Issue: 2018-01-05 | The Daily Star

The violent persecution of the Rohingya, which has displaced almost a million people from Myanmar to Bangladesh in recent months, represents one of the worst humanitarian disasters the world has ever seen. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) estimates that at least 7,000 people have been killed as a result of the violence that began earlier this year. Hundreds of thousands more have lost their homes, livelihoods, and dignity. I recently concluded a trip to the border region where I had gone to investigate and better understand the causes, consequences, and nature of violence the Rohingya have endured. The brutality and scale of suffering is hard to imagine but undeniable. Rohingya refugees' massive influx into Bangladesh echoes that of Bengalis' mass exodus to India some 46 years ago. The horrors that Rohingya men, women, and children have suffered serve as painful reminders of Bangladeshis' bloodstained quest for self-determination including, notably, the trauma of sexual violence and the multitude of gender-based insecurities.

Widespread sexual violence against women and girls

Sexual violence in armed conflict has existed for millennia but it is far from an inevitable occurrence.1 In 2008, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1820 that, for the first time, recognised rape as a weapon of war and called for concerted efforts to prevent its occurrence as well as to ensure accountability for its perpetration.   The Secretary General's Report pursuant to that resolution cited sexual violence against Muslims in Rakhine state as a persistent problem of international concern.2 Beyond Myanmar, scholars increasingly acknowledge that rape, and other forms of sexual violence, may be committed in a variety of ways by armed actors in order to humiliate victims, terrorise their families, weaken communal ties, socialise combatants, retaliate for other attacks, and change demographic characteristics of a population.3 The government of Myanmar refutes allegations of rape and other human rights abuses. According to Pramila Patten, UN Special representative of the Secretary General for Sexual Violence in Conflict, Aung San Suu Kyi would not entertain “any substantive discussion” in recent meetings on the sexual violence that soldiers, border security forces, and Rakhine militias have committed against the Rohingya.4 Testimonies of refugees, however, tell an altogether different story.

In the violence that has engulfed northern Rakhine since August 2017, sexual violence appears to be a deliberate, prevalent, and severe form of targeting that Rohingya women and girls have suffered. It is difficult to ascertain, let alone verify, exact figures but victims' accounts suggest that the overwhelming majority of women were themselves subjected to sexual assault or know someone who was. Published reports by journalists and human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch,5 as well as my own fieldwork, indicate that gang rape has not only been a common part of the Burmese military's repertoire of abuse but also one that fits into a broader ethnic cleansing agenda. My preliminary analysis of sexual violence against Rohingya in the context of the Myanmar military's “clearance operations”6 reveals patterns similar to those observed during the bloody breakdown of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and Bangladesh's liberation war.7 The tatmadaw claims to be fighting a counterinsurgency campaign to eliminate Rohingya militants, just as West Pakistan's military claimed to do against Bengali separatists in 1971, but the violence uncannily resembles an all-out extermination effort with sexual violence a central feature.

Rohingya women have told of being raped in front of their family members as well as taken away from their homes and brutalised by groups of soldiers. It is yet to be seen how many babies will be born from these rapes and how they will fare in a world where to be a Rohingya is to be persecuted, banished, and friendless. Mothers recount their children, some newborns, being thrown into open fires. Many of the children who have made it to Bangladesh are unaccompanied, some separated from their parents while others saw their families slaughtered in front of their own eyes.

Rohingya Women and Girls
Photo: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

Gendered insecurities in refugee camps

As forcibly displaced persons, women and girls face a range of insecurities in the camps scattered throughout Ukhia and Teknaf. Although safe from armed belligerents in Myanmar, they are vulnerable in new ways. Intimate partner violence, for example, is a growing concern, its occurrence all too common in high-stress and post-traumatic situations. Unmarried women I spoke to also complained about sexual harassment within the camps from members of their own community. The Rohingya are an extremely conservative society in which girls are typically married off almost immediately after they reach puberty whereas unmarried teenage girls are shamed and shunned, expected to remain out of sight and away from the male gaze. Early and forced marriage is therefore also an issue amongst the refugee population. At the same time, the fertility rate amongst the Rohingya—who previously lacked access to contraceptives and family planning awareness—is very high, which has consequences for maternal and neonatal health.  Inadequate clean water and easily accessible sanitation arrangements also cause discomfort, especially for the pregnant, heighten risks for catching communicable disease; and leave women and girls vulnerable to assault, especially when latrines are far away or lack lights and locks. These are just some of the issues discussed at the women friendly spaces that international humanitarian aid and domestic non-governmental organisations are running, which serve as places for women to gather, enjoy respite, and obtain useful information. Similarly, sessions specifically targeting adolescent girls are also being held at child friendly spaces scattered throughout several camps to raise awareness about hygiene, healthy relationships, and personal safety.  Programmes like these help mitigate some of the difficult circumstances in which women and girls find themselves but they do not fully protect participants from the varied security risks they confront.  Moreover, despite growing efforts, the gap between need and supply with respect to this type of programming remains wide.  

Trafficking—of persons, drugs, and arms—is also a major concern, one that has distinct gendered implications. During my trip, I met a young woman in Kutupalong refugee camp who had fallen prey to traffickers. Approximately a month after her arrival in Bangladesh, a woman known to she and her parents lured her out of the camps with the promise of a well-paying job in Cox's Bazar. Naïve, desperate, and destitute, she trusted this woman who took her to a non-descript building, locked her inside a room, and funneled men to her bed who visited her day and night, having their way with her. A sheltered virgin, the young woman went into shock and became manic. After a week of this harrowing ordeal, with her mental and physical condition dramatically deteriorating, the young woman was returned to her parents in the camp and given 500 taka for her troubles. Now she spends her days and nights in the ramshackle tarp-covered hut, hiding herself away from the sun, people's whispers, and the leering eyes of other potential predators. 

Looking forward: trauma, healing, and legacies of mass violence

One need not look farther than Bangladesh's own history to know the long lasting, intensely painful, and complicated legacy of mass violence, especially rape and other forms of sexual violence. All too often, women's lived experiences of conflict are hidden in the shadows of public imagination or they are politicised by elites who—even if well meaning—may do more harm than good. The silencing and sequestering of sexual violence victims can worsen trauma or ignite new and other forms of individual and collective anguish.

To counter social stigma, which is common in the aftermath of conflict-related sexual violence, the acceptance of rape victims by their communities is critically important. Community leaders, including imams, will have a salient role to play as lessons from Iraq and Bosnia demonstrate. Ceremonies were held recently in the Yazidi holy site of Lalish to welcome back former ISIS sex slaves after a declaration—akin to a fatwa—was issued by the faith's supreme leader Baba Sheikh on the reintegration of recovered women and girls.8 Similarly, in 1993 while fighting continued in Bosnia, a spiritual leader and jurist, Ahmed Mesic, wrote an open letter to raped women offering support and calling for victims' rehabilitation.9 Memories of sexual abuse and exploitation run deep; their trauma is exacerbated by social scorn. Women raped during conflict, like those in Bangladesh, Iraq, Bosnia, Myanmar, and far too many other places, deserve care and understanding. They also deserve justice.

