A poignant journey from Torquay to Chittagong
In May 2012 I wrote a blog about a quite unexpected and spookily coincidental discovery in a secluded and quiet corner of Chittagong.
I’ve always been quite proud of that blog post as it (in my humble opinion) revealed how despite the apparent vastness of this world we live in, you never quite know when something will happen to remind you that it is in fact not quite as big as we think.
Below is the link to that original blog post, but just to recap very briefly, back in 2012 I took a visit to the Second World War cemetery in Chittagong. Now, here is the eerie part; the very first headstone I looked at and took the time to read the biography of, was Flight Sergeant W.C.Smith, a fallen pilot from Torquay, which, and this is crucial to the story, is my hometown and place of birth.
In November 2012 and a couple of months after I wrote about that unique experience, it was published in the Herald Express (a local newspaper) and that was the end of the matter…or so I thought.
A few days ago however, it came to my attention (thanks very much Brian!) that just a little under fours year since the original publication in the newspaper, a letter had emerged on the Herald’s letters page. A letter from one of Sergeant Smith’s relatives and a person who had grown up with him.
Here is that letter in full:
Memories of Flt Sgt Smith
Regarding your article by Mr Stanlake with reference to Flight Sergeant William Smith RAF (Herald Express November 15, 2012), a cutting from this issue was brought to my attention some time ago.
Having just ‘rediscovered’ it, I would like to give Mr Stanlake more information about his visit to the war graves in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
I am Bill’s cousin and knew him and his brothers well when we were growing up – a visit to Torquay from Gloucestershire was always a great event for me.
During the war (1942 to 1943), Bill was stationed in the Cotswolds for part of his training as a pilot in Bomber Command and he would sometimes stay with us on short leave.
We always enjoyed his company – he had a great sense of humour.
It was his fear that, as pilot, he would be responsible for the death of his crew, but on that fatal day he was acting as co-pilot with another plane and crew.
We were told the plane failed to take off with a full load of bombs and crashed into an irrigation ditch at the end of the runway.
Mike, his brother, also went into the RAF – as a fighter pilot – but the war ended while he was still in training.
Unfortunately, it was never possible for any of the family to visit Bill’s grave, so it was very consoling to read of the peacefulness of the cemetery and how well the graves are still tended after all these years.
MRS GLADYS HEAVEN
Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire, UK
It was fascinating for me to read this letter as it obviously filled in a number of blanks about William Smith’s story and how exactly he came to his final resting place in Chittagong.
There were mixed feelings of course when reading it, as it provided a personal and warm reflection on Sergeant Smith and his life before the war, but also the details of his tragic death at such a young age.
I am happy and relieved in many ways to discover this story did make its way to Sergeant Smith’s family though and they can hopefully take some comfort in knowing that his grave is still immaculately tended to and offered the peace and respect it so deserves.
Once again I think the whole experience demonstrates how sometimes it does not matter how far we travel or wander around this world, there is often a connection to home just around the corner.
Marking 5 years
I like milestones. They provide a satisfying sense of accomplishment and achievement whilst ensuring the preservation of a little focus and direction.
This post is a celebration of one such milestone. April 9th, 2016 marked exactly 5 years since I first posted on this blog. It’s a pleasant feeling to know that despite the many twists and turns, the sporadic uprooting, the hellos and the goodbyes, and the often unplanned wanderings, I have still found time to regularly (well, kind of regularly) update and commit part of my energy and heart to this little project.
A project that began with the somewhat vague aim of recording my ramblings has now grown into a means by which to document a multitude of experiences that came along the way.
What this milestone also represents is that it is now a little over five years since I arrived in Bangladesh. When I think back to that time (March 2011), I really had no idea I would remain so long in this country, but I don’t regret it one bit. I arrived on a short term contract with a cautious ambition to perhaps extend that to a year. Five years on I’m still here aside from a one year sabbatical (of sorts) in Guyana.
Bangladesh has been good to me, and I am very grateful for that. I can’t really believe how quickly the five years have flown by, but in that time I’ve been lucky enough to explore this country a little and also travel to Nepal, India, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Laos, Bhutan, Thailand, and even back to Rwanda a couple of times.
Most importantly though I have been lucky enough to work in a job that has inspired me to grow and learn. I’ve been surrounded by some fantastic colleagues right from the start, and they have been a source of constant knowledge whilst encouraging me to change and develop my outlook on many, many things.
I have of course also been privileged to teach and work with students who have taught me far more than I have them.
As always with these short posts that mark a milestone, I prefer to let images tell the story, so here are a few which I think sum up just why that tentative first few months turned into five years and provided me with so many amazing adventures under this one sun.
All images © John Stanlake
Animal Welfare in Bangladesh
One of the most frustrating aspects of social media is the simple fact that stories about complete idiots are thrust directly in front of your face on an almost daily basis. Anyone who saw my Facebook page in the past week or so may have noticed one such story.
The news I’m referring to is surprisingly not about Donald Trump, Jeremy Hunt, or Sepp Blatter (although this trio are worthy contenders), but rather revolves around a group of people who epitomise the ignorance and disregard demonstrated so often by the human race to other creatures.
A dolphin plucked from the water and passed around like a trophy so that bronzed beachgoers of all ages could pose and take ‘selfies’ with it. Once the selfies were complete, the dolphin had inevitably died. Because you see, what these humans had so crucially forgotten, is that dolphins can’t survive for prolonged periods outside of water, and what those people now have on their cameras, or smart phones, or whatever they were using that day which caused them to lose all sense, is a selfie with a dolphin who died because of them.
