A World Torn Asunder

Shahidul Alam

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It’s not a good time for huggers. A virus rips through our social fabric. Distraught children distanced from dying parents. Loved ones unseen, untouched, in sterile cabins. Lovers unable to hold hands. Kids separated from school friends. Smiles hidden by masks. Everyday acts of sympathy and endearment buried under the cosh of lockdown. Torn asunder by a tiny microbe it’s a world like no other.

There are many faces to this pandemic. There have been acts of great generosity by individuals of limited means. Acts of grotesque deceit and corruption by individuals with plenty. The lockdown has also led to clearer skies, cleaner air, quieter streets. Moments of repose. Families together again with time for children.

Some have profited from the virus. Repressive regimes have put in place rules that citizens would rebel against in normal times. COVID-19 has become the Trojan horse used to smuggle in unacceptable practices in the guise of public health.

Globally, chest thumping leaders have used the opportunity to put personal gain way above national or global interest. Sickeningly, a billionaire earned in a day almost as much as every man, woman and child in Bangladesh would have collectively earned in a month had they received a minimum basic wage. The poor have been robbed to amass wealth for the rich.

Those who live hand to mouth, can hardly choose not to work. Death by starvation is no better a choice to death by disease. But it’s a complicated story. The rate of infection in Bangladesh is undeniably lower than might have been expected given the living conditions of the poor and the lack of access to decent medical care. The mystery of lower death rates in Bangladesh cannot be explained easily, limited tests notwithstanding. The woefully poor infrastructure, the rampant corruption in the health sector and the impossibility of the poor to physically distance themselves from each other, would suggest a much higher rate of infection than appears to be present. Many more would have had to be infected for herd immunity to kick in. Has a wave of asymptomatic infection surreptitiously flooded our nation to leave us relatively immune? After all, mild symptoms would hardly be something the poor would fuss over. Their day to day existence requires them to take illness in their stride. A day off work, is a day without pay. Perhaps a day without food.

Modelling, R0, flattening the curve and herd immunity, are now everyday chatter. We’ve tried to move away from the jargon, to the lived experiences of people. The ravages of cyclone Amphan on a population already reeling from the pandemic, buffeted against the searing wind, carrying a corpse through flood waters, the pain etched on a face shattered by grief stare through images that straddle less brutal ones. A father finds time to play with his children. A little girl in wonderland, peers from her make belief world. An infant, cries out, not from pain, but the intrusion of strangers for a probe that scares. Like an alien from outer space, a buyer in full protective gear walks his cow home. If sacrifice was ever to have meaning, this would be the moment. A congregation of five, the maximum allowed by the new rules, prays for deliverance. A relief pack balanced on her head, a woman at dusk, perfectly poised, walks an empty street, the loneliness of the street reflected in her eyes. The street devoid of the bustle of trade. The forlorn wait for testing. The anguished return to the homeland. The burial. The pain of a nation overrun by traders who, in connivance with regulators are ready to sacrifice lives for profit. Protesting garment workers, huddled against the rain, punished for the temerity of demanding wages due.

But resistance continues. While established artists have long sold out, the youth of the land still yearn for freedom. Through songs, poetry and art, they rally against the wrongful arrests, the torture, the disappearances and the ‘crossfire’, which the virus has failed to stem.

Shahidul Alam

Politics Cannot Be Separated from My Art

B&H Photography Podcast

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With an exhibition of his 40-year photographic career opening at the Rubin Museum of Art, in New York,  photojournalist and social justice activist Shahidul Alam was kind enough to join us on the B&H Photography Podcast to discuss the current exhibit, his career, and the state of photojournalism around the world. Also joining us is scholar, archivist, and the author of Conversations on Conflict Photography, Dr. Lauren Walsh.