While it may seem premature to talk of accountability for human rights abuses at a time when the Burmese military continues to raze Rohingya villages, it is important to heed lessons learned from experiences elsewhere on documentation of abuses and collection of testimonies. If future criminal accountability efforts are to be feasible, the care, meticulousness, and due process with which evidence is gathered and preserved today will surely be consequential. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court specifies rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilisation, and any other form of sexual violence as crimes against humanity and war crimes punishable under international law.10 Legal precedents exist in both domestic and international prosecutions that could pave the way for future cases involving rape against the Rohingya but these, if ever, are unlikely to happen any time soon. Until then, structured, sustained, and victim-centric access to psychosocial services will be paramount for the well being of not just women and girls who were raped but the future of Rohingya society generally.

 

***

 

Mayesha Alam is a Global Health Justice Fellow at Yale Law School and a doctoral candidate in political science at Yale University. She is the author of Women and Transitional Justice (Palgrave Macmillan 2014).

Notes:

1              Elisabeth J. Wood, "Armed groups and sexual violence: When is wartime rape rare?." Politics & Society 37, no. 1 (2009): 131-161.

2              United Nations Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to Security Council resolution 1820 (2008),” S/2009/362*, 20 August 2009.

3              Dara K. Cohen, "Explaining rape during civil war: Cross-national evidence (1980–2009)." American Political Science Review 107, no. 3 (2013): 461-477.

4              Poppy McPherson, “Aung San SuuKyi 'avoided' discussion of Rohingya rape during UN Meeting,” The Guardian, 27 December 2017.

5              Human Rights Watch, “'All of My Body Was Pain': Sexual Violence against Rohingya Women and girls in Burma,” 2017.

6              Oliver Holmes, Katharine Murphy, and Damien Gayle, “Myanmar says 40% of Rohingya villages targeted by army are now empty,” The Guardian, 23 September 2017.

7              Lisa Sharlach, "Rape as genocide: Bangladesh, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda." New Political Science 22, no. 1 (2000): 89-102.

8              Emma Graham-Harrison, “'I was sold seven times': the Yazidi women welcomed back into the faith,” The Guardian, 1 July 2017.

9              Riada A. Akyol, “When Victims of wartime Rape are Scorned,” The New York Times, 18 December 2017.

10           United Nations General Assembly, Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 17 July 1998. 

Thakurpara, an impoverished, tiny village of Rangpur district, houses around 50 extremely poor Hindu families, most of who make ends meet working as day labourers. Beside their lower socio-economic status, they are doubly marginalised due to their religious identity as well as their caste. For these poor villagers, who can hardly earn a square meal daily, it was far beyond their imagination that they would be attacked and their homes vandalised for some abusive Facebook post. Most of these villagers don't even know what Facebook is. However, on November 10, the agitated mob from the surrounding villages attacked Thakurpara from all sides, torching the village and razing 30 houses to the ground. They demanded the death penalty for an individual called Titu Chandra Roy, who left the village four years ago and never came back. It was a tragic and unprecedented incident in the lives of these ultra-poor families.

“We are poor, landless labourers. We are so poor that nobody looted us even during the Liberation War. We lived in peace and harmony even after the last election. We have no idea who posted what on Facebook. However, we lost all our belongings in a single day and what we lost can never be recompensed,” says Bidhan Chandra Roy, a day labourer and an inhabitant of Thakurpara village. He lost all his savings, tools, land records, daily utensils and above all, ancestral home. “The attack was so unexpected that we could not save anything from the fire,” he adds.

However, the Hindus of Thakurpara village were aware of the fact that their Muslim neighbours were getting agitated over an individual called Titu Chandra Roy who had no involvement with the village for four years. Nevertheless, local influential people used loudspeakers of the local mosques to spread hate speech against Titu Chandra Roy and the Hindu village. Local police and administration completely failed to tackle the situation, which ultimately led to the violence.

“We were informed that the local people would form a human chain to protest the affront to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) on Facebook. All of a sudden, what was supposed to be a peaceful human chain, turned into a lynch mob armed with sticks and stones. We did not foresee the scale of violence,” says Shahidul Alam, Assistant Sub-inspector of Ganga Chara Police Station who is now in-charge of a police outpost set up to guard the affected village.

At present, the village and its villagers are still suffering from the wounds left by the vandalism. Although 20 houses have been rebuilt by the local administration, at least 15 other families did not receive any compensation. Madhobi Rani Mohanta and her family are among those unfortunates. Showing her half-burnt cow, she says, “This cow was my only means of livelihood. I used to sell her milk and feed my children with the meagre income. Selling my ornaments, I have been treating her wounds and have already spent BDT 5,000. But I am not sure whether I will be able to save her.”

On the other hand, the villagers, who got building materials, are also not satisfied with this insufficient compensation. Khirodh Chandra Roy, an elderly villager says, “We have been given low quality corrugated tin, which is not suited for building houses. They get so hot in the day and so chilly at night that I can hardly stay inside my own home. During summer, the temperature inside these houses will be unbearable.” Khirodh's objections are also echoed by most of the villagers.

The police outpost which has been set up outside the village to guard the victims has also become an unsavoury issue for them. “Our Muslim neighbours often tease us when we go to the bazaar and say, “You people are so special that you need to be guarded by the police. You better go to India where you won't need any police to guard you.”

Even members of the law enforcement authorities are causing problems. A villager says, on condition of anonymity, “Some of the policemen came to our place and demanded food from us. We are poor people. We find it difficult to feed them.” When asked about this issue, ASI Shahidul replies, “I didn't know about it. We will take action against the men who are involved in such malpractices.”

The sense of fear and apprehension is still quite visible among the villagers. Ostracised by their Muslim neighbours, the Hindus of Thakurpara live in fear of further violence. As the law enforcement agencies are still raiding the surrounding villages searching for the perpetrators, many Hindus of Thakurpara have been threatened over and over again to withdraw cases made against the attackers. In fear of reprisals, they remain confined to their homes most of the time. “We are afraid to send our children to school, we are struggling to find work for our livelihoods. Staying alive has become difficult for us now. We don't want police protection, we don't want further violence. We want peace and a normal life. We don't want to be imprisoned in our own homes,” says a desperate Khirodh. 

