with Morris, is that they complicate matters. What we think we see in the pictures may not be quite right. The pictures don’t show the whole story. They may even conceal more than they reveal. By interviewing most of the people who were involved in the photographic sessions, delving into their lives, their motives, their feelings, and their views, then and now, the authors assemble a picture of Abu Ghraib, the implications of which are actually more disturbing than Sontag’s cultural critique.

At first no one knew the dead man’s name. He was one of the “ghost prisoners,” brought into the “hard site” of Abu Ghraib by anonymous American interrogators, dressed in black, also known to the MPs as “ghosts.” These ghosts belonged to the OGA, Other Government Agency, which usually meant the CIA. Ghost prisoners were not formally registered before their interrogation in shower cubicles or other secluded parts of the prison. They disappeared as swiftly as they came, after the ghost interrogators were done with them. All that the MPs heard of their presence were screams in the night. If the Red Cross visited, the ghost prisoners were to be hidden away.
The man who would soon die arrived in the night before the photographs published in The New Yorker were taken, with a sandbag over his head, and nothing but a T-shirt on. MPs were told to shackle his hands to a window behind his back in “a Palestinian hanging position” (a technique allegedly used but certainly not invented by the Israelis). The man was breathing heavily. Then the MPs were dismissed. An hour or so later, they were called back in to help. The prisoner was no longer responding to questions. They hung him higher and higher, until his arms seemed at breaking point. Still no response. A splash of cold water. His hood was lifted. The MPs noticed that his face had been reduced to a bloody pulp. He had been dead for some time. The ghosts quickly left the scene. Medics were called in to clean up the mess, bandages were put over his puffed-up eyes, and the corpse was zipped into an ice-filled body bag and left in a shower room until it could be removed. The officer in charge of the MPs at Abu Ghraib, Captain Christopher Brinson, declared that the man had died of a heart attack.
Meanwhile, in the same prison block, another torment was taking place. Another nameless prisoner had been brought in, suspected of having killed an agent from the US Army’s Criminal Investigative Division (CID). He refused to divulge his name, so he was handed over to Specialist Charles “Chuck” Graner, an army reservist. Graner, a hulking mustachioed figure, seen laughing at the misery of Iraqi prisoners in many Abu Ghraib pictures, was not trained as an interrogator; nor did he have more than the vaguest idea of the rules and conventions that are supposed to guide interrogations. A corrections officer in civilian life, Graner enjoyed a “bad boy” reputation, with a taste for sinister pranks and an eye for the girls. He should never have been put in charge of terror suspects. He did not even have the security clearance to be a military policeman with custody over prisoners.
Nonetheless, Graner was put in charge of the nameless prisoner and told by CID agent Ricardo Romero to “make his life a living hell for the next three days and find out his name.” Graner did his best, aided by Sergeant Ivan Frederick and other members of their Maryland reserve unit who happened to be around and were equally untrained in interrogation work. The prisoner was stripped of his clothes, yelled at, made to crawl on the floor, deprived of sleep, forced to stand on a tiny box, hooked up to wires sticking from the wall and told he would die if he so much as moved. This last game lasted for about fifteen minutes, long enough for Graner to take his photographs.
Morris didn’t manage to interview Graner. He is still in a military prison. But other witnesses of what happened that night, such as Specialist Sabrina Harman, claim that not much harm was done to the prisoner they nicknamed “Gilligan.” She said that he ended up laughing at the Americans, and actually became a popular guy of sorts, being given the privilege of sweeping up the prison cells. “He was just a funny, funny guy,” she said. “If you were going to take someone home, I definitely would have taken him.”


Sabrina Harman also happens to be the young woman in the second picture, hunched over the corpse. Like Graner, she worked as a guard on the night shift at Abu Ghraib. Harman is described by other interviewees in Morris’s film as a sweet girl who, in the words of Sergeant Hydrue Joyner, “would not hurt a fly. If there’s a fly on the floor and you go to step on it, she will stop you.” The reason she joined the army was to pay for college. Her dream was to be a cop, like her father and brother. Not just a cop, but a forensic photographer. She loved taking pictures, with a special interest in death and decay. Another prison colleague, Sergeant Javal Davis, said: “She would not let you step on an ant. But if it dies, she’d want to know how it died.”

So when water started seeping out of the locked shower cell, and she and Graner uncovered the dead man in his body bag, her first instinct was to take pictures. She told Morris and Gourevitch that she

kind of realized right away that there was no way he died of a heart attack, because of all the cuts and blood coming out of his nose. You don’t think your commander’s going to lie to you about something. It made my trust go down, that’s for sure.

This is when Graner asked her to pose with the body. Harman adopted the pose she always did in photos, with her friends, with prisoners, in the morgue, and now in the shower: she grinned and stuck her thumb up.
Later, she returned to the same place alone, curious to find out more. She took off the gauze over the dead man’s eyes and “just started taking photos of everything I saw that was wrong, every little bruise and cut.” She realized how badly the man had been beaten up:

It looked like somebody had either butt-stocked him or really got him good, or hit him against the wall…. I just wanted to document everything I saw. That was the reason I took photos. It was to prove to pretty much anybody who looked at this guy, Hey, I was just lied to. This guy did not die of a heart attack. Look at all these other existing injuries that they tried to cover up.

