A Strangely Calm Ambulance Journey…

They arrived one after the other. As regular and as frequent as the cha 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.

IMG_5891 copy

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.

The Frozen Furnace: Life as a Bangladeshi UN Peacekeeper – Part II

I’d like to take you back one year if I may. In February 2012 I took on the task of putting into writing the fascinating experiences of Retired Major Ezaz Afzal’s time as a Bangladeshi UN Peacekeeper in Rwanda, a country that at the time (1994) was practically staring into the abyss. Here is that blog for anyone who missed it the first time around.

An Eyewitness to Genocide: Life as a Bangladeshi UN Peacekeeper

In Rwanda - shortly before the start of the genocide

Having spent a year in Rwanda myself, speaking to Major Ezaz was all the more significant, and a few weeks after our first meeting he very kindly allowed me to take up some more of his time to discuss his second UN mission. He swapped a tiny, war-torn country in East Africa for a bitterly divided corner of Eastern Europe, and as our discussion commenced his first words were telling;

“To tell you the truth I felt like I was taken from a hot frying pan and placed directly into the fire.”

Retd. Maj. Ezaz Afzal

He now found himself in Bosnia and part of yet another controversial UN peacekeeping mission. The recording of our meeting has been sat idly on my laptop for almost a year now, so I thought it would be fitting, twelve months on from my first blog about Major Ezaz, to produce the long overdue second installment.

It’s a trickier task this time as my knowledge of the war in the former Yugoslavia is not nearly as in depth as my knowledge of the Rwandan genocide. However, my willing interviewee once again offered a fascinating insight into his experiences, and that’s what I’d like to present.

Major Ezaz was deployed to Bosnia in July 1994, merely two months after returning to Bangladesh from Rwanda (via Kenya). I was somewhat shocked to discover he experienced such a swift transition between missions, particularly given the nature of the conflict he not only left behind in Africa, but the one he was about to enter.

He didn’t head to Bosnia directly, or alone though. The regiment was composed of fellow Bangladeshi soldiers, many of whom had served together in Rwanda and who now became members of UNPROFOR (The UN Protection Force) in the Balkans. Their voyage from South East Asia took a slight detour due to a month of cold weather training and acclimatization in Germany and Slovakia, which would prove crucial.

This was followed by an overland journey all the way from Hungary to Zagreb (Croatia) and finally into Bosnia. According to Major Ezaz this was a wonderful experience as they witnessed some beautiful European sights en route. I imagine that is one of the positive aspects of being a peacekeeper, the opportunity to visit and pass through places you may not normally find yourself.

The final destination for the Major and his men was Bihać, a small city in the very north west of Bosnia, which sits almost right on the border with Croatia. Crucially the city itself had been designated a ‘UN Safe Area’ and thus a humanitarian corridor. In effect it should therefore have been a demilitarized zone, protected from outside attacks.

However, if I tell you that Srebrenica was also one of the six UN ‘safe areas’ during the conflict, this will no doubt provide you with some indication of their success. In July 1995 over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica by Serbian soldiers and paramilitary groups, led of course by Ratko Mladić. Dutch UN peacekeepers were present in the town at the time. It was essentially genocide. Far from ‘safe’.

By the time the Bangladeshi regiment had arrived in Bihać in the middle of 1994, the city and its residents (mainly Bosnian Muslims) had already been under siege for two years, completely surrounded by a joint force of Croatian Serbs and Bosnian Serbs. I asked Major Ezaz what he expected from the mission as he arrived in Bosnia. His response was suitably to the point; “In the army we don’t expect, we just hear the orders. The worst expectation is death.”

The mandate for the UN mission was frustratingly similar to the one encountered in Rwanda. In most cases there was no authorization for direct engagement, aside from a fire when fired upon policy. Yet, in the Major’s eyes this became frustratingly vague and once again, as had been the case in Rwanda, it often left UN troops feeling powerless and forlorn.

He exclaimed, “We were not weak, however the problem was we began to feel weak once we could not save lives.” He continued by stating that at times he and his troops were left a little bewildered by the whole sorry situation.

“For three months I was asking myself, what is this? Why is this happening?
Why is no one helping? Who are the criminals? Who are the good guys? Who are we?”

Retd. Maj. Ezaz Afzal

It’s a candid and frank revelation, which demonstrates the issues peacekeepers must often grapple with when stepping into a mission. Of course the Balkans is steeped in great history, and is a melting pot for a wide range of cultures. Therefore the exact dynamic of the conflict that engulfed the region is intricate and far from straightforward.