The ostracism turned so intense that even the lawyers of Rangpur district refused to represent the Hindus of Thakurpara. Four days after the incident, on November 13, Titu Chandra Roy was arrested by law enforcement from Nilphamari district. However, no lawyer of Rangpur court agreed to represent him. Titu's brother Bipul Roy says, “All the lawyers refused us as Titu allegedly hurt religious sentiments. But I can assert that my brother is not like that. He is not literate enough to use Facebook and make comments on religious issues.”

However, finally several lawyers connected to the local unit of Bangladesh Hindu-Bouddha-Christian Oikya Parishad and Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) came forward to represent him. After four days of interrogation in police custody, Titu was sent to jail on November 21. Noresh Chandra Sarker, Titu's lawyer, says, “Titu has been arrested under Section 57(2) of the ICT Act. We appealed for his bail but it was not granted and the justice went on leave for winter vacation. We appealed again to the interim judge but were denied again. The court is now closed for winter vacation. When the vacation ends, we will take this case to the High Court.”

Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) is also working to provide legal assistance for Titu Chandra Roy. Nasima Khanam, Co-ordinator of the organisation's Rangpur unit, says, “We considered Titu a person who was seeking justice, not someone from a particular community. Currently, our first objective is to obtain his bail. Then we will think about further steps.”

One-and-a-half months after the incident, the Hindus of Thakurpara village are still living a nightmare. In the name of protecting religion, their houses have been torched in broad daylight; then in the name of protection, they have been ghettoed in their own ancestral homes. One of their fellow villagers has been jailed for “hurting religious sentiment”; however, none of the perpetrators who torched an entire village has been arrested yet. With this tragic instance in hand, can we still call Bangladesh a land of Hindu-Muslim harmony?

Kongkon Karmaker is the Dinajpur correspondent of The Daily Star.

Cover: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

In today's hyper-paced world, where news headlines change every half-hour (or sooner), we are always moving onto the next breaking news. We are shocked, aghast, appalled, excited, and even hopeful (however rarely)—but only for a moment. Before long, news of flood victims is replaced by those of victims of landslides; horror stories of Hindu houses burnt to ashes fade away before reports of gang rapes of young girls; news of enforced disappearances make way for cases of police brutality, and so on. As our attention gets caught up in the tragedy of the Rohingya crisis, we, both the reporter and the reader, forget about the farmer in Sunamganj, or the day labourer in Thakurpara... and so the cycle continues.

Looking back is an arduous and unglamorous task. As the New Year kicks to a start, we are eager to move on, naturally enough, to better and brighter things. But can we really move on, we ask, if we haven't come to terms with the past?

In this special issue of Star Weekend, we look back at some of the headlines from last year and ask where we stand now. How are the victims of the natural and manmade disasters that made headlines last year? How far have we really come in resolving the issues of corruption or human rights abuses that plagued us in 2017?

As the media, our responsibility does not end with reporting on the sensational; it also lies in us doing the difficult task of following up, holding relevant authorities accountable, ensuring that we learn from past mistakes. 

Let this be the year we pay attention to news that's no longer in the news.

Sushmita S Preetha

Editor, Star Weekend

As the new year begins without us getting any closer to seeing an end to corruption, irregularities and mismanagement in the banking sector amidst an embarrassing lack of proper oversight, high-level bank employees continue to drop like flies. The latest among them were the Managing Directors of The Farmers Bank, NRB Commercial Bank and Meghna Bank, AB Bank's Chairman, Vice-chairman and Director, seven Directors of Social Islami Bank, and too many others to bother listing.

And while some “clearly-not-big-enough banksters” (those who have been sacked) are sacrificed by the wolf (those who are too big to be sacked, hence does the sacking) to quieten the sheep (you and me), our Finance Minister has had a real revelation. He said... wait for it... that a party was borrowing heavily from the market and buying banks to benefit itself!

How come none of us figured that out over the last n-number of years and not constantly warned of these kinds of danger? Oh, wait...we did... and we did. So how come the warnings were ignored? Do we wait another eternity to find out?

On December 12, the Finance Minister also told journalists that “there is no cause for concern” in regards to the decision to allow three new banks to operate, although that is in complete refutation of what experts have said and contradicts the fact that “the performance of the nine new banks” allowed to operate “since 2013 has not been any good.”

Our Finance Minister is almost reminiscent of Einstein when he said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” But, then again, experts also say that it is a quote often misattributed to Einstein, so I guess he could be only reminding me of insanity—not Einstein.

Speaking of insanity, total bad loans in the banking sector increased by 23 percent towards the end of September to more than BDT 80,307 crore from BDT 65,731 crore only 12 months ago—with the regulators pretending everything is lovely and without depositors tearing “their” (“whose”? *wink*) hair out. But not to worry, Bangladesh Bank (BB) Deputy Governor Shitangshu Kumar Sur Chowdhury said that the central bank had “strengthened monitoring on other banks and have directed them to make sure there are no new default loans.”

Which begs these questions: first, why did the BB need to strengthen its monitoring; second, why was it lax before; and third and most importantly, why didn't the BB just “direct” them all these years if that was the problem all along—not the fact that its monitoring was lax and hence needed (and still needs) strengthening as experts have been saying, and not bailouts as the BB has been insisting (until this discovery now by the Deputy Governor)?

Speaking of problems, according to a report in Dhaka Tribune, “People involved in the sector say bad debts have increased as loans are sometimes approved on political consideration while directors of the banks take loans from each other's institutions.” Hmm... where have I read that before? Perhaps in almost every newspaper quoting experts from nearly every sector for the last gazillion years. Which points to another problem—the regulators must never read newspapers. Otherwise, they would have done something about it, right?

Take this as an example; according to a report in South Asia Monitor, “There is a general perception that the central bank is unable to probe into these irregularities due to political intervention. According to sources, a certain business group well known for its powerful political standing, has about BDT 68,000 crore in loans. The group directly and indirectly controls about 10 banks and financial institutions in the country. A few months ago they quietly took over a major private bank of the country too. The directors of the bank are representatives or selected persons of this group... One year ago the group's total credit from… [a] bank was BDT 1,600 crore. In just a matter of months this has increased to BDT 4,500 crore” (Default loans deplete Bangladesh banking sector, March 29, 2017).

Meanwhile, according to reports in the international media in general, there is a huge amount of defaulted loans “even outside of this” that is not being reported anywhere! According to the South Asia Monitor report, “On paper it is shown that these loans or investments are being regularly recovered. Funds for old projects are simply being shown as loans for new projects and adjusted as loan recovery. Loans are thus being provided to non-existent projects or hundreds of crore taka are being granted as loans to projects of just a crore taka or so. The only way to adjust these loans when it is time for recovery is to make allocations for yet another project.” In other words, we have a Ponzi (pyramid) scheme on our hands.

For those who don't know what that is, it is a form of fraud in which belief in the success of a non-existent enterprise is fostered by the payment of quick returns to the first investors from money invested by later investors. Until, of course, the music stops, and the last “fool investor” is left holding the bill (with his backside lacking a chair to firmly plant itself on), which in this case happens to be all taxpayers' no matter when the music stops playing.