In her interview with Morris, Harman looks rather impressive: intelligent, articulate, plausible. The interviews are actually more like monologues, for with rare exceptions Morris’s questions are never heard. His genius is to get people to talk, and talk, and talk, whether it is Robert McNamara in The Fog of War or Sabrina Harman in Standard Operating Procedure. The fact that he paid some of his interviewees for their time has been held against Morris by some critics. It seems of little importance. There is no reason to believe that cash changed their stories. If only the film had stuck to the interviews. Alas, they are spliced together with gimmicky visual reenactments of the scenes described in words, which take away from the stark air of authenticity. But perhaps that is Morris’s point. Authenticity is always elusive. Nothing can be totally trusted, not words, and certainly not images, so you might as well reimagine them.
But I think we are meant to believe that Harman is telling the truth. Her letters from Abu Ghraib to her lesbian partner, Kelly, suggest as much. On October 20, 2003, she wrote about a prisoner nicknamed “the taxicab driver,” naked, handcuffed backward to the bars of his cell, with his underwear over his face:

He looked like Jesus Christ. At first I had to laugh so I went on and grabbed the camera and took a picture. One of the guys took my asp and started “poking” at his dick. Again I thought, okay that’s funny then it hit me, that’s a form of molestation. You can’t do that. I took more pictures now to “record” what is going on.


Two pictures, then. The first one, of Gilligan and the electric wires, was analyzed by Brent Pack, a special forensic expert for the CID. After much thought, he concluded:

I see that as somebody that’s being put into a stress position. I’m looking at it and thinking, they don’t look like they’re real electrical wires. Standard operating procedure?that’s all it is.

He was technically right. A memo drawn up by the Pentagon’s general counsel, William J. Haynes, on November 27, 2002, recommending authorization of interrogation techniques in Category II?which included humiliation, sensory deprivation, and stress positions?was formally approved by the secretary of defense. Donald Rumsfeld even scribbled his famous quip at the bottom of this memo, stating: “However, I stand for 8?10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours? D.R.”[3]
And yet this picture, more than any other, including the ones featuring attack dogs and wounded naked bodies, became the most notorious, an icon of American barbarism, the torture picture par excellence, perhaps because, as Gourevitch writes, it left so much to the imagination. That, and its evocation of the crucifixion, Christ at Abu Ghraib. And Sabrina Harman? She was sentenced to six months in prison, a reduction in rank to private, a forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and a bad conduct discharge. None of the men who were responsible for her subject’s death were ever prosecuted. No one above the rank of sergeant was even tried. As Morris said in an interview to promote his film, Harman and her friends caught in the photographs

were punished for embarrassing the military, for embarrassing the administration. One central irony: Sabrina Harman was threatened with prosecution for taking pictures of a man who had been killed by the CIA. She had nothing whatsoever to do with the killing, she merely photographed the corpse. But without her photographs we would know nothing of this crime.

It was just another death of a ghost delivered by ghosts.

2.

Morris has been faulted for not pointing his finger more directly at people more senior than Harman, Graner, Frederick, or Lynndie England, Graner’s girlfriend at the time, who held the naked prisoner on a leash. But this is missing the point of the film. For it is not about Washington politics or administration lawyers, or at least not directly, but about a particular kind of concealment, the way photographs which seem to tell one story actually turn out to hide a much bigger story. Compared to what was really happening at Abu Ghraib, where men were tortured to death in hidden cells, where children were incarcerated with thousands of other prisoners, most of them blameless civilians, exposed to daily mortar attacks, living in unspeakable conditions of filth and squalor, where there was no way out even for men who had been declared innocent, where unarmed prisoners were shot dead by nervous guards?compared to all that, the photograph of Gilligan was just fun and games.
The first thing human beings do when the unspeakable becomes standard operating procedure is to change the words. Even the Nazis, who never seemed to have been unduly bothered by what they did, invented new words, usually of a cold bureaucratic nature, to conceal their crimes: “special treatment” and so on. In public, the US policy toward “security detainees” or “unlawful combatants,” to whom, according to White House and Pentagon lawyers, the Geneva Conventions did not apply, was couched in the kind of language favored by Vice President Dick Cheney: “We need to make certain that we have not tied the hands, if you will, of our intelligence communities in terms of accomplishing their mission.”
The phrase “the gloves are coming off” gained currency. As in an e-mail, quoted by Gourevitch, sent to MI unit commanders in Iraq by Captain William Ponce of the Human Intelligence Effects Coordination Cell: “The gloves are coming off gentlemen regarding these detainees. Col. Boltz”? Colonel Steven Boltz, the deputy MI commander in Iraq?”has made it clear that we want these individuals broken.” The likes of Harman, Graner, England, and Frederick were at the very bottom of the chain of command. They were told to “soften up” the prisoners, to make their lives hell. They should “treat the prisoners like dogs,” in the words of Major General Geoffrey Miller, commander of the prison and interrogation camp at Guant?namo Bay. He said this before the photographs were taken, during a visit to Abu Ghraib, where he felt the prisoners were treated too well. His methods, honed at Guant?namo, were soon adopted. One of Morris’s (or Gourevitch’s) more arresting ideas is that the photographs of the treatment meted out to the prisoners are evidence that the people who were ordered to take their gloves off, if you will, had not entirely lost their moral way. Gourevitch writes:

Even as they sank into a routine of depravity, they showed by their picture taking that they did not accept it as normal. They never fully got with the program. Is it not to their credit that they were profoundly demoralized by their service in the netherworld?

Credit is perhaps not the mot juste. Nazis who took pictures of naked women lined up in front of their own mass graves might not have considered the scene quite normal either, but this does not mean that they were not with the program. Heinrich Himmler was well aware that what he was asking from his SS men was not normal. That is why he told them to steel themselves against any feelings of humanity that would hamper them in their necessary task.
That Harman, for one, was often disgusted with what she saw at Abu Ghraib is indeed clear from her letters to her partner, Kelly. And even Graner, the baddest of the bad apples, was apparently taken aback when he was told by “Big Steve” Stefanowicz, a contract civilian interrogator, just how roughly prisoners were to be “broken.” Graner was reminded of 24, the popular television series, starring Kiefer Sutherland, about the necessity of using any means, including torture, to stop terrorists. Graner claims that he told Big Steve: “We don’t do that stuff, that’s all TV stuff.” Graner was surely unaware that 24 had actually been discussed in all seriousness at brainstorming sessions at Guant?namo led by the staff judge advocate, Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver. She recalled the mounting excitement among her male colleagues, including men from the CIA and the DIA, as different interrogation techniques were being bandied about. She told Philippe Sands, author of Torture Team: “You could almost see their dicks getting hard as they got new ideas.”


