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A tortured image

by rahnuma ahmed

I AM against torture. Nothing justifies torture. This is a principled stand, there are no ifs and buts.

But why is it that when I see a recent picture of Tarique Rahman, son of ex-prime minister Khaleda Zia, his face screwed up in sheer agony, I feel no empathy, no compassion? Why do I not allow myself to dwell on his pain? Why do I shut it out, turn to another news item, or turn the pages of the newspaper?

Why does a picture of this torture victim leave me cold?

His medical report (18.06.2008), records, among other illnesses, two fractured discs, D6 and D7. During a remand hearing on January 9 this year, Tarique claimed that he had been physically and mentally tortured. He was unable to stand in the dock, and had to be given a chair. Last week (15.06.08), his lawyer Rafiqul Islam Miah told an anti-graft court hearing that his client was in severe pain, that he could not stand or be seated for more than three minutes. The court was also informed that while in remand, Tarique had been tortured ‘in the most inhumane way’, he was ‘physically impaired’, and might be crippled for life if he did not receive immediate treatment, preferably abroad.

Several days later, a news item catches my eye, Tarique’s spinal problem is an old one, say intelligence agents (Shamokal, 24.06.08). They claim it dates back to 2005. The very next day, members of his medical board express their disquiet (Shamokal, 25.06.08). Dr Idris Ali, associate professor of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, BSMMU says X-ray, CT scan and MRI examinations have revealed disc fractures. The injury, he says, could have been caused either by falling down, or by a blunt instrument. A faculty member of the same department tells Shamokal, the 2005 report is not inaccurate. But the complaint, he says, was an easily curable one. Six weeks of rest; unlike his present complaint. Another medical board member, unwilling to disclose his name, says, to imply that Tarique’s spinal problem is a recurrence of the old one, indicates ‘a lack of respect’ toward the board’s expert opinion.

Around me I hear people muttering, ‘Why only two, they could have broken several more, for all I care.’ ‘I don’t feel sorry for him.’ ‘He deserves what he got.’ A CNG driver tells me, `Yes, this government is making a mess of things, but I can’t get over the pleasure of seeing him detained.’

Tarique was generally not liked. Not at all. Scores of grievances flew all around. He was a novice to politics but was nominated the BNP senior joint secretary general in one go. Not a minister himself, he was reputed to be the most powerful man in Bangladesh (from 2001-2006), to have run a parallel government from Hawa Bhaban. Cabinet members flocked there, they waited on him, attempting to curry favour with the man nicknamed the Crown Prince. His bunch of cronies milked many others dry. CNG auto rickshaw drivers of Dhaka city hated his guts. Many accused him of sucking their blood dry. The costs of new CNGs were set at 3,50,000 takas, instead of its actual price of 75,000 takas. This had led to CNG owners upping the daily rent from CNG drivers many times over, in order to recover their purchase costs. He was also reputed to be ruthless. I was talking things over with a close friend who insisted, ‘… and Tarique can’t get away by saying that much of it was fabricated by his political enemies. The fact that he did not try to undo people’s perceptions of him is itself very serious, after all, we are talking of institutional politics.’

I am against torture. I have always been against torture, and yet I have no sympathy for Tarique Rahman who, in all likelihood, is now a victim of torture.

This ambivalence in me is new. I see it reflected in others. People I know well, and also others who are new to me, who I come across in street corners, stores, tea-stalls – no, I don’t see anyone shedding tears over fractured discs. I do hear distress expressed over a passenger who was recently run over in Dhaka city, in an altercation over one taka with the bus driver and conductor. I hear sorrow expressed over other incidents that people read about in the papers but Tarique’s ill health? No. Is it part of the ill-famed minus-two plan? Who knows? I remember reading somewhere that ex-prime minister Khaleda Zia has agreed to leave, but stiff bargaining is taking place over who should leave first. It seems that the government wants her to leave first. Only then will her sons be allowed to go abroad for treatment. Political speculation is rife. It is difficult to separate fact from fiction. What concerns me more is our mixed feelings over torture.

Was this foreseen, that the torture of an intensely disliked political figure, one who was perceived by many to be the chief cause of the downward swing in the BNP’s popularity, would turn out to be a torture overlooked? Did this calculation feed into the decision to torture? If so, are not both parties equally sinful? How can chipping away at principles, that torture is inhumane, that it is evil per se, help to build a democratic society?

