And then they came for me

He wanted to let the world know what he saw on the streets — an exclusive extract from Shahidul Alam’s new book The Tide Will Turn.

And then they came for me
August 2018, Dhaka — Students demanding justice for fellow students Abdul Karim Rajib and Dia Khanam Meem who were killed on July 29th 2018, when a bus ran them over. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The Tide Will Turn
Shahidul Alam
Edited by Vijay Prashad
Additional text by Arundhati Roy
Steidl, 184 pp. (111 images), November 2019
978 3 958296930

On July 29th 2018, two young students of Ramiz Uddin Cantonment School and College — Abdul Karim Rajib and Dia Khanam Meem — had been standing in the road waiting for a bus. One did arrive. The owner of the Uttara-bound bus of Jabal-e-Noor Paribahan company had extracted his share, and what the driver and the helper could now rustle up would determine whether their own families would get fed. Speeding in the desperate attempt to make more money, the bus mowed down the kids, killing them immediately, in full view of their aghast classmates. Eleven others were injured. The risks of driving recklessly were not as great as one might imagine. The possible death of a few pedestrians could be “managed”.

The minister of shipping was also the executive president of the Road Transport Workers Federation. Having him on their side provided the bus company a far better insurance than any policy could provide. His mocking laughter, a cruel response to a grieving nation.

Enraged students took to the streets, but the countrywide protests which followed could surely not have been the result of these two deaths alone. Not when deaths, in so many forms and often unnatural, had become normalised in a country where killers had unprecedented impunity. “What’s the use?” was a common refrain. The refrain that confirmed that the rulers had won. They had destroyed the belief in resistance.

But resist they still did. Young students. Inexperienced in taking to the streets. Untrained in resistance strategy. Uncoordinated, unled, unorganised, but united in their belief that this could not be allowed to go on. They responded to the years of misrule, the corruption, the wanton killing, the wealth amassed by the ruling coterie. The complete impunity which the rulers and their cohorts enjoyed, had been used to tread on them for far too long. They took the only way left. They took to the streets. A fire had been lit and the embers of discontent were burning. The flames engulfed the country and these young protesters were the unlikely torchbearers. It was an unusual form of resistance. There was little anarchy. No demand for special favours.

They did what the government should have been doing. For days on end, they checked the papers of all roadgoing vehicles, verifying drivers’ licenses, looking for fitness certificates. They ensured that pedestrians crossed in orderly fashion, that ambulances had priority and that VIPs did not. They brought order in place of chaos. They prevented deaths. 

Their banner was revealing. “Apologies for inconvenience. We’re fixing a failed state.” That was exactly what they were doing. They demonstrated that with the right political will, with integrity and commitment, this state of ours could be remade. That order was possible.

That was where things went wrong. By bringing order, they also pointed to the hitherto absence of order. The implications could not be ignored. If a group of young students, without funding and without force, could bring order into a system that was so woefully broken, why was the government, with all its resources, and with the maintenance of order being its prime mandate, unable to do so?

Unable to counter this powerful argument, and determined to cling on, the government resorted to a tried and tested formula. Deception and coercion. They started with false promises, and when their absence of follow-through led to continued resistance, they resorted to violence. The armed cadres of the ruling party turned on the unarmed kids, and when the kids stood firm, the police joined the armed cadres, sheltering and reinforcing them. Eventually, using the full force of the state, together they turned on the kids, and on the journalists documenting the injustice.

I was one of the witnesses trying to shed light on this brutality, hoping others would come to rescue the hapless students. On August 4th 2018 they turned on me, attacking me and smashing my equipment. I continued reporting that day and the following day, and I gave an interview to the Al Jazeera television channel. Later, I was alone in our flat, uploading photos while talking to the BBC on the phone, when the doorbell rang. They had come for me. Blindfolded and handcuffed, I was taken away and tortured, and eventually spent over 100 days in jail.

There is sunshine in this dark story. My immediate family, my friends and my comrades swung into action. Ignoring the might and the reputation of the repressive regime, they took every step imaginable, petitioning, protesting, and keeping vigil, to ensure that I stayed alive, and made sure I was eventually released on bail. They dramatically ramped up the cost of repression. The resistance continues.

On the night of 5th August, I did not know if I was going to live. There were too many others who had not, and the statistics were not in my favour. I had resisted as long as I could and ensured that my abduction would not go unnoticed, but I had not seen anyone familiar before the blindfold had been put on. With my phones and my laptop forcibly taken away and being denied any contact with the outside world, I had no way of knowing if others knew where I was, or what had happened to me. 

The following morning, they washed my blood-stained punjabi and ironed it and made me put it on again. They forgot I was still barefoot. As I was being driven away from the Detective Branch’s office in Minto Road, I saw my former students through the window. I knew they knew. And that they would resist with all their might.●

Shahidul Alam is a photojournalist, social activist and former prisoner of conscience. This book extract is published by special arrangement.

August 2018, Dhaka — Student holding placard saying “Mothers to shed no more tears.” Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World