Bashkhali Tragedy: Loopholes behind the story of Coal Shooting

FILED VISIT and REPORT BY A BANGLADESHI FEMINIST-ANTHROPOLOGIST AND FILM MAKER  REPRODUCED FROM NewsBangladesh.com

By Nasrin Siraj

A team of 13 leaders and activists of Chittagong chapter of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port visited, on April 6, Gondamara union under Bashkhali upazila in Chittagong district where four unarmed villagers were killed allegedly in police firing on April 4. I was a member of the team. A schoolteacher from Gondamara union was our guide during the visit.

Gondamara is a shoal area between Jolkodor canal and a seaside embankment. Salt, shrimp and rice are produced here. Crossing the bridge over the Jolkodor canal, we found a group of villagers of different ages sitting at small tea stalls. No sooner had we descended from our vehicles, they surrounded us and started talking altogether, narrating the harrowing details of the immediate past tragic killings.

From there, we started on foot for the nearby village. We met a huge crowd of villagers at a place where a live programme of Jamuna TV was being telecast. A teenage boy of 16/17 years joined us on the way, a scratched scar glowing on his cheek. This is his story:

“(Indicating at the motorcycle of one of our team members) they came by motorcycles like this, wearing helmets like this…those who shot us that day…the hired goons of S Alam…they were accompanied by police.”

Question: How did you know that they were S Alam’s hired goons?

The teenage boy: “They wore police uniform and covered their faces with masks…but we are the local people…don’t we know S Alam’s goons? They come here all the time.”

“(One standing beside him added) haven’t you seen the S Alam office on the way coming here? There are at least 2,000 police uniforms at that office. Wearing those uniforms, the goons came here on that day riding motorcycles. They came from that office.”

The teenage boy: “The local police station has only 20/25 policemen, but on that day about 200 policemen came here.” Another from the villagers, standing beside the boy, added: The OC, UNO, MP Sahib all are sold to them (to S Alam)…

The people surrounding us altogether were trying to describe the horrific incident that took place only two days ago. They were also inquiring about our identities and purpose of visit. Listening to their gory details, suddenly I remembered the first wounded person I met the previous day at Chittagong Medical College and Hospital, during a visit in search of Bashkhali victims. I asked, “Was not a shopkeeper shot here?”

All of them answered at a time, “Yes, yes…this is his shop…this Medina…shooting on his leg from point blank range, they took him to that bridge from here, dragging him all the way…he suffered severely and painfully, you see, the road is pitched…even the soldiers of Pakistani occupation army were not so brutal…we were not tortured so much even during the liberation war…”

We were still a little away from the spot where the shootings took place. Meanwhile, National Committee leaders and activists had completed their procession and rally, expressing solidarity with their movement. Someone then proposed that we should visit the wounded villagers. It may be mentioned here that the National Committee organised the visit without any prior preparations. The visit was organised all of a sudden. The leaders and activists of the committee are not well familiar with this locality and people. That’s why they did not have any particular plan. The villagers then took us to Moriom and Kulsum. Here is the story in short they told us:

“Police on that day not only killed four people firing indiscriminately, but also entered home to home and shot women. Kulsum was breastfeeding her child, and Moriom was peeping through the window to see what had been happening outside when the police entered their homes and shot them. The main problem regarding the bullet-wounded ones was to take them to hospitals as, after filing cases against 3,000 unnamed accused, police have been arresting all the wounded persons whoever had gone to any Chittagong hospitals from Godamara. So, apprehending detention, wounded people are not going to the CMCH, or concealing their names and addresses if anybody is going.”

Moriom showed us her terribly shaking bullet-ridden hand. With tearful eyes, she told us, “Kulsum conceived four months ago. She has five children also. Who will take care of them now? Who’ll take care of those motherless children?”

The women present there then oragnised Kulsum’s children and father so that we can take a family photo.

Kulsum’s children with their father

I asked Kulsum’s husband, “How is your patient now?”

Kulsum’s husband: “Being afraid of arrest, I didn’t accompany her to the hospital. Police is waiting there to arrest us if we come out on the street (meaning the road leading outside the village)…her brothers are there, they are taking care of everything.”

