Before reading this post, please read A Crossroads for the Future of Bangladesh written by a well-informed expat living in a different area of the country.
I was in India when the Shahbag Movement turned tumultuous so I was unaware of any danger I might encounter when I returned to Bangladesh. My boss’ driver picked me up at the Dhaka airport and I spent the next day sleeping — recovering from both a stomach bug and a nasty cold I had picked up on my travels — at her apartment, which is nestled in the Diplomatic Enclave, consisting of Banani, Baridhara and Gulshan.
Now, let me explain that Gulshan (where my boss lives) is like its own planet. If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, think Woodbury without the Romanesque entertainment and crazy Governor. The rest of Dhaka could be in all-out war, but in this expat neighborhood, I imagine daily life would continue undisturbed with people walking around, shopping and dining out as they normally would.
After my day of rest in Gulshan, I returned to Jessore and learned that there had been a hartal (a nationwide strike) while I was gone. No big deal. We’ve had lots of hartals lately as each political party chooses a day or two to rally support for its point of view.
In Jessore, there has been almost no violence related to the strikes, so to me, they’re just an excuse to miss work (transportation is banned on hartal days, so driving to the village is too risky). Besides, most of the hartals have taken place on days I didn’t have to teach anyway, so my daily life hasn’t really been affected.
The biggest impact I experienced came a few days after my return to Jessore. The British Aid Guest House Association (BAGHA) in Dhaka was hosting an Entertainment Expo and my company was participating, so I went back to Dhaka with three of my colleagues to promote the resort to the expat community that would be attending.
There was only one problem: the day of the event coincided with the sentencing of Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a Bangladeshi war criminal. Many Bangladeshis demanded the death penalty for him, but Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamic party, did not. The evening before the event, bursts of violence erupted around the city.
Safe in Gulshan and busy preparing for the Expo, I had no idea anything was amiss until one of my Bangladeshi colleagues, who had been running errands outside the enclave, returned to the office and told us he had just witnessed gunfire on the streets!
We wondered if the event would be cancelled, but it wasn’t, so we moved ahead with our planning, instructing everyone to avoid traveling to dangerous areas. As long as we stayed in Gulshan, we’d be fine.
And we were.
The day of the event, a Thursday, Sayedee was sentenced to be hanged. Throughout the city there was celebration as well as backlash. Things were heating up, but where I sat, everything was normal and calm (except for our own frenzy trying to complete our booth on time). In fact, except for the smaller-than-expected turnout at the event, and the harrowing experience of my colleague, I would never have guessed the country was in crisis.
At the Expo, a band was playing classic rock cover songs. One vendor was giving out free ice cream. There was a bar, with actual alcohol, next to our booth. I saw high heels, skinny jeans, cleavage and cans of Heineken. This was not the Bangladesh I had been experiencing the past nine months. I pondered how different my life in Bangladesh would have been if I had lived in Dhaka. This was a surreal bubble … and I envied it.
But I realized my life in Jessore, even without the familiarity of Western comforts, is its own bubble. More than 40 people have died in the streets, and the country is quite possibly on the brink of a civil war, yet I have felt not even a tiny twinge of fear. Even after the Jamaat called a three-day hartal, I wasn’t worried. Instead, I was happy to have a few days off to catch up on personal business, like writing this blog.
Of course, even though I haven’t heard about any violence in Jessore, I haven’t ventured outside the past three days. It’s better to be safe than adventurous at times like these. Besides, I’m used to staying in.
The Jamaat hartal ended at 6 p.m. this evening, and for now, it’s back to business as usual. Who knows when the next hartal will be called or whether it will be peaceful or violent. No matter what happens, my hope is that the issues from the past don’t prevent Bangladesh from moving into a peaceful future. The country truly is at a crossroads, but like the blog post “What Brings Me to Shahbag, What Pulls Me Back from It” reminds us, Bangladesh is struggling with many other big issues, perhaps more pertinent than demanding justice for war crimes. For this country to truly progress, they must also be addressed.
Sitting here in my little bubble, I pray they will.