That was in Guant?namo, where ideas were hatched, noted on legal pads, recorded in memos, debated in air-conditioned offices. Now back to Graner in the filth, noise, and menace of constant violence in Abu Ghraib prison. As the authors point out, there is a kind of pornographic quality to many of the pictures which would indicate that Susan Sontag’s cultural critique was not entirely off beam.

The deliberate use of women, for example, in the humiliation of Arab prisoners is striking. Graner may have asked his girlfriend, Lynndie England, to pose for a picture holding a prisoner on a leash. This might have given him, and possibly her, an erotic frisson. And Sabrina Harman, too, is seen to have been a grinning accomplice in several of Graner’s pranks with naked prisoners. That is why she ended up being convicted. But in fact these games?some clearly staged for the camera as cruel photo-ops?were also part of the program. The women’s panties, the nudity in front of women, the poking of the genitals, the enforced simulation of sexual acts, were all part of the program. Graner was told in writing by his commander, Captain Brinson, that he was “doing a fine job.” He was told: “Continue to perform at this level and it will help us succeed at our overall mission.”
The MPs at Abu Ghraib, as Gourevitch rightly observes, knew little about Middle Eastern culture, but they were given “cultural awareness” training at Fort Lee, before being flown out to Iraq. They were told that sexual humiliation was the most effective way to “soften up” Arab detainees. A person does not have to be corrupted by the popular culture deplored by Susan Sontag to be vulnerable to feelings of pleasure when the sexual humiliation of others is officially sanctioned, even encouraged. Graner’s real sin for the administration was not that he went too far (which, measured by any moral yardstick, of course he did), but that he took pleasure in what should have been a grim job. As Dick Cheney said: “It is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena.” Hard dicks should have been kept strictly out of sight, under conference tables. But Graner turned the dirty business into his own pornographic fantasies; and what is worse, he recorded them on film, for all the world to see.
Lynndie England played a walk-on part in these fantasies. She loved Graner. She would have done anything he wanted. That was her tragedy. England was sentenced to three years in a military prison for maltreating detainees. “All I did was what I was told to do,” she said, in the oldest defense of men and women landed with the dirty work. “I didn’t make the war. I can’t end the war. I mean, photographs can’t just make or change a war.”
Harman, too, acted out her fantasies, of being a forensic photographer, of recording death. As a result, she made the program public, and forced the president of the greatest power on earth to issue a public apology. As Morris says, in his interview: “Under a different set of circumstances, you could imagine Sabrina winning a Pulitzer Prize for photography.” Instead, she was charged not only with dereliction of duty and maltreatment, but with destroying government property and “altering evidence,” by removing the bandages from the dead man’s eyes. She told Morris: “When he died, they cleaned him all up, and then stuck the bandages on. So it’s not really altering evidence. They had already done that for me.” Since her pictures revealed the truth of this statement, these particular charges were eventually dropped.
Both Morris’s film and the book based on it by Gourevitch are devastating, even without going into detail about the complicity, or indeed responsibility, of top officials in the Bush administration. The photographs embarrassed the United States, to be sure. But for the US government, this embarrassment might have actually helped to keep far greater embarrassments from emerging into public view. Preoccupied by the pornography of Abu Ghraib, we have been distracted from the torturing and the killing that was never recorded on film and from finding out who the actual killers were. Moral condemnation of the bad apples turned out to be a highly useful alibi. By looking like a bunch of gloating thugs, “Chuck” Graner, Ivan Frederick, et al. made the law-yers, bureaucrats, and politicians who made, or rather unmade, the rules?William J. Haynes, Alberto Gonzales, David S. Addington, Jay Bybee, John Yoo, Douglas J. Feith, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney?look almost respectable.
And Gilligan, by the way, was probably not the man anyone thought he was after all, but an innocent who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just like up to 90 percent of the men and boys locked up in Abu Ghraib.

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Kalpana Chakma’s unresolved abduction 20 years on…

Photographs and interviews by Saydia Gulrukh

Kalindikumar Chakma (Kalicharan)
Kalpana?s eldest brother
?The hill people do not get justice, look at Yasmin, some justice was done, but people of the hills don?t get any justice. It?s been twelve years…The VDP [Village Defence Party] member Nurul Huq, and Saleh came with Lieutenant Ferdous to this house that night. They still strut around. They live in the neighbouring Bengali village. Go there. You will find them. I have told the BDR [Bangladesh Defence Rifles] commanding officer, you say you can?t find him, well, his accomplices are around, why don?t you question them?
Kalpana?s clothes kept in her brother Kalicharan?s home
?She had a black bag, she took it to Dhaka. I have kept all her things in it. All these years. But the mice have been at it. She had many books… I educated her up to I.Com, I got her admitted to the degree classes, I thought our lives would become a bit better, but no, they came and took her away… I do not know to this day whether she is dead or alive… They should at least tell me that she has died so that we can give dharma, do what religion asks of us. People of all religions have a right to do what should be done.?
Mithun Chakma
Kalpana Chakma?s comrade
?I was picked up by the army when I was delivering a speech at a PCP rally, on the 6th of August 2004. They took me to Khagrachari camp, blindfolded me, took me to a room, asked me to lie down [on a bench], put up my legs, then they began beating me on the soles of my feet with the butt of a hockey stick. They beat me for a long, long time, they said things like, ?What is your name? What do you do?… [Why do] you take up arms? What are your ideals?? Lots of other things, ?You do not know that we ? the army ? have learnt how to torture, we have had training from the US.? They also said other things, ?And the Kalpana thing, well we did that, but nothing happened, right???
The well in New Lallyaghona village, in front of Kalpana?s house
?They brought Kalpana and her two brothers to this well, and blindfolded them… I think they pushed them over to that beel [marshes]. They got her to enter the waters, and then shot her… [The next day] villagers scoured the waters all day long with fishing nets. But her dead body was not found.?


