Stuck in my House – The Heightened Security Situation in Dhaka (Part 1)

“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…”

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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.

Background:

3632 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.”

Italy-national

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.

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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:

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About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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One Response to Stuck in my House – The Heightened Security Situation in Dhaka (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Security Concerns | Ask Me Anything!

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