Filed under: Bangladesh

Long time no hear

I’ve been back in Dhaka for 13 days after returning from Netrokona on 31st. To be honest, apart from lying beneath the fan, we didn’t do much these days; the heat and the humidity are paralysing by now. Today it had 40.5 centigrade and 78% humidity. And the climate in Dhaka is even worse since the city virtually is a concrete desert and heats up so much that you get roasted (or better steamed) from all sides. Last week we met Quaium Khan, the executive director of CUP with whom we want to do the relief work in Karail. We talked about how to turn the collected money into relief goods and how to distribute them. The biggest hurdle is transferring the donations from NETZ’s bank account to CUP’s account since it requires a lot of bureaucratic work. We agreed to carry on fundraising for another three to four weeks and then to transfer all the money at a time to save charges and office work. With the money we will then cover as far as possible the most urgent remaining lots of the relief programme.

Now about Netrokona: While Sarah was working for NETZ in Dorshona, Silvia and I went with ASK (another partner organisation of NETZ) to the north. After a chaotic taxi ride (we had to push the taxi from a quite busy intersection after it went belly up…) we reached the office of ASK and met with Niko, a NETZ volunteer, and Saba, the ASK worker who was conducting the project in Netrokona. From there we took a Rikshaw to the bus stand, sounding simpler than it was. Since there were four of us, we had to split up on two Rikshaws and quickly lost each other at the first intersection. While Silvia and Niko obviously managed to get to the bus stand without further problems, Saba and I ended up in a huge demonstration of the opposition party that once more had to vent its anger against the government in a tumultuous and deafening way. We didn’t manage to fight through this chaos until half an hour later when the bus was of course long since gone. So quickly into the next CNG (these small, green, three-wheeled baby taxis) and to the next bus stop, where Niko and Silvia persuaded the driver to wait for us. But since we lost more precious minutes in the obligatory traffic chaos, and since the bus driver – to prevent a mutiny – left at last, we finally had to take the local bus that stops in every small village between here and Netrokona. So far so good and after six and a half hours we finally breathed the clean air of Netrokona (of course not without having to look for the bus, which drove a few hundred metres from where I was taking a short bathroom brake).

ASK is working together with local partner NGOs all over Bangladesh to improve the position of women in the rural, mainly conservative society. They try to raise awareness for this issue through theatre projects and plays that deal on typical everyday problems of women in Bangladeshi society. Those plays are interrupted at key moments and the solution and further plot is then discussed with the audience. Theatre is traditionally a very powerful media in Bangladesh.

A second approach to improve women’s situation are law consulting groups that provide legal advice and help to the women. The Bangladeshi legal system includes so called village courts that – due to the bad accessibility of the rural areas – enjoy some legally and locally limited sovereignty. Due to the clan oriented power structures however, those village courts often decide in favour of the socially stronger party, regardless of the legal situation. Furthermore, capital crimes such as rape or murder often don’t reach the responsible courts; they are much more illegally tried in the villages, avenged with ridiculous fines and then hushed up. ASK tries to fight those grievances.

Actually we wanted to photograph the theatre workshops and meetings during the monthly monitoring, but since five days prior to our arrival a disastrous tornado devastated much of the area around Netrokona, the programmes were either changed or completely cancelled. Instead, we went to the affected villages to distribute some money and clothes which ASK had arranged for the participants of their programmes.

The sight of the destroyed settlements was heavy. In the rural areas, Bangladesh consists mostly of widespread rice fields with small assemblies of houses and farmyards in between. In this landscape, the tornado tore a trail of destruction. While some villages were hardly or not affected at all, others practically ceased to exist. Two metre pieces of corrugated iron were wrapped around tree stems like napkins five metres above the ground. That is, if there were any tree stems left. Huts and houses had been torn apart totally and their remains were spread in all directions, and on the fields, the rice grains had been sucked from the spikes so that the peasants not only lost their belongings but also their crops. 73 people were killed in the disaster. The wind even tore the saris off some women’s bodies, and since some of them only had one, they did not dare to come out of the remains of their huts because they were naked. Hence a lot of them missed their share of donations of cloths and food that were distributed by relief workers.

