Pronounced ‘Shon-deep’ (or Shun-deef depending on who you talk to) the island of Sandwip sits at an estuary of the Meghna River on the Bay of Bengal. Open precariously to the elements, the residents of the island are no strangers to the carnage and chaos extreme weather can bring. On April 29, 1991 it is estimated that 40,000 people were killed by an unforgiving cyclone that tore through the island leaving thousands dead and even more homeless.
Almost 23 years on from that day, the island was a perfect picture of calm and serenity when I visited last week to spend a couple of days with a colleague who was born and raised on Sandwip, and whose family still reside there. The memories of that fateful day in 1991 still haunt people though, and as my colleague introduced me to one family member the immediate response was to enquire somewhat confusedly as to why I had come, and was I not scared of the threat of a cyclone? The fear still grips residents of this community and as water levels rise, shores slowly creep towards homes, and extreme weather becomes even more unpredictable, it’s easy to understand why.
However, apart from one short, sharp thunder storm my visit was largely undramatic in terms of weather. The rumbles of thunder and the patter of raindrops on the tin roofs only added to the charm of this place. You see Sandwip proved to be an experience of some contrast to my regular, everyday experience of Bangladesh. In Chittagong (my home for the entire two year duration of my life here so far) the noise of trucks, buses, cars, and CNGs penetrates and pollutes the air almost everywhere you go. It’s a city of 6 million people and thus it is hard to find a place to escape that hustle. I appreciate Chittagong for so many reasons, but the noise can take its toll at times.
When I returned from Sandwip I told a friend quite proudly and perhaps even a little smugly that I had seen only one lone car during my time on the island. His response was to point out that I had in fact been rather unfortunate as most visitors don’t see any!
Without wanting to sound patronising or to belittle Sandwip in any way, I would sum up my time there as taking a step back in time. I mean this in the most positive way. At night the stars filled the sky and were as bright as I’d ever seen them. In the day the local market bustled with traders and large numbers of cattle ready to be sold.
Agriculture drives the local economy it seems and manual labour appears to be the catalyst for this. There are countless tea shops, and each and every one seemed to be the centre of discussion and socialising amongst the islanders.
There are few roads on Sandwip. In more developed areas paved paths allow bicycles and rickshaws to pass easily, and if you go ‘off road’ you will find more basic, dusty paths that make it more complex for anything on wheels to pass. Bathing is also a distinctly communal affair for many.
I bathed in the pond close to the house where I was staying. This essentially entailed tying a lunghi around my waist and diving into the pond. It all went fine until I dropped the soap and it sank beneath the murky water, causing much amusement to the onlookers who had gathered to watch me bathe. Sandwip does not receive a vast number of foreign visitors, so my half naked presence in the pond drew a crowd!
Life is visibly tough though for many people here, and it was evident everywhere I visited on the island. Manual labour dominates as I mentioned, and this comes in a variety of forms. For example, as we left the island to return to the urban sprawl of Chittagong, we had to board a speedboat. At the time we and around ten other people wished to travel, the tide was out and thus the channel sat far out in the distance, and before us lay a mass of deep, dense, and unsympathetic wet sand. The solution was to herd us into a nearby wooden boat, and it soon became apparent that 10 men would drag us out to where the speedboat was waiting.
For the next 25 minutes they heaved and used every muscle in their bodies to get us to the water. When the boat became trapped assigned men would leap into action and strategically dig away the offending sand and we’d continue on our way. At some points they would chant in unison to motivate each other and it was apparent that teamwork was paramount. We arrived at the speedboat and 25 minutes later we were back on mainland Bangladesh. Well, not quite. The process was repeated and once again we were dragged across the sand. By the end I felt incredibly lucky to be able to teach.
My time in Sandwip was short, but I caught a glimpse of something I felt it was possible for me to connect with. Of course life on the island is very different to my previous personal life experiences, but there is something about rural Bangladesh which intrigues me. The people were so welcoming and despite my still very limited Bangla skills, I was able to converse and bond with a number of people. My colleague and his family were the perfect hosts and I am already planning on when I can return for a longer visit.
For my full album of photos from Sandwip follow the link below;
Finally, the title of this blog post is the English translation of a lyric from the national anthem of Bangladesh, Amar Sonar Bangla, by Rabrindranath Tagore. Today marks Bangladesh’s 43rd year of independence. Here is a wonderful rendition of the song,
They arrived one after the other. As regular and as frequent as the char served in the roadside tea stands that line the road. Ambulance after ambulance pulled up to the airport entrance, and for the uninformed you could easily be mistaken into assuming that a major crisis was unfolding before your eyes. In some respects you would be correct, but not at the airport, which was in actual fact a haven of calm and general inactivity. Other areas of Chittagong were not so lucky.
In the past few weeks Bangladesh has revealed a side I have not observed before in my two years so far at least. Nationwide protests and blockades have become the norm, travelling across certain areas of the city has become an event of some caution, political manoeuvrings affect the core of daily life, and if some rumours are to be believed, the military are waiting in the wings to take over, even if just for an interim period whilst a semblance of calm is sought.