The confusion and blurred definition of identity encountered by Major Ezaz and his comrades was intensified by the often unpredictable nature of threats. As it had been in Rwanda, a very real danger came from the disorganized nature of the fighting. He explained;

“In both Rwanda and Bosnia many ‘fighters’ were not trained soldiers, so there was always the fear of unpredictability, which comes from maniacs and mad people having arms. The paramilitaries are one of the biggest problems – young boys with little maturity, who don’t care who they hit, and where a sense of responsibility is completely missing. Once they have a weapon in their hand they feel they have to fire at something, they are not answerable to anyone.”

Retd. Maj. Ezaz Afzal

Major Ezaz and fellow Bangladeshi soldiers

Whilst explaining that the unpredictability of the violence was similar to Rwanda, the threat posed was intensified in Bosnia due to the weapons and armory at the disposal of the forces they faced. I got the impression the ferocity of the fighting was unlike anything Major Ezaz had faced before.

“In Rwanda it was mainly small arms, where I could duck down and save myself, but in Bosnia it was big shells, and it was too difficult to know where they were coming from. You just hear a whistling sound, but you have no idea where it is coming from. After 4 or 5 days we all came to understand that if you are hearing the shell you are safe…if you don’t hear the sound it means the shell is on you.”

It also became apparent from our conversation that peacekeepers were viewed rather differently in Bosnia than in Rwanda. For the most part in Rwanda peacekeepers were not widely targeted by the opposition forces. Of course it’s important to remember that 10 Belgians were brutally killed by Rwandan Hutu fighters in the initial days of the conflict (as I mentioned in my Rwanda blog), but after this very few peacekeepers were directly targeted.

Yet, in Bosnia the picture was somewhat different according to the Major. “In Rwanda people weren’t generally aiming or firing on peacekeepers, but in Bosnia this was more common.” He told me about the men from the Yugoslav Olympic shooting team who became snipers.

“Killing a man was a game for them. Peacekeepers were well protected with armor, so it was much more difficult to kill them.”

He pointed to his neck to show where snipers aimed their shots. He also heard there was gambling and bets placed on the sniping and killing of UN soldiers. “If someone was successful he might get a case of beer. The peacekeepers were fun for all of them, and they were quite sure nothing would happen.”

This caused me some confusion. The question that immediately entered my head and which I directly posed being; if it was obvious the UN troops were deliberately targeted, why did they not respond in kind, as the mandate permitted? Major Ezaz explained that in his view the UN were too fearful of the risks and implications direct retaliation would bring.

“If WE start engaging THEM it instantly creates an even bigger conflict. However, now it’s just an ‘isolated incident’ and the UN were not ready to fight Yugoslavia, so it was safer not to retaliate to these incidents.”

Clearly this must have been incredibly frustrating for peacekeepers. Major Ezaz recalled one occasion when he and his troops were driven to demanding action.

“One of our own Bangladeshi APCs (Armored Personal Carrier) was hit by a missile. There was no way this was a mistake as it had clearly been a guided missile. One soldier was killed and seven were injured. We were so angry and frustrated that we threatened to defy orders and retaliate. Eventually NATO responded with airstrikes.”

All of the anecdotes provided emphasized what an intricate process it must be for the UN in carrying out a peacekeeping mission. A diplomatic minefield played out in extremely hostile conditions, where split second judgments have the potential to significantly change the fragile state of affairs.

“Into the fire” – that’s how my interviewee alluded to the metaphoric heat of the conflict at the beginning of our discussion, but he was quick to emphasize that one of the toughest parts of the mission was the freezing temperatures his regiment faced in the icy winter months. One of the greatest problems came from trying to administer the successful transit of supplies into Bihać. Being surrounded by Serb forces often meant that all avenues were shut, even to the UN.

“The siege of Bihać left us without supplies for 100 days, and we didn’t have basic food for 42 of those. We lived on MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) during that time. There was a fuel shortage for 3 months and we had to burn everything, including the furniture, and all soldiers huddled in one room to keep warm. We were completely unaccustomed to the freezing -14 degree temperatures, and it really was a very tough time.”

I couldn’t help but wonder, if the regiment had been for example, British, or American, or French, and not Bangladeshi, whether troops would’ve been left so isolated and under-supplied with essential provisions?

I asked the now retired Major to provide the worst memory from his time in Bosnia, and he recalled two, both of which have stuck in his mind ever since. The first was a precarious situation that arose during the transit of supplies at a Croatian Serb checkpoint.

On this particular day the Croats were in an uncooperative mood. In allowing the peacekeepers safe passage, they demanded two guns in return. This was of course out of the question, but in no time at all the situation deteriorated and before anyone could react, the Bangladeshi Commander in charge had been grabbed by the collar, thrown to the ground, and a gun pointed at his head. Major Ezaz described what happened next.