Mentionable, most of these villagers surrounding us are day labourers, involved either in farming or fishing, or in salt production. Some of them took us inside their homes to show the place where, under what situation, they were shot, to show us bullet scars on mud walls.

From there the team brought out a procession, accompanied by the guide as well as the villagers, and marched towards the school field where the shooting spree took place. Instead of taking part in the procession, I was loitering slowly. Kulsum’s husband and other 5/6 villagers accompanied me and there started a conversation.

I asked, “What happened here? Why police shot the villagers indiscriminately?”

Again I was bombarded by a bunch of answers delivered simultaneously. I am trying to tell the story in short what I understood from their answers:

“At the wee hours of April 3 (another interrupted to clarify that after 12pm, new date starts), police arrested some villagers who were sleeping on the seaside embankment. Protesting the arrests, we were holding a meeting presided by Liakat Chairman, president of Vumi Rokkha Committee, meaning land protection committee. Police reached the spot after the meeting started and without any warning started shooting us indiscriminately.”

Q: But why police arrested those villagers?

A: Someone or other vandalised a car of the power project. Not a single journalist writes the truth. Three to four journalists have come so far, but taking S Alam’s bribe they all published fake stories. They wrote about that car-vandalising, but forgot to mention that we don’t want any coal-based power plant in our locality.

Q: But what is your problem with setting up power plant?

A: Hey, coal-based plant has many problems…aren’t they trying to set up another coal-fired power plant at the Sunderbans? If it becomes reality, the trees and tigers will surely die…nothing will remain on the ground…the same will happen here. Our trees, our plantations nothing will remain in place. We will have to abandon our forefathers’ land. A rivalry has erupted and is going on centering the issue since many days. The rivalry reached its peak for the last 2/3 months.

“(Another one ads from aside) you are not being able to tell Apa anything. Listen, Apa, the whole clash erupted over sharing of the money. Just a few days ago, a clash took place between two groups of people of our locality over sharing of money at the home of the local MP Sahib. In between their rivalries these innocent four died. I am an Awami League activist for the last 40 years. None of the Awami Leaguers knew this new MP before he was nominated. This MP only knows money.”

The topic of the conversation then changed, and all of them started showing me bullet scars on walls and tins beside the village road. It is obvious that bullets were fired literally indiscriminately. Were the police afraid that they would be attacked by the villagers, I thought. Or else, why such indiscriminate firings? But before I could ask the question, we reached the school field where the National Committee had already started a spontaneous meeting. Villagers continued showing me bullet scars…

“look here”, “This way, come here…”

Again I tried to listen to their stories coming from all sides. I tried to understand—why the police started shooting on a visibly unarmed meeting. How many police personnel were there? How many rounds of bullet were shot at public on that day?

At one time I understood that the villagers were not at all aware that a Section 144 had been imposed. That’s why they were dumbfounded by the police action. Public interpretation of the incident is like this: “We were not armed at all (javelin or spear is household weaponry in this locality). We heard that a meeting had been called and we went to join the meeting. Had we joined the meeting readily, not a single police would be spared alive on that day.”

I noticed one thing; the villagers repeatedly alleged that on the fateful day of April 4, a number of hired goons wearing uniforms accompanied the police. They engaged in an argument right in front of me over the number of goons and police. Some said there were 200 police, some said 50 while a third group said 70 were real police and the rest were hired S Alam goons. “At first they fired at the sky. They fired at least 20 rounds of bullet per second and over all 1000 rounds of bullet were fired,” said these witnesses.

Mortuza nana was eating this bread at my tea stall. He could not finish it. They shot him on the chest from point blank range

“They wore masks (because they were firing tear shells)…they shot Murtaza and Ankur from point blank range just because they identified them…they (Murtaza, Ankur) tore up their masks…We are locals…we know them all…They started from the S Alam office riding motorcycles (I have heard the same allegation earlier from another one just a while ago)…they started from there. They live there.”