Is torture incidental?

Or is it systemic to the state in Bangladesh? Investigative studies carried out by both national and international human rights organisations, accounts delivered by scholars, activists and victims of torture, testify to the fact that torture and ill-treatment ‘particularly during the initial period of interrogation in police custody’ is all pervasive, that it is endemic in Bangladesh. This is equally true for all manners of regimes (civil, military) that have governed the land since independence. This is equally true for both single party, and alliance governments, that have ruled Bangladesh since the overthrow of the Ershad regime. Studies and accounts testify to the fact that the meting out of torture has, thus far, been inherent to the relations of ruling in Bangladesh. A more recent study (M Rafiqul and S M Solaiman, 2004) has argued that custodial tortures leading to deaths and irreparable bodily injuries increased alarmingly in the period after the October 2001 elections.

To turn to the issue of remand, according to the law, the venue of custody during remand can be no place other than the police station. But, as most Bangladeshis know, remand victims are often enough taken to the cantonment, or to unknown locations. Often, they are interrogated by police-army joint cells, notorious for their brutality and savagery. Incumbent governments exploit the police by getting them to arrest political dissidents. The police itself, on the other hand, exploit ordinary citizens, who are often enough randomly picked up, falsely implicated in cases, and then offered the choice of either paying up, or being put in remand.

Victims of torture speak of various methods that are applied: being given urine to drink when thirsty; being kept sleepless for days; being drowned in high-pressured water while hands are tied-up and faces covered; being hung upside down and beaten on the soles of the feet with batons and metal bars; of nails being hammered into fingers; hot water-filled bottles being pushed through the rectum; being beaten in a manner which damages the muscles but leaves no outward indication; pouring acid; drilling into the body with a drill machine.

A recently-published account of torture under remand is provided by Bidisha, ex-wife of ex-president HM Ershad (Shotrur Shonge Boshobash, May 2008). Her detailed account is chilling because of the brutality that it describes, a brutality that is deeply gendered, and sexualised (curiously enough, this was toward the end of Khaleda Zia’s regime). Midway through her account of torture, she wonders, the men who tortured me must have gone home to their wives and children. They must have caressed them as people do caress their loved ones. Could his wife tell, could their children tell what deeds these very hands had performed? I do not know whether the families of torturers here have to bear the brunt of what they do. Testimony from other places indicate that they do. Frantz Fanon, Algerian psychiatrist and theorist, in The Wretched of the Earth, wrote of a French police inspector who tortured not only colonised Algerians, but also his wife and children. ‘The patient dislikes noise. At home he wants to hit everybody all the time. In fact, he does hit his children, even the baby of twenty months, with unaccustomed savagery. But what really frightened him was one evening when his wife had criticised him particularly for hitting his children too much… He threw himself upon her, beat her and tied her to a chair, saying to himself “I’ll teach her once and for all that I’m master in this house.”‘

Torture is pervasive.

Dismantling the house of torture

Social classes are described as relationships of exploitation that endure. Likewise, torture in Bangladesh. It endures changes in government, in systems of ruling, in the legitimacy provided for ruling. Dismantling it won’t be easy. Those committed to doing so insist that the torturers be identified, and punished. Likewise, that those who are higher-up, those who order it, not be given any impunity.

And what about Tarique Rahman? Can we ever forgive him? Will his experience as a victim bring a sea-change in him? If and when he returns to a normal life, will he be remorseful? Will he turn into a defender of human rights? That remains to be seen.

First published in New Age on 26th June 2008

June 26, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, governance, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , | 21 Comments

Being a mother

by rahnuma ahmed

‘One thing led to another. It was not planned, nothing of that sort. It’s a long story, but first let me tell you what I think about motherhood.’ We were chatting, Mohua Mohammod (pseudonym) and I. Mohua, in her early thirties, is a PhD student in the USA, currently in Dhaka for a short period of fieldwork.