While all this is going on, the government is going to allow, through the Banking Companies (Amendment) Act-2017, four family members, up from two, to be in a bank's board of directors for nine consecutive years, up from six. Now all we have to do is just wait a few more years till the Finance Minister and other regulators figure out that this too is yet another “insane” idea, which can only quicken the collapse of the current pyramid scheme in the banking sector.

But, perhaps I am being a little unfair to the BB. As recent news reports have revealed, it was actually the finance ministry that had “convinced” BB to greenlight the extension of family dictatorship, ahem… I mean directorship, in banks, and for giving licences for new banks to operate. So while the authorities look for the now numerous missing persons and the “BB's missing backbone”, here is an idea: since the finance ministry has now decided to do the BB's job, maybe we can abolish the BB altogether and save some money in preparation for the next round of bank bailouts (that is surely coming)?

As things stand, however, it is quickly looking more and more like no amounts of bailouts can put this humpty-dumpty (overly extended, yet hollow bank balance sheets) back together again—as experts have been saying from day one—despite the fact that regulators “claim to believe” that they can resuscitate these corpse like banks by providing them with never-ending blood transfusions in the form of bailouts. In fact, a number of recent indicators seem to point towards just the fact that the house of cards that the authorities have desperately been trying to hold up, is now heading towards its final, and not-so-thrilling, collapse.

These include the liquidity crunch in The Farmer's Bank (when the bank failed to honour a cheque twice), followed by the Bangladesh Industrial Finance Company's failure to pay a depositor's money, despite the massive bailouts the banking sector has been getting for years now. And in the middle of the insane policies that our regulators seem hell-bent on pursuing, who knows how many more will follow. But there is a chance that in the case of a “black swan event” (an occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and is extremely difficult to predict), the fall may happen at an unprecedented pace, creating havoc in the banking sector, as well as in the economy in general.

And that black swan event, in all probability, could involve the global economy. As experts had pointed out throughout 2017, banks in Italy, Ireland and other countries (and corners of the world) too are now barely standing on shaky legs. In today's globalised world, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out (unless you are the Finance Minister it seems) that a banking crisis in one corner of the world has the potential to set off another in the opposite corner, particularly when banks are especially vulnerable (which ours clearly are).

Thus, amidst the “moral bankruptcy” that our societal ills are responsible for, according to Professor Rehman Sobhan, it is fully possible that we are now fast heading towards a financial and economic bankruptcy as well, unless those leading the charge towards a complete (moral) bankruptcy (you know who you are) decide to suddenly grow a conscience. Given that that is highly unlikely, however, perhaps it's time for us to find our own backbones and oppose the authorities in substantial enough ways to stop the “insanity” that has quickly come to “define our banking sector”.

Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. 

I am writing this story sitting in Haluaghat in the district of Mymensingh. It is pretty much on the same latitude as say, Tahirpur in Sunamganj. With the rolling hills of Meghalaya being just a stone's throw away, there are many similarities between the two. It would take six hours by car to reach one from the other.

But as this article goes to print, one has food aplenty, and the other has none. While the people of Haluaghat are cooking binni-bhaat from the amon production of late autumn, many of the farmers in Sunamganj could not plant any rice, let alone have a harvest.

And while the fields of Haluaghat are being prepped with boro seedlings, the tiny slivers of green disappearing into the winter fog, the haor lands of Sunamganj are still underwater.

“The waters still have not receded and there is no place to plant boro,” Qamruzzaman Kamrul, the upazila chairman of Tahirpur told The Daily Star's Moulvibazar correspondent. Tahirpur had some of the worst-hit areas last year.

“There was a depression in the ocean causing the flood-waters to rise again in December. Rising floods after monsoon is over is highly unusual,” says Abu Bakr Siddiq Bhuiyan, the Executive Engineer of the Sunamganj branch of Water Development Board (BWDB).

This was the big story last year—how terrible the floods were—but that was hardly the entire story. The government is not equipped to deal with the effects of climate change, and that is not due to a lack of initiative or resources—it is solely because of a lack of honesty. The rains laid bare the rampant corruption going on in BWDB.

The warnings that climate change experts have been doling out for years, asking the government to step up its efforts, culminated into a disastrous predicament as three-fourths of the country went underwater by July.

The media hue and cry led to 61 officials of BWDB being sued for corruption by the Anti-Corruption Commission. This included people as high up as Sunamganj Executive Engineer Afsar Uddin,  former Superintendent Engineer of Sylhet Nurul Islam Sarkar and former Additional Chief Engineer (northwest zone) Md Abdul Hye, and people at the bottom like contractor Bacchu Miah.  What the newsmen are not aware of, however, is that, once the cameras were turned away by the end of the year, the case was stayed, and that too by contractor Bacchu Miah.

“I cannot proceed with my investigation right now, because this case has been stayed,” stated Khurshid Alam Khan, the chief lawyer of the case filed by the ACC last week. “The court stayed the case on December 12 last year, and we are not being able to do our work,” he added. On a positive note, the Supreme Court threw out the stay order just three days ago.

Nor is it immediately clear how many people have been brought into police custody so far—one of the few traces one can find of this is the much publicised arrest of a Jubo League leader, Khairul Alam, from the airport in Dhaka. He was a contractor who was awarded five packages but did not deliver the dams in time.

This lawsuit, with its long list of accused, is by far one of the most highlighted cases filed against the water development board by the ACC.

One of the BWDB projects under scrutiny for corruption spent BDT 704 crores over a period of five years until 2016 to do flood control work specifically in the haor areas. It targeted Sunamganj, Sylhet, Moulvibazaar, Habiganj, Netrokona and Kishoreganj, with the most work to be done in Sunamganj. Even though the project was supposed to be completed in 2016, the haors were underwater by March. Star Weekend went to Tahirpur, one of the project areas, last year, in search of the elusive dams that BWDB was supposed to build and found only miles of flood water.

Photo: Orchid Chakma

So many projects, so much money but where are the dams?

But that is hardly the only flood control project that targeted this crucial northeastern region recently, thus raising the question: why did the interventions fail when the floods came? These are the other projects that also happened in the past few years, according to documents released by the BWDB.

BWDB received BDT 25 crores for flood control in 15 areas of Kishoreganj, Habiganj, Sunamganj, Sylhet and Moulvibazaar between 2013 and 2014. The work to be done included processes like river dredging and different construction activities like building compartment dykes, river embankments, levees, pipe sluice, etc. The project is titled “Kalni-Kushiara River Management Project” but last year 13 villages of Fenchuganj upazila were set afloat before the monsoon came, as reported by the media. Fenchuganj was one of the beneficiaries of this project.