Matters reached a head at 10.01pm on Thursday, 12th December as Abdul Kader Mullah, a senior political figure from the Jamaat-e-Islami party, charged and sentenced to death for war crimes dating from Bangladesh’s struggle for independence (or Liberation War) from 1971, was executed . For many Bangladeshis who had waited patiently and hopefully for 42 years, this was a moment of triumph, relief and crucially, justice. For ardent supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami, it was a significant attack on their identity. They have since promised to seek revenge for his death. The streets of Chittagong were eerily quiet that night. The roads were vacant of the usual mass of vehicles and people, and as I walked past the tea shop I was advised to go straight home.
Often referred to as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’, Mullah is held directly responsible for a large number of killings during the three month Liberation War. His execution was controversial in the international arena, as his trial was accused of not adhering to UN codes of human rights. I’m not here to comment on that as I don’t have the background knowledge. I will however attempt to provide a very, very brief and basic description of what happened in 1971 and how this is shaping events today from what I have learned during my time in Bangladesh.
Upon gaining independence in 1947, India was split in two, well three really – the predominantly Hindu state of India and the majority Islamic states of West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). However, tensions between East and West Pakistan were a constant as the majority of power and wealth lay in the West and governance was concentrated here. Language also played a prominent role as the mainly West Pakistani language of Urdu was imposed across both states. In the eyes of the East Bengalis this was just one further example of significant and imposing restrictions upon their liberty and individual identity and as such they fought hard to preserve their use of Bangla. Having only just gained their long awaited independence from British colonialism, the people of East Pakistan were once again left to fight and struggle for some of the most basic human rights.
As movements for independence came to a prominent level in 1971, West Pakistan initiated a severe and violent crackdown with journalists, scholars, and students targeted and executed in high numbers. Over the course of the East Bengal liberation movement it is claimed that as many as three million people were killed and the word genocide has been attached to the actions of West Pakistan military and their supporters in East Bengal at the time, who tried in vain to crush the popular uprising. Abdul Kader Mullah was accused of collaborating with these forces, and as such, forty-two years on he faced trial, was found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged – rightly or wrongly depending on who you speak to in Bangladesh.
East Pakistan eventually gained its official independence by the end of 1971, and a new state was born. Bangladesh – a nation proud of its identity, proud of its language, proud of its people, and proud of its hard fought independence. December 16th is Victory Day in the country, the annual day dedicated to marking the sacrifice and honour of those who gave their lives during 1971 – the freedom fighters as they are widely known.
On January 5th 2014, parliamentary elections are due to take place, and in the run up to these old wounds have been reopened to some extent. It seems that whilst forty-two years is a significant period of time, the events of ’71 remain very firmly in the minds of the people, and this is understandable. For many Bangladeshis the murder and rape of loved ones, the injustice, and the horrors of war are memories that sit fresh in the mind. The Awami League are the current ruling party and they have pushed through the war crime trials during their recent term in office. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP) is the main opposition and has some connections with Jamaat-e-Islami. They claim the war crime trials are politically motivated and the division is both fraught and debilitating and still influenced by the events of 1971.
As such, the country is in a state of transition, and from speaking to Bangladeshi friends, colleagues, and tea house clientele, there is a degree of uncertainty about how the next few weeks/months may play out. The opposition party led strikes and blockades continue on a weekly basis and serve only to cripple the country’s economy from what I can tell.
It also appears that as in many situations of a similar nature, it is the ordinary people on the street who suffer most. People trying to go about their daily lives and earn enough money to feed their families who are forced to risk their safety just to open their fruit stand or shop. The rickshaw, CNG, and bus drivers take to the roads each day not knowing if their vehicle will be struck by a Molotov cocktail hurled by a protesting mob. There have already been deaths and there is a high chance of more as the election approaches.
Hence the ambulances I mentioned at the beginning of this post. You see, if you need to get somewhere and you have enough money, hiring a private ambulance is the best plan. I, like the many others who arrived at the airport that day, took this option, and I’m lucky to have this choice. Yet, despite this turmoil there is great hope pinned upon the nation’s youth. They have already organised themselves in large numbers to unite in peaceful solutions.
I am currently on winter vacation and outside of Bangladesh. However, the situation often crosses my mind. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to travel at this point, but the safety of Bangladeshi friends, colleagues, and of course the students are a concern. The question of what I will find when I land back in Chittagong on January 15th is also one that occupies my thoughts and how the election result will be received by the people is a cause of great intrigue and apprehension.
So, as I post this on the final day of 2013, my hope for 2014 is that Bangladesh can find a peaceful solution and a political compromise driven by understanding, cooperation and humility. The past year was a testing one for this country with the Rana Plaza building collapse disaster, the garment factory fires and workers protests, and of course the ongoing political disturbances and violence. However, I have faith that once again the people of Bangladesh will come through this and demonstrate the resilience and strength demonstrated by the people on the streets each and every day.
So, from a cafe in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam, let me take this opportunity to wish you a Happy New Year and all the very best for 2014. I’ve enjoyed keeping this blog updated during 2013 and I will endeavour to do the same in the coming twelve months.