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A child shares the grief for those killed at Holey Artisan

© bdnews24.com/md asaduzzaman pramanik

Montage of memories, symbols and the slaughter of ‘my people’ – a personal account

I remember the sound of the bomb going off at Ramna Park.

A muted ‘Thuddd’. For a few minutes we thought the big speakers had finally given in to the summer heat and the Pahela Baishakh crowd.

Our troop was seated on the ground, barely a yard away from the concert stage.

We arrived late, thanks to a cousin who fell asleep while dressing, so we lost the ‘lucrative spot’, fenced in and closest to the stage, much to the chagrin of my mother.

She left us, by the bank of the dried out lake and was admiring the singers of Chhayanaut, an iconic institution, leaning against a bamboo barricade near the stage.

But we soon realised it was a bomb.

I jumped up, secured my sandals from the stampede, but could not find Mother. A man held a handkerchief to his bleeding forehead, standing upright amid the dust kicked up by fleeing feet.

The sight further stressed the need to find Mother. When we did, she was crying her heart out, watching the crowd disperse.

I looked the other way as we hurried past the mangled bodies. I was told some were still steaming.

Back home, I paced between the rooms. Every possible space within me felt invaded. Nothing would ever be the same, and no one really cared.

Smoke rises after a bomb attack on a crowd celebrating the Bengali New Year at Dhaka’s Ramna Park, Apr 14, 2001. © Mominul Haque Dulu

I looked at myself – a young Bengali in a bright saree, the ‘teep’ between my brows. I was reluctant to believe it, but our enemies had struck a satisfying blow to ‘my symbol’.

I had no faith in governance. It was a vicious cycle of fear, violation and impunity. At age 12, I was weary.

That feeling was akin to the one I would get as a child visiting the Liberation War Museum. I would look at the martyrs’ bones in glass boxes, the photographs from mass graves, of raped girls.

The rooms were sad, even though we won. I inherited that gloom with utmost sincerity.

If the visions haunted me at night, my parents would take turns telling me, “They’re not ghosts, they’re martyrs. So, don’t ever be afraid.”

“And what of that ghastly bearded old man with fangs, who you say still lives?” I thought, referring to the famous war-time poster of Ghulam Azam.

The earliest of genocide victims, Mar 26, 1971

They would stare at each other, sneer or talk. Of course there was no answer for the absurd reality.

It was a lot to take in for a child. On BTV, we saw old footage of dogs tearing at the dead in Dhaka’s streets. The nation’s founder was murdered, and they blew off one of his fingers in the process.

“Devils, they killed his family, little Russel too.” Me and my sister, we would cup our chins in our tiny palms and feel a void, burning through our glory.

And how the writing on the wall had almost faded – ‘Juddho Oporadhi Der Bichar Chai’.

 

****

There was substantial gore, everywhere, and along with it came a generous dose of blindness. That was the 1990s.

I studied in both our education systems. From nursery to fourth grade, the instructions were in Bangla, before me and my sister were moved to one of Dhaka’s oldest English-medium schools.

The former was military-strict, a soul crusher. Not everyone takes kindly to systematic beatings. But while the latter sacked teachers for laying a finger on students, I had seen it go wrong time and again.

Most of my peers feigned immunity to the nation’s crises, whether natural or manmade. The disowning of Bangladesh began as soon as it was born.

A pool of blood and a police helmet near Gulshan’s Holey on the night of the siege. © bdnews24.com

“This one looks like a rickshaw-puller,” said a girl in class. She was joined by others in laughter. The aloof twenty-something teacher had stepped out.

The man whose image she pointed to on the government textbook was Munier Chowdhury, one among the hundreds wiped out for being Bengali, upright and intelligent.

I stared deeply at his poorly-printed face, as if to apologise. He never complained but I lost face. I spent a lot of time at school sulking on moral high ground.

A few years after the bombing, I am a teenager sitting on the steps of the Shaheed Minar.

A discussion was being held on Professor Humayun Azad who was attacked by ‘fundamentalists’ on the Dhaka University campus.

The brutish machete slicing into the head and neck would come to be the preferred form of attack on human symbols of free speech, religious freedom, sexual freedom and even cultural exchange. But we did not know it yet.

He struggled on at the hospital but some of the speakers, assuming he would die, mourned him in advance. Some stood up to protest.

It was easy to see that we were a divided and incoherent group. The symbol that was Bangladesh was beginning to blur.

****

The air was dense and in the deathly quiet, it screamed of massacre, blood rotting inside Dhaka’s diplomatic district. Thirty-five metres away a foreign man endured it.

“I can’t describe it, the smell. It is sickening. It brought with it such negative vibes and the images of what I know happened.”

He is employed in Dhaka for his expertise in law enforcement.

I had hoped the so-called Islamic State’s claim was untrue and that 20 hostages were not dead inside Holey Artisan Bakery. But they were, and 17 of them were foreigners.

The café killers

The three rich killers, not the two older Bogra boys, stole the show. The combination was no coincidence.

To make the confrontation even more symbolic, the gunmen ‘pardoned’ and released women wearing scarves but murdered and mutilated foreign women and defiant Bangladeshis.

What did Holey Artisan Bakery stand for before it was turned into a slaughterhouse? Good food, hospitality, freedom?

“Once you’re inside, it gave you the feeling that you’re no longer in Dhaka,” the foreigner said. “Their bread without doubt could rival the best European makers.”

“I loved the green lawn and the view of the lake, but especially the lawn, always clean. The people who went there minded their own business. They were of a certain class. Is that the right way to say it, ‘class’?”

“A Russian woman recommended it to me, and it proved quite difficult to find. Not a lot of people knew it was there. But I live roughly seven minutes away.”

