When Jolly’s son Asif asked me to take a portrait of him and his new bride Rifat, I took it on with grandfatherly pride. The photo session was booked for Sunday morning, the 26th December 2004. Boxing day.
The envelope from Sri Lanka also arrived on Boxing Day. 2006. Priantha and his daughter Shanika had sent me Christmas greetings. I felt bad that I had not sent them one.
I used to love the winding path up to the hilltop house in Chittagong. Zaman Bhai was the chief engineer of the Chittagong Port Trust. One of the few Bangalis in high positions in 1971. It is thirty five years since the Pakistanis took him away, but even many years after liberation, my cousin Tuni Bu would still look for him. Anyone going to Pakistan would be given the task of trying to find out if there was any knowledge of where he might have been taken, what might have happened. One knows of course what must have happened, and I am sure Tuni Bu knows too, but that never stopped her from trying to find out. She was much older than me, and it was my nephews Bulbul and Tutul and my niece Jolly, that I was close to. Atiq was too young in those days to qualify for our friendship. The house had a fountain and the surrounding pool was our swimming pool. It was the only home I had ever known that had a pool. Technically I was of granddaddy status to Jolly’s son, and the young man reminded me of my own happy childhood.
While I played around with the studio lights, Asif told me of the Richter 9 earthquake that had hit Bangladesh. Of course I didn’t believe him. Richter 9 is big and there simply couldn’t have been an earthquake of such magnitude without anyone registering it. But I did turn on the news immediately after the portrait session, and the enormity of the disaster slowly sank in. I rang Rahnuma and asked her to turn on the television, and went back to work. By then however, the news of the carnage in places thousands of miles away started coming across the airwaves.
The next day the numbers steadily rose from the hundreds to thousands and we were glued to the set. Though we hadn’t said it out aloud to each other, both Rahnuma and I knew I had to go. BRAC had organized a training for women journalists in their centre in Rajendrapur on the 28th. I had committed myself to the training some time ago and couldn’t really bail out in the last minute. On the way I heard from Arri that my friend in Colombo Chulie de Silva was missing. I kept losing the signal on my Grameen mobile phone on my way to and from Rajendrapur, but near Dhaka I managed to get text messages through. Chuli was safe, but her brother had died.
Babu Bhai managed to get me a flight the next day via Bangkok. I had posted an angry message in ShahidulNews in response to the tourist centric reporting in mainstream media and many friends responded. Margot Klingsporn from Focus in Hamburg wired me some money. Not waiting for the money to arrive, I gathered the foreign currency I could lay my hands on, packed a digital camera and a video camera along with my trusted Nikon F5 and left. That was when I made friends with Shanika.
It was Chulie who helped trace her. She had heard my story and wrote to me that she had found a “Shanika Café” near Hikkaduwa. We had gone out together in search of the girl. When we did find Shanika and her dad Priantha, she rushed to my arms.
Through Chulie’s translations Priantha told me that Shanika had been withdrawn and wouldn’t relate to people. It was our friendship that had brought out the little girl.
More than the wreckage and the rotting flesh,
I remember the mother in the refugee camp stealing a kiss from her new born child.
I remember the family sitting in the wreckage of their home in Hikkaduwa, going through the family album.
I remember the devotees returning to the Shrine of Our Lady of Matara Church to pray.
As a photojournalist we are touched by, and touch many people’s lives. Sometimes – not often – we are able to make a difference. But invariably we move on. On to another disaster, another success, another story in the making. The Shanikas of our stories, become yet more stepping stones in our career path, and the Christmas cards flow only in one direction.
28th December 2006
20th anniversary of Ain O Salish Kendra and National Museum auditorium, Dhaka. Bangladesh
Fazle Hasan Abed (left), Muhammad Yunus (centre) and George Soros (right)
Muhammad Yunus, Amartya Sen, Fazle Hasan Abed, George Soros Sultana Kamal. I could hardly have asked for a better photo op. Well it is Christmas! If ever a nation was in need of a pick me up, this was it. The twentieth anniversary of Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK) had a special significance. This was an organization that has been relentlessly fighting for the rights of the downtrodden. Despite the central bank predicting a 7 percent growth in the coming year, with both parties poised to contest the upcoming election choosing to woo the autocratic general the people had fought to overthrow, and the traditionally secular Awami League (AL) selling out to the Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish (BKM) for supposed electoral gains, the people needed the assurance that at least some still believed in a secular state and the interests of common people.