It happened in Argentina, but this could be anywhere in the world, and the flagrant disregard for the life they passed around in their hands that day sums up the arrogance and sheer contempt we, humans, demonstrate on a daily basis.
It left me totally exasperated once again, as it seems there is not a week that passes without tales of sheer moronic stupidity claiming yet more animal lives. Whether it is a wealthy dentist shooting an innocent and treasured lion, Russian circuses forcing polar bears to dance, or puppies used for target practice, there is no limit to our cruelty and indifference.
However, despite all of this, there is hope, and I have witnessed a few examples here in Bangladesh.
Obhoyaronno is an animal welfare foundation formed in Dhaka in 2009 and has carried out some fantastic work mainly in the Bangladesh capital to rescue animals and educate the local population about animal welfare issues. The organisation has successfully campaigned to have dog culling in Dhaka cancelled, and they regularly carry out dog vaccination programs in the city. They have a large community now of like-minded people who will alert others about any cases of animal abuse or animals in trouble.
Dog Lovers of Bangladesh is an inspiring facebook page dedicated to, well…dogs of course. The members on that page never fail to amaze me with their dedication to the welfare of dogs here, and there are often emergency posts regarding an injured or distressed dog sighting. It is not uncommon for this to be followed by an immediate and robust response from other members of the group who mobilize and swiftly locate the dog, whilst doing all they can to source the care it needs. Other members often chip in with cash donations, and before you know it, a dog once destined to lie dying next to a busy road, has been scooped up and given the life-saving treatment it so gravely needed. The members of this group are caring, conscientious animal lovers who provide a reminder that all is not lost.
Finally, there is a group somewhat closer to home for which I have the utmost admiration; The Asian University for Women (AUW) Animal Welfare Club. Created just over two years ago, the club has grown steadily and in that time initiated a number of projects aimed at implementing clear strategies for improving the welfare of animals.
Photo credit: Dhrubo (Dhrubo Photography)
In truth due to the modest size of the club and its limited financial capacity, the focus has been on street dogs and cats. However, the lack of funds has been no deterrent to the club members, and driven by their passionate club president and founder, Mandy Mukhuti, they have already played a significant role in making tangible changes in the lives of many animals.
Since its inception in 2013, the club has visited primary schools to educate young children on how to treat animals. They have also initiated a daily feeding program, which entails collecting leftover food and feeding street dogs in the vicinity of the campus. The success of this is highlighted by the fact these dogs now know and recognise the members of the club when they come calling with their plastic container full of food!
Photo credit: Dhrubo (Dhrubo Photoography)
The club has also rescued several cats and dogs and successfully found homes for many of these animals. Finally, this past weekend they arguably reached the peak of their success thus far. Having spent a few months raising necessary funds, they teamed up with local veterinarians and students from other universities and set about successfully vaccinating two hundred dogs across the city in just a single weekend! It’s a remarkable achievement given the constraints they experience and a testament to their passion and commitment to such a worthwhile cause.
Photo credit: Dhrubo (Dhrubo Photography)
I’ll leave you with a collection of images taken during my time here in Bangladesh, which show a number of the animal friends I’ve made. This family lived behind our building and the puppies provided hours of fun, yet immense stress! We managed to find homes for most of them, but a couple sadly fell victim to the unforgiving main road that lay just far too close for temptation.
At present I also regularly feed Tommy and Rocky who live on our road, and whilst this is just a very tiny act, I believe that the bewildered, yet intrigued gazes I receive as I sit feeding the dogs do go some way to showing people that these dogs are not angry beasts who should be avoided at all costs, but actually friendly animals who just need a bit of love and a friendly face.
Step by step we can make a difference, no matter how small that may be.
A new project
So I’d like to take the opportunity to use this somewhat older (hmmm, let’s say more ‘mature’) platform of communication to tell you about a new project I’ve started working on.
I say I, but it is in fact ‘we’ – my good friend Rich and I. We know each other from our days in Prague when we both completed the same TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and have remained good friends ever since.
Rich still lives and works in the Czech Republic in a town called Podebrady, and he came up with the idea of creating a Vlog (video log) in which we both contribute regular videos offering a little glimpse into our individual experiences in the Czech Republic and Bangladesh respectively.
The slight twist is that in doing so, we will set each other various challenges. We will also seek input from our viewers (who will hopefully exist!) and ask for suggestions for challenges they would like to see us complete, hence the name of the vlog – You Set The Scenes. Also, crucially, whoever receives the most thumbs up on youtube for their video wins the challenge.
*The name of the vlog is also a little nod to one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands.*
The main aims of this new project are as follows:
- For Rich and I to keep in touch!
- To hopefully offer viewers a little glimpse into what our lives are like as expats.
- To offer a positive look into the culture and environment of both Bangladesh and the Czech Republic.
- To motivate Rich and I to explore our locations further and hopefully create a richer personal understanding of our surroundings.
- To do things we may not have previously considered, which will no doubt at some points make us appear awkward and uncomfortable…perhaps much to the amusement of our viewers (again, if we have any)!
So that’s it really. I’m sure it will be a challenge at times, but also worthwhile, rewarding and fun. We both love exploring and getting away from the ‘tourist track’ and hope that this new vlog will reflect that.