by Meghna Guhathakurta


Kalpana, a first year graduate student of Baghaichari College, was a conscious, vocal and hardworking activist who fulfilled her role as organising secretary of the Hill Women?s Federation with commitment and resolve. Systematic and pervasive military presence in the hill tracts has made Pahari women more conscious of their rights. This is vividly borne out by what Kalpana writes in her diary, recovered by journalists from her home after her disappearance. Parts of this diary were serially published in the Bengali daily Bhorer Kagoj. Later, it was reprinted along with other writings in an anthology, Kalpana Chakma?s Diary, published by the Hill Women?s Federation (2001).
Kalpana introduces her ?daily notebook? through the following lines: ?Life means struggle and here are some important notes of a life full of struggle.? In depicting the life of a woman in the CHT, she writes, ?On the one hand, women face the steam roller of rape, torture, sexual harassment, humiliation and conditions of helplessness inflicted by the military and Bengalis. On the other, they face the curse of social and sexual discrimination and a restricted lifestyle.? However, Kalpana?s understanding of oppression embraces all women of Bangladesh, ethnic and Bengali. She writes elsewhere: ?I think that the women of my country are the most oppressed.? In expressing her yearnings for freedom from oppression she uses a beautiful metaphor: ?When a caged bird wants to be free, does it mean that she wants freedom for herself alone? Does it also mean that one must necessarily imprison those who are already free? I think it is natural to expect the caged bird to be angry at those who imprisoned her. But if she understands that she has been imprisoned and that the cage is not her rightful place, then she has every right to claim the freedom of the skies!?
Kalpana?s reading of the woman question is a feminist one. Her feminism allows her to look at the woman question in terms of Bengali domination, as well as in terms of sexual politics within her own community. This is striking and unique since in most nationalist or ethnic movements the gender question becomes a subtext to the larger ?national? one. Kalpana?s feminism differs sharply from that of her middle-class Bengali sisters. Her struggle, unlike theirs, pitches her to confront military and racial domination in a manner incomprehensible to most privileged Bengalis. ***

Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures: Family, Law and Politics

Brill Academic Publishers, 2005

By Suad Joseph and Afsaneh Najmabadi

IN THE late 1980s conflicts of state versus community were sharply on the rise. In Bangladesh problems over the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) from 1980 led to a series of massacres, plunders and destruction of villages… [this conflict] had historical roots [it] became particularly violent in the 1980s and 1990s…in all these movements women played an important role in conflict resolution.
People in the CHT were antagonistic toward the government of Bangladesh from the time the Kaptai dam was built (1957-62) and thousands of people became homeless. In the early 1970s the whole of CHT was brought under military control. The original inhabitants of the CHT were the Jumma (tribal) people. They were aggrieved not just because of the dam but also because the state had undertaken to change the demographic balance of the region through a policy of settling Bengali Muslim people from the plains in the CHT. The protest of Jumma people brought forth severe counter-insurgency measures leading to extra-judicial killings and massacres by the state. The rebels also formed a military unit called the Shanti Bahini. In all of this the tribal women were targeted; this was dramatically brought to the fore by the abduction of Kalpana Chakma in 1996. While the region was being torn apart the Hill Women?s Federation (HWF), a secular women?s organization was formed in 1989 by women students of the Chittagong University. By 1991 it had become extremely popular…The main aims of these groups were justice for the tribal people of CHT and an end to violence. They were among the strongest voices for peace.