‘When I speak of biological motherhood, I don’t want to minimise pregnancy, or the exhaustion of bearing children, of giving birth. After all, women can die during labour. I guess, I speak from a position of, let’s put it this way, the politics of blood-relatedness, of family ties, things that are taken as given, that are seen in isolation from the politics of class and gender. Or, race and ethnicity. I am not saying that there’s anything wrong with having children of one’s own. What I am saying is that the social fabric is woven from these very relations. Whether you give birth, or you adopt, you cannot isolate these things from social inequalities. On the contrary, social relations – of power and inequality – are often reproduced through these everyday events. If you look at the new technologies of reproduction, like, say a test-tube baby, these technologies often reinforce notions of purity and pollution, cultural ideas of “good” blood and “bad” blood.

‘Now, if you bring up the issue of adoption, someone or the other is likely to say dudher shad ghole mete na. I think this mindless repetition of “milk” and “whey” distracts our attention from the politics of the issue. Motherhood is social. For me, it is something collective, but of course, you know better than I do that we have moved away from our earlier histories, that in this age of individualism Bengali parents keep saying, “my son”, “my daughter”, both in real life, and in TV ads. Gone are the days of “tomar bhaijee”, “tomar bhabi”, but of course, this is not true of the subalterns, the majority of the people. It is increasingly so, for those who matter.    

‘Actually, what I find most depressing is the lack of debate about these things, both in the women’s movement, and in left circles. Leftists seem to think that nothing further needs to be said about marriage, family, and sexuality after Engels wrote his Origins.’    

She gifted me a little daughter.    

Mohua began talking about how she became a mother. We were busy with Jouno Nipiron Protirodh Moncho (Platform to Resist Sexual Oppression) in 1999, she said.    

The inmates of Tanbajar brothel were evicted earlier that year, and we had invited them to speak in our discussion series. I met Lipi apa (pseudonym) that day. We talked, and I gave her my phone number. One night, it was eight-ish, she suddenly rang. The DB police, she said, had beaten her up. She was in Dhanmondi road 2. It was not far from where we lived, and I went to see her, along with a friend. We sat and drank tea at a tea stall, we chatted about police brutalities. I fell into the habit of dropping by to see how she was while returning home from office.    

I met Tania through her. Maybe fifteen or sixteen years old, Tania was also very small in build. She was seven months pregnant. Soon after, Lipi apa suddenly rang me. Tania was nearly dying, a caesarean had to be performed, could I come to Dhaka Medical? I rushed over with a friend, Lipi apa told me that she had signed the forms, that she felt saving the mother’s life was more important than the child’s. Mohua suddenly paused and asked me, Did I ever tell you that Lipi apa’s father was a muktijoddha? I nodded my head.    

Mohua went on, I was standing in the corridor, Lipi apa had gone off somewhere, the nurse came out of the OT, she stuck the baby in my outstretched arms. My heart almost stopped beating.    

Tania had to get back to work to feed herself, and so, a few days later, we all accompanied her to the Mother Teresa mission in old Dhaka. She gave her baby up for adoption. He was healthy, very beautiful. The nuns were confident, they would have no problems in finding him a home, they said. Lipi apa and I returned from old Dhaka in the same rickshaw. We could not stop ourselves, the tears kept flowing.    

I went off to Europe several months later, for a three month-long diploma programme. I returned to find her pregnant. I asked her, hey, what’s this, what’s happening? She said, apa, you cried such a lot, this baby is for you.    

And that’s how Anarkoli entered my life.        

Raising Anarkoli    

Lipi apa and I would raise Anarkoli together, that was the plan. We fought over what we wanted her to be, whether she would be sent to a madrassah, or a school. The next year I went abroad to do my Masters, and Lipi apa started coming more frequently to our house. In my absence, the quarrels took place between her and my mother, often enough over Anarkoli, and how best to raise her. But more often, over Lipi apa herself. My mother repeatedly tried to domesticate her. In her eyes, Lipi apa was very wild.    

Mohua went on, actually, I had never sat and thought that I would enter into such a relationship. It just happened.    

We decided that Anarkoli would live with Lipi apa, but that she belonged to both of us, we were both her mother. I named her. When I lived in Dhaka I had a good salary, and I supported them. When I went abroad, I sent money from my stipend, but once there was a gap of 7-8 months because of a rift with the friend who acted as a go-between. My mother helped out then, but it was not the same. I felt very guilty.    