Check out the trailer…
Our first challenge was to learn and recite a tongue twister in the native language of our countries. So I learned a tongue twister in Bangla, and Rich learned one in Czech. You can see how we got on below.
We hope you enjoy our future videos, and please comment below with any suggestions you would like us to try!
A statistical and image-based reflection on a week in west Bangladesh
After nine straight weeks of teaching, the question was how to fill nine days of vacation. On this occasion I decided to remain in Bangladesh and take the opportunity to explore this country a little further, and having never ventured due west before, that is where I went. The division of Khulna to be precise, which borders India and comprises a number of districts, including Jessore and Khulna.
Travelling individually has always felt a little daunting to me, so the prospect of spending the duration of the break navigating an unfamiliar area of Bangladesh alone provoked mixed emotions. Nevertheless, I survived, and I’m here to report in. I’ll spare the mundane play by play account of what happened and instead present an array of telling statistics. Prior to leaving Chittagong I decided I’d take a pad and pen with me on the trip and keep a tally of the inevitable and the unexpected in equal measure.
So, here it is, the story of my week in Jessore and Khulna in numbers, beginning with the most important and reflective of all…
46 – Cups of tea consumed
20 – Cups of tea I paid for
26 – Cups of tea bought for me by ever hospitable locals
10 – Invites to homes
4 – Invites accepted
659 – Photos taken (see a select set here – Jessore & Khulna)
6 – Modes of transport used during the trip
37 – Times my unmarried status evoked confused frowns
21 – Times it was suggested I marry in Bangladesh
4 – Business cards received
27 – Business cards distributed
3 – Occasions in which I was asked if I came from Japan
24 – Jibes received regarding England’s woeful Cricket World Cup campaign
12 – Times I was asked to reveal my salary
6 – 15th century mosques visited
7 – Hindu temples visited
Here is a list of events which occurred just once, but I deemed worthy enough to scribble down in my notepad…
- Requested to convert to Islam for marriage purposes
- Military border parades witnessed
- Squeezed into a body-hugging Bangladesh cricket shirt and told, “It fits perfectly boss!”
- Asked if Iranian
- Told to cancel my hotel booking and sleep in the home of a man I had met just 30 minutes previously
- After briefly chatting with a man I met earlier in the day, he then text to inform me he was knocking on my hotel room door and requested I open said door…
- ‘Adventure Parks’ visited that made me want to scream “WHY??!!” at the person who recommended it and assured me it was “very beautiful…”
- Told I was lying about my age as I couldn’t possibly be as young as I was claiming
- Told a man he was the least friendliest person I had ever met in Bangladesh after he spent a good five minutes ridiculing my intelligence for not carrying my passport and stating that as the British were “Kings” I am practically a disgrace to the great nation of Britain
And finally, a list of occurrences that initially I had firm intentions of meticulously tracking. Yet, as the hours and days passed, I soon realised it would be impossible to keep an accurate record due to the sheer volume. So, in the end they became uncountable, but no less significant…
- Asked the question, “Your country?”
- Confused questions with suspicious facial expressions regarding my reason for being in Jessore/Khulna/Bangladesh
- Enthusiastically praised for my comprehensive Bangla language proficiency
- Robustly chastised for my low level of Bangla language proficiency
- Pondered the meaning of life
- Wondered if rural Bangladesh is the most beautiful place on earth
- Wondered why my bus driver was trying to overtake three other buses up ahead
- Wondered how that 93rd passenger was going to find a space to squeeze into on the already cramped bus, but soon realising there was space for passengers 94, 95 and 96.
So that concludes a brief look at my week in the west. It was fascinating, eye-opening, and at times a little testing. However, it was completely worth it, and evidence once again of why I often question why more tourists don’t come and explore this golden land.
Selfishly I’m glad they don’t though, because there were times on the trip as I sat on the back of a wagon and we meandered our way down a silent, tree-lined country road in the early evening, just as the sun began to set, that I thought to myself, “I’m totally at peace right now.”
“Does it bother you that I talk so much?”
Tucked inconspicuously away from the noise and chaos of one of Chittagong’s longest and busiest main roads you’ll find a small tea shop. Not particularly unique in appearance, it is sandwiched on either side by two further tea shops, and all three function identically, serving very similar items to a wide variety of people who happen to sit down that day. It’s easy to miss the turning into the road these shops are situated on, and most people will pass straight by. My chance encounter came about in a characteristically haphazard manner. I was stranded at the back of a huge line of people all waiting to gain entry into the Indian High Commission. As I stood there exchanging frustrated head nods and tuts with fellow embassy hopefuls, I pondered if it were more logical to continue standing in this line, or whether I should try my luck at camouflaging up and attempt a covert border crossing through the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans.
All was not lost though and help was at hand in the form of a cup of tea and a citizen from the very country I was trying hard to get a visa for. Sharmistha, my friend, colleague, and fellow tea enthusiast had learned of my queue predicament and very kindly arrived to offer moral support/language translation skills. She also went off in search of tea and came back telling the tale of the shop this blog centres around. However, it is much less to do with the actual shop, but rather the person who serves the tea and runs the establishment. Her name is Asma, and she is just twelve years old (“baro” in Bangla).
After eventually entering the High Commission, both Sharmistha and I returned to Asma’s shop for another cup of tea, but also because we wanted to learn more about this tenacious 12 year old. She informed us the shop is her father’s, but as he works as a security guard in a neighbouring hospital, Asma has been assigned the crucial duty of ensuring the tea business runs smoothly. Thus, she sits from morning until evening each day serving tea, paan, bread, and cigarettes to customers, 99% of whom are most probably men. She is twelve remember.