“We had no idea how to react. They were pointing a gun at my colleague’s head and all I could think was what can we do? So I got close to the soldiers and I offered whatever they wanted and pleaded with them not to hurt my colleague. I was practically begging them. In the end we negotiated and offered other items, anything they wanted, anything but guns. After almost two hours of negotiations we gave them a huge amount of cigarettes, special food, and beers.”

It’s remarkable how the power of negotiation can be such a crucial survival tool. I recall Major Ezaz citing its necessity in Rwanda also. I asked how important it is for a peacekeeper and he laughed, exclaiming, “I’m very good at it! I need to get my job done. If I need to beg, I’m ready to beg. If I need to be harsh I’ll be harsh, but my one aim is to get my job done.” Upon meeting Major Ezaz it’s easy to see why he’s a successful negotiator.

The second memory was one I found particularly poignant, tragic, and reflective of how war inevitably claims innocent victims. He was watching a horse one afternoon. It was stood alone in a nearby field, and as he told the story it is clear the image and memory remains extremely vivid in his mind. The scene he described seemed so peaceful, and the tone of his voice dropped and was melancholy as he described what happened next.

“I was just watching the horse, admiring it. It was so beautiful and such a strong animal, full of energy. Suddenly I heard the whistle of an incoming shell and I ducked. After the explosion I stood up and I found there was no horse…it vanished. I walked towards the site and after about fifty yards I found only small pieces of the animal.”

The sadness in his eyes was obvious and symbolic of a conflict that claimed thousands of innocent lives and how peace can be destroyed so abruptly. He summed this up calmly a few moments later when he remarked, “Bosnia is a place of beautiful people…but many beautiful people died.” This story and the manner in which Major Ezaz delivered it was probably the most striking moment of our conversation.

There were some incidents of redemption however, amidst the chaos and heartache of the conflict. Major Ezaz and his colleagues often experienced very positive relations with local civilians. He and his colleagues would buy chocolates from Zagreb and bring them back to Bihać to give to local children. He showed me a video of a group of kids gathered around the entrance to the UN camp and a number of soldiers dishing out the treats.

Sometimes people would bring food for the peacekeepers. He recalled one such moment when a small girl came to the fence around their base and presented him with a piece of bread. She had been sent by her mother who knew the soldiers had been struggling due to the severe shortage of supplies. As Ezaz told this story his face gleamed with a real fondness. He also spoke of the times he was invited for meals in local homes.

From our two conversations I have sensed a sincere feeling of responsibility he clearly felt towards the people he had been sent to help. In both Rwanda and Bosnia it became apparent that he made a real effort to get to know the local people as much as possible and to understand their struggles and their innocence in the war zones he entered.

Through the medium of Facebook he has even been able to reconnect with Bosnian friends he made during his time there. However, one of the most heartbreaking consequences of the conflicts, which became visible to him, was the breakdown of relationships.

“It was so sad – friends became enemies, families were torn apart, people were divorcing because of simple differences. I couldn’t understand why.”

Handing out gifts to local children in Bihac

I concluded by asking Major Ezaz what he considered to be the chief similarity between the situations he encountered in Rwanda and Bosnia. He replied without any hesitation;

“Ignorance. The leaders misled the masses and tricked them into believing they could wipe out a people. They tried to convince the masses they could remove and erase a whole people from society by killing. This is absolutely impossible – you cannot kill every member of one group. There will always be one voice left to stop it.” 

It is of course debatable whether the UN is that voice. On too many occasions their silence as an organisation has spoken volumes. However, I have come to learn from my conversations with Major Ezaz that despite what I may think of the UN as a collective decision-making entity, there is no doubt that it is often represented on the ground by a fearless and committed group of individuals of all nationalities, and it was a privilege to meet and speak with one of these individuals in Chittagong, Bangladesh.

I thanked the peacekeeper turned Director of Security for his time once again and for another fascinating insight into the experiences that come from wearing the famous blue beret of the UN.

Major Ezaz finally left Bosnia in November 1995, after one year and four months. He admitted to feeling a little let down by the mission and has since questioned its motives. In his mind the Bosnian Muslims had been left to fight and save themselves, in what was often an unequal contest. He exclaimed quite frankly,

“The people of Bosnia eventually accepted that Europe was not going to help them.”

In the end Bihać was effectively liberated by the joint effort of Croat and Bosnian Muslim forces in the summer of 1995. Today it is a growing tourist destination due to its location on the River Una, and peace has gradually been restored.

Once again I’d like to express my since thanks and gratitude to Retired Major Ezaz Afzal for taking the time to speak to me and also allowing me to use some of his personal photos. I hope I have done your story justice and represented it accurately.