Of course, it is difficult, very difficult. We belong to very different classes, our lives are very different. I have my studies. I lead a very disciplined life. But Lipi apa has lived on the streets, ‘one arm tucked beneath my head, the other, covering my eyes’. After Anarkoli was born, she moved into a rented room, moved from a life on the streets to a home-centred life, saddled with a daughter. This has made her angry, she tells me often, I gave up my life of freedom for you. Mohua smiles ruefully and says, two women parenting a child is not easy. When I lived in Dhaka and was supporting them, I became a father. And now that I am here, I am like a husband, one who has returned for holidays, who sends money from abroad.    

Now that I am back, even though it’s for a short period, Anarkoli is my daughter more than ever. She is eight years old now, she was born on December 14, 2000. Mohua suddenly pauses and says, we gave Tania’s son away on March 6. I never forget that day. She slowly returns to the present, Anarkoli tells me that her mother is thinking of getting married. The landlady has told her, ‘your mother is doing itish-pitish, she is being flirty with that Nuruddin fella.’ And Lipi apa herself has told me, ‘I have raised Anarkoli for the last seven years, the next seven are yours.’ I don’t blame her, she has a life too. I have told Anarkoli, I will put you into a boarding school, I will finish my doctorate and return after three years, and then we will live together.    

Anarkoli still calls me khala, but our relationship is so different now. When I return home, she opens the door and sticks to me like a shadow. She covers my face with kisses. I tease her, who do you love more, me or your mother? She has discovered this game, she counts from one to ten one, two, three, four, and whoever is the last to be pointed at, is her most loved. She has now learnt to begin counting so that I end up being number ten!        

My family history    

Your idea of family is different from that of others, I say gently. Well, there was always tension at home between the desire for a nuclear family, and those not related to us by blood. I grew up listening to how my grandfather, my father’s father had raised a boy as his own, how this foundling son was the only one who was left a share of his estate. You see, my grandfather was worried that he might not receive anything after his death. Not only that, he married his daughter to this tokano boy. When the family property was divided after his death, there was some ill feeling because this son benefited more than the others, he got his own share, and also benefited through his wife who had inherited as a daughter. I grew up listening to these stories, also, our house was always full of people. Our own extended family plus the extended families of those who worked for us. They would visit, stay over. How does your mother feel about Lipi apa, I ask? I can’t think of any other middle class mother who would accept her presence as casually as she does. Yes, my mother is an amazing woman. She is not without faults, but she is tremendously compassionate.    

And your friends? Mohua laughs, ‘You haven’t married yet?’ That’s what everyone says. It’s the same in the US. My American women friends talk of their boyfriends, their crises, and I can’t help but tell them, ‘your lives seem so prescribed.’ Similar to many lives here. It doesn’t attract me.    

‘But do you talk to them about your life? About your daughter? About shared mothering?’ I ask. No, not really. I guess I feel silenced by their accounts of the normal lives that they lead.    

I ask playfully, What if you meet someone, fall in love, want to get married? What will happen to Anarkoli?    

Well, Mohua laughs and says, for me to fall in love, I think he would not only have to be intelligent and committed, he would have to be a practising kind of guy, not someone who talks big. I would expect him to have several Anarkolis of his own! So, no problem. 

First published in New Age on 23rd June 2008

June 23, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dancing amidst the Baobabs

They called her Yatounde, the one who returned. Like her priestess grandmother Aloopho, who knew the secrets of the dance, Yatounde had dance in her blood. Her father had disobeyed his mother the priestess, by withholding the knowledge he had been told to pass on. Yatounde knew anyway, and at nineteen, went against family plans and became a dancer. Her father knew the time had come, that Aloopho had returned. By then the given name Germaine had stuck to Yatounde.

Yatounde (Germaine Acogny) at Ecole des Sables. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

She made us feel the moon, the stars and the sun. We stood on the bare rocks and soaked in the desert sun. She taught us to feel the strength of the skies above and the soil beneath our feet. They connected through our bodies and soaked away the poison from our skin.