Sharmistha and I have returned to chat with Asma several times now and also with her father and some of the regular patrons of the shop. It is clear they think very highly of Asma, and why wouldn’t they?! She is outgoing, friendly, efficient, and has one of the warmest and most engaging smiles I’ve ever seen. Asma has inspired me to use this blog in future to highlight some of the characters I regularly meet here in Chittagong. Special thanks must go to Sharmistha, who is responsible for the majority of the translation that was required!
When we first met Asma two months ago, she was not attending school. Her father had promised to send her once he found a suitable arrangement for the tea shop around his work schedule. He had tried employing others to run it in his absence, but claimed he was unable to trust them. It therefore fell upon Asma to keep everything in order.
This was a wise choice. From observing Asma she is highly efficient and able to confidently deal with the pressures of a bustling tea stand. She is also very astute with money. On one occasion we came to pay for our tea and Asma’s father wouldn’t take our money. Typical Bangladesh hospitality once again. We protested and exclaimed that if Asma were here, she would certainly accept our money. He laughed and replied, “Yes, you’re right!”
We returned once again to see Asma yesterday and the great news is she is now attending school. Her classes begin at 6.00am and finish for the day at 11.00am. She returns home, eats lunch, completes her homework, and by 2.00pm she is at the tea stand where she’ll remain until around 8.00pm.
We enquired about school and she told us she enjoys it. Currently in class 4, she finds the lessons interesting, and also playing games, something she has previously had little time to do when whole days were spent at work.
Asma attends school with her friend from next door, and this works well as, “She is a good girl, who doesn’t fight with me and she helps her mother.” The school they attend is divided with classes for girls held in the mornings and the classes for boys held in the afternoon. Asma didn’t seem too concerned by this arrangement and wisely concluded that;
“If boys and girls are put together, there will be trouble!”
Originally from a village in Noakhali district to the north west of Chittagong, Asma’s father decided to move to the city in search of work. She admitted to missing village life and particularly her grandparents and the other children she used to play with. The green, the rice fields and the ponds are also aspects of village life she misses. However, her mother is here with her in Chittagong and this is incredibly important for Asma. She told us;
“I love talking with my mother. If I’m not sleeping when I’m at home, I’m talking to my mother. I love her very much.”
As I mentioned earlier, Asma receives respect and affection from the people who regularly visit the tea stand. Whilst we were there yesterday a local policeman stopped for tea and is clearly fond of her. He referred to Asma as “mamoni” an affectionate term used for younger people. Another younger man was asking Asma about school and encouraged her to go there and “make good friends.”
Some regulars seem to look at me and Sharmistha with puzzled eyes, perhaps wondering why we keep returning to the small tea stand and drinking up to three cups of tea at a time just so that we can learn more about the girl with the infectious smile. Asma asked Sharmistha yesterday, “Does it bother you that I talk so much?!”
No Asma, it really does not.
So that is Asma, a twelve year old girl balancing a life of school and work at such a young age. She does so with a smile and positivity that is truly inspiring. She is also extremely wise. As I left yesterday her advice for me was;
“Stay well, and eat your rice well.”
Tea Shops of Chittagong
It’s probably no secret that one of my favourite activities in Chittagong is drinking tea. You may be thinking well, he’s British, so it kind of figures. Along with queuing (standing in line) and in depth discussions about the weather, we Brits love nothing more than a hot brew. Drinking tea; It’s what we do. When we’re upset, confused, nervous, celebrating, commiserating, pontificating, procrastinating, gossiping, etc, etc….we put the kettle on, and we go straight for the teabags.
Well, here in Chittagong there seems to be a similar culture. One of the main differences being however, that tea drinking is a far more public event. Groups of men and women (but usually men given the culture) can be found far and wide across the city (and the country of course) sipping on hot, sweet tea, and I often end up becoming a member of one of these groups. In all honesty the tea here in Bangladesh is ok, but it’s not so much the tea that draws me in, but rather the experience that surrounds it.
I love the scene and the way life is played out over cups of tea. The comings and goings, the cross section of diverse characters, the energy, the humour, the mystery, and the undulating pace of each individual experience. The tea stalls/shops come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and it’s incredible just how many exist here. I could go on and on trying to describe it in words, but recently I decided it would be far easier, and probably a much greater sensory experience to present Chittagong’s tea drinking through a series of images.
Thus, in the past two weeks I have wandered around the city visiting a vast array of Cha-er dokan (tea shops) and here are the photos I captured. It’s also safe to say that in excess of twenty cups of tea were consumed in the process! I should also state that whilst in some photos the people do not look overly happy about the image being taken, I always make a point of checking with people (often 2-3 times) that they are ok for me to take the photo. From my experience it is very common for the people I’ve met to switch to their most serious expression when the photo is taken.
A common scene found across the city and country
‘Adda’ – informal conversations on a quiet day
A variety of snacks to accompany your tea
This shop is as wide and as deep as the photo suggests
The roadside tea shop
Bananas, bread and tea
Beside the rail tracks, the tea shack – a community centre
Learning the trade early
One of the noisier tea shops – located by the side of a frequently congested main road
TMT – a larger establishment with a reputation for fine tea
One of the many tea sellers who populate this city
A bustling tea/food shop
The rickshawallah’s break
Discussing the day over early evening cha
The hub of a road or area
A common snack here in Chittagong
Evening entertainment at the tea shop
No finer way to spend 10 minutes
Watching the world go by
A small cup of tea and condensed milk greatness
Tea shop faces
The mobile teawallah
And finally in an ode to tea drinking here is a song from one of my favourite bands, Kula Shaker, who have captured the magic of a nice cup of tea magically. Enjoy!