Truth to Power is the name of the Alam’s exhibition and it is “a tribute to the numerous acts of resistance all across the globe and gives hope to those who continue to believe that a better world is possible.” As the name indicates, Alam’s work confronts the injustices in his native Bangladesh, where he has spent a career photographing natural disasters, social inequalities, street protests, migrant workers, and investigating those murdered or kidnapped. He also founded the Chobi Mela Photography Festival and the Drik and Majority World photo agencies, which has enabled countless photographers a better chance to have their stories seen by a larger audience.    Continue reading “Politics Cannot Be Separated from My Art”

My Grandfather’s Diary

Making us pay with our lives

‘Could you get a small size pizza and some French fries for Zafrullah and send to GK? He is not eating and maybe a change in menu will help.’  It was our very own freedom fighter Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury that Shireen Huq, his wife, was talking about, and I wasted no time in my search for the pizza.

Rahnuma Ahmed being tested for Covid-19 in our flat in Dhanmondi. ─ Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Continue reading “Making us pay with our lives”

The Humble Bishop

It was an unusual mix. Two priests, a nun, two devout Catholics, and me, a heathen. We cooked and cleaned and shared small tasks, and important for me, I paid a rent of only eight pounds a week. I was never sure on what criteria I had been accepted into the ‘community’ but as I was working my way through university, I was happy to accept. We lived in the Catholic chaplaincy of Liverpool University, just opposite the Students Union Building. Living smack in the middle of campus also meant I had no transport costs.

There was no way my schoolteacher mum and government servant dad, could pay for their son’s overseas education, so I was on my own and money was always tight. I worked weekends, holidays, and evenings to pay for my student fees and my keep.

Vincent Malone (11 September 1931 – 18 May 2020) the Auxiliary Bishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Liverpool. We used to know him as Vin. He was the chaplain at the catholic chaplaincy of Liverpool University when I was studying there.

Continue reading “The Humble Bishop”

করোনাকালের করুণা খান

এই গল্পের সাথে কেউ কোন চরিত্র মিলাইবেন না। যে মিলাইবেন দায় তার… কয়া দিলাম কিন্তু….
করোনার প্রকোপে আর কিছু না হোক আমি যে পাগল হইতেছি এইটা তার বড় প্রমান। সো পাগলে কী না বলে…🧟‍♂🧟‍♂🧟‍♂🧟‍♂
Nahida Ashrafi_ by rahnuma ahmedNahida Ashrafi. Photo: Rahnuma Ahmed

