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”


?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 Chakma

Dress belonging to Kalpana Chakma. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Dress belonging to Kalpana Chakma. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Eighteen. The legal age to vote.?The age of sexual consent. The threshold of adulthood when one ceases to be a child. Eighteen. The sections of the?Mahabharata. Eighteen armies fighting over eighteen days. Eighteen, the number of years we have waited for justice. Eighteen years that you have been gone Kalpana, my sister.
Continue reading “Eighteen”

Tribunal against Torture

The session, organised on June 26, 2012 at the BRAC Centre Inn, Dhaka by Odhikar in collaboration with European Union includes statements by victims and legal expert?s analysis. Speakers include
? Abdul Matin Khasru, MP and Former Law Minister
? Haider Akbar Khan Rono, Presidium Member, Communist Party of Bangladesh
? Abu Sayed Khan, Managing Editor, The daily Shomokal
? Advocate Abdus Salam, Member, Central Coordination Committee, Gonosonghati Andolon
? Rajekuzzaman Ratan, Member, Central Committee, Socialist Party of Bangladesh
? Mizanur Rahman Khan, Associate Editor, Prothom Alo
? Kalpona Akhter, Executive Editor, Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity

There is a paper presented by Adilur Rahman Khan, Secretary, Odhikar which Nurul Kabir, Editor, New Age presides over. Welcoming address given by Dr. C R Abrar, President, Odhikar
A set of posters of the exhibition on extra judicial killings “Crossfire” by Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam of Drik is on display. Sets of the posters have been given to human rights activists to use at grassroots level. The show was recently shown at the Queen’s Museum of Art in New York. 

If you cannot protect your people, why should the sun rise on your country?

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By Prasanna Ratnayake

Missing for over 300 days

Source: Groundviews

On 25th November, far away from my motherland, I rang Sandya Eknaligoda to ask her, How are you? Yesterday was the 300th day that her loving husband has been missing. And for all Sri Lankans, one of our best cartoonists, writers, journalists, painters and activists has been missing for 300 days.
Sandya told me that a group of about 60 people met yesterday at the Temple of the Innocents with lotus flowers and oil lamps to do a simple ritual for Prageeth. This little monument in front of the Parliament was commissioned by Chandrika Kumaranathunga Bandaranayake?s government, designed and built by the artist, Jagath Weerasinghe, to remember victims of the late 80s/early 90s Southern insurgency. It had been long neglected, its meaning forgotten. Soldiers, whose job is to protect the coming and going Parliamentarians, had been using it as a place to piss. But friends cleaned it up and made it the place to be together on Prageeth?s 300th day.