It’s funny who you meet sometimes, and the places you meet them. For example, the time I was a little lost walking across the Nottingham University campus having only arrived a few days previously. As a naive 18 year old I was bewildered, disorientated, homesick, intimidated, and most probably hung over from the previous night’s ‘Freshers Week’ mayhem. I remember looking up, and in the distance I noticed a shirt….a football shirt. It was undeniably distinctive and visible a mile off due to the fact it was…well….neon tangerine. Yes, the mere mention of this colour probably fills any Plymouth Argyle football supporter with a mix of pride, joy, embarrassment, and regret. Pride and joy for the fact it marked a period of great triumph on the pitch. Embarrassment and regret mainly because of the ‘colour’ and the fact many of us parted with hard-earned cash to purchase one of these monstrosities. Anyway, the important detail is that upon seeing the shirt I realised there was another one of us. Another Argyle fan who’d flown the nest and left Devon (or Cornwall of course), with a heavy heart no doubt, in search of pastures new, chasing a dream. As such we shared a deep connection, and this person, whoever they were, would have to help me. After all, both of us were far from home and in a world where Plymouth Argyle fans would likely be ridiculed and shunned. I approached the owner of said garish shirt and to cut a long, boring story slightly short, we spent the next three years travelling the length and breadth of England together with a small troop of other Nottingham-based members of the Green Army following our beloved team. Happy days.
The subject matter of that brief, personal narrative is fairly irrelevant in terms of what I’m going to talk about in this update. However, it was a short, anecdotal observation symbolising the often chance encounters we experience. I’d actually like to tackle the serious subject I’d planned to cover last time, before beard absurdity got in the way. It’s another, rather different, but meaningful chance encounter, which in some ways brought together my experiences in both Rwanda and Bangladesh in an intriguing manner. The subject of this update is Retired Major Ezaz Afzal from the Bangladeshi Army (pictured below). Major Ezaz is currently the Deputy Director of Security at my university; his task being to keep all staff and students safe and secure both on and off campus as far as possible. However, prior to this he led a fascinating life in the military. In the early to mid 1990s, Major Ezaz witnessed two devastating conflicts, both of which became infamous for incomprehensible crimes against humanity, and genocide.
With over 10,000 soldiers, Bangladesh is actually one of the top providers of troops to the UN. Bangladeshi soldiers have served, and continue to serve, as peacekeepers in a whole host of different countries and missions. I first came to hear of Major Ezaz’s experiences in the UN during a presentation he gave at the university about his time as a peacekeeper in Bosnia. He gave an intriguing and frank insight into his experiences there, but my ears pricked when he revealed to his audience that directly prior to the Balkans he’d seen active service in Rwanda. I met many different people during my year in that same country, but I rarely, if ever, got the chance to speak to anyone directly about what it was like to be there in ’94. It just never seemed like an appropriate question to ask, unless it was brought up in conversation. So, I saw this as an opportunity. UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) was extremely controversial. Slammed for its ineffectiveness to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, and infamous for its eventual withdrawal and abandonment at the height of the killing, I was anxious to hear the Major’s take on things and to get an idea of just what it was like to be there, witness to such unimaginable horror.
Major Ezaz is a very warm and affable guy. He welcomed me into his office and we exchanged some of the Kinyarwandan words we both remember. Perhaps as strange as this may seem, he clearly has a lot of fond memories of his time in Rwanda and reminisces with great passion and exuberance. His unit arrived in January 1994, and for the Major it was his first UN mission. At this point genocide was certainly not a widely acknowledged possibility, and the UN’s assignment was generally expected to be both straightforward in execution and short in duration. There was however undoubtedly great tension and instances of sporadic violence, and as the country prepared for the upcoming presidential election in May of that year, the role of the peacekeepers was to help facilitate this, and to aid the continuing peace process. Major Ezaz and his troops’ place of duty was at the parliament building in Kigali, where their task was to provide protection to the opposition party representatives from the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front). Their leader at the time was one Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s current President. The Major told me that during this period he and his fellow soldiers led a fairly ‘normal’ life (for a UN Peacekeeper). When on duty they would carry out routine security tasks, and once their work was done for the day they’d enjoy the local beers and nightlife, and this is how it went on for the first three months of his time in East Africa.
Major Ezaz in happier times with locals. This photo conjures a whole host of different questions in my mind as I look into the eyes of each person – young and old – wondering just how the genocide may have affected each and every one of them?
At this point he admitted to feeling very little danger and enjoying a good relationship with the Rwandan people he was working with. However, in the early evening of April 6th 1994 this all changed dramatically. Major Ezaz told me it had been a normal day like any other, and he’d just finished dinner when the news came through that President Habyarimana’s plane had been downed near the airport as it came into land, killing everyone on board, including the Rwandan president and the president of neighbouring Burundi. Rwanda transitioned almost instantly from relative calm to frenzied chaos (albeit organised chaos), and it would remain this way for months to follow. The Major said it all came as a big surprise to him and many of his fellow UN soldiers. They had no idea that the subsequent events had been planned for several years. Within one hour they heard reports of the killings that had started all across the city, and the night sky was filled with the sound of gunfire and explosions. The Major’s location changed from the parliament building to the national stadium where many of the UN troops were based. His experience in Rwanda was about to change completely.
