Bangladesh Slideshow

26 March, 2008

Forever Ring the Bells of Freedom

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

It was the age-old story of an insensitive minority conspiring to deprive the majority of their due share, of manipulative endeavors to perpetuate political, economic and cultural domination, and invoking religion to sanitize the ugly scheme. I am talking about Bangladesh’s struggle for independence in 1971.

A sea change occurred in the political character of the nation with the historical 7 March speech of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He spoke of the 23 years of bitterness, of broken promises, of bloodshed. “Since we have learned to die, no one can keep us suppressed anymore,” he asserted. And then came the words that have made him immortal, “the struggle this time is the struggle for independence.” His speech that afternoon ended with the words 'Joi Bangla' (Victory to Bengal), which became the militant slogan for 75 million Bengalis during the nine-month war of independence.

The West Pakistan rulers were not about to let this audacity pass without punishment. While talks were going on for an acceptable solution, so was the conspiracy for a military crackdown. In the dead of night on 25 March, the Pakistan army launched a brutal attack on the sleeping, unarmed population of Dhaka, targeting not only the Bengali members of the armed forces and police, but also students, hindus and pretty much whoever happened to be in the line of fire. Cunning, surprise, deception and speed were stressed as crucial elements for success in this six hour operation to disarm and secure Dhaka. The indiscriminant use of artillery and armour stood testimony to the scant regard for innocent civilian lives, and the death toll crossed 100,000 in one night.

The nation of tigers roared to defend itself, and the spirit of defiance, of longing to be free, was lit in every heart. Droves of people, from every strata of society, formed the Mukti Bahini (Freedom Fighters). Resistance was built up in every locality, both urban and rural. Young and old, men and women, all united in courage, innocence, determination and idealism. The Pakistan army responded with indiscriminant arrest of civilians, torture and death of ‘suspects’ in custody, assault and rape, and destruction of property and lives. Sparing not old grandmothers, nor babies, nor pregnant women, nor clergy praying in the mosque. Nothing was sacrosanct. And there were the inevitable snakes, those who collaborated with the Pak army, providing not only information but also misinformation, invoking the name of Allah to justify brutalities. Distrust in friend and neighbor festered. Certain parts of Dhaka were 'cleansed' of Bengalis, their wives and daughters taken for pleasure, their properties seized. Non-muslims were openly slaughtered. When a blood shortage occured for the wounded Pak soldiers, people were hauled off the streets and every drop of blood extracted from their bodies.
Millions escaped to neighboring India, walking hundreds of miles, some dying on the way, trading affluence for life, and settling for refugee status. India was a true ally, not only feeding the sea of humanity but also providing training to the Mukti Bahini and launching a diplomatic offensive against the atrocities committed by West Pakistan in this country. The Bangladesh government in exile also operated from Indian soil. Towards the end of the war, the Indian army joined forces with the Mukti Bahini, and the Pak offensive finally crumbled. Easy enough to fight half-fed, inadequately armed, semi-trained civilians. Quite a different story when facing an equally equipped trained army.

The genocide and reign of terror lasted for nine months. With every passing day, the Mukti Bahini became better trained, better organized. Sporadic attacks on Pak army personnel and establishment gradually evolved into an all out offensive. With realization that victory was slipping gradually out of their hands, the Pak army made a final effort to cripple the soul of the Bengali nation, arresting the prominent intellectuals of the country and murdering them brutally - with their eyes blindfolded and hands tied behind their backs. This took place only two days before the surrender of the occupation forces on 16 December 1971, testimony to their frustrated rage and sheer desperation. The sheer magnitude of Pak army brutalities however, only gradually came to light after the surrender.

As I look back on those dreadful days and sacrifices made, 37 years down the road, I can’t help but feel that those sacrifices did not achieve their true goal. We are independent as a country, but as a nation we still thrive on internal conflicts and fiercely drawn lines of divisionism. A faction boldly denies genocide and wrong-doings during the war, and known war criminals and collaborators still go around unpunished, while many freedom fighters live in abject poverty with little or no recognition. Even while we publicy pay homage to the martyrs, this travesty of justice and dishonor has lowered the head of the proud Bengali nation.
Can we not rise above the petty differences that rule our lives, identify with the 1971 spirit of freedom, and strive for the justice that is due? At that time the bells tolled for liberation of a land, let them ring again for the liberation of our souls.