Germaine had egged us on, squeezing movement out of our ungainly bodies. “It’s okay to make mistakes” she said. “Okay if you can’t make it. Okay to try.” She had wanted us to join in with the Sabar dancers in the village. We knew it was wishful thinking. From the small child barely able to stand, to the grandmother who danced with elegant grace, the bodies move in rhythm, the passion flowed. Never had I seen such exuberance, such joy of life. Music taking over so completely. But no, not even Yatounde’s persuasion could coax Senegalese rhythm into our bodies, our veins. But the vibrations reverberated in us long after we left. Allessio, from Triangle Arts, cried. The rest of us watched in awe.

Video of Sabar dancers. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
We had come together from Argentina, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Germany, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Netherlands, Tanzania and the UK, to the desert studios of Jant-Bi in Senegal. It was the network partners’ meeting of the Prince Claus Fund. We shared successes, talked of failure and fed off each other’s passion for the arts. Just being in this crazy, wild, gritty team energised. We were survivors and would survive together. Dancing under the desert sky was one of the many ways we came together.

Yatounde took us for a walk before sunrise. We walked in silence across the desert sands. The warm morning breeze drifted in from the sea. With the first sun rays lighting up the clouds we came to the Baobab tree. We circled the tree and soon it became part of us. It had stood there for a thousand years. Its hollow womb, the final resting place of the Griot, the village story teller.

Hollow interior of Baobab tree. We had entered through the hole on the bottom right. The tree was thirty three metres in circumference. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The tree had a thousand stories to tell. While we had danced together earlier, this morning we danced on our own. As the sun rose from behind the distant hills, we found expressions to unite the sun, the sand, with the Baobab reaching out to the sky.

Baobab tree at sunrise. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Our visit to the detention cells in the “House of Slaves” in Gorée island, a short ferry ride from Dakar city, reminded me of the slave dug outs in Zanzibar. The “House of Slaves” now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built in 1780. The ten foot by ten foot cells held about fifty men. The women and the children, all separated, were in similar cells. They all stood naked and chained, waiting for the journey across the sea where some six million, sent from many such islands across Africa, would eventually die. There were no records of the ones who died on the journey overland. Force-fed to meet the sixty kilo minimum weight set by the traders, they ate and excreted standing in those cells. The ones who resisted, if left alive, were put in cells that were smaller, lower, darker. The dead were fed to the sharks. Some of the living became shark feed as well. Some of the women provided sex to the traders. For some, bearing mixed children was the route to salvation. Africa still bore the scars of their pain.

“The Door of no Return” was the exit point from the “House of Slaves”. Slaves were either shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, or fed to the sharks. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Security corridor separating cells from outer wall of “House of Slaves”. Gorée Island. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

As we walked out, numbed by the horror of it all, women with trinkets surrounded us. We were terenga (foreigners). The moneyed ones. They needed tourists to come to Gorée Island. Tourists to see the spectacle. Buy souvenirs. “I give you good price” they all said. Some had mastered more sophisticated terminology, and some NGO jargon. They talked of their poverty, of their need, of our responsibility. “You are my human rights father,” Bijou said as she sold me a seed necklace, a basket of cloth dolls balanced on her head.

Bijou with dolls for sale. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Ibrahim invited me to his grotto. A cave like corridor on the roof of the cells. He and a friend had set up a studio there. Ibrahim painted and composed music and shared his studio with a friend. He saw me not as a foreigner but as a fellow artist. He posed amidst his artwork. The gentle waves of the Senegalese shore still beckon me through the old seashell he gave as a parting gift.

Ibrahim in his studio. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Agnesio lived in a house at the back of the church in the Mandingo village in Saloum. She invited me in as I photographed the graffiti on her wall. She didn’t speak my language, I didn’t speak hers, but she knew what she wanted. Pulling me to her room, she stood me against the wall. She then sat on the bed and held her hands together. I was to take a photograph of her praying. I had no way of giving her a print. We both knew I would probably never see her again, but this was a photograph that needed to be taken. Grateful that I had a digital display we shared the photograph. It was a specific image she was after and she directed the shoot until she was satisfied. She thanked me warmly as I left. I came back with an image. The picture she kept needed no pixels. It was etched in her mind.