On the morning of April 7th he made his way to the parliament building, much like any other day in Rwanda. However, there was something different about the route taken on this day. It hadn’t changed at all, it was just the road was more congested than usual, not with vehicles, but with dead bodies. For the first time in our conversation Major Ezaz’s tone dropped, and he was now talking about an entirely different Rwanda to the one he’d spent the previous ten minutes referring to with such affection. On reaching the Parliament he was told to turn straight back and return to his permanent base at the stadium. Even in this short time the piles of bodies had mounted. At this point I attempted to press my ‘interviewee’ into describing just how he felt upon being confronted with these sights. His response was not a surprise, yet I’m not sure what else you can say but, “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.” Who would? I imagine even as a UN soldier you never really expect to witness such wanton destruction, violence, and inhumanity.
From this point, just hours after the death of the President, Rwanda became a country of violence and death. I was told about the drunken soldiers and militia looting and raping at will. Routine journeys that had once taken an hour now took five as you negotiated your way through the relentless roadblocks. Roadblocks manned by crazed characters working on a cocktail of alcohol, drugs and sheer adrenaline, all fuelled by the hate radio that pumped out warnings of ‘cockroaches’ (Tutsis and Tutsi sympathisers) in your midst and the rewards you’d receive if you helped in the mission to exterminate them once and for all. It’s all incredibly chilling. I asked the Major if he had been scared when approaching these roadblocks. A fairly stupid question I admit, but his response was telling nonetheless. A resounding “YES,” as he described the fact they were controlled by young boys, almost always armed, and always drunk or high with absolutely no discipline. There was little telling what they might do, like a grenade with no pin, the blue helmet of the UN was little deterrent, and there was a reason for this.
Major Ezaz pictured in the National Stadium (Amahoro Stadium), Kigali, 1994
It was fascinating, if not a little unreal to hear Major Ezaz talk about these situations personally. Situations I’d read about in books, but never recalled to me by someone witness to such mayhem. I asked him to describe the most intimidating encounter he faced during his service in Rwanda. He mentioned several, but the one which stood out most personally was a standoff involving himself, some of his men, a small group of Belgian soldiers, and a deep crowd of Interahamwe (Hutu militia). The activities which preceded the encounter were symbolic. Earlier in the day ten Belgian peacekeepers had been ambushed, shot, and hacked into pieces by the militia. Their blue UN helmets tossed around like prize trophies. The UN mission didn’t have a mandate to stop the killing of Rwandans. They could only fire if fired upon, and the genocide perpetrators knew this. However, the brutal murder of the ten Belgian soldiers was a clear message from the Hutu power movement directly to the UN and the outside world – leave, you can’t stop this, we’re in control now. With ten of their own soldiers now dead, killed in such a brutal fashion, the UN was faced with the dilemma of respond with increased force, or leave. Tragically for hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, the UN chose option two. It wasn’t long after that the world peacekeeping force gave in to the militias and decided the risk was too great and the Rwandan people not worth saving.
Major Ezaz told me that some hours after the ten Belgians were killed, another group of twenty-five soldiers of the same nationality found themselves in a precarious and life-threatening situation as they became stranded between their base and a frenzied mob. Vastly outnumbered and most certainly in great danger, the soldiers needed instant and decisive assistance. I was told by the Major that this was both his proudest yet most heart stopping moment in Rwanda. His men somehow managed to hold off the mob and direct the Belgians to the safety of their base, using very little force, but a significant amount of courage and composure, and only after considerable tension and provocation by the crazed young militiamen. The unpredictability of the Hutu militias and their increasing ambition and fearless confidence played a very definite role in the UN’s reluctance to stay and commit soldiers who would potentially end up meeting the same fate as the ten Belgians.
During our conversation Major Ezaz reminisced about another tragic situation which left him with two distinct emotions; one of sheer horror, and the other enormous pride. It occurred at his base in the national stadium. Shortly after the start of the killing he described how Tutsis began to arrive in great numbers in search of shelter and protection from the barbaric killing mobs that had overrun the city. Many Tutsis were now essentially refugees in their own birthplace. The UN was at least able to provide a very basic safe haven to those ‘lucky’ enough to make it there. However, it was unable to prevent shells fired from outside the stadium walls causing devastation wherever they fell. Unfortunately the Major saw this with his own eyes one day as a shell exploded amongst a group of people in the refugee area of the stadium. Fourteen people were killed in this one strike alone, and according to Major Ezaz these types of attacks were not uncommon. He described how he and his troops rushed to the scene to find complete devastation. However, amongst the horror eight lives were saved by the work of the Bangladeshi army medics. Speaking in obvious earnest, he expressed the pride he felt for his men in this situation. He spoke of the genuine fear of contracting HIV as there was often little time to think before diving into catastrophes and responding decisively and proactively to scenarios similar to that above.
Below is another photo which fills me with intense sadness and intrigue. It shows Major Ezaz and a UN colleague distributing food to Tutsi refugees sheltering in the stadium. I can’t help wondering what happened to these people after the UN withdrew. This image is stuck in time with an answer I’ll never discover.
