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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dhaka: Diary of Conflict 1996 (FINAL)

For earlier parts of this diary, view here
March 22, 1996 4:30 PM

No matter how many times I’ve been here, Bangladesh continues to amaze me. I can hardly believe what happened today. After lunch, I lay down, as everyone does, for an afternoon nap (a great institution!) and when I awoke it was dark.

I couldn't believe that I had slept that long, so checked my watch and found it was only 4.00 pm. When I looked at the sky, it was pitch black - very heavy clouds. It was oppressively hot, of course. Then there was a little thunder and lightning, and a huge wind blew up. I thought it was a great sheet of rain coming, but discovered (about a minute too late) that it was the thickest graniest dust you could ever see, rolling in across the city. Unbelievable! But then there has been no rain here for many months. So I battened down the hatches as quickly as possible (but not before the dust came in everywhere) and waited for it to blow over. Luckily, the electricity was still on that that time.


Then the rain started - great drops that stirred up the dust even more, until it fell in sheets and brought all the dirt down to the ground. The power went off, of course, and I am typing this by candlelight, for although I have thrown open every window to drive out the hot air from the room and replace it with cool from outside, it is still very dark.

The muezzin calls, as he must, and the crows are in crow's heaven, fluffing their feathers as rivulets of rain pour off the cement roofs and patios through the drains, and create a personal shower for every crow. You can almost see them reaching for the shampoo. Or maybe it's the underarm deodorant, which they surely need after picking the innards out of a dead rat - their staple diet as far as fresh meat is concerned.

All the keys of the computer are dusty now, and I'll have to try to give it a cleanout when the lights come back on.

Tomorrow will be a bright clear day (I hope!) - given that the rains will have laid the dust of several months and that there are still only a few vehicles running. And it will be cooler, I'm sure.

Yuk! Everything is grainy to the touch.

But I have for the first time in years in Dhaka experienced the coming of the rains. If you wonder what the fuss is about, they don't ever expect any rain at all round these parts for a while longer. Unless it's a cyclone. When I saw the wind in the date palms, I thought of hurricanes. They do get them at this time of the year - I'd forgotten!

I won't wax so eloquent about it if I have to make a run for the airport by rickshaw in pouring rain.... (But if it is, then maybe we can use the car or auto-rickshaw, because Bangladeshis, even cocktail-throwers, don't like getting wet.) But this sort of storm tends to be sharp , heavy and quickly over.

The sun is out again now, and the air is cool and sweet. Enjoy it, Bangladesh, because it may be a long time before you have the same experience, without the regular air pollution.

Tejgaon fire

As a postscript to the bit I was writing about the shantytown at Tejgaon, the whole thing went up in smoke late last night - the second such incident in 24 hours. My friend the reporter from the Daily Star had to cover it, and he said it was pretty scary, because there was huge confusion and electric wires everywhere - and then the power was cut completely to stop more people being electrocuted, and they were in absolute pitch blackness except for the fires themselves. It could have been started by accident, which is the most likely explanation, but of course if the contractors want the squatters out, it's marvellous what a bit of well timed and directed petrol can do.

(As far as electricity is concerned, what people do in the bustees is simply locate a power wire somewhere and start attaching electric cable. Free power, if you don't kill yourself. That's why we have so many blackouts, because half the city is wired into the grid illegally.)

Tidying up

I went over and did my last bit of writing of emails at the Daily Star office. Debapriya has returned from Japan and has some scheme to get me to the airport. I don't doubt that he will. He is one of the most resourceful men in Dhaka.

Ah! that breeze is so fresh! (The lights are flicking on and off every second - must be marvellous for electronic equipment. I'm using this under its own power, so no problem.)

A moth! A little white moth just flew onto my shirt. The first one I have seen in Bangladesh. The gecko will be pleased.

The maid just brought some tea. The water tastes awful - worse than Armidale when the blue-green algae is on.... (I hate to think what the rain has stirred up!) And not an hour since the end of the rain, and a big demonstration has just gone by, with lots of waving and chanting. The police are leading it, so it must be a government one. Looks like back to bombing and shooting tonight.

Back to politics

Incidentally, the army has been keeping a low profile - very little evidence of it on the streets, and I notice that those who are, are armed only with ancient bolt action rifles like the 303s we sometimes used on the farm. If this is what they are taking into battle against the goons at night in the suburbs, then they are going to find things tough and scary.

Don't bother reading the part below if you aren't interested in Bangladesh politics in 1996.


The political situation is this. The government has been sworn in, thus giving it constitutional validity, in spite of the fact that the opposition parties refuse to accept the validity of the election result. Therefore, the government is legal on paper, but morally unacceptable probably to the majority of the people BUT what they want most of all right now is to get back to work before the economy collapses and before people at the bottom end of the system starve to death.