Here is another instance. The project titled “Water Control Development Project” began in 2012 with BDT 98 crores, in many areas including five upazilas of Sylhet, Moulvibazaar and Habiganj. Kulaura, one of the beneficiaries of this project which aimed to build embankments, was left at a standstill by floods for several months last year. Yet another project, which finished in 2015, targeted the embankments of the Surma.

Next year a massive project by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is supposed to inject BDT 910 crores into rehabilitating old flood control systems (like embankments) in the haor areas. The government is implementing the project.

The amount of resources spent by the government to do flood control is by no means insignificant—then why are the flood waters coming in early and staying late?

Transparency International Bangladesh pointed fingers at the contractors. The organisation studied six projects under the Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund (BCCTF), a pool of money set up specifically to counter extreme weather events, and found them to be rife with corruption.

“No information is provided to the local community about the contractor selection process,”states the report, also adding this about a specific project, “Schedule of the infrastructural work was not opened to the local people in any project. When community people approached the contractor, he directed the people to BWDB, but BWDB also did not make it open for all.”

This unfair contractor selection process also meant shoddy work, concludes the report. Take one 3.3 kilometre embankment studied by these researchers: “During the study it was observed that the construction [was] severely damaged in 10-15 places even before the project period was over. The situation got even worse during rainy season,” states the report.

Just as the money for projects rose to crores, the number of farmers affected by the floods rose to the hundred thousands. The sheer number of those affected comes with the staggering realisation that the actions of some individuals can cause an entire system to break down.

The body also found that money is available, but not going where it is most needed. “For instance, Dhaka division has received 19 percent of the total fund of the BWDB implemented climate projects funded by BCCTF, whereas some of the more vulnerable division, Khulna, received only 10 percent of the funding,” states the report.

Although it was not possible for Star Weekend to independently determine which projects of BWDB are getting money from the BCCTF, there is one example we can provide that shows how questionable the resource allocation was. A project to preserve the ecology and the sal woods of the Gazipur Eco Park was given money under the fund. While preserving woodlands anywhere in the country is an important initiative, the sal woods of Dhaka are not exactly on the frontier of climate change effects the same way the coastlines are. The Eco Park woods, nestled in the centre of the country, do not get inundated by flash floods like Sylhet, nor are they affected by the rise in sea-level like parts of Khulna are.

Photo: Orchid Chakma

Inadequate relief-provision post floods

Last year when Star Weekend took a boat to the far edges of Shonir Haor and Matian Haor during the flash floods of summer, one thing was obvious—not everyone was getting relief. Small pockets of people who were stranded on islets, and were too poor to own boats, could not make it to the mainlands to collect relief. With not enough rice to go about, emaciated people waded the shallow banks of their strips of land, net in hand, in search of tiny fish and crustaceans.

Half-a-year later when the operations are over, it has become apparent just how inadequate the relief was. The Centre for Policy Dialogue took stock of the whole scenario and presented their findings in a press conference in Dhaka.

Turns out, the relief efforts reached only 68.4 percent of the affected farmers. Interestingly, only about 20 percent of the cultivable land destroyed by flash floods received support for replanting, like seeds, fertilisers etc, meaning it is not entirely clear who received support and for what. Fishermen whose pisciculture plots were washed away, received no support at all. In addition, 12 percent of the whole support was simply sent off to areas not affected by flash floods at all.

“The government has big plans to change how flood control is being done now,” says engineer Abu Bakr Siddik Bhuiyan. “We will be dredging the rivers and building embankments on a larger scale.”

Bhuiyan was placed as an Executive Engineer in Sunamganj because his predecessor Afsar Uddin is one of those sued by the ACC and has been removed from his post since then. Bhuiyan has big gaps to fill, and is not unaware of the precarious position he is in. He laughs when asked about what the pressure is like on him. “We are committed to take this issue seriously,” is all he would say. Last year the first flash floods came towards the end of March. If there is a repeat performance this year, then it gives Bhuiyan three months to execute his commitment. 

Groups of Rohingya refugees sit clustered under the trees under the watchful eyes of the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB). Around them are their possessions. Here, they wait.

Minutes earlier, these new arrivals from Myanmar had walked up from the border in Maughpara, Teknaf. Men carried sacks on their heads. Women carried babies and young children, held the hands of older children and carried bags of their own.

They now wait to be transferred to the army distribution centre in Hariakhali, Sabrang. From there, they will be sent to any of now 20 camps situated throughout Teknaf and Ukhia.

This is not a scene from earlier on this year. Four months since the influx started, refugees are still arriving in Bangladesh. While it is no longer the chaotic scenes witnessed in the border areas of Ghumdum and Shah Porir Dwip in August and September when thousands were massed at the border, these new arrivals are much smaller groups coming every few days, say BGB officials on the scene.

They had crossed the Naf by boat in the middle of the night. Landing on Bangladeshi soil, the refugees were escorted on this side of the border by the BGB. A majority of the new arrivals were children, who walked barefoot but were dressed warmly.

A group of young boys and men stand out among the families and large numbers of women and children. Sabbir Ahmed, 25, says that he and the others fled their village of Ulafe in Buthidaung as young men were in particular risk of being caught or killed by the military. 50 Rohingya from Sabbir's village were earlier detained by the military.

Such reports of violence in recent weeks continue though an agreement of return of the refugees was signed on November 23 by the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar. The deal calls for the repatriation process to be underway within two months.

Sabbir and the others from Ulafe each paid 35,000 kyat, roughly BDT 2100, for the boat ride to Bangladesh. He fled, fearing he would be apprehended too, leaving behind his wife and parents. When asked if his family were planning to come by the same route, Sabbir says, “It is difficult for women to come over the hills like we did. We also have to pay a lot to the boatmen to cross.”

These refugees now amount to 655,000 at last count. The violence, which the United Nations has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, has killed at least 6,700 Rohingya, between August 25 and September 24, in the state of Rakhine according to surveys conducted by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). August 25 marked the start of clearance operations allegedly against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) by Myanmar security forces.

Refugees continue to flee Rakhine out of fear of starvation and violence, albeit in fewer numbers compared to the unprecedented wave earlier.

Cox's Bazar: A changed landscape

Large stretches of areas off the Teknaf-Cox's Bazar highway have now been taken over by squalid makeshift settlements that have spilled over from existing camps.

With army distribution centres, UN warehouses and ICRC and MSF field hospitals visible off the main road, Cox's Bazar resembles a scene out of a film or pictures of refugee camps near a war zone. Aid organisations from the UN High Commission for Refugees to small, local NGOs have descended on the small town to provide basic needs to the Rohingya refugees.

Back in February of this year, I had visited several refugee camps including Kutupalong and Balukhali. These are now the largest two camps in Cox's Bazar, crammed with 547,000 older refugees and new arrivals. Now dubbed the Kutupalong-Balukhali Extension Site, it is the size of a small city with tents stretching as far as the eye can see.