Despite all these depressing experiences we had the possibility to enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the countryside around Netrokona. On eternal Rikshaw rides to remote villages we passed through vivid green rice fields with crickets chirping during the days and billions of fireflies shimmering like a sea of stars at night, and through far-flung farmyards silently hidden beneath palm trees and jackfruit trees. After two months in smelly and deafening Dhaka, the peaceful countryside seemed like the paradise to us. All the more I’m looking forward to fleeing this Moloch again and going to the south of Bangladesh for ten days, even if it is probably yet hotter there…

May 13, 2004

Writing again…

Finally I get some time to write again. I’m sorry that I wasn’t in touch for so long. A lot happened in the meantime. On March, 19th, our article about the fire in the slum was published along with the pictures in the Independent Weekend magazine. Moreover we opened an exhibition on the topic which will be shown in the Goethe-Institute in Dhaka until 13th of April. We invited some of the victims to tell about their situation themselves. It was beautiful experience fort these people were accepted completely normal which is not usual in Bangladesh with its strong, feudalistic structures. Normally people of lower social levels are treated as second-class-people, they are, despite hopeful legal situation, more or less without rights. The German ambassador was at the inauguration, too, and assured a donation of 8,000 € for the victims’ relief.

We also want to start raising fund in Germany. We planned to do that long since but faced some problems. On the one hand, we’re not allowed to collect donations without being a registered organization or else we can be prosecuted for fraud. On the other hand we would have had problems to assure that the relief reaches the people in need since we’re not familiar with the local power structures of Karail. Fortunately we met some people from a German NGO called NETZ who work exclusively in Bangladesh and support programs of local NGOs. NETZ provides the name and the bank account to collect the money. With the Bangladeshi NGO CUP (Coalition for the Urban Poor) we’ll grant relief to those who need it. CUP has been working in Dhaka slums for a long time and is perfectly familiar with their structures.

But also some other things happened. We visited a school for slum children ran by a partner NGO of NETZ called Bastob. It was fantastic. The children’s eyes beamed with joy, and you could easily tell that they saw their chance in the school to break out of the circle of misery. The whole appearance of the school was cozy and homey. I instantly felt secure and well. However we just spent a little time there to meet the director and the staff. We’re planning to go there regularly now to photograph.

The last three days we joined Anwar Hossain and Humajun Ahmed on a movie shooting. Anwar is a well known French-Bangladeshi photographer and cinematographer, Humajun a writer and director. The shooting took place in a small village just out of Dhaka. The movie is about the Bangladeshi independence war of 1971. A group of people from all social and religious backgrounds flees the Pakistani army in a boat. The plot deals with the relationship between the otherwise completely different people in the extreme situation war.

Humajun (left) and Anwar during a break.

During the shoot we were on two different boats. One held the equipment, crew, catering and us, the other one was the movie set. On the first evening, a terrible storm came up. Within twenty minutes, a bright, sunny afternoon turned into a pitch black inferno. The shooting was disrupted immediately and the equipment packed as fast as possible under the circumstances, then the set boat was tied to the catering boat and we turned into the wind. After a few minutes the roof of the bridge was torn off, with a mate still sitting on it. Miraculously, he could prevent the worst and save himself and the roof, which seemed impossible to me; the tin roof was some four square meters and stood upright in the storm. Shortly afterward, the towrope snapped and the set boat, with its engine not working and hence unable to maneuver, helplessly drifted down the river, along with some of the actors, the director and the equipment. We couldn’t do anything and had to go on against the storm. Later we found out that they were saved by another boat which pulled them ashore.

The quiet after the storm.

After we were all reunited safely, we drove to Humajun’s estate where we were accommodated. You should’ve seen this: A gigantic premise, which I tried to walk once but gave up because it took too much time. There was a gorgeous villa on it, not very big but really beautiful and elegant. Out front was a kidney-shaped pool with a sitting bay for nightly cocktail parties. And all of this in the middle of the jungle. The next days were more quiet, the weather was merciful and during the shooting breaks we laid down in shady shady banana groves and snoozed.