Agnesio praying. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Cheik Guaye waited outside Osman’s house in Medina, in Dakar. I was a prospective customer and sales were low on Sundays. I wasn’t going to buy his antiques, but we sat and chatted by the roadside anyway. He had been a student of philosophy at university, but had dropped out. The elder brother of nine children, he needed to earn so the others could study. Lacking the capital to buy the antiques himself, he sold them for a friend, living off the commission. Some months I’ll make 400.000 he said (about 600 euro), but other months there might be nothing. “What happens then” I asked. “We survive” he said. “we are survivors.” He had heard of Yunus and micro-credit. “Here they only give loans to those who have money” he said. While I admired Yunus’ achievements, I had met too many people who suffered under the weight of micro-credit, to see it as a cure-all. He had antiques to sell, I had a flight to catch. This was one discussion that would have to wait.

Cheikh Guaye outside Osman’s house in Medina. Dakar. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

There were many survivors in this land. Cheik had many dreams and few illusions. He wished to introduce foreigners to the arts of Senegal. To dancing, music and cooking. He had been trained as a hotel manager, but without connections he knew he would never get a job. “If the world was a fair place, Africa would never be in the state that it is. The slave traders have left, but the colonisation continues. Our leaders are no better. Many have robbed our land more than the white man.” But he was a pragmatist. “I don’t hold it against the tourists. Why should one be blamed for what one’s ancestors did? We need the foreigners. We forgive, but we do not forget.”

The night before we were to leave, as we gathered in Germaine and Helmut’s home, Kaolack a dancer of the troupe, and his wife Diarra, told us of the party they were going to that night. This was African life we hadn’t seen, and while we were weary, we decided to go. Directions were given. It was close to the headman’s house, and with only three thousand people in the village we were heading to, we were confident we’d find it. The stars were out and the milky-way shone brightly as we headed toward the drumbeats, but it was another Sabar we found ourselves in. While we realised we had come to the wrong party, it was still riveting. When we did go again in search of Kaolack and Diarra, the music led us to a third party. We discovered there were others, though Chez Paolo was where it really happened.

Dancers at first party. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Dancer at first party. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Max and Janine at Chez Paolo night club. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Late arrivals to Chez Paolo night club. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Tired by now, I was ready to go back for I had wanted to return to the Baobab tree in the morning, but I was happy I stayed. For a people with such a destroyed past, for a continent with such a ravaged present, for there to be such celebration of life, for dance and music to be so integral a part of their being, told me more about Africa than I could otherwise have known. This was not the dark continent of my childhood books. The gaunt images of Darfur and Rwanda, the hollowed eyes of those dying of AIDS, the turmoil of conflict, were not what I saw around me. I saw proud people. Generous. Full of life. Of living. People who rejoiced in music and dance. I wondered how an entire continent had been transformed into an icon of poverty. I wondered what role image-makers played in perpetuating these stereotypes.

It was time to leave. On my last day, before the sun rose again, I went back to the Baobab. On my own this time. I needed to be alone with the tree. The giant tree with a thousand arms pointed up to the sky reminded me of Mike Royko’s epitaph:

“When my time comes, I hope no one drains my veins of their sustaining fluid and fills them with formaldehyde, then wastes me by putting me in a concrete box in the ground for eternity. Rather, just a simple pine box with an acorn on top of it. Find a place where a tree is needed and return me to nature. When the acorn grows, I can nourish it and give back in some measure what I’ve taken. Maybe someday kids can crawl in my branches or a raccoon might curl up in my trunk or the larks can sing out from my leaves. At any rate, I would rather let an oak tree be my epitaph than a marble slab be my tombstone.”

Baobab tree. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The Baobab did inspire me, but it was not death I was thinking of, Africa made me want to dance. We went to Medina in the afternoon where Osman, another dancer in the troupe, lived. His extended family lived in this poor part of Dakar. It reminded me of homes in the old part of Dhaka. The walls were decked with photographs of religious leaders the family were murids (disciples) of. We weren’t surprised when one of Osman’s friends came to invite us to another street party. The drummers were in the middle of the street, with the dancers in a circle around. It was a frenzied affair.

Dancer in streets of Medina. Dakar. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Dressed to kill, the women taunted and flirted with the drummers as the impossible rhythm mesmerised us. The balconies of nearby apartment blocks quickly filled. Cars realising the streets had been taken over by a dance found other routes. No questions asked. There was a wedding in the next street, prayers in the third, and just jubilation in another. Life was being lived.