Balukhali, as the name suggests, was little more than acres of recently deforested land where refugees fleeing  the then violent crackdown by the army in northern Rakhine in October 2016 had started setting up shacks in the newly designated camp. Today, it is unrecognisable. It has now mushroomed into a densely populated camp with filthy lines of sewage meandering between the shacks.

With the army and government agencies coordinating services and NGO activities, the refugees are being registered and aid is being distributed more evenly than before in the camps and makeshift settlements. Aid agencies have risen to the challenge of providing their basic needs.

Life in the camps

Abdur Rahman and his family of seven, like thousands others, arrived in Bangladesh on September 2, Eid day last year. “We left our homes, our land and our people. But we are alive,” said Abdur Rahman.    

The camp where Rahman lives, Balukhali, is bustling with new arrivals gathering the assigned materials needed to build their shacks where space is still available. Even young children shoulder long bamboo poles to take to their designated space inside.

They have been allotted World Food Programme (WFP) ration cards which entitle them to 25 kg of rice, five kilograms of lentils, and two litres of oil every fortnight. Everything else has to be bought, but with little money to go around in the camps, refugees are mostly depending on an increasingly depressing combination of rice and lentils everyday.

Amir Hussein, 45, living in Jadimora camp in Teknaf echoes the views of many refugees when he says, “Every family, regardless of size, gets 50 kg of rice a month. A family consisting of one is getting the same amount as my family of 10 members.”

In the preceding months, latrines and tube wells were being constructed by various NGOs to keep up with the pace of new arrivals in the camps. In Balukhali, an average of 115 refugees share a latrine, far beyond the UN guideline of 20 people per latrine. Latrines and tube wells located close together also pose health risks as water sources can be contaminated.

The situation now is vastly different compared to last year and earlier, when aid efforts in the camps were mostly underground. Aid workers were not allowed to speak freely to journalists and distribution was limited to UNHCR, WFP, Action Contra La Faim (ACF) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Multiple child friendly spaces have been set up in the camps where children can experience a less chaotic environment than the grim surroundings of the camp. Inside one of nine such spaces in Balukhali, colourful drawings are hung up on the tent walls and Rohingya children sit on the floor drawing and playing with toys. The space hosts only an average of 40 children a day.

Children also attend learning centres and schools run by various NGOs in the camp, where they learn English and Burmese at the primary level. Almost 60 percent of Rohingya refugees are children. 21 percent are children under the age of five.

The large number of children and expecting mothers among the refugees has led to significant efforts to expand family planning programmes among other medical services provided in the camps. Sharifa, 23, a trained midwife from Rajshahi, works in a sexual and reproductive health service centre in Balukhali run by the HOPE Foundation.

“After extensive counselling, we are seeing progress with family planning methods being adopted by more and more Rohingya women.” Working here since September, Sharifa has heard of several cases of rape suffered by refugees before their arrival here but young girls and women are reluctant to speak about these. There are also women friendly spaces in the camps.

Women refugees narrated stories of their life back in Burma and their arduous journey to Bangladesh. They emphasise that coming here was not an easy decision.

Sobika, a mother of six, put it succinctly, saying, “We didn't leave behind our homes and land to come eat chal and dal here in Bangladesh. We came here to save our lives.” They suffered for years but only came here now after it became too much, not anticipating that they would be provided food and shelter so generously here.

Left out in the open

Refugees tend to flock to the two largest camps, Kutupalong and Balukhali, where they say there is a greater chance of getting regular aid. But there is limited space and those who arrived more recently have to make temporary arrangements until they're allotted space in the camps, and end up in outlying areas.

Having arrived two months ago from Buthidaung, Nurul Salam and his family live in shacks on rented land just outside Jadimora camp. They pay BDT 400 a month for the space. “We have to pay money here but at least it's not overcrowded like in the camps,” says Salam.

Sporadic aid and services reach these outlying areas. There are no schools in the area for the Rohingya children. Yet, just inside the nearby camp there are several schools and madrasas. Having only got army tokens, his household receives seven kilograms of rice every month. Salam claims that he gets the money for rent by selling off surplus relief items the household receives.

Such settlements are problematic, says Alaol Kabir, an official of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC) of Cox's Bazar. “These refugees will soon be relocated to the officially designated camps in order for services to be distributed uniformly and avoid problems with local communities.”

Two rudimentary latrines have been constructed in the small settlement just the day before, two months on from when they arrived. They have been getting water from tube wells in the Jadimora area, but have recently started facing backlash from locals.

Many refugees say that locals have been extremely supportive and not discriminated against them. Local hospitality is unsurprising considering the similarity in the language and religion of the refugees and locals' sympathy for the plight of the poor refugees fleeing hardship and violence.

Repatriation far off

While measures to ensure that the refugees' basic needs are being implemented, the camps are by no means ready to host such a large number in the long-term.

The Bangladesh government has been registering the refugees and intends for them to return to Myanmar. Over nine lakh Rohingya living in Ukhia and Teknaf have been biometrically registered so far.  

Going back, however, is not an option for most. “Even if we have to die here, we will. Still, we will not go back,” says Sobika in Kutupalong.

While Myanmar has announced that it will begin repatriation of the Rohingya in accordance with the two-month deadline set out in the agreement, Bangladeshi government officials and aid agencies are less sure whether this is possible.

“It is difficult to forecast when the return of refugees takes place. The repatriation process is still in its preliminary stages; the joint working group has just been formed and is yet to meet,” says Mohammad Abul Kalam, joint secretary of RRRC of the disaster management and relief ministry.

Mohammed Abu Asaker, UNHCR spokesperson in Cox's Bazar, says that they are not yet aware of concrete measures taken for repatriation. “The situation in Rakhine is not conducive to safe return,” he explains. UNHCR stresses that refugees have the right to return but only if “freely, safely and in dignity.”

Another concern about the conditions in the agreement is that Myanmar insists on evidence of residency. Many Rohingya refugees like Amir Hussein have heard that repatriation is likely to begin sometime in January but don't have their papers with them.

In any case, many don't want to go back. Abdur Rahman in Balukhali echoed many others when he said that he and his family would only return if given back their lands, full citizenship and assured of their safety and basic rights. “It is still not safe back home; we prefer to live in the camps here than go back.”

It is five in the afternoon, on an ordinary weekday.

The workers of Essential Drugs Company Limited (EDCL), a state-owned pharmaceuticals company, are leaving their work stations to head home. Amidst the outpour of workers, an aged woman is seen leading a young man with a cane. Once they reach the nearest intersection, she seems uncertain as to how to cross the road with her visually impaired attendee during rush hour.  They wait for nearly 15 minutes till traffic slows down. The young man follows the woman, presumably his mother, like a child.