by Mithun Chakma


ON THE night of 11 June, 1996… Barely 7/8 hours [later] voting for the seventh National Parliamentary Elections [begin]…at about 1:30am..Mrs. Bandhuni Chakma, Kalpana?s widowed mother got out of bed and opened the door, her whole body was trembling in fear. They came out one by one: Kalpana, her two brothers, Khudiram and Kalicharan, the latter?s wife. The house was surrounded… A soldier flashed a torch on their faces, and Kalicharan recognised Lieutenant Ferdous, who had visited their house a few days back, and two VDP members ? Nurul Haque and Salah Ahmed. Amnesty International in an Urgent Action issued on 1st July 1996 wrote: ?Six or seven security personnel in plainclothes, believed to be from Ugalchari army camp (actually Lieutenant Ferdous was commander of Kojoichari Army camp), are reported to have entered the home of Kalpana Chakma in New Lallyaghona village, Rangamati district in the early hours of 12 June. Kalpana Chakma and two of her brothers were forcibly taken from their home, blindfolded and with their hands tied.?
What happened? The Ain-o-Salish Kendra report [says], They (army) took Khudiram near a lake and told him to step into the lake. As soon as he went in, the order to fire was given. Frightened, Khudiram took shelter in the water. He swam around for some minutes, then rose up and took shelter in a neighbour?s house, he had no clothes on his body. In the meanwhile, armed personnel blindfolded Kalpana and her brother Kalicharan. He heard the firing, ran and managed to escape. While running to save his life he heard two shots being fired, and heard Kalpana screaming. Kalicharan said, ?They shot at me and when I ran I could hear Kalpana crying out Dah Dah Mare Baja (Brother, brother save me!)…?
A cover-up attempt was made from the very beginning. Initially, the army termed it a ?love affair? [between Lieutenant Ferdous and Kalpana Chakma]. However, they backtracked later, and flatly denied their involvement in the abduction. When the issue refused to die down, they launched a vicious disinformation campaign. The Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission in its report Life is Not Ours (update 3) said, an NGO named Bangladesh Human Rights Commission declared at a press conference on 15th August 1996: Kalpana Chakma had been seen in Tripura (India), she herself had plotted her own abduction. Kalpana Chakma?s mother rejected BHRC?s statement and termed it a ?blatant lie?.
After months of protest and mounting international condemnation, the government constituted a three-member inquiry committee on 7 September 1996, headed by Justice Abdul Jalil. The other members were Sawkat Hossain, Deputy Commissioner of Chittagong and Dr. Anupam Sen, professor of Chittagong University. The committee is reported to have submitted its findings to the Ministry of Home Affairs a couple of years ago, but the government has still not made it public.
Meanwhile, a storm of protests swept the CHT. A general strike was observed in Marishya, the area to which Kalpana belonged. While the Jummas wholeheartedly supported the programme, some Bengali settlers attacked a rally, and shot dead 16-year old Rupon Chakma. The settlers also hacked to death Sukesh Chakma, Monotosh Chakma and Samar Chakma, on their way to Baghaichari bazaar to take part in picketing.
Lieutenant Ferdous, [allegedly] the mastermind behind the kidnapping, is reported to have been promoted to the rank of Major and posted back to Karengatoli army camp, not far from New Lallyaghona, Kalpana Chakma?s village.
Mithun Chakma is general secretary, Democratic Youth Forum. Edited excerpts from http: //jummonet.blogspot.com/2007/06/11th-year-of-kalpana-chakma-abduction.html




Sonali Chakma

President

Hill Women?s Federation

Kalpana Chakma will always remain a symbol of resistance in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The army?s attempt to silence Jumma women by kidnapping Kalpana in the dead of night has failed and will always fail. She will continue to inspire generations of women activists in the country.
It is regrettable that the inquiry report has not been made public after twelve years of her disappearance. We demand that the report be published without further delay and Lieutenant Ferdous, the [alleged] mastermind, and his accomplices be punished.

Sultana Kamal

Former adviser, caretaker government

Executive Director

Ain O Salish Kendra

Nearly twelve years ago we lost Kalpana Chakma, a person, a co-worker and a human rights activist. Her absence hurts us immeasurably. It evokes feelings of losing a friend, but not only that, it also raises questions about our nation?s conscience. Many of us have tried our best, we have made repeated appeals to the state, but to no avail. We have no reason to believe that effective steps have been taken.
If Kalpana is still alive, we would like her to know that we still remember her, that we look forward to her return. If she is not, if our worst fears are true, that she was murdered after being abducted, we want to stress that if we fail to realise her dreams, we fail to live up to our convictions.

Khaleda Khatoon

Human rights activist

Long live Kalpana, you have given voice to the protests of Pahari women. We need you. We need more women like you. We need leaders like you.
I want to raise two issues: first, a case was registered against Lieutenant Ferdous. Why is that not being revived, does the current government not have any responsibilities in this regard? I say this especially since Devashish Ray as special assistant to the chief adviser is now part and parcel of the government.
Second, the Kalpana Chakma abduction committee report has not yet been released. Since the caretaker government is considering a Right to Information Act, I would like to propose that they begin their journey by making this report public.

Moshrefa Mishu

Convener

Garments Sramik Oikya Forum

On the twelfth anniversary of Kalpana Chakma?s abduction, I demand that the incident be investigated urgently, without any prejudice or fear, so that we can learn what really happened, and that her family be provided security.
I also demand that the army be withdrawn from the Chittagong Hill Tracts and that the hill region be made autonomous. The person(s) who abducted Kalpana must be tried. We must keep Kalpana?s memory alive, and demand that justice be done. We must pay respect to her through re-creating her struggles.
I salute you Kalpana Chakma.

Anu Mohammed

Professor

Department of Economics

Jahangirnagar University

Kalpana Chakma?s abduction urges us to look again at the nature of the Bangladesh state. Kalpana belongs to a group of people fighting against ethnic domination, a group struggling hard to be rid of the army?s suffocating grasp. She has been missing for the last twelve years. An investigation committee was formed but all those accused were successfully hidden from public view. Inequalities, oppression, discrimination continue to exist in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and so does the struggle.
Kalpana Chakma is a symbol of protest and resistance. She will remain so forever.

Maheen Sultan

Member

Naripokkho

The struggle of the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts for the protection of their lands, identity and cultural heritage is an ongoing one. Of the many violations suffered, the disappearance of Kalpana Chakma is one that drew attention of the human rights and women?s rights movement in Bangladesh. Twelve years on, her disappearance is still a puzzle. Demands for an official enquiry, like all other national enquiries, resulted in nothing. It is ironic that while much lip service is paid to good governance and transparency, the public has never been presented with the findings of the enquiry. The lack of transparency is particularly acute in the case of the defence forces. Just as ordinary citizens are in the dark about the defence budget and expenditures, so are we in the dark about the militarisation of the CHT, and whether any actions have been taken against the innumerable wrongs committed against our own peoples, simply because they are not Bengali.
We demand that the present government make the enquiry report public, so that justice can be done.