On my way back to Dhaka, I imagined the shackles around the slaves on Gorée Island. But I also remembered Ibrahim and Agnesio and Cheik. Each had found a way to shake off the chains of their ancestors. This was an Africa that would stay with me. For they had taught me to forgive but not forget. For I had danced amidst the Baobabs.

June 18, 2008 Posted by | Drik's Network Partners | , , , , | 11 Comments


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.


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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo, 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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo, 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.

June 17, 2008 Posted by | Photography, Photojournalism, Photojournalism issues | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘We want to know’

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.’

Kalpana’s lasting contribution

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: //

Responses to Kalpana’s disappearance

Sonali Chakma


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


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


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



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.

Kalpana’s letter to Shaikat Dewan

New Lallyaghona

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.

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.

Kalpana Chakma’s political life

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

June 13, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh | , , , , , | 2 Comments

‘The best years of my life’. Or, remittances earned

rahnuma ahmed

Amar jiboner sreshtho shomoita dilam. Amar joubon amake ke phirie debe?
(I gave the best years of my life. Who will give me back my youth?)

A Bangladeshi migrant. Paris, 2002.

Bangladeshi workers resting in between shifts in Maldives. © Shahidul Alam / Drik / Majority World

‘The best years’. Being treated like an animal

‘I slept many nights beside the road and spent many days without food. It was a painful life. I could not explain that life,’ these are the words of a Bangladeshi migrant worker who had gone to Saudi Arabia. He was speaking to Human Rights Watch researchers who spoke to other Bangladeshi migrants, also to migrants from India and the Philippines (Bad Dreams: Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia, 2004).

But not all migrant workers were abused, not all were exploited to their bones. Somewhere else, I read about Manzur Ali who first went to Saudi Arabia in 1982, and later again in 1999. His first employment is the stuff that migrants’ dreams are made of. His Saudi employer bore the entire cost of his travels. He worked in a construction firm as a carpenter. His monthly earnings, including overtime, reached twelve to thirteen hundred riyals, in our currency, 21,000 to 23,000 taka. Food, housing and medical facilities were provided; also, a fifty-day annual leave. Manzur worked for three years, returned home and started a business. His second visit was disastrous. He had to pay a recruiting agency 80,000 taka. His monthly wages were not the promised 9,500 riyal, but only 650. He had to work three times harder than before, if he failed, he was physically tortured. Since his employer did not give him his resident permit, he was not allowed to go outside the firm premises. Eleven months later he escaped to Riyadh, and to a long spell of illegal work. Caught by the police, he was arrested and deported to Bangladesh six years later.

Contrary to common expectations, migrants who enter legally and comply with government regulations can also be cheated, overworked, underpaid, or not paid at all. Bangladeshi workers repairing underground water pipes in Tabuk municipality, Saudi Arabia, told HRW researchers that they were forced to work ten to twelve hours a day, sometimes throughout the night and without any overtime pay. They were not paid salaries for the first two months, and had to borrow money from other Bangladeshis to buy food. Another migrant, who worked as a butcher in Dammam, was forced to leave the kingdom by his employer with six months of his salary unpaid.

Women migrant workers spoke of torturous working conditions. Hundreds of low-paid Asian women, who worked as cleaners in Jeddah hospitals, had to work twelve-hour days, without any food or break. After work, they were confined to locked dormitories. Skilled seamstresses from the Philippines, who worked twelve-hour days, spoke of not being permitted to leave their workplace, of being forbidden to speak more than a few words to customers and the Saudi owners. A Filipina, who worked for a family in Dammam, was raped by her male employer. She spoke of her trauma, and how she was constantly on the lookout for the front gate to be unguarded, so that she could escape.

But not only cruel employers and unscrupulous middlemen are to be blamed. Flawed immigration policies and gaps in labour laws expose migrants to trafficking, forced labour and other terrible abuses. A twenty-three-year-old Indian tailor, while in police custody, was beaten for two days. On the third day, his interrogators gave him two pages handwritten in Arabic. He was to sign his name three times on each page. He said, ‘I was so afraid that I did not dare ask what the papers were, or what was written on them.’