This story could have been completely different. The young man, after all, had not been born with a visual impairment. Upto a few months ago, he was the one taking care of his elderly mother and providing for his family. But his sight was irreparably damaged when the police lobbed tear gas canisters during a demonstration in Shahbagh held by the students of seven colleges affiliated with the University of Dhaka on July 20 last year. The name of this 24-year-old youth, as most of us know already, is Siddikur Rahman, a student of Government Titumir College. At the time, he and the other students were demanding, among other things, that the authorities publish their exam schedule. As fate would have it, it was the first ever protest of his life—and perhaps his last. 

Siddikur's 65-year-old mother Solema Akter had high hopes that her meritorious son would be a high-ranking government official after graduating in Political Science from Titumir College. Instead, Siddikur now works as a telephone operator at EDCL, with a salary of BDT 13,000. This is the job that the Health and Family Welfare Minister Mohammad Nasim had promised him, in the aftermath of the blinding when Siddikur was undergoing treatment for his eyes.

Every day, at his office, Siddikur receives numerous calls. Initially, he was worried he would not be able to perform his tasks of making calls or transferring calls to different departments. Over a few months, he practised these tasks and developed strategies in order to do his work to the best of his abilities. “I have memorised some important phone numbers to which I need to make frequent calls. If there is an emergency and I need assistance, my colleagues are always there to help. This is something really appreciable,” shares Siddikur.

Earlier, Siddikur lived in Mohakhali with his nephew but it became difficult to commute to work from there. “The bus drivers were not very willing to pick me up or drop me, as I need more time compared to a normal passenger. Also, not having learnt how to cope with blindness from childhood, I also finding commuting challenging,” says Siddikur. From November, in order to bring a little comfort to his life, he rented a shared room with a family at Modhho Begunbari, which is a 15-minute walk from his office. For this small room on the ground-floor with no windows or ventilation, Siddikur pays BDT 6,500, in addition to utility bills. Left with only half of his salary, it is often difficult to sustain the monthly expenses of mother and son.

Siddikur's mother currently takes him to the office everyday and looks after him. “I had never come to Dhaka before Siddikur got injured. I don't know anyone here. I don't know the roads properly. But, our fate has sent us here,” says Solema Akter.

“Siddikur's father died when he was three. I struggled a lot with my daughter and two sons. My daughter was married off at an early age. I alone couldn't continue the study expenditures of my elder son, who currently works as a construction labourer. Since everyone knew about Siddikur's merit, and his teachers would also admire him, I had a profound belief that one day, my Siddikur would do something very big,” says Akter. “But, what is lotted, cannot be blotted. We are trying to accept the harsh reality of our life,” she sighs, wiping a tear off her cheek.

Is Siddikur destined to be a telephone operator for the rest of his life? “On July 19, the day before we went to the demonstration, I got admitted to a coaching centre at Uttara to develop my English skills for the Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) examination. I had also bought numerous practice books to prepare for the exam. Who then knew that I would lose my eyesight on the following day?”

Siddikur used to run seasonal businesses during the two Eids. In January every year, he would take orders from different schools and colleges to produce ties and shoulder badges for school uniform. “The small profit I would make from these two businesses was enough to cover my living expenses for the whole year,” he explains.

A ray of hope is that Siddikur was able to attend his third-year final examination last month—for which he had gone to the demonstrations on that fateful day. In preparation, his nephew Selim would read out loud from his books and Siddikur would listen intently. “Sometimes, I would also record these sessions on my phone to practise later,” he says. A second-year student named Sadia Islam Mumu of the same college came forward to assist him as a scribe. “During the exams, I would note down some points but mostly dictate to her the analytical part. Though I'm hopeful, I am not very confident, since I don't even know what was written down on the script, as she is not from my department,” Siddikur laughs. “Yet, I'm very grateful to Sadia and my teachers, who were always by my side and helped me to deal with the entire crisis.”

Siddikur also informs that he was told by the Health Minister that if he can complete his graduation, he might get promoted later.

Though the government's good gesture is undoubtedly appreciable, many are wondering what has happened to those policemen who were responsible for Siddikur's misfortune. According to Md Asaduzzaman Mia, Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner, “The probe report into the incident has highlighted the negligence and unprofessionalism of four policemen who were dealing with that unlawful assembly.” However, how a peaceful protest demanding educational rights can be constituted as “unlawful assembly” remains unclear. 

It is unclear what punishment, if any, the negligent policemen have received. Md Asaduzzaman claims, “They have all been punished according to the Armed Forces Ordinance Act, 1942, but it cannot be revealed to the media nor is there any way of making it public, as it spreads anger among the forces.” 

But how will others learn not to repeat such actions if they continue to think they can get away with it? “I can assure you that such negligence and carelessness is dealt with due attention within the armed forces, as it hampers our chain of command. No one is given any privileges after a wrongdoing,” he replies.

There is little hope at this point that Siddikur will see again—the doctors have informed him both of his retinas were disorganised and there is no treatment unless new technology emerges.

“The dreams I would always cherish have faded away with the passage of time. But I'm not depressed anymore. Days are passing; my mother is here for me, and now the only urge I feel is to survive,” he concludes.

The end of 2017 witnessed the return of a number of individuals who had disappeared in the second half of the year. Most of the 15 individuals, who had been missing since August last year, either returned to their respective families in the last three months or were shown as arrested based on various cases.

For instance, both Mubashar Hasan from North South University and journalist Utpal Das were found after close to two months. Party leaders Syed Sadat Ahmed from the BNP and MM Aminur Rahman from the Bangladesh Kalyan Party, both of whom were missing for four months, were shown as arrested by the police towards the end of December.

The returning spree—regardless of whether or not the individuals were shown as arrested— towards the end of the year did help many families and friends breathe easy, allowing them to end the year on a better note. But not everyone who “disappeared” last year has had a happy ending though.  

According to human rights body Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), at least 30 out of the 60 individuals who were victims of enforced disappearance last year are yet to be traced. 23-year-old Abdullah Al Faruk from Rajshahi, son of freedom fighter Mohammad Jahiruddin, is one of them.

Faruk, who went missing on July 18 last year, had just given his HSC exams and used to work as a part-time electrician. On the evening of July 18, he received a call from a Torikul Islam, who had requested him to come home to fix something. As Torikul's house was far away, Faruk took his father's bike and his neighbour along with him.

According to Jahiruddin, Faruk was picked up by people who identified themselves as members of the Rapid Action Batallion (RAB) from Torikul's residence. RAB, however, subsequently denied any involvement in the abduction.

When Jahiruddin, a retired constable who worked for the police for more than four decades, tried to file a case at the police station, he was denied. As a result, he filed a case at the Judicial Magistrate Court, after which the Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI) was asked to investigate the matter. According to PBI's report, they found some “valuable information” regarding Faruk's disappearance. However, nothing more was revealed.