Starting on the 19th we’ll join some of the NETZ programs dealing on human rights for hardcore poor and women. This will probably be a very different extreme. The projects are held in the Netrokona district in the very north and another one in Jamalpur close to the western border to India. They’re mainly about educating rural people in their legal rights and helping them demanding those very rights since lot of people in the rural area don’t know any of them. Another approach of the projects is raising the rural communities’ awareness for gender issues. The NGOs proceed playfully by drama: After a drama group has been set up they begin to arrange plays dealing on discrimination and harassment of women. Those plays are staged for the whole community and then interrupted on crucial parts to discuss solutions. Theater is a very important media in Bangladesh since it is a very traditional form of common entertainment. I can’t tell you more about it right now since I haven’t been there yet. Bit it will sure be interesting.

At the moment I have bricklayers in my room who close the hole for the AC. There are openings in the outer walls of each apartment here and when you move in you bring your AC and fill the hole with it. Until then it’s just covered with card board. Since we don’t have any AC, my cameras and negatives got a nice shower on the first monsoon day. Thank God I realized it in time to prevent serious damage… Otherwise our apartment is a real dream. A super-nice landlord who sent down some breakfast and lunch the first day, three beautiful rooms with two balconies, a huge living room and a kitchen. Meanwhile we managed to buy a gas stove and some ceiling fans and now it’s really comfortable though still a bit empty. We’re about to buy some plants to get a lively touch in the flat.

April 10, 2004

Karail

I attached a file. It is an article I wrote about what we experienced this Thursday. We want to publish it along with our pictures and thus hope to help the affected people. If it is somehow possible for us we want to make an exhibition, too.

Regarding my previous post: Many people asked me what I answered when asked about my religion. As most of you know, I’m not a model Catholic. Nevertheless, the values Jesus tried to communicate mean a lot to me, even though I have my own interpretation of them at times. I think he was one of the great of his time, as well as Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. In general I don’t like the idea of categorizing inner believes into religions, which are then often only exploited as political means of power. In a word, I’m a freethinker who doesn’t relate to any confession, who has his own idea about “the one up there.” However, it would be offensive to openly say this here. People would understand I’m an atheist and there’s nothing worse in their world view. So to make things easy, I just told them I was Christian (which I actually am to some extent) and the people here reacted very tolerantly. I never faced a single negative response.

March 6, 2004

Salam Aleikum

Yesterday was Moharram. It is the most important festival of the Shiites in memory of Imam Hussein who was according to the Shiites’ belief the legitimate 3rd Imam (whereas the Sunnis acknowledge Mohammed’s brother-in-law as the 3rd Imam). Hussein was murdered by his enemies during a fight about a fountain and the believers celebrate the anniversary of his death in a procession that goes over more than ten kilometers from the center of Old Dhaka all the way to Dhanmondi. They are dressed up gorgeously and carry colorful flags and floral ornaments. Some whip themselves with chains lined with blades until their backs are drenched in blood. At the end of the procession the flowers and ornaments are thrown into a lake in which then everybody washes themselves.

I went there with Sarah, Silvia, Kabir, Khakuli and Rubel, three of the Pathshala students, to photograph. It was an intense experience. Even though I didn’t witness the whipping, I was impressed by the emotional intensity of the celebration. The people were either totally in trance so that they wouldn’t even notice you, or in total ecstasy so that they would almost run you over. From babies who just made their first steps to Methuselah who was about to make his last steps, people of every age were out and about. With our white skin we stood out like anything and people gathered around us in hordes, calling us “bondhu” (friend) or “bhai” (brother). They shook our hands, asked us about our origins, names and religion and urged us to take their pictures. Especially the children were keen on the click; some of them followed us all through the day and threw themselves in front of the lens every time we wanted to photograph something. After some time we were really fed up and we had to either shoo them away or distract them with tricks to be able to take our shots. One of us actually worked while the others pretended to take pictures of the children.

After all the stress we were quite worn out and took off to have a coconut in the shadow. That’s a local specialty: Young, untimely coconuts, bursting full with milk, chopped open with a machete and drank with a straw. Tastes deliciously, refreshes better than anything else and is good against diarrhea…

March 3, 2004

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