করোনাকালের করুণা খান

নাহিদা আশরাফী

-আপা, শইলডা বালো?  একখান কতা ছিলো।
করুণা খান চোখ বড় বড় করে চম্পার দিকে তাকালেন, শইলডা কি চম্পা? বলেছি না ঠিক করে কথা বলবে? বলো শুভ সকাল আপা, আপনার শরীর ভালো? বলো বলো। কষ্ট হলেও সময় নিয়ে বলো। তবু শুদ্ধ বলবে। যাও চা নিয়ে এসো, আর রান্না শেষ করে আবার আমাকে শুদ্ধ করে কথাটা শোনাবে। তোমাদের নিয়ে আর পারি না।
কিছুটা বিরক্তি নিয়ে বিছানা থেকে উঠে এক ঘন্টা বাথটাকে বডিশপের শাওয়ার জেলে নিজেকে ডুবিয়ে রেখে রেডি হয়ে নীচে নামলেন তিনি । আড়াইটায় তার ওয়ার্কারদের সাথে মিটিং ফিক্সড।যদিও তা ভিডিও কনফারেন্স এর মাধ্যমে। গতকালের সিদ্ধান্ত নিয়ে দারুণ খোশমেজাজে আছেন । নিজের আপত প্রতিভায় নিজেই মুগ্ধ!
খাওয়া শেষ করে ডাইনিং টেবিল ক্লিয়ার করতে করতেই চা নিয়ে ঢুকলো চম্পা। কাচুমাচু করে দাঁড়িয়ে থাকতে দেখে নিজে থেকেই চম্পাকে কথাগুলো শুদ্ধ করে বলতে বল্লেন৷ চম্পা গলা কেশে শুদ্ধ করে বলার চেষ্টা করলো –
-আপা, আপোনার শরীলটা ভালো?
– উফ! আপোনার নয় চম্পা বলো আপনার। আর শরীলটা নয়। বলো শরীরটা৷ বলো, আবার বলো
চম্পা এই দুই লাইনেই আটকে রইলো টানা পনেরো মিনিট। তারপর খানিকটা খুশী হলেন মালকিন৷
– ওকে, এবার পরের লাইন বলো। তাড়াতাড়ি বলো। আমার আবার মিটিং আছে৷
– জ্বি আপা বলেছিলাম কি আমার পাঁচদিন ধ…ধ… ধইরা।
– উহু ধইরা নয়, বলো ধরে। হ্যাঁ বলো। পাঁচ দিন ধরে কি?
– জ্বর। গলায় বেদনা।
– আহা বেদনা না। বলো ব্যাথা।…  কী!!!
ব্যাথা শব্দটা উচ্চারণের সাথে সাথে ভয়ংকর শীতল এক স্রোত তার শিরদাঁড়া বেয়ে নামতে লাগলো। তিনি চিৎকার করে উঠলেন,
– তুই আগে বলিস নাই ক্যান? বেয়াদব কোথাকার।
– আপা ক্যাম্নে বলবো?  সকাল থেকে শুদ্ধ শুদ্ধ খেলায় আপ্নে আমারে যে ধমকের উপ্রে রাখছেন।
এই চম্পা তার বিছানা ঝাড়পোঁছ করেছে, রান্না করেছে, কাবার্ড থেকে শাড়ি নামিয়ে দিয়েছে, শাওয়ারের পর চুল আচঁড়ে দিয়েছে। আর এখন চা ও বানিয়েও খাইয়েছে৷ উফ!  আর ভাবতে পারে না করুণা খান। এক দৌড়ে বাসা থেকে বেরিয়ে ডাক্তারের কাছে যাবেন বলে গাড়িতে ওঠেন। চেনা পরিচিত সব ডাক্তার কল করে ফেলেছেন ততক্ষণে। হল কী এই মরার দেশে। কেউ ফোন ধরে না। ভাবতে ভাবতে অফিসে ঢোকেন। কী আশ্চর্য!  কেউ নেই কেন? ফিরে গিয়ে ড্রাইভারকে জিজ্ঞেস করতে যাবেন দেখেন ড্রাইভার নেই চম্পা ড্রাইভিং সিটে বসে দাত কেলিয়ে হাসছে। তিনি ভয়ানক আর্তচিৎকার দিয়ে গাড়ি থেকে ছিটকে  রাস্তার দিকে যান। গেটের কাছেই ড্রাইভার কাসেমের দেখা পান। কাশেম তার জন্য লাশবাহী গাড়ি এনে তাতে  উঠতে বলছে। সব কী পাগল হয়ে গেল। লাশবাহী গাড়িতে তিনি কেন উঠবেন?
তিনি দৌড়াতে শুরু করলেন,
দৌড় মিইয়ে এসে জোরে হাঁটায় রুপ নিলো।
জোরে হাঁটাও মিইয়ে এসে একসময় বসে পড়লেন।
পিছনে তাকিয়ে দেখলেন একদল মানুষ তাকে অনুসরণ করে হাটছে। হাঁটছে তো হাঁটছে… সামনে গোরস্তান, ডানে চম্পা,বায়ে কাশেম মিয়া ও তার লাশবাহী গাড়ি।
সরো, সরে যাও। দূরে যাও। আমার কাছে কেউ আসবে না বলছি। আমাকে ছোঁবে না। সাইকিক পেসেন্টের মত ভয়াবহ চিৎকার করতে লাগলেন তিনি।
– কই যাবো ম্যাডাম ? ডেকে এনে চলে যেতে বলছেন? একবার এলে আর তো যাওয়া যায় না । এটা তো একমুখী রাস্তা। তাই ঠিক করেছি সবাই একসাথে এই লাশবাহী গাড়িটাতেই থাকবো৷ ভালো হবে না ম্যাডাম?  কী বলেন?
তিনি হাতপা ছুঁড়ে মানসিক রোগীর মত চিৎকার করতে থাকেন। দিগবিদিক ছুটতে থাকেন কিন্তু বুঝতে পারেন না কোন দিকে যাবেন।
এগিয়ে আসছে চম্পা…
এগিয়ে আসছে কাশেম মিয়া…
এগিয়ে আসছে একদল পায়েচলা শ্রমিক…
আর তিনি একটু একটু করে এগিয়ে যাচ্ছেন গোরস্তানের দিকে …
দূরে কোথাও কৈলাশ খেরের গান বাজছে,
’জয় জয় কারা জয় জয় কারা সোয়ামি দে না সাথ হামারা।’