New Lallyaghona
1/4/96

Shaikat Da,
Greetings. I got your letter yesterday. We are in good health. But I feel unsure. Something terrible might happen any moment. I am very worried.
News from here ? on 28.2.96 a miscreant called Ishak was taken away. Since then the Bengalis have been wanting to attack the Paharis. In this agitated situation, the third annual conference of Pahari Chhatra Parishad?s branch was successfully held on 7.3.96 (according to its earlier schedule). A nineteen-member Thana Committee has been formed with Purba Ranjan as the President, Dharanimoy, its Secretary, and Prabir, its Organising Secretary. The Baghaicchori branch held a cultural programme for the first time, where the 1988 play Norok was staged.
And [news from] there, Bengali agitation has increased since 11.3.96. They have been holding meetings and processions. Paharis have become fearful, ?ready to flee? at any moment. But I was not here. I had gone to Barkal on organisational work. I returned on the 13th and heard the details. Bengalis have forbidden Paharis from entering the bajar area or Bengali neighbourhoods, they have even forbidden Paharis to talk to Bengalis. After this, the work of uniting Paharis began. In other words, resisting attacks in the whole Kassalong area. Guarding at night has begun. On the other hand, Lieutenant Ferdous, the army camp commander of our village, has made false promises to village elders, and held meetings with them. Many other incidents, small in nature, have kept occurring. Especially, since the Bengalis have targetted four of our neighbouring villages including Battala.
In this situation, on the 19th of March, cries were heard all over Kassalong, and that infamous Lieutenant Ferdous came to our New Lallyaghona village and burnt down 9 homes that belonged to 7 families. They beat up the Pahari nightguards most severely. After this, the DC, SP and Communications Committee (JSS) Secretary Mathura Lal Chakma had meetings which calmed the situation somewhat. They were told that if Ishak was not released by the 5th [of April], Bengalis were likely to muddy the waters further. The DC and SP are unable to bring the situation under control. At present, people are fearful of what might happen after the 5th. We are leading uncertain lives.
It is Bengalis who are behind this agitation and this time we have been able to teach them a lesson. Usually, Paharis flee from their villages but now they go to those very places from where you can hear cries. Bengalis, indisciplined as they are, have been taken aback at this unity and are afraid, along with the others. The administration has also witnessed this unity.
The present situation: Baghaicchori is isolated from all other parts. Chakma telephone lines have been cut, Paharis are not given access to other lines. We are not allowed to go to the marketplace. Maybe there will be no postal communication until the situation calms down. Maybe there will be no letters even.
That?s all for now. Lastly, I send you advanced Boishabi greetings.
Yours
KC
PS: I wrote this letter hurriedly. If my sentences are awkward, please correct them.
Shaikat Dewan is a member of Pahari Chhatra Parishad. Source: Kalpana Chakmar Diary, Dhaka: Hill Women?s Federation, 2001, pp. 69-70.



1993-1996


1993? Kalpana?s political life began as women?s secretary of Baghaichari Pahari Chhatra Parishad.

March 1993? took on responsibilities of the convening committee, Hill Women?s Federation, Marishya branch.
January 15, 1995? took part in the first central conference of the Hill Women?s Federation, Khagrachari.
May 21, 1995? Kalpana is elected organising secretary of the central committee at the HWF conference, held in Khagrachari.
November 17, 1995? meeting of three Pahari organisations held in Naniarchar Khedarmara High School premises to express grief and outrage at Naniarchar killings in Rangamati. Kalpana addresses the meeting.
February 28, 1996? Ishak, a Bengali, is abducted from New Lallyaghona village. Tension increases between Paharis and Bengalis.
March 19, 1996? Nine houses belonging to seven Chakma families of New Lallyaghona village burnt down. Kalpana protests against the arson attack.
April 1996? Lieutenant Ferdous goes to Kalpana?s house a few days before Baishabi (New Year festivals). He is accompanied by 20-25 soldiers. Heated exchange between Kalpana and Lieutenant Ferdous.
April 12, 1996? meeting of three Pahari organisations held at the Rangamati Shilpakala Academy on the occasion of Baishabi. Kalpana appeals for unity.
June 12, 1996? at 1:30am Lieutenant Ferdous and 7-8 others in plainclothes enter Kalpana?s house, they order her, and her brothers Khudiram and Kalicharan, to go with them.
This chronology has been constructed from letters, news reports, and `Investigating the Kidnapping of Kalpana Chakma?, Ain O Salish Kendra Report, published in Kalpana Chakmar Diary (Diary of Kalpana Chakma), Dhaka: Hill Women?s Federation, 2001

First published on New Age 12th June 2008

Unidentified terrorists in the hills

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rahnuma ahmed

Some external terrorists from outside Sajek have set these fires. There is no conflict between Bengalis and Paharis in this area. Those who set the fire don?t want the current communal harmony between Bengalis and Paharis to stay intact. Since they want to create a terrorist center in this area, they try to keep both sides agitated.
Major Kabir, second-in-command, Baghaihat zone (Fact Finding Team 1. Moshrefa Mishu et al, Report on 20th April Incident at Sajek Union.)

Bengali settlement in times of Emergency

BY NEARLY all accounts, Bengali settlement in the Chittagong Hill Tracts has accelerated. It has intensified. Why?
Discovering the truth is never an easy task. More so, in times of Emergency. But our rulers forget, not everyone submits. ?A happy slave is the biggest threat to freedom,? says a postcard on my wall. Fortunately, the peoples of this land, neither Bengalis nor adivasis, have submitted. Never fully. Or, for long.
Five victims of Sajek ? Pahari villagers ? have come forward. They spoke out at a press conference in Dhaka, on April 27, 2008. Two separate fact-finding committees, consisting of writers, teachers, lawyers, student leaders and activists, human rights activists, left leaders, journalists, women?s group activists, visited the affected villages in Sajek, Rangamati. They spoke to Paharis and Bengalis. To settlers and civilians, to army personnel. They spoke to Paharis who had sought refuge in temples and forests after the arson attacks of April 20. Some still sleeping under open skies. They spoke to settler Bengalis too. To those who had taken refuge in the local market. To another settler, who had sought and found refuge in the nearby army camp itself. Those in the market were also being looked after by the army.
Pahari house razed in arson attack, Gongaram Mukh, Sajek union. ?Udisa Islam, 27 April 2008

Bengali settler houses, Dui Tila, Sajek union. ?Udisa Islam, 27 April 2008.