21 March, 2008

My Window Tree

A green canopy is a rare sight in this concrete city. I am truly fortunate to live on a tree-lined street, with a row of weeping willows and a massive krishnachura right in front of our apartment building. This towering sentry always reminded me of the Robert Frost poem, “Tree At My Window.” Its spreading branches swayed softly in the breeze, provided the surrounding area with a cool shade, and from its lofty height, caught the first and last rays of the sun. In the evening, it was home to dozens of birds, and the rustling of its leaves was always a comforting sound.

I woke up this morning to the sound of breaking branches, and rushed to my window. Some people were lopping off branches from the trees, which is a fairly common sight as branches tend to get tangled in electric cables, and cause havoc during storms. I praised Dhaka City Corporation for their wisdom in taking this timely step in the nor’wester season, and went back to sleep.

Around mid-day, I noticed that the tree-cutting was still in progress, and was rather alarmed. I asked the tree-cutters, and received the sad news that the owner had sold the tree to be chopped down to make way for a gate into his property! I was heartbroken! Oh the poor, poor, tree! And irritated too! What idiot chops down a perfectly healthy shade giving tree to make way for a gate??? I guess different people have different priorities. No wonder conservationists are in constant battle to save the planet. But the plight of the tree brought tears to my eyes. And I seriously thought of setting the dog on the cutters.

My ode to the Krishnachura begins with a line from the Frost poem, “But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed”, and ends with some photos of the last hours of this green giant. I apologize to you, my silent friend, for human selfishness and the untimely ending of your life.

03 March, 2008

Paradise Isle

"Dekha hoy nai chokhkhu meliya..."
Tagore's immortal lines describe me perfectly. I have sailed the islands of Maldives and basked on the beaches of Hawaii, but had not until now discovered what a beautiful paradise lies in my own country.

Yes, I'm talking about St Martin's Island. It took us 16 hours door-to-door to reach this little island, but it was so worth it! The view from our right-on-the-beach hotel balcony rivaled that of any other top-rated beaches I've walked on. And once my toes touched the sand and tread the water, oh it just felt so much better!

We walked the beaches for hours, watched the sunrise and sunset, waded in shallow rock pools,
admired the variety of shells scattered on the sand, were childlike in our excitement at seeing the colorful fish dart in and out of the coral reefs, dipped neck-deep in the surprisingly warm sea (reckless, I can’t swim!), looked in at the sea turtle hatchery, took a trawler to Chhera Dwip (Torn Island - so named as it is separated from the main island by a coral reef) and gorged on green coconut, watermelon and fried fish. We bought flip flops and pickles (all smuggled in from Myanmar and sold openly) from shops on the main street. I chatted endlessly to children and adults. And found three new canine pals.

Fishing constitutes the major livelihood on the island, tourism comes second (seasonal, for six months). There is many a family who've lost their man to the seas, accepting their fate stoically, and the average income of fishing families is around Tk. 200 a day! But despite the hardships, the poverty, the constant struggle and uncertainties of life, the people are undemanding, God-fearing, friendly and helpful. The islanders are a religious lot, and we came across not a single adult women anywhere (all safely ensconced from prying eyes in their homes). Almost all children are getting some form of education (primary school or madrassah), which was truly, truly amazing!

This island has been declared an ecologically critical area by the Government, in prominently displayed billboards at the jetty, and elsewhere on the island, and yellow-shirted volunteers patrol the beaches to make sure there is no picking of shells or coral. There still is though, thanks to unscrupulous tourists. And my last morning on the island was spoiled by the sight of a fisherman gutting a spotted catshark, and a manta ray awaiting the same fate!

The facilities on the island - from hotel to food, are adequate. The prices, however, are exorbitant (a very average hotel room was Tk. 1800/night, a piece of fried fish Tk. 50, a small watermelon Tk. 100). Electricity is provided through generators only in the evenings. Mushrooming hotels and mindless littering are a rising threat to the ecological balance of the island.

But if time-off had not been such a precious commodity in my life, I would spend a lot of time on this isle! Oh the pristine white beaches, the crystal clear blue water, the simple people, the fresh fruit and fish! I have been back two days but the raving will continue for weeks!