The virus doesn’t but the powerful do

LOUD and angry, the child’s voice reverberates along the Dhanmondi streets. Unlike the other cries, this one quickly recedes before I can turn on my audio recorder. The incessant pneumatic horns, the screeching of brakes, the dust spewing up from potholed worn tarmac that bedraggled buses bump their way through have gone. With factories and offices closed, load sheddings have also gone down, though the transformer blowing up as the kal boishakhi storm hit, did lead to a power outage. Above the cawing of a crow that has built its nest close to our verandah, we can hear other birds sing. Sounds interspersed with calls of small time vendors, trading what they can, selling what they can. While they can. Despite the other sounds, the child’s cry keeps echoing in my mind.

Hungry woman walking the streets of Dhanmondi, in search of food 280039Running down the street as she cries for food, Dhanmondi. — Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Continue reading “The virus doesn’t but the powerful do”

The Gonoshasthya Kendra’s Corona Test Kit. Cui Bono?

Cui bono is often a good starting point in an investigation. Literally meaning ‘who benefits?’ Whoever appears to have the most to gain from a ‘crime’ is probably the culprit. Stepping back from the ‘whodunnit’ nature of the drama that is playing out, we could be less dramatic and just look at the meaningfulness or advantages of carrying out an important function.

At this point in Bangladesh, as in many other countries, there are few things more important to do, than to detect whether or not one has been infected by the Covid-19 virus. For many, it could literally be a matter of life and death. It is beyond dispute that an efficient, accurate and affordable kit that could be made readily available would be of immense value to the country.

Zafrullah Chowdhury 6506Zafrullah Chowdhury (born December 27, 1941) is a Bangladeshi public health activist. He is the founder of Gonoshasthaya Kendra (meaning the People's Health Center in Bengali), a rural healthcare organisation. Dr. Chowdhury is known more for his work in formulating the Bangladesh National Drug Policy in 1982. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Continue reading “The Gonoshasthya Kendra’s Corona Test Kit. Cui Bono?”

The journalist who got too close

‘REPEAT a lie often enough and it becomes the truth’, is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. The Bangladesh government seems to have studied Goebbels’ book well. The lies generally come in the form of denials. ‘No, we have not been involved in “crossfire” and “disappearances”.’ ‘There is no political motive.’ ‘No one will be spared.’ ‘The elections were fair.’ ‘The judiciary is independent,’ the list goes on. The lies are repeated ad nauseam in political rallies, in talk shows, in press briefings and through social media trolls.

Shafiqul Islam Kajol photographed by his son Monorom Polok

‘We do not condone any such incident and will bring the responsible officials to justice’ said the foreign minister Dipu Moni at the Universal Periodic Review of Bangladesh at the Human Rights Council in Geneva on February 4, 2009 in response to accusations that the government was involved in ‘crossfire,’ a Bangladeshi euphemism for extra-judicial killings. She added that the government would show ‘zero tolerance’ to extra-judicial killings, or torture and death in custody. Indeed, doing so was part of the election campaign for the Bangladesh Awami League when they were in the opposition. As often happens however, once elected, their position changed, and ‘crossfire’ has become so integral to the Bangladeshi lingo that MPs now use the term in parliament, ‘You are allowing crossfire as part of a fight against drugs. Then why aren’t you doing the same in case of rape?’ Continue reading “The journalist who got too close”