The terrorists used mainly educated, rich youths to kill foreigners and defiant Bangladeshis, a highly symbolic confrontation of ideals.

I asked what he thought it meant. “It is perhaps just a new strategy by an organisation with objectives,” said the foreigner.

Did his colleagues feel the same way? Were they also confident that radicalisation in Bangladesh was not as rabid as ‘terror groups’ would like them to think?

“A part of the foreign community does not feel the same way about Bangladesh after this attack. But this is global terror. There are attacks in other countries too.

“But this is about the value of life. Who would want to risk such meaningless death?”

The message styled in the blood of mostly-foreign victims was meant for Bangladesh to read after all.

We were made to feel sinful. Our secession from ‘Islamic’ Pakistan was also a ‘sin’, for which innocents were dragged to mass graves.

The motive for an attack with such a variety of ugly consequences, revealed in a so-called Islamic State video, was in essence, too weak and amateur to be true.

All-out war on behalf of the IS, until the entire globe was in its Islamist grasp.

Their sole charge against Bangladesh’s government was that it was democratic. The government’s opponents accused it of being many things, but never that.

The three Bangladeshi militants lectured a homeland still reeling from terror, to bear testimony, above anything else, that more from the country were indeed part of the IS.

The men were identified quickly and to the benefit of their benefactors.

“You have never before seen Jihad like this!” I went to the same university as the man who said it. The IS man spoke with his back to a busy night street.

If that was Raqqah, as was claimed, the Islamic State’s capital has a flourishing trade of yellow taxis.

****

“Oh Nibras, all he cared about was football, girls and smoking weed,” said a former friend of the killer. “He was a player, and a good one. And he played great football too.”

I listened. Was he violent? “Well, no. But apparently he did a great job at hiding it. I can’t believe Nibras can slit throats! He was one of those guys everyone liked!”

“Everyone knew him. How come you didn’t?” asked the boy. I said I was older.

He remembered Nibras turning religious and with that intolerant. “Especially about idols, you know of deities? He dated my friend for a while and even danced at her sister’s wedding. That was before he disappeared.”

“He was a leader, and they got to him. He was in Malaysia, man, that place is not to be taken lightly. I’m telling you they would have gotten me too if I didn’t know Islam better.”

The suave boy I was speaking to was also classmates with the elder brother of café gunman Mir Sameeh Mobassher at the English-medium school, Scholastica, before moving abroad for higher studies.

“We didn’t know for a long time that he had a younger brother, who also went to our school!”

A helpless awakening: PM Sheikh Hasina at Dhaka’s Army Stadium where bodies of Holey victims lay in state. © PMO

Did his own brother not acknowledge him in school? Was he bullied? I asked. “That boy was a loner … he had good grades, but his brother, my friend, he had his own band.”

“You know what the worst thing is, they had absolutely no reason for doing this,” said my young friend.

“Well maybe that itself is a reason,” I said.

“You have everything, so that’s a reason now!” he said, with exploding eyes. “Whoever is in charge of their HR must be one shrewd fellow!”

All foul things fester and come forth eventually, and we are plunged into darkness.

Lives of good humans, be it 20-year-old Faraaz Hossain or 45-year-old Ishrat Akhond, are cut short. Literally.

****

I felt desperate. I wanted to hold a banner, place a flower and I wanted to see people doing that with me. The ‘public event’ at the army stadium was heartbreaking.

I was relieved that the families had carried away the coffins draped in green and red by the time the political cronies brought out their selfie sticks. Dual US citizen Abinta’s flag was half stars and stripes.

I thought of the bodies inside. The stadium filled to the brim with security forces seemed inadequate.

I had naively expected a real outpour, not the kind you see on Facebook. Solidarity, not speculation.

I did not want our goodbyes to be so unceremonious.

Japanese families requested that they be left alone. Stiff-faced Tokyo officials, their anger apparent, honoured the dead. The sky was as white as the grief-stricken faces at Hanada Airport.

In the warm light of Rome, a man wept, resting his head against a coffin.

Holey victims: A penitent nation honours the dead

The women hostages had mutilation marks, according to police sources.

The Italians too confirmed the victims had been tortured before death.

Ten of the 20 dead victims, were shot dead, while the terrified and the ‘pardoned’ watched.

The killers slaughtered Faraaz Hossain and there were signs on his body that suggested he grabbed their sword. The boy who stood his ground, I understood perfectly why some couldn’t stand it.

Too young and wealthy, he obliterated their self-styled judgment of English-educated youths.

The caricature of cowardice made their critics appear generous and justified their austerity as being glorious, not just matter-of-fact.

I think of two people: “So everything is about him now!” said one. “There isn’t enough to rule out that he wasn’t with the terrorists,” said another.

“You’re jealous,” I said, sick with disgust.

Where missing the point, consciously, is acceptable behaviour, people champion Islam by wearing head scarves, growing beards and throwing stink eyes at diners during Ramadan.

And the so-called vanguards of secular culture were no match for this wave. They were as blind in their bickering over the term as their ‘opponents’ were in their extremism.

I was going home, worried and weary. Trucks, buses, small pickups, packed with people leaving Dhaka, passed by. A train chugged on with a long silhouette of people seated on top.

It was the night before Eid, and the last-minuters, both men and women, smiled despite the obvious discomfort and the danger of travelling that way.

They waved at each other from one pickup to another. “Hard-earned leaves,” I thought to myself.

At home, I was pondering something, when I heard the firecrackers go off.

It was the kind that just made sounds, like gunshots. I thought of the many foreigners who live in my neighbourhood.  My sister and I, we stared at each other.

“They’re actually celebrating. Where have all the humans gone?”

Samin Sababa is a journalist and currently a Senior Sub Editor at bdnews24.com