Binoy Chakma, a Pahari victim, had said at the press conference, nearly ninety per cent of the villagers of Purbo Para, Gongaram Mukh, Retkaba, Baibacchora, the four Pahari villages that were burnt down, originally belonged to Longodu, Borkol, and Dighinala. But we were forced to leave our homes, said Binoy, because of army and settler attacks. Life in Baghaicchori, under Sajek union, was not easy. Army presence was continuous. It was stifling. But we managed. We managed to lead peaceful lives, to eke out modest livings. Things changed, however, with the declaration of Emergency, said Binoy. Warrant Officer Haroon told us, army posts will be built here. But later, small huts were built instead, in our land and garden. The settlers built them, the army helped them. We had set aside land for building a Buddhist temple, they took that away too. We protested, but they threatened us. Indra Chakma?s pineapple garden in Retkaba was destroyed. Ali, a settler, forcibly built a house on Indra?s land. Indra resisted, Ali and the soldiers dragged him to the army camp. If you protest again, they said, we?ll slaughter you like a sacrificial cow. There were other injustices, too. Rat infestation had left us with little food, the UNDP gave rice for 1,500 families. It was the UP Chairman L Thangar?s duty to distribute 20 kilograms for each family. But he gave only 8-10 kilograms to each Pahari family. When we asked him, he said, he had army instructions.
One of the fact-finding committee?s reports corroborates Binoy?s account, ??since 11 January 2007, the process of Bengali settlers grabbing Pahari land has accelerated.? It also says land grabbing and Pahari eviction is taking place under army supervision. A weekly review of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (April 23, 2008) reports similar trends, ?Since the imposition of the State of Emergency, the implantation of illegal plain settlers has intensified with the direct involvement of Bangladesh army.?
Between 1979 and 1983, Bangladesh?s military rulers sponsored migration of Bengali settlers into the Chittagong Hill Tracts. An estimated 500,000 plains settlers were provided land grants, cash and rations. As is clear from the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission report, Life is not ours (1991), the programme of turning Paharis into a minority was not made public then. Government representatives had repeatedly denied the existence of such a plan.
What does one hear now? Bengali settlement in the CHT is a thing of the past. The 1980s, yes, that was the settlement era. It was a mistake. The military rulers failed to realise it was a political problem, it should not be dealt with by force. Things are very different now. Now you may find some Bengalis going to CHT, they are following their family members. That is not settlement. How can one stop that? It sounds nice, the only problem is that it isn?t true. Settlement is still active. It seems to be at a final stage. Ina Hume, a daughter of the hills, and a careful observer of military repression wrote in 2005, a new road has been built from Baghaihat to Sajek. It borders the Mizoram hills of northeast India. She adds, there have been reports that the Bangladesh Army is involved in settling a further 10,000 Bengali families in the Kassalong Reserve Forest in Sajek. The writers of Life is not ours had noted, Pakistan, and later, the Bangladesh government had been uneasy about the borders with India and Burma being inhabited by a majority of the hill peoples. The Sajek incident, it seems, was destined to occur.
Need I say that the proposed settlement of Bengali families in the Kassalong Reserve Forest is in direct negation of the 1997 Peace Accord? Or, that the construction of the Baghaihat-Sajek road by the Bangladesh Army Engineer Construction Battalion, in the Kassalong Reserve Forest, clearly violates the Forest Act of 1927, and the Bangladesh Forest (Amendment) Act, 2000?

Four stakes vs Pahari homes

Most media reports in the Bangladesh press have stressed that losses occurred on both sides. Most reports mentioned that a larger number of Bengali homes were razed to the ground.
The fact-finding committee reports have been invaluable in providing a truer account of what happened. The report of the fact-finding committee led by Sara Hossain contains vivid descriptions of what Paharis lost as a result of the attacks. A middle-aged Chakma villager of Balurghat Para had told the committee members, ?Our rice, clothes, pots-pans-plates have all been burnt. School books, birth registration certificates, SSC certificates, they?re all totally burnt.? Several eyewitnesses and victims had said that their valuables were looted first, the houses set on fire later. A Daney Bhaibachora villager who had been interviewed had said, ?The people who were setting things alight, they first took out from our homes, the TVs, beds, wardrobes, whatever they found, they looted, and at the end they torched the houses. Those who set the houses alight. They took everything.? A Chakma woman had added, ?I?ve heard that a TV was found in the Bangali Para. The Army has said that they will return the TV.?
Bengali settler houses, Dui Tila, Sajek union. ?Udisa Islam, 27 April 2008.

Bengali settler houses, Dui Tila, Sajek union. ?Udisa Islam, 27 April 2008.

The other committee report, the one led by Moshrefa Mishu, is also invaluable. It fleshes out what the Bengalis settlers lost. According to the writers, Bengali settler houses are temporary shelters. They consist of four stakes (khuti) pegged to the ground. There are hundreds of such homes in the Dui Tila area. They write, we spoke to Bengali inhabitants, who told us that they live here for short periods only. The report says, land grants to Bengali families are parcelled into smaller pieces meant for habitation, close to army camps, and larger pieces, located in far-away places. The report states, ?…most Bengalis have two houses… Dighinala and Lichu Bagan are 12 kilometres apart…We interviewed settlers who told us that they had received 4 acres and 1/70th land in Lichubagan, and the remaining 1/30th land on Betcchari.? The writers go on, it was the same in Dui Tila and Chongracchori. Settlers told us, they had 1/30th of an acre here, the rest, 4 acres and 1/70th land in distant mountainous areas.