I won’t lie. I was hoping to hear deep, personal stories from my interviewee. I wanted to hear him describe how he felt and what he saw when he closed his eyes on those rare occasions he was able to catch some sleep between the shells and the mass influx of desperate refugees. In reality however, this was purely a selfish desire on my part. As I mentioned before, I’m intrigued to get a sense of just what it was like to be in Rwanda in ’94. A Rwanda in absolute stark contrast to the one I fell in love with sixteen years after the Major’s experience. However, it’s none of my business, and as such I didn’t press too hard, even though I desperately wanted him to describe the emotions he felt each day as more and more people arrived at the stadium, their eyes filled with fear, their final, despairing hopes resting in the hands of the UN – the international ‘peace keeping force’ whose very role is to protect innocent people from the irrational brutality of genocide. The problem was the UN didn’t want to admit to it being genocide. Admitting the action of genocide would’ve meant acknowledging a very real duty of responsibility to end it. Thus, on the 25th April, 1994, 18 days after the killing began (and 82 days before it was eventually stopped by the RPF) Major Ezaz and his battalion left on a plane to Nairobi, Kenya. As shells fell around the airport, and machetes continued to be wielded in hate down below, Major Ezaz said goodbye to a UN mission that had begun with a quiet confidence and ended in tatters, and a country that had provided glimpses of joy and warmth, but overwhelming images of abject suffering and cruelty. He has never been back.
When I asked the Major the obvious question of how he felt at this point, as he watched the green hills drift into the distance below, he provided a suitably obvious, but simple answer….sad. However, he told me very honestly that remaining in Rwanda would’ve evoked an even greater torment in his heart as it would’ve meant standing by and bearing witness to yet more murder, rape and mindless cruelty, with no mandate to stop it. This confession and acknowledgement of both the futility and ineffectiveness of the UN mission to prevent the genocide, even at this stage, was both telling and soul-destroying. I asked where he feels the blame lies, and he pointed to the UN as a whole and also, a little surprisingly for me, General Romeo Dallaire. Dallaire was the Canadian Force Commander of UNAMIR and therefore in charge of the entire UN mission in Rwanda. Major Ezaz met Dallaire on a number of occasions and told me how he just couldn’t understand, even to this day why his Force Commander, as the highest ranked UN military representative in Rwanda at that time, didn’t take the risk by disobeying his superiors back in the US and engage in a more forceful approach to ending the killing. It’s an agonising question that has haunted Romeo Dallaire ever since 1994, and if you feel inclined to read more about this I would point you to Dallaire’s personal account of his experiences during the genocide, entitled ‘Shake Hands with the Devil.’ It’s a fascinating read, which provides thorough explanation and analysis into just why his hands were so frustratingly tied by UN hierarchy, based thousands of miles away from Rwanda, who appeared to have had little knowledge or interest in the suffering of the Rwandan people. After reading this book I came away feeling nothing but deep, sympathetic admiration for Dallaire, and therefore a little disappointed to hear my interviewee’s critical personal judgement of the same man. However, Major Ezaz has the experience of being there in ‘94, witness to it all, whereas I was merely a ten year old boy, obsessed with football and unable to point to Africa on a map, let alone Rwanda.
In May 1994, two months after his arrival back in Bangladesh, Major Ezaz was deployed to Bosnia, forced to witness yet another war, and yet another example of man’s inhumanity towards man. Genocide was once again on the agenda, and in a depressing parallel to Rwanda, the UN’s mandate fell well short of actually protecting civilians. Following this, in 1999, he found himself back on the continent of Africa, again with the UN, on a mission to aid Liberia’s recovery from their own brutal civil war. I braced myself for another candid testimony from the frontline. However, our time was up, and so I’ll have to make a future visit to the Major’s office and enjoy a cup of tea with him as he regales me once again with further tales of a very different life to that of an AUW Deputy Director of Security.
Major Ezaz pictured below in Bosnia, 1995
I’d like to express my sincere thanks to Major Ezaz for taking the time to speak to me about his experiences, and for also allowing me to include some of his own personal photographs.
So I had planned to tackle a serious subject in this blog update, but due to events which transpired in a classroom at AUW this week I’ve decided there are far more pressing issues to be discussed. When I say issues, I do in fact actually mean just one single issue. My beard.
You may have seen it. It’s in photos, and it’s reached a length which now makes it fairly noticeable to all. I’ve been wrestling with this for a while. To shave or not to shave? This is the conundrum that currently keeps John Stanlake awake at night, and it’s a conundrum which reached the classroom this week as a fellow teacher put it to her students in a writing task. Their prompt was ‘Should Mr John keep his beard or not?’
It’s essentially the end of term here, so this is not a usual assignment. Anyway, the students were very forthcoming with their opinions. I’d like to share some (the best) with you….
I’ve separated this into two sections – pro-beard (Fogle lovers) and anti-beard (Fogle haters)….Let’s start with the anti-beard brigade;
(Please note: These are all direct quotes)
‘I think Mr Jhon shouldn’t keep his beard. When he keeps beard, he looks more older than his age. It is also hard for him to wash his face cleanly. Even though he washed his face because of beard some dirt may stay in his beard. Because of beard when he eats anything food may be stick to his beard. As like food, the environment dust also sticks to his beard and may make him unhealthy.’
An obvious beard hater. However, her concern for my health and wellbeing is commendable.
‘As his beard is not black in colour it does not look good to me. Rather it makes him look foolish. His beard is not compatible with his face.’
Honest and to the point – Clearly not a future politician.
‘His beard is yellow, so it is not like so much good than black beard looks’.
