Escape from Dhaka: An inside view of the Bangladeshi riots

Hugh Reilly at Uttar Bangla College. Picture: Contributed
Hugh Reilly at Uttar Bangla College. Picture: Contributed
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When Scotsman columnist Hugh Reilly was invited to teach at a college in Bangladesh, he didn’t expect to find himself in the middle of rioting and violent deaths.

BEING bundled into the back of an ambulance at 5.45am hadn’t been my preferred mode of airport transfer when I initially made travel arrangements to leave Bangladesh. However, a dawn-to-dusk nationwide hartal (strike), called and enforced by Islamic extremists, ruled out going by car. In preceding days, rioters belonging to political party Jamaat-e-Islami had been responsible for the deaths of innocent people caught up in pro-Jamaat demonstrations. A young banker was burned alive when the bus he boarded was torched and a rickshaw driver lost his life after being pummelled by a religious mob.

The catalyst for violence had been the decision of the International Crimes Tribunal to find the leader of Jamaat guilty of war crimes during the country’s 1971 War of Liberation. Abdul Qader Molla had sided with Pakistan and was convicted last Tuesday of multiple murders of Bangladeshi intellectuals. While those who had demanded his execution deemed his 15-year sentence to be ­lenient, his outraged followers declared the entire legal process a political show trial.

For three days, my Dhaka residence had been on lockdown as I watched the terrifying turmoil unfold on television. Living just 50 yards or so from a main road, I’d heard the chants of “Allah Akbar!” and winced as, from time to time, my room became infused with the acrid smell of burning tyres. To make matters worse, I’d arrived from Kakina, where I’d been teaching, expecting to have the abode to myself, only to find half a dozen non-English-speaking Muslim men in the other bedrooms.

Unbeknown to the owner of the house, his nephew had decided to spend a few days there with his friends. Stressed out, I found it impossible to relax. I relayed my fears to Charity Education International (CEI), the organisation that had invited me to teach English at Uttar Bangla College in Kakina. At first, in my opinion, CEI underestimated the risk to my wellbeing. However, once the dire security situation in Dhaka was fully understood, the head of CEI tried to use his contacts to ensure I had a police escort for my journey to the airport. When that failed, he managed to enlist the assistance of a medical acquaintance to provide an ambulance.

As the ambulance hurtled along the largely deserted, darkened highway, its sirens and flashing lights seemed superfluous. At various intersections along the route, small groups of men had gathered but fortunately there were no attempts to block the road. After what seemed an eternity, our vehicle reached the airport perimeter, only to be halted at a paramilitary checkpoint. From my seat in the rear, I peered out nervously at the five rifle-toting men in camouflage uniforms. Without warning, the side-door flew open and I found myself staring at an armed young man. “Camun achen?” (How are you?) I said, my speech trembling with apprehension. He smiled and waved us through, much to my relief.

The scene outside the terminal resembled the last days of the American Embassy in Saigon. Soldiers endeavoured to bring order to the chaos caused by hordes of concerned relatives accompanying their dear ones to the airport to ensure their safe departure. Despite being only five yards or so from the entrance of the terminal building, it took ten long minutes to enter the sanctuary it offered. By the time I had gone through passport control and reached the waiting area at the boarding gate, my anxiety levels had slightly subsided, helped greatly by the sight of the Air Emirates plane sitting on the tarmac. Suddenly, a sharp-suited airport officer stood over me and said: “Give me your boarding pass!” I reluctantly handed over the documentation. “I’ll be back,” he said. My paranoia went into overdrive as I feverishly sought a reason why I alone had been stripped of my pass. Had airport officials read my first despatch from Bangladesh when I had criticised the Byzantine visa-on-arrival procedures? Just then, the man returned, saying: “Good news.” I glanced at the boarding pass – I had been upgraded to First Class!

On taking my seat, a businessman next to me told how he had been trapped inside his hotel for three days. He said that a Danish trader who had left the hotel to clinch a deal had returned chalk-white and tearful after his vehicle had been halted at an Islamist roadblock and rocked by a screaming throng. As the plane levelled out, it struck me that despite the many wonderful things I had enjoyed in Kakina, my frightening experience in Dhaka had scarred me. In my farewell speech I’d told colleagues and students that there was every likelihood I would return in the not-so-distant future, but now, deep in my heart, I knew that I would never go back to Bangladesh.

With hindsight, I’d seen a sign of growing Islamisation even before I set foot in the country. On the outward plane journey I had been startled to witness Muslim zealots commandeering both aisles to perform prayers. Their arrogant sense of entitlement to disrupt the work of the cabin crew and restrict the movement of other passengers sickened me. On leaving Dhaka for Kakina, I recall feeling uneasy at the sight of one half of a dual carriageway closed to traffic in order to allow thousands of the faithful to march to an Islamic conference, the procession given more of an edge by it being accompanied with fiery speeches relayed via a public address system. To allay my discomfort, a Bangladeshi friend stated that the crowd would quickly forget the sermons of the imams and return to their jobs; this seemed a hope rather than a conviction.

I had been told that the country was secular, but my experience suggested otherwise. Burka-style garb was not uncommon and a few students wore such dress on campus. CEI asked me to refer to Liz as my wife, on the grounds that admitting to having a girlfriend or, worse, a partner might cause offence. I also had to hide the fact I was an atheist lest it upset believers. I am not ashamed of being a divorced atheist in a sexual relationship with an unmarried woman. Rather than coerce Westerners to tiptoe around Muslim sensibilities, perhaps CEI and the college should consider teaching students and the local community the concept of multiculturalism. We are proud of the slogan “One Scotland, Many Cultures” yet we shrink at asking Bangladeshis to accept the lifestyles of non-Muslims. Why?

I was terribly disappointed to see the manner some members of the educated elite treat the poor. For example, the feudal nature of Bangladeshi society means that a man in a suit can go straight to the front of a queue of shoppers, a haughty flick of his hand the sign for the barefoot to back off. On one occasion, I watched agog as a fellow diner called a servant from the kitchen to pass him a dish of rice that he could easily have stretched for himself. On a tour of a magnificent three-storey house under construction, I was shown what I thought was an airing cupboard; sadly, it was the servant’s quarters. I could barely conceal my disgust.

My reflections will dismay many of those I met in the subcontinent. Some will perceive my comments as a betrayal of the college, the students and CEI. This is not my intention. For the record, I was met with nothing but kindness by every individual I encountered. I salute the fact that CEI has done a remarkable job in bringing tertiary education to a remote, impoverished region.

My report on my recent visit will commend much of what the charity does to increase the life chances for the sons and daughters of agricultural labourers and farmers. As far as I could ascertain, the college operates an equal opportunity policy regarding course choice and access. It would be remiss of me, however, not to point out that I find it abhorrent that females are virtually banned from going outdoors after sunset. The oppressively patriarchal nature of Kakina society is a brake on the progress of young women.

It pains me that I will never see colleagues such as Subash, Kibria and Rubel again. The memory of teaching a magnificent bunch of students – notably Shahidul, Kalpona, Rina and Mafuz – will stay with me forever. But, in my view, Bangladesh is not ready to embrace someone of my ilk. To be truthful, I’m unsure if it ever will be.