Communal harmony: a myth in the making?

After the Sajek incident, both high military officials in Dhaka, and those lower in the rung, in the Hill Tracts, like the Major quoted above, have spoken of the communal harmony that exists in the Hill Tracts, that incidents like the Sajek arson attack threaten. These will not be tolerated, we have been told. A group of ?external terrorists,? described by some as ?unidentified terrorists,? is out to destroy peace and development efforts in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The army has affirmed that such incidents will not be tolerated, that peace and communal harmony must be maintained at all costs.
Such affirmations ignore history. It makes nothing of tales of killingsperpetrated by Bengali settlers and security forces. To mention some: Logang cluster village massacre, Khagracchori 10 April 1992. Naniarchar Bazar massacre, Rangamati, 17 November 1993. Malya massacre, Langadu upazilla, 1992. It ignores instances of communal riots such as the Bhuacchari incident, April-May 2003.

Other Sajeks will occur, I guess, if we do not face up to the truth. Even in times of emergency.
First published in New Age on 12th May 2008

Flowers on a Grave

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He had been quietly playing by himself as his grandmother talked to the strangers. But we had made eye contact. He wanted to make friends, and a smile spread over his face as I approached. Suddenly he ran. I knew kids well enough to recognise that this was not a hide and seek game. There was fear in his eyes. He had seen the camera in my hands.
One of the witnesses, a grandmother in Sisak, who did not want to be recognisable. April 9, 2008. Sisak. ? Shahidul Alam/Amnesty Internatioanl/Drik/Majority World
His grandmother had told us that she must not be recognisable in the photographs. Others we were interviewing had agreed to be photographed, but she didn’t feel safe. Her grandson also knew the danger of being recognisable in this war torn land.
Jasna Borojevic talking to Irene Khan in Sisak, She was a Croat. Her husband had been Servian. April 9. 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Amnesty Internatioanl/Drik/Majority World

Irene Khan talking to Jasna Borojevic. ? Shahidul Alam/Amnesty Internatioanl/Drik/Majority World
It was my first trip to Croatia, and while I was hoping to meet my old friend Sasa, I hadn’t quite expected someone to sneak up on me at the main square in Zagreb. It was a long warm hug. We hadn’t seen each other for a very long time. Excusing myself from my colleagues at Amnesty International, Sasa and I went out walking into the cool spring night. He had found love in Iraq, and she had followed him to Croatia. I had heard of Cyrille, but we had never met. She soon joined us at the restaurant, dragging two other friends along. “You two look like lovers” she told us with a disarming smile. Sasa and I had known each other for many years. We first met in Jakarta where I was running a workshop for World Press Photo. We had later met in Kuala Lumpur and Geneva, and he had even come over to teach at Pathshala, but we had never met in his home town. He had offered to drive me over when I had gone for a short trip to Belgrade, but visas for Bangladeshis were never easy to get. Even on this trip, Irene Khan the secretary general of Amnesty International had visa problems because of her ‘green’ passport. It had taken Sasa and I many years to find a way to walk together on the cobbled streets of Zagreb.
The conversation took us to his island where he now raised goats. To China where the two of them were going to teach photography. To his war wounds, and how his body was failing him. I had an early start for Sisak the following day and we parted reluctantly.
Vjera Solar in Sisak, with portraits of her Croatian daughter and her Serbian boyfriend. Her daughter was killed. April 9. 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Amnesty Internatioanl/Drik/Majority World
Sisak brought the memories of “1971” flooding back. The disappearances, the not knowing, the guilt. Croat Jasna Borojevik would always wonder whether she should have asked her Serbian husband to leave her, knowing that he was in danger. Perhaps she should have risked losing him, knowing that he might have lived. Viera Solar moved the photograph of her daughter and her Serbian boyfriend to the wall where she was sitting. She wanted the photograph of the handsome dancing couple to be included in my photograph. She broke down in tears as she spoke to Irene, but steeled herself to serve us bread and cheese. The grandmother of the scared boy had lost a son. She had her grandson to look after, and while she was eager to tell her story, she was still scared. Being photographed was dangerous.
Stjepan Mesi? president of Republic of Croatia. ? Shahidul Alam/Amnesty Internatioanl/Drik/Majority World
Peacock in the gardens of the presidential palace. ? Shahidul Alam/Amnesty Internatioanl/Drik/Majority World
The trip through the wooded lanes to the President’s office in the morning and photographing him and the peacocks in his manicured garden, turned out to be more interesting than expected, but I rushed to go online to check if the Guardian piece on our “1971” exhibition, on war of liberation, had come out. That too had it’s share of killings, disappearances, de-humanisation. Dodi and Diana had bumped us off on Tuesday when it had been scheduled to come out. The mail from Mark at Autograph confirmed that we had four pages in the printed version. As I explained this to my Amnesty colleagues they asked me about the history of our war. David constantly asked what the motive had been. As we had dinner at Sasa’s parent’s house, I asked Sasa the same question. Yes he said. Some politicians won. Some opportunists made money. But the atrocities on both sides, meant homes were shattered. Lives broken. Nations destroyed. Minds fractured. I recall the woman who wanted to know what had happened to her husband “So I can place flowers on a grave and mourn”, she had said. I remember the fear on the little child’s face as he saw my camera, and wonder if one ever really wins a war.

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.

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