Valid point. In fairness though it’s hard to judge me here as you don’t see many blond-haired Bangladeshis.
This next student has several convincing arguments in defence of her anti-beard stance;
- ‘You will forget how to shave which might cause you problems later’. It’s more concerning that she appears to think her teacher will forget how to perform such a simple task as shaving so quickly!
- ‘You might get lice on your beard due to AUW’s water.’ This is highly alarming. Is it possible to have lice-ridden facial hair?? If yes, that may clinch the decision to shave.
- ‘It makes your face filled with two colour which looks funny. Like, your whole face is white but your beard is part brown.’ I’d argue that it would look even funnier/weirder if I had a skin-coloured beard surely??
- ‘It will save you precious time because you don’t have to comb it frequently.’ There is that I guess. However, I’m fond of my beard comb. It would be useless and redundant without a beard to comb.
- ‘It will save water if you don’t have to clean it frequently.’ I’d probably still wash my face though. Beard or no beard.
All points are valid and have been noted.
‘I first met him during history class. He looked good; wearing shirt and jeans (which suits his face without beard). A face with beard looks untidy and it somehow gives a gesture of laziness, since beard is raised by old people.’
Hmmm…In many ways she’s hit the nail on the head. The whole reason for the beard in the first place was due to a lack of motivation to shave over the summer holiday.
‘I think Mr John looks good when he keeps short beard. Neither totally shaved nor long like that a saint does. Since neatly shaved look in men makes him chocolaty, Mr John should try out professional look.’
Has anyone ever seen a Saint with a chocolaty beard?
This was one of my favourite responses. Simply entitled ‘Beard’ this student is fantastically honest….
‘Dear Sir – you looked better at the beginning of the semester. Do you know the reason behind it? Yes, of course, it’s because you hadn’t had bunch of beard then. I don’t mean to say that you look unattractive now, but there is nothing to praise. I agree being a man you would want some beard to look manly or something like that but I don’t understand the reason behind letting them grow more and more. Maybe you are planning to become a ‘Babaji*,’ but I think it’s not a good idea. I don’t even want to imagine you like that…disgusting! I wonder if after the winter break you will come with your long hair as well. OMG*!! You look good the way you used to be with small beard rather than that jungle in your face.’
*Babaji – I believe this is some kind of religious figure who sports long hair and a long beard, but I may be wrong.
* OMG = Oh My God
Another classic, this possibly surpasses the previous verdict. This student begins with some nice comments about me as a teacher, but then follows it directly with;
‘But every good thing has some error attached to it. In Mr John’s case, it’s his beard. I would strongly encourage him to shave it off as soon as possible. I have some valid reasons for it,
- The beard he has is hiding his face and making it look unpolished.
- When I see his face I think he carries a burden on his face. I feel very sorry for him when I see him carrying such a burden.
- Last, but not least, his voice. Because of so much pressure on his face Mr John can’t talk clearly which makes a problem for us – his students. To let out his bold voice without any barricade he should get rid of his beard.
Finally, I really enjoyed taking part in this noble cause. I feel extremely fortunate that my efficiency is considered valuable in this serious global issue.’
Does a beard hinder speech? Is my beard hiding a burden? Should I be polishing my face? All good questions.
‘Your beard is like a forest and is the same as ancient man’
This student offers some useful advice;
First of all he looks more young without beard whereas having beard shows him much older than he is. It is not only about personal appearance but also affects his students. Students like their teacher to look nice. When he comes to class with shaved beard, most probably everyone would tell him ‘You look nice Sir!’ and the positive sentence would have great affect on the class and make it nice. But when he comes to class without shaving students would not even listen to him! Also in today’s world the one with beard would seem more barbaric.’
So I’m a boring barbarian that no one listens to. Good to know.
However – It’s not all doom and gloom. Most of the facial hair naysayers end with a remark of positivity, encouragement and most importantly, advice. For example;
‘Sorry Sir, if I did hurt you. I just gave you my opinion. It’s your beard, it’s your life, you are most welcome to experiment with it, but do be careful of your looks as well.’
So, now for the less vociferous pro-beard brigade;
‘I personally feel that your beard makes your personality more notable. Your face itself suggests to keep a beard.’
And that’s it. It’s hardly conclusive, but it’s a nugget of hope in an otherwise damning verdict of my facial hair policy.
I’d also just like to share one more quote from a student. We clearly have a future diplomat on our hands;
‘I believe that if Mr John keeps his beard or not is not important. The way people evaluate a person isn’t dependent completely on an appearance. Moreover, he doesn’t change his character if he shaves his beard. If shaving makes him change positively, he should do. But if it does not affect anyone and anything, don’t do it. Let him be himself. Finally, shaving is Mr John’s choice. Don’t ask us!’
Amen sister! These words will resonate with me as I walk off into the sunset whistling ‘Born Free’. Now, you may be thinking that in light of all this staunch beard negativity I’m going to head straight to the barbers. Well, you’d be wrong. I value the opinions of my students of course, however, a few weeks back I received all the positive endorsement needed to convince me to keep the beard for a good while yet. Ironically it was in fact at the barbers as I was having my hair cut at ‘Scissors over Comb’.
One of the barbers, who was cutting the hair of the man in the chair next to me, looked at me. He stared for a while and then rubbed his own beard (which was impressive in terms of both its volume and shape), pointed to mine, and then nodded his head in an obvious sign of approval. I’d doubted the beard up to this point, but this one man’s single nod of the head changed all that! For now, the beard stays.