What words do South and East Asian migrant workers use to describe their migrant situation? I kept coming across metaphors of slavery, of being treated like animals. By their employers, by recruiting agents, and also by embassy officials. A Bangladeshi migrant working in a textile factory in Jordan detailed the physical and verbal abuse doled out by his employer: ‘severe beating, verbal insults, threats of deportation and forcing them to sign blank documents’. He said, five people, including two women, had been beaten over the past two days, and added, ‘They want us to work like slaves.’ Widyaningsih, a 35-year-old Indonesian woman, a would-be migrant to Malaysia, described the conditions she had faced while being recruited in Indonesia: The broker brought me to the training centre in Tanjung Pinang by ship…. they deducted my full wages for four-and-a-half months [to repay what they said were up-front costs]…. I had to spend two months at the training centre. We were never allowed outside, there was a very high gate and it was always locked. They treated us poorly, always calling us names like ‘dog’. And a Bangladeshi woman, a migrant worker who had recently returned from the Middle East, said, Bangladeshi embassy officials ignore us, they don’t even recognise our difficulties, ‘They treat us like animals.’

Objectifying migrant workers

At home, in circles of power, migration is discussed in two basic ways: in a language of absence or ‘lack’, and in the language of remittances. Never in the language of suffering, or pain, or dreams crushed, or accountability.

Men and women who go abroad as migrant workers are described in terms of what they lack, they lack education, they lack skills (at most, they are described as ‘semi’-skilled). There are deeper connotations, they seem to be lacking culture, lacking the best of what the nation has to offer. They have only their labour, and that too, menial. Their presence, and what they bring back as personal belongings (blankets, TVs, camera, mobile phones, photo frames), packed tightly in mounds of carefully sewn luggage often give rise to patronising looks of their better-off compatriots at airports.

But what migrant workers send back are not sources of embarrassment. Remittances belong to the nation. I watch experts speak at seminars and conferences with a self-congratulatory air. Migrant remittances, they say, are the ‘major source of national revenue’, they enhance ‘national economic growth’, Bangladesh is ‘a notable exporter of manpower’. I see experts look prophetically into the future, ‘From its current position Bangladesh has to increase its remittance income by 25 per cent year on year to generate remittances income of approximately US$ 30 billion in 2015.’

Sometimes, I hear them sound alarm bells. We get told, ‘The rise in remittance and overseas employment is on the verge of witnessing a downward trend’, ‘The government target of reaching fresh overseas employments to nine lakh this year is also likely to fall flat’, ‘We can’t feel the blow of the bans or cut in overseas employment immediately, but after two to three years remittance will definitely dry up if no major changes take place’.

Migrant men and women are objects to the nation’s goals. They are never spoken of as heroes.

Family ties

I sit and chat with Shireen Huq, an old friend, whose mother, poet Jaheda Khanum, passed away this March. I prod her gently, what was it khala used to say about class differences between migrant families and our families?

Well, says Shireen, she would look at her Dhanmondi neighbours, at their expatriate sons and daughters, those who are well-educated, in professions, who live abroad and insist that the family home in Dhanmondi be turned over to developers, because they need the money there. Actually someone we know quite well, he has never sent anything, in twenty long years, not a single cent. Not for his mother, or his brother, or his sister. But as I was saying, someone amma knew well, immediately after she died her children insisted that the land be sold, they need the dollars abroad. But another neighbour, her children exerted tremendous pressure on her, but can you imagine, she was still living, they said to her, go and live in a small flat. We need the dollars now. I mean, they didn’t wait, they couldn’t wait for her to pass away. And amma, she would compare them with young migrant men she met in New York, she went there once, she would say, they turn their blood into water to send money to their families in Bangladesh. And then she would say, people of our class are paying for their economic and social mobility.

As I write, I grieve for Bahraini fashion designer Sana Al Jalahma, murdered in August 2006, and Mizan Noor Al Rahman Ayoub Mia, who worked for the family, and was accused and convicted of the murder. Mizan was executed by a firing squad early June 4, 2008.

Two lives lost. Lives, and losses, that are difficult to explain.

First published in New Age on Monday 9th June 2008

Film on migration: In Search of the shade of the Banyan Tree

Website on migration:Migrant Soul

June 9, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , | 4 Comments