A frustrated Jahiruddin, who left no stones unturned to find his son, does not know what step to take next. “I still don't know where my son is. There is barely any progress on the case. All the authorities keep telling me is to be patient. My son has been missing for six months now; how can you expect me to be patient?” asks Jahiruddin.

“I am really tense about the state of my family. I am afraid that my wife and my children may have a breakdown any time. They are all depressed and they haven't eaten properly for the last six months. I have lost one son, I don't want to lose anybody else,” laments the 67-year-old. Jahiruddin's hopes had risen for a brief period towards the end of December last year when a host of missing people were returning home. However, the false hope ended up making him feel worse.

While the past abductions mainly involved political leaders, 2017, for the first time, saw individuals disappear from a wide array of circles—from teachers to journalists to doctors.

Like Jahiruddin's, there are hundreds of families—most of whom lost their relatives between 2013 to 2016—who have no clue as to the whereabouts of their missing relatives. To be more precise, according to ASK, around 519 people have allegedly fallen victim to enforced disappearances between 2010 and 2017, with 329 of them still missing. One can only imagine the heartwrenching situation of those who have been away from their loved ones for years.

Ferdousi Rahman, sister of BNP leader Sajedul Islam Sumon, who was allegedly picked up by law enforcers in 2013, best describes the situation. “If the families of the recent victims have suffered for three or four months, we have suffered for more than a thousand nights and it's only going to continue. Trust me when I say this. It's not humanely possible to bear this pain.”

According to Ferdousi, Sumon and four of his friends were picked up by individuals who identified themselves as RAB from Bashundhara on December 4, 2013. RAB, however, denied the allegation a number of times.

“When my brother and his friends were getting ready to return home, three vehicles came in and hastily stopped them. They were first beaten very badly with metal pipes and then all five of them were forced into the car. We haven't seen any of them since. We came to know about all of this from the labourers who were present at the construction site over there,” she explains.

“What makes me really frustrated is that it has been so many years since my brother disappeared, but the law enforcers have not even begun the process of finding him,” she adds.

Over the last four years, Ferdousi's family used up all their contacts in a bid to trace Sumon. They went to the police, they visited RAB headquarters and even went to court. According to Ferdousi, her mother ran to-and-fro the offices of various law enforcement agencies every week for the first three years.

“Do you know what my mother tells the watchman time and again? She says 'If you see a madman, or a beggar approaching the house, don't yell at him or ask him to leave. Call me first. That might be my son,'” a teary-eyed Ferdousi says.

The case of Moklesur Rahman Johnny, a homeopath who went missing on August 4, 2016 in Satkhira, is even more astounding, primarily because Johnny's wife, Jesmin Nahar, actually met him after he was abducted.

Upon finding Johnny's phone switched off, Jesmin looked for her husband in various police stations in Satkhira and eventually found him at a thana. She was even allowed to bring her husband food and was in touch with him for the next three days.

After three days though, her husband “disappeared”. To her shock, the officer-in-charge of the thana actually denied arresting her husband in the first place. Desperate for justice, a three-months-pregnant Jesmin filed a writ petition with the High Court, which prompted the court to order the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Satkhira to investigate the case.

According to the Magistrate's report, which was submitted July last year, Jesmin's husband was, in fact, present in the station. It was a big win for Jesmin and her family. After that, the court directed the PBI to investigate the case and submit the report by October 3. However, the PBI did not submit any report. Instead, they were given a three-month extension.

In order to reach this position though, Jesmin has had to overcome a myriad of obstacles in the last 15 months. She has had to run to-and-fro her home in Satkhira and the High Court in Dhaka for the first six months, all while she was pregnant.

Her father-in-law suffered multiple strokes due to the tension, while her mother-in-law recently had a car accident. Johnny was the sole earner in the family. With him gone, the family has been living off their relatives for the last 15 months.

Despite all the sufferings though, Jesmin believes that it will all be worth it “when” her husband is “released”.

“We are still hopeful. He is not into politics. He did not do anything bad either. We honestly believe that the people who have him held will soon realise that it was all a mistake and let him go,” a hopeful Jesmin says.

A majority of the families who have lost someone have not been as lucky as Jesmin, as far as the progress of the case is concerned. Many families allege that they were not even allowed to file cases at the police station.

Human rights activist Nur Khan Liton believes that cases should be filed for each of these incidents, regardless of the support that the family receieves.

“At least if the cases are accepted and a final report is given, then the incident will be recorded, and one day in the future, when the situation of the country is better, there will be a chance for these families to get justice,” says Nur.

On December 10 this year, relatives of victims of disappearance took part in a demonstration at the press club in Dhaka. With 27 families participating in the programme this year, it was the biggest turnout till date.

57-year-old business man Shafiqur Rahman was one such father who had attended the programme. His son Saifur Rahman Shojib, went missing on February 18, 2015. Ever since then, Shafiq and his wife have been struggling to cope both mentally and professionally.

“I used to have a decent rent-a-car business. After I lost my son, I couldn't concentrate on anything. I used to run from one place to another hoping to get some news about him,” says Shafiqur.

After two years of suffering losses, Shafiqur eventually shut down his business and made some small investments instead, which help his wife and him stay afloat today. Shafiqur claims that some of his sources had given him a rough idea about the whereabouts of his son and that he managed to track him for six months. However, after half-a-year, he had lost all trace.

“People will say that my son was at fault, because he was involved in politics. Is it a crime to be involved in politics? There were never any cases filed against him. He wasn't a terrorist. But today, I don't know where he is. If he was dead, I would have at least arranged prayers for him, but I can't even do that,” exclaims Shafiqur.

“Everything is in disarray. I am talking to you right now and I am sure that I won't be able to sleep at night because I will be thinking about my son. I have a grandson who I have to lie to everyday. I have a daughter-in-law, who despite being in her 20s, has decided not to marry again. There are so many things that I need to fix,” says a teary-eyed Shafiqur.

Recent statements made by the government paints a bleak picture as far as the fate of these families are concerned. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, while responding to a question related to enforced disappearances, claimed that such occurrences were more frequent in Western countries, such as the United Kingdom. Rights activists criticised the premier for her statement, arguing that in saying so she had actually indirectly justified the incidents.

While the return of the individuals at the brink of the end of 2017 is good news, one must not forget that there are still many more individuals who are missing. And one also can't ignore the fact that despite the nonchalant attitude of the government, the families still have a flicker of hope.

Shafiqur's statement perhaps best sums up the kind of belief and hope that these families have been living on. “My son has been missing for two years. That's a long time. But I know one of his friends from Badda who had been missing for 16 months and he returned home one fine day. If he can return, why can't my son? I still don't believe he is dead.”

 

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