This is the story of my violent love affair with an unlikely destination.
My first moments in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and one of the most densely populated cities in the world, were a blur of people, dust and traffic. Stepping off the plane, it was the thick stench of pollution that hit me first. Terminals are clogged by a system failure as officials hand process my visa. Locals stare curiously and guards holding rifles look at me in suspicion. Child beggars follow us to a car park, in a way reminiscent of a scene from Slumdog Millionaire, and when we finally reach the hotel transfer bus, it offers no solace. I grip my bags as I face the sporadic movements of reckless rickshaws, overflowing buses and crammed cabs.
Welcome to Bangladesh.
During my stay, three Bengalis tell me “Bangladesh is a country where you don’t want to come, but once you do, you don’t want to leave.” Indeed. Despite the shock experience of day one, I begin adjusting to the mosquitoes, prayer calls and even the traffic. Every drive through the city streets leaves me mesmerised as I widen my eyes to take in just a little bit more…
In Dhaka, Bangladesh, poverty and development take the form of construction. Building work is everywhere. Men and young boys hack at rubble with no shoes, paving the way for new apartments, roads, bridges and even an amusement park.
This is a city rapidly expanding to accommodate for the growing influx of job seekers from around the country. Dhaka is immensely overcrowded, already home to more than 15 million people across 250sq kms. No wonder the traffic in Dhaka city turns a 20-minute ride into an hour-long journey.
Lining the streets of Dhaka, you notice photos of a bearded man with a rope caressed around his neck. This is Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a senior leader of Bangladesh’s second largest Islamic party, the Jamaat-e-Islami. The posters are visual evidence of a nation wide civilian movement, The Shabagh, gaining force and momentum.
The Shabagh calls for the death sentence of influential leaders of the Jamaat and its ally, the Bangladesh National Party, accused of committing heinous crimes against humanity in the country’s independence war of 1971. The war criminals were initially charged with life imprisonment. Not enough to a people hungry for retributive justice. They want the death penalty and nothing less for the millions brutally raped and murdered by Pakistani loyalists and anti-liberationists.
Three no-transport hartals, or strikes, were enforced by the Jamaat in the span of my thirteen days in Bangladesh. The hartals are nothing like the strikes and pickets that have characterised industrial action at this University over the last year, but rather prohibit the use of any four-wheeled vehicles from 6am to 6pm across the nation. During the twelve restrictive hours Dhaka is eerily still except for the occasional rickshaw. This was pure retaliation and power play by the Jamaat and as I was leaving, news of violent protests against the Shabagh shot fear through the population. The violence and scare tactics intensify with growing support for the Shabagh.
Initially, the whole ordeal surrounding the death penalty seemed a little undemocratic and primitive. It was the all too familiar smell of pride and arrogance. With every conversation and relationship formed however, you get a hint of the complexity and multi-faceted issue of recovering from past trauma, fighting political tyrants and juggling an overflowing population.
The three Bengalis were right. I checked in my luggage but I didn’t want to leave. I longed to stay and fight for this country, satisfying a craving for a national identity, I never knew existed.