Prageeth Ekneligoda

My mind has been scrolling through the decades during which Prageeth and I have known each other. These are a few of those moments with my missing friend:
In the years of 60,000 dead, the late 80s and early 90s, Mawatha (The Way) magazine was struggling to make sense of our country?s vortex of insanity. Bahktin, Bukharin, Gramsci, Althusser, Foucault, Derrida, all were being studied as fuel for our political thinking, trawled for a social analysis that might help us understand. It was 1990 and I had cycled into town, Galle in the south of Sri Lanka, to buy vegetables for my Auntie. I secretly bought a copy of Mawatha, rolled it carefully into the Government newspaper and hid it beneath the vegetables in the bottom of my basket because there were checkpoints every 500-1000 meters. Back at Auntie?s, I found a private place to read. This is where I first met Prageeth, in his writings for Mawatha 20 years ago.
The next time was in person in 1992 in Colombo. A group of us, young and middle class, used to meet to discuss politics, culture, democracy, human rights ? everything ? how to make things better, practical steps, what to do about our disastrous country. Prageeth was always present, mostly silent, closely observing.
Later, in 1992-4 we had a movement we called Freedom from Fear, confronting the cycles of violence in our world, against the killings and disappearances, trying to create a properly democratic space. Prageeth drew two portraits that became iconic images. One was of Richard de Zoyza, the popular actor, journalist and TV presenter whose slaughtered body had been found on a beach south of Colombo. Looking pensive, chin resting on his hand, his face, beard, and glasses aligned, Richard?s gaze was focused on the viewer. The other portrait was of Ranjini Thiranagama, the Tamil academic and human rights activist, founder member of the UTHRJ (University Teachers? Human Rights Organisation Jaffna), who had been killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). These pictures became the emblems of our group.
My fourth moment was working together later in the 90s on the Values of Dissent publications for the Civil Rights Movement. Prageeth was designing the covers and layout, creating the visual concept for the series of books we produced.
In 2007, while abroad, I was reading Prageeth?s pieces on the LankaeNews website; sharp insightful writings about the fundamental issues behind the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, revealing the deeper meanings, the subtexts and hidden agendas.
Later in 2007, the last time we met in person, we talked a lot about education, the future of the next generation, his kids, and the daughter of a friend. As we said goodbye, Prageeth warned that we have to be very careful. ?These people know how to play the game with the world. They themselves were once democratic and human rights activists ? this regime is full of them!?
Now he is abducted, disappeared, missing for 300 days.
There was a first time: a year ago he was abducted and then released because they ?got the wrong person?. This second time they have dragged him into the vortex of Sri Lanka?s nightmare.
I am looking at the photograph of this little 300 Days ceremony. What can I read in it? I see many people with whom I have been involved the whole of my lifetime; people who fight for equal rights, for human rights, against abuses, war and corruption. There are small differences: people have got a bit old, there are fewer of them; many have been killed, exiled or silenced. But those in the photo, their eyes and faces are so bright, strong and energetic. They look like they have the inner strength and energy to fight for even more decades.
Beyond this photograph of people gathered for Prageeth at the Temple of the Innocents, I see in my mind the Sri Lankan Parliament so nearby. Most of the Parliamentarians sitting there, Ruling Party and Opposition, are responsible as perpetrators, colluders, collaborators and beneficiaries of the violence, the arrests, the abductions, disappearances, tortures, wars, corruption and impunity that has cursed post-independence Sri Lanka.
In one of his poems about Hitler?s Germany, Berthold Brecht asked: If you cannot protect your people, why should the sun rise on your country? In Sri Lanka people from all communities are being abducted, disappeared, tortured and killed. It pains me to say that my friend Prageeth is one amongst tens of thousands. There is a famous poem of Martin Niemoeller about those who dared not speak out when others were being taken. In Sri Lanka, whether you speak or not, whether you act or not, they will come for you.
[For a related article on Prageeth, read ?for The Missing by Gypsy Bohemia]
Related articles: “Crossfire”

Traces of Absence


An exhibition of photographs by Shahidul Alam

There is a wall running along a street. The writing on it is fragmented and cannot quite be made sense of. The image was taken in the middle of the night and a yellow glare was allowed to invade the site, as the wall slipped away at an angle. A shadowy presence barely registered on the shot. This urban setting, one is tempted to say, could be nothing but the scene of a crime. The sinister, uneasy beauty of this work by Shahidul Alam informs other images that are part of his new series, again and again. Others are eerie, otherworldly; and others still, seem familiar yet are anguished, as if the common ground for existence was being subtracted from the picture altogether.
Photography is usually taken at face value and recognized as the construction of a factual world, and celebrated as such, for facts possess a no-nonsense value – or so we would like to believe – that will hopefully help us to get things crystal-clear in the mind. The printed image is envisaged and expected, by the many who support this view, to be self-evident, and self-explanatory, too.
To transform photography into the art of tracing an absence is not a method that is self-evident, and yet a case can be made for it: the print, which is an image on its physical support, is one more object added to the world and is often made to stand for what once was, never to be fixed or grasped in the same manner again. But in the images of this series, what is it we are missing that fills us with anxiety of some kind or another? When acutely perceived, an absence stops us in our speech, it wracks and unnerves us; it unsettles the mind. Absence, as a matter of fact, can be identified, can be lingered on and felt, but cannot be quantified and any attempts at giving a qualified description of the feelings involved are bound to fail.
Whatever one is led to believe should be expected of contemporary photographic work in the documentary mode, this series challenges starkly. Artificial lighting has been used throughout and its effect is not just strange but painful. The series offers no narrative to behold but the images hold together, perhaps because their author finds different ways to remind us that we will not find a place to rest our heads in them. These are nocturnal viewings in a sleepless night.
Jorge Villacorta
More at:
New York Times Review
Photo District News
Rights Exposure Review
Front Page Manob Jomin (Bangla)
Ex Ponto Magazine Netherlands
Lawyers protest

Flowers on a Grave

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.