Muhammad Yunus reminded the audience of ASK’s role in preserving the legal rights of the poor. Both Nobel laureates stayed clear of commenting on the decision that had been made by the major opposition party, which had just buried all of these ideas for political convenience.
His witty anecdotes about Salma Sobhan, the diminutive but feisty human rights activist who had founded ASK, and his frank accounts of the attempts by him and his friend, our own celebrated economist Rehman Sobhan, in winning over Salma Banu, before she became Salma Sobhan, was a warm and sincere tribute to one of Bangladesh’s finest citizens. But despite the joy of celebration, the mood in the audience was less than ebullient. The high court ban on fatwas had been a hard won battle and the gloom caused by AL’s entente with the other side of the fundamentalist coin, had left everyone shattered. My activist friends were surprisingly unperturbed. “Well, they have unmasked themselves” said Khushi Kabir, “it is time we woke up to what the parties really represent.”
Sultana Kamal was similarly defiant but also brought up her concerns. “It has always been our fight, and now we know what alliances to avoid. But they have effectively robbed me of my voting rights. If I now want someone in parliament to stand up for the rights of women, or the Ahmadiyyas, or for free speech, whom do I turn to? The candidates too have no choice. The few who might have wanted to enter the fray because they wanted to change things, now have no party to turn to.”
Politicians are not known for honesty and candour. AL’s win at any cost deal was defended by Abdul Jalil, the general secretary of AL who signed the document, as he tried to wriggle his way out of the hole he had dug himself into. “It is an understanding based on an election strategy” and “any decision is a fatwa” he rambled.
14th December 1971. The stark dismembered face stared from the bricks in the Rayerbazar graveyard. It was a last ditch attempt by an occupation army to leave a nation they had been unable to subdue, crippled intellectually and culturally. Rashid Talukder’s iconic image was one of numerous outstanding photographs taken by Bangladesh’s best known photojournalist. The lifetime achievement award given to him was long overdue. Rashid Bhai joins other Bangladeshi photographers featured in the Festival of Photography in Asia Chobi Mela IV, whose images grace the much awaited Drik Calendar 2007.
Meanwhile a self appointed head of caretaker government chooses the month of our victory, to call in the military against the wishes of his own cabinet. Kudos to the caretaker advisers who chose to resign rather than going against the interests of the nation. Where ministers have shamelessly stayed on despite blatant exposures of corruption and malpractice, it is a rare example of self-respect.
The Drik calendar 2007 is in the press and is out next week when it will also be available on our website: http://www.drik.net/html/calendar.htm and in our online shopping mall: http://kiosk.mdlf.org/estore/publisher?id=21
Autumn was unkind, rude and remorseful
Spring become unmerciful, rude and murderous
Butterflies don’t die, they don’t live either
Photo: Momena Jalil
Dried Kash flowers at the bank of the Old Brahmaputra. “When I had my legs I could cross the river in one go.” Rajib. Bangladesh/Photo: Saiful Huq Omi.
People fishing in a group using traditional techniques. The fishing usually takes place in the dry winter season. Wetlands of Bangladesh/Photo:Rashid Talukder.
Enticing a prospective client. With roughly 25 customers needed for daily upkeep, competition is intense. Kandupatti brothel, Dhaka. Bangladesh/Photo: Shehzad Noorani.