Because it has now legal status, (i.e., it was sworn in by the president) the government went ahead with fulfilling the major opposition demands for a neutral caretaker government to take office before the next elections. But if the Opposition accepts this, then it will also have to accept the validity of the present government and the recent elections, which it will not do, because it allows the government to go on legitimately, and if the government chooses, it may at a later date decide to postpone the promised elections.

That's the trap the government has laid for the Opposition, and they're not buying it. In that sense, the government is one step ahead of its opponents right now, because it has constitutional authority for what it is doing, and gives the opposition no choice but to accept its validity or to reject everything that has happened since the election.

The Opposition says that it is an illegal government because the elections were not held in accordance with the constitution. Thus anything the government does is illegal, even the mechanism to hold the fresh elections. The only choice for the Opposition is to continue to maintain the hartal, or at least to continue to deny the validity of the present government. This means that they regard themselves as morally right in taking whatever action they believe is necessary to bring down the government. Since they do not regard it as a legal government, they may decide to set up an alternative government, or start armed action against it. This would inevitably bring it into a collision course with the army, unless the army splits along party lines, which I don't think it will do.

International opinion is against the government, for good reasons - even Australia boycotted the opening of the parliament. But at the same time, the US assessment is probably that they will accept the legitimacy of the present BNP government, because they have never liked the Awami League and have constantly tried to bring it down in the past. No-one believes that the Awami League would be any better than the government in electoral politics, but the minorities and the secularists or socialists believe that the Awami League is their best ally in a world where the rich and the powerful can do whatever they like.

So there is no going forward without force being used by the government to maintain its control. And there is now no going back, because the government has been installed. It's an absolute bloody mess!


March 23, 1996 8:48 AM

Leaving town

I leave tomorrow, if all goes to plan. Last night was completely free of bombs and gunfire, or at least, I didn't hear any. I hope that augurs well for my departure. It is clear and sunny now and will probably be the most pleasant morning - weatherwise at least - that Dhaka residents will have enjoyed for a long time. The mango leaves are shiny and the small mangoes are swelling.

Exemptions have been made to the hartal, though they won't help me. Auto-rickshaws can now run after 4.00 pm. They will really hit the streets tonight. It's been a drought for them. Most people who are getting killed on the streets are now being run over by tempos and trucks and buses escaping from people with bombs in their hands.

I make one last half-hearted attempt to contact Mahbub and Tahsinah – a poor attempt because I am now convinced that they must be elsewhere and not in Dhaka. The number I have, when it rings, is answered only in Bengali, and I quickly reach the limit of mine. They are going to be upset with me if they are actually here, but these are unusual times. I am sad too. I could have no better friends.

Otherwise, nothing to report.

March 24, 1996 9:55 AM

Getting to the  airport

I have packed and hopefully will leave in about an hour. I don't know exactly what Deb's plan is, but we'll see. I suspect it is to get the rickshaw to Mohakhali and a baby taxi from there. Could be interesting....

Although last night seemed quieter (apart from a long cat-fight!) there was a lot of bombing going on in town last night - lots of people hurt in 7 major bombings, but I didn't hear any of them. But then I don't always hear the muezzin calling either, at 5.30 am, though it makes a great racket.

I think I made a slight miscalculation. I gave the maid who's done most of the work some money as a farewell gift. She must have skited to all the others, because within 15 minutes I had my floor mopped over, bathroom cleaned, bed done - by a few part-timers here who normally haven't been the lightest bit interested in me - all looking hopefully at me expecting manna to fall from heaven. Well, it won't, because as usual, I have no small bills that I could give them, and it would be a grevious insult to the maid to give the floor cleaner the same amount as she got - and I gave it to her because the maid didn't ask for it and didn't expect it. I say "Ami Bangla jani na" and look particularly stupid. Eventually they go away, deeply disappointed in my apparent inability to understand that they have an immediate use for any taka I want to dispense with.

After all this time I can’t properly work out the protocols and diplomacy involved in dealing with servants.

March 25, 1996 2:20 PM

A hectic journey

High on the ninth floor of the Allson Hotel, overlooking the smart city of Singapore. And I have had... cheese on crackers! coffee! grapes! what luxury! And you can give people money and they have change to give you back. Is this not sophistication?

But let's conclude the Bangladesh chapter, which was pretty climactic. Deb arrived at about 11.00 am, and waited for his driver and another employee to come. The game plan was that we would take two rickshaws, one with my big case and a littler Bangladeshi than I, and the other with me and a second guard, and then to change from rickshaw to auto at Moakhali.

Change of plans

But the two others came over by autorickshaw and declared that it was safe enough to make a run for the airport direct from Wari in the autorickshaw. It’s a long way under present circumstances.