“Phew…those were all polices…UNO, OC all were present…

I said, “Maybe, they all were policemen…”

”They (police and local administration) are acting on behalf of Mafia Don S Alam…taking S Alam’s money police fired on the public…”

This is not the first time I am experiencing Bangladeshi people’s anger, rage, fury and lack of confidence on police. I had heard the same terrible allegations against police, administration and government while doing my research work with the activists of Phulbari anti-coalmine movement.

Meanwhile, National Committee had completed their rally. Liakot Chairman was present there, but, I think National Committee activists were not interested to talk to him, rather they were interested to meet the relatives of the deceased ones. So, we went to meet them.

Our motorcade started for the relatives of the deceased, stopping here and there to inquire about the direction. We had to stop at one place where a group of villagers wanted to talk to us. A number of women were present there beside the males. As I advanced towards the women, they altogether started talking expressing anger and fury and objection over and to the coal-fired power plant.

My two maternal uncles and one of my cousin’s husband have been killed. Let them kill us if they want, not even then will we agree to set up coal power plant. They are oppressing us like the Pakistani occupation army. Our fathers-mothers-brothers can’t stay at home to sleep apprehending detention, they sleep at fields. And in the name of arresting the accused they are entering our homes wearing police uniforms to snatch away our ornaments, valuables and mobile phone sets. We cannot sleep at night in fear.

This is the moment when I came to know that three of same family had been killed on that day. I understood that late Anowarul Islam and late Mortuza Ali were two siblings and late Zakir Hosain was the son-in-law of Mortuza Ali. With tears rolling down on their cheeks, the women were telling their plight and I was thinking, “So many deaths in a single family…how are the living members of the family bearing the grief…administration, government and businessmen are considering these people as a hindrance to development…we are recognising them as protestors, but are we at all identifying them as humans? If my father, mother, sister, brother, husband or son dies normally instead of being killed by police, won’t I grieve equally like them…at the end of the day we are all humans…all are same, and our capacity to face and tackle grief are also equal…”

Reaching late Anwarul Islam, Mortuza Ali and Zakir Hossain’s home, National Committee leaders-activists started talking to the male members of the family. Women of the family took me inside the home. In between the waves of sobbing and whimpering, the eldest daughter-in-law of the family asked me about all the members of my family, entertained me with juice, orange and biscuits. A teenage girl from the family refilled my water bottle as she noticed that it was empty. We were informed that in an attempt to save his father, Anwar’s son Arafat was also hit by spray bullets. His uncle would take him to doctor after our departure.

What is going on inside this youngster’s mind, my attempts to understand how he is surviving the trauma reminded me of my sister’s daughter…so much caring, so many insisting all through the day addressing ‘baba baba’…

Gondamara has 500 acres of land. S Alam Group already has bought 1700 kani of land (as I am weak in land measurement, I am not going into details). But the villagers repeatedly clarified me that the problem is not with land purchasing procedure, because S Alam Group has already finished purchasing land. Those who had sold their lands have already received their dues. Those who are protesting at present are not land owners or anything, almost all of them are day labourers. And their demand is very simple —  entire population of Gondamara will not be able to continue living in the union due to the effect a coal-based power plant will make on its adjacent arable land, water and plantations. But where will they go? How will they live by? They don’t have anything else for survival save their own two hands.

My demand is very simple also—1) The allegation local people of Gondamara is raising that police killed innocent people must be investigated fairly and the criminals must be punished. 2) Were they really hired goons under police uniform? Is the administration really acting as a private force of S Alam Group? As a citizen I want this allegation to be investigated also, and if proved, I want the public servants acting as accomplices of criminals to be punished. 3) This harassment of the villagers, filing cases against unnamed 3000 and detaining the villagers indiscriminately, must be stopped.

I am ending this reportage citing a dialogue of the son of a killed one. The National Committee activists were trying to console and pacify him stressing on the necessity of law-abiding movement.

In reply to the consolations of the Committee activists, the boy said, “If my father had been taken to hospital, he might have survived. But the Police did not allow us to do so. We have shown enough respect to the law enforcers; no more.”

 

Translated by Tariq Al Banna from the Bangla version of the reportage.

newsbangladesh.com/tab

Read original report here: http://www.newsbangladesh.com/english/Banshkhali–Loopholes-behind-the-story/13361#.VwlPVOhvxs0.facebook

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