Every morning After Fazr, Keramat Ali sat here. His work ended at around 10 pm. After 22 years of service, he went back to his home town and his family. No pension and no savings/Photo: Syed Mahfuz Ali
“Mama, take my picture,” my niece Pinki asked me. It was already nearing dusk. I held my breath with the aperture open just enough, and pressed the shutter/Photo: Sheikh Motiar Rahman
She migrated from the Northern district to Dhaka for livelihood. As a sand worker at Gabtoli, she works dawn to dusk for seventy taka. Bangladesh/Photo: Partha Prathim Sadhu
Men saw a large tree trunk in the naked afternoon sun. They don’t pick leaves in the gardens. Kapai Garden, Lashkarpur Tea Estate. Bangladesh/Photo: Munem Wasif
Traders import cows from India prior to the Muslim festival Eid Ul Azha. A cow falls in the water while being unloaded from a boat. Aricha. Bangladesh/Photo: Abir Abdullah
“These are the shacks we live in – we call them ‘Tali’ – there are 1873 families living here at this moment.” Rohinga refugees from Myanmar. Teknaf. Bangladesh/Photo: Mahbub Alam Khan
This is a Road I have been seeing for ages, while I have been happy, sad, upset, romantic, high, low & while growing up. It fills me with memories. They call it the VIP Road/Photo: Gazi Nafis Ahmed (Adnan)
Dipa Thapa, 75, has two pet cats in Pashupati Bridhashram (an Old People’s Home). They are her only friends. Nepal/Shehab Uddin
In the countdown to the election the newly launched DrikNews, promises to challenge the stranglehold of western agencies AP, AFP and Reuters. http://www.driknews.com is the site to watch.
14th December 2006. Amsterdam
“Come out we won’t shoot”, they had yelled out over the megaphone. Not the most alluring of invitations, particularly when it is from a police van surrounding your flat at midnight. They had thought we were hiding someone and after searching our rooftop had come into our flat. As they left, I had gone out to take pictures from our verandah. Rahnuma had turned up the television volume to hide the sound of the shutter on my Nikon 501, but it still seemed to make a very loud click. Luckily, I wasn’t noticed. It was the 2nd December 1990. Ershad’s autocratic government was feeling the heat.
Two days earlier, after the Friday prayers, they had opened fire on the Baitul Mukarram mosque killing a man.
Lawyers had played an important role in our democracy movement. They had upheld writ petitions against the government, and when the government tried to flex its muscles, they came out in protest, united in their stand.
On this day, exactly sixteen years ago, barrister Shahjahan, Sarah Hossain and other lawyers were meant to meet at Drik. We were monitoring the government action, and were ourselves under scrutiny. My colleagues had warned me that plain clothed detectives were looking for me at the office. The detectives seemed to know we lived in Lalmatia, and my colleagues suggested that we stay elsewhere that night. Ma (Rahnuma¹s mum), Rahnuma, Tehmina (a lawyer friend of ours) and I went over to Saif and Rini¹s flat in Dhanmondi Rd 8. This was not the time for taking chances. The media too had played their role. When censorship became intolerable, they refused to publish. It was that night that Ershad had announced on television that he was going to step down. People were rejoicing in the streets. The following morning the first newspaper was out.
We all went out into the streets. Altaf on his motorbike, me on my bicycle, and the others in whatever transport they could find.
A little girl walked down Mirpur road with a bouquet of flowers in her hand. She too was celebrating the return of democracy. People were dancing in the streets. In Paltan, too often the scene of violence, people gathered in ones and twos.
Men and women in their sleeping clothes, some with children, gathered in the winter night. Chatpati wallas sensing a business opportunity appeared out of the fog. At about 1:30 am Shimul Billa, Bangladesh’s Shirley Temple, sang out “Bichar poti tomar bichar korbe jara, aj jegeche ei jonota”.
The song ‘O judge, the people have risen, it is now the day of your judgement’, was strangely prophetic.
And now in 2006, the chief justice of the supreme court intervenes to prevent a decision
going against a political party, lawyers ransack the court, a president with zero credibility heads a caretaker government, and of all people, Ershad himself is in the streets, demanding the removal of the current president, while Moudud, the chameleon survivor, then Ershad’s right hand man, now holds hands with the chief justice.
4th December 2006