It was a risk but worth taking, because we could stick one man riding shotgun with the driver, me on the kerb side because most attacks come from the middle of the road rather than the left, and the suitcase etc in the middle, while the strongest and most experienced of my bodyguards was on the right at the back. Then off we went for the airport. The trick is for the auto-rickshaw driver not to make any mistakes (like running over people or hitting a rickshaw), to drive fast but without too many risks (if he runs over someone then we are in deep shaving cream) and for the lookouts to watch for any odd movement in the crowd that would signify someone running toward our vehicle, and to look out for any trouble up ahead that will trap us in a crowd.

A hitch

All goes well till we get to Moakhali crossing, which is the railway where everyone has to stop. This is where most attacks on baby taxis and tempos occur. We cross without trouble and head onward. There is an open road ahead of us, but the driver slows to a crawl. I don't understand this till I look ahead and see that there is a crowd blocking the road. The driver is now very anxious and hisses orders to the lookouts. This sort of situation is just what he doesn’t want. His vehicle and his life are on the line.

A tempo has for some reason run into the embankment, at an army bunker. This gives it some protection from torching, but we are the only other autorickshaw around, which makes us extra vulnerable.

We can't proceed or we'll have to stop at the accident. So the driver does a U-turn - on a divided road, this means running back against the traffic, not that that is any novelty for Bangladeshis - in fact, if you are at a roundabout and your exit is at 270 degrees, you simply go against the traffic for 90 degrees instead.

Safely there

Anyway, we got through that part and back onto the right side of the road eventually, but we had to go back over the crossing and through a new bottleneck at a different spot so we could get to the airport from another direction, and we made it, finally, with no trouble. The pace was pretty crazy, though, and the only thing that concerned me was that we might have an accident. Mind you, I had two tough troubleshooters with me - the best that Deb could provide.

I am sure this sounds like an overdramatisation. It must. But like Russian roulette, there is absolutely no danger if you pull the trigger on the five empty chambers out of six. The chances of being one of the seven or eight daily in Dhaka that get bombed with lethal results are low. Having seen the photos of burn victims from cocktail bombings, no ratio is small enough for comfort. I can tell you, it concentrates the mind wonderfully as you fly through the streets, scanning every face for a sign that they have a weapon, or looking far enough ahead so that if a gang is shooting it out with another, you aren't the one that gets hit in the crossfire.

Most of the chances of being hurt are as an innocent bystander.

Anyway, I have three hours to kill at Zia international airport. I fend off requests from a smartly dressed employee of the duty free area to buy some whiskey on his behalf with money provided by him in order to take it into town and sell it for five times (at least) the duty free value. I talk to an American woman who had been teaching English at the American school in trendy Gulshan (a posh suburb of Dhaka) for three years and had never been to the real Dhaka (what blackouts? what fighting? what problems?) What planet are you on, lady? Don’t you read the local papers?

I don’t ask but I know she doesn’t.

We finally get aboard the airbus half an hour late that started from Kathmandu, Nepal, full of miserable, exhausted looking young Himalayan trekkers from the US, and headed for Singapore.

Wouldn't have missed the experience of living in Wari for the world. Great place to visit, especially during a massive political crisis - but for outsiders, it would take quite some time to adapt.

FOOTNOTE: reading back through this and having been to Dhaka since, it still seems way too melodramatic. After all, what happened to me? Nothing bad. But things were different then. Very different to before or after, except when the liberation war was on, and when Sheikh Mujib was assassinated along with much of his family except for his daughter, the current Prime Minister. And when Zia was assassinated and his (putative) killers put on trial, and when Ershad (still in Bangladesh parliament!) came to power, and when he was overthrown by popular rebellion twenty years ago....

Politics, you see, can be very lively – and deadly – in Bangladesh; not to mention India and Pakistan.

Denis Wright and Sheikk Hasina
(current Bangladesh PM) Dhaka 1989
One last point on this: I am fairly certain that I am the only Australian (perhaps the only foreigner) to have met and interviewed every leader (President or Prime Minister) of Bangladesh in its entire history – now forty years - with one exception. I never met Ershad, and after what happened in 1989 when I was there, I don’t want to, even now.

Bangladesh is unique in world politics to have been ruled for the last twenty years by either of two women – Sheikh Hasina and Khalida Zia.

There’s so much more I could write on Bangladesh, but that’s not going to happen. The world has changed. Bangladesh has changed. What hasn’t changed is the number of great friendships I have had over forty years with Bangladeshi friends.

That will never change. You know who you are!


  1. Hello Denis: Here is a very late late post. You have chronicled it so well....and this is so personal to me. More on this later. Thanks. Dipen

  2. It's original - I created it! If you mean that it doesn't look exactly like the one on the wall of your office in Dhaka, that's hardly surprising!


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