“So, how are you liking Bangladesh?” is a question I hear very frequently. At least once a week, sometimes multiple times a day. I am asked by foreign visitors, work colleagues, and friends at home. It’s a tough question to answer. I try to have no expectations when I am in a developing country, because it makes for an easier life. No electricity, no water, nobody who speaks English – no problem, I didn’t expect there to be. However, one of the expectations I did have was that I would counter challenging situations and I would overcome them. Situations like bargaining with a rickshaw driver, learning the Bangla words to buys from a local market stall, learning where to go to make friends, and negotiating my role in the office. I knew I would be challenged, but through overcoming challenges I hoped to grow as a person. I thought that by the end of this journey I would have seen the 4 corners of Bangladesh, spoke a little Bangla, have a lot of new friends, and a lot of new experiences. However, it seems that most of these are unlikely to occur….
“Why?” you may ask. Well, the simple answer is “Due to security concerns…”
News photo from the protest on November 2, 2015.
When I first arrived in Dhaka, I was full of a lust for adventure. I took every new opportunity I was offered. I traveled by boat, rickshaw, CNG, and public buses. I explored new areas of the city. I went in new shops, and stayed out past dark. I went to visit the mangrove forest during the holidays. It was scary, and it was amazing! I was discovering a new culture and making new memories. Then something happened that I thought would be a minor incident, but ended up changing, what appears to be, the rest of my time in Bangladesh. A man, a foreigner, was killed in the diplomatic zone of Dhaka, and things would never be the same again.
- September 25, 2015 – Australia updated its travel advisory to state that they had information about possible attacks on Australians. The biggest story was that the Australian cricket team would not be coming to Dhaka for their scheduled test match.
- September 28, 2015 – An Italian aid worker (Cesare Tavella) was shot and killed by men riding motorcycles in the diplomatic zone of Dhaka. He had been running alone at night. Suspects were later arrested.
- October 5, 2015 – A Japanese man was also gunned down by men on motorcycles while travelling to his farm in Rangpur.
- October 24, 2015 – Bombs went off at a Shia Muslim shrine in Dhaka during a religious festival. One teenage boy was killed, 100 were injured. The government in Bangladesh is blaming their political opponents for all attacks, saying they want to destabilize the country.
- October 31, 2015 – A secular/atheist publisher was hacked to death for his anti-religious views. Three others (secular blogger/writers) were also injured on the same day in what appears to be an attack by Muslim radicals.
- November 2, 2015 – A half-day hartal (nation wide strike – where protests were held in the street) was held to protest the death of the publisher (Faisal Arefin Dipan)
- November 4, 2015 – Two police officers manning a check-point were stabbed (one fatally) in Ashulia (a garment factory hub, 30km North of Dhaka).
- November 6, 2015 – A Taiwanese couple was hacked with machetes in Uttara over a “business dispute” . The article states it has nothing to do with the killing of foreigners, yet it goes on to talk about all the foreigners that have been killed.
News photo of suspects in the initial killing of a foreigner (Cesare Tavella).
I was going to continue but it just starts getting depressing. I know that murders are bad, but murders happen all the time in every country and city worldwide, even Toronto (which is where I was trained). In fact, two people were murdered in 2015 in the hotel where I stayed during training, but nobody seemed too concerned about me during that time.
Many of these following incidents have nothing to do with foreigners. In fact, only 2 murders were foreigners. Considering Bangladesh has a population of 160 million people, the murder of 2 foreigners doesn’t seem like a startling number. For instance, 4 other bloggers have been killed in Bangladesh in 2015, but these deaths were not linked to foreigners. However, now that 2 foreigners were killed, suddenly journalists being killed and bombs on religious minorities are a security threat to foreigners? That doesn’t really make sense to me….
Alexander A. Nikolaev, the Russian ambassador to Dhaka, suggested that the United States and its allies were exaggerating the threat, remarking after the two shootings that “two drops of water doesn’t mean rainfall.”
A photo of Cesare Tavella, the first foreigner killed, who captured the headlines. The NGO he worked for (based in the Netherlands), was later pressured by the government to leave the country, I was told.
The world media has blamed the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), since they have claimed responsibility for the attacks, yet the Bangladesh government refuses to believe that they are present in the country. The foreigner governments (notably the American government) keeps mentioning that they have knowledge of eminent attacks, yet they won’t tell anyone what they know or what people should be weary of. Instead they warn against ever leaving your house…
The disconnect between Bangladesh and foreign intelligence agencies has confused Bangladeshis and foreigners alike, and could complicate anti-terrorism efforts.
Even as foreign embassies informed their citizens that they could become terrorist targets, Bangladeshi officials have insisted that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, does not exist in their country.
“We are in a very difficult position to understand the real danger,” he said. “We are not hearing anything from the government, or from the U.S. side, about what was the threat, what was the reaction of the government, why they are not cooperating.”.
For the last month or so there’s also been rumors that an execution is coming up. However, they keep getting pushed back. I had hoped that after the execution the security situation would normalize, but the odds aren’t looking so good. For those wondering, the executions are of war criminals from the 1971 war (dealing with the independence of Bangladesh). People are still being tried, and depending on what side of the fight you’re on, you might protest the deaths or think that they’re great.
A news photo of the area where the second killing took place, of Kunio Hoshi, a 66-year-old, Japanese man.
Originally I thought that the killing was an isolated incident. I thought the foreign governments would realize this and take away the “security concerns”. I was incredibly wrong. I recently read an interesting article about the situation, and it did not have high hopes for the next 4 months of my time here.
Over a month, the initial panic among expatriates has subsided, and foreigners have begun to reappear in Dhaka’s supermarkets and five-star hotels. But they no longer walk on the streets, ride scooters or take bicycle rickshaws.
Diplomats here say the threat remains serious. One senior Western diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity for reasons of protocol, said the heightened threat was a “complete game changer” that would permanently affect security conditions for foreigners.
“This is not going to blow over,” the diplomat said. “The genie is not going back in the bottle. It’s not going to un-change.”
Apparently, the government of Bangladesh is currently trying to figure out all of these attacks before they happen by asking Facebook for information (who denied them) and banning WhatsApp and Viber (because that will apparently “prevent attacks from happening”). Though I doubt this will any impact at all, since there are more than 2 ways to communicate.
— TO BE CONTINUED —
(I didn’t want to make this blog too long, so tune in for Part 2 on Monday.)
P.S. Sorry this blog series is a little depressing, but it’s the honest truth about my life right now. I’m trying to make the best of it, and I will try to make future blogs less pessimistic. If you’re interested in reading more of my blogs about risk and security, check out the links below:
- Stuck in my House – The Heightened Security Situation in Dhaka (Part 2)
- “I hope they don’t hear this at home…” – Keeping risks hidden from friends and family
- Feeling (In)Secure in Bangladesh (coming soon)