Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Mutiny

Thursday, February 26th, 4 pm: Bangladesh is a country in crisis. Mutineers in the military have staged an open revolt against their superior officers in Dhaka and bullets are flying across city streets. The mobile telephone network has just been disconnected to prevent the spread of violence, but rumours of gunfire in other parts of the country continue to circulate. The VSO Country Director has just issued an order for all VSO volunteers to return to their homes and stay there until further notice. As I get set to leave the office, a colleague motions me into his office and hands me an envelope with my name on it. I ask what it is, expecting it to contain the evacuation plans for the organization. “My son is about to start eating dry food,” he replies, “so we’re having a party to celebrate”. I open the envelope to find an invitation, complete with party details and the picture of a smiling six-month-old. And somehow, this makes me feel much better.

I haven’t had much experience with mutinies. Mention the word to me and I’m hard pressed to think of anything beyond scurvy scallawags forcing their captain to walk the plank or keelhauling him while making snide remarks about his peg leg. So, when I started to receive text messages from the VSO office in Dhaka on Wednesday that a mutiny was underway in the capital city, I was understandably confused. It didn’t help that Kristel and I were on the move at the time, as our induction program called for us to travel that day to Sitakund on the outskirts of Chittagong, so we had no access to television or the internet. The news we did receive came via updates from the Director of YPSA who was accompanying us to Sitakund and continued to get calls on his cell phone throughout the trip. Though the details were lacking at the time, it was clear that the situation was explosive and in danger of deteriorating quickly.

Our position as newcomers to the country only added to our lack of understanding, as terms such as “BDR” really meant nothing to us and could have equally been applied to a rebel group, military unit or a McDonald’s sandwich without us knowing the difference. Though the Director did his best to explain the situation based on the fractured reports he was receiving, we remained at a loss as to who was fighting whom and why. As the conflict seemed to be contained within the city limits of Dhaka, we felt reasonably assured that we could continue with our program without any danger, so we spent the remainder of the day exploring Sitakund and YPSA’s projects there. It was only with the arrival of the Daily Star newspaper the next morning that the scale of the insurrection became apparent.

“Mutiny, bloodshed at BDR HQ” screamed the headline in bright red letters, as if there was a need to further highlight the horror that occurred. The story that followed outlined the events leading to the rebellion. The BDR, also known as the Bangladesh Rifles, is one of the key military units within Bangladesh and is second in size only to the Bangladesh Army. Assigned the duties of border patrol and anti-smuggling control, the paramilitary group has a history that stretches back a century or more, following the region through its various incarnations. According to the reports spread throughout the paper, the mutiny was the result of unmet demands held by the lower ranking members of the BDR, including those related to their pay and benefits. Seizing the opportunity afforded by a gathering of officers and those under their command, some members of the unit began to issue their demands, and this is when the situation began to worsen rapidly. A response from the officers was answered with gunfire from the regulars and those attending the ceremony soon were held hostage. Those involved in the rebellion soon fanned out to defend their position and began to shoot indiscriminately into the streets. The BDR Headquarters is located in one of the central neighbourhoods of Dhaka and the mutiny began just as many people were making their way to work. As a result, a number of civilians were hit by the bullets and some were killed as they tried to escape the area.

The army responded soon afterwards by bringing its tanks into the centre of the city on Thursday, though it delayed any further action while negotiators brought in by the government attempted to defuse the situation and bring it to an end without further bloodshed. With reports coming in from around the country of BDR soldiers blocking roads and firing their weapons in the air in support of their comrades in Dhaka, the government required the mobile phone network to be shut down to avoid a coordinated effort among the BDR regulars. Blissfully unaware of these latest developments, Kristel and I had decided it was a good time to pay a visit to the British Council in Chittagong to view the facility and what it had to offer. Turned away at the gate for security reasons, we shrugged our shoulders and hopped onto a rickshaw to take us back to our flat. Along the way, Kristel decided she would like to shop at the market for a while, so I left her there and continued on to our home. Soon after I arrived at the flat, there was a furious banging on our front door, and I opened it to find a very anxious member of the YPSA staff who said I must come with him to the office because VSO was trying to contact us. I asked why they didn’t just call us on our mobiles and pulled out my mobile to see for the first time that there was no network. “Oh, look,” I said, “There’s no network” and my YPSA friend stared at me with a look reserved for naïve foreigners who are becoming a huge pain in the ass.

Arriving at the office, I found a congregation of YPSA staff who greeted me as though I had just returned from the front. Always glad to get a hearty pat on the back, I basked in their welcome with no idea of what was going on. Expressing their happiness that Kristel and I were safe, they looked behind me and asked me where she was. “Oh, I left her at the market” and I watched their faces darken. “You left her at the market?” they asked, almost in unison, and I felt the welcome mat get yanked from underneath me. At this point, I asked what was going on and was told that VSO had been trying to reach us for the past hour or so to tell us to stay at home because of the situation in Dhaka. “Umm, we didn’t know. No mobile network,” I said, helpfully shaking my disconnected phone for full naïve-foreigner-pain-in-the-ass effect. Assuring me that nothing was wrong in Chittagong, my colleagues nonetheless offered to mount a search party of the market for Kristel. Imagining the chaos that would result, I told them that it probably wasn’t necessary if everything was OK in the city, and this likely branded me as a heartless bastard in addition to my new status as an ass pain. “OK, well, please come back to the office when Kristel arrives home and we will contact VSO,” they said, at which point I received my party invitation.

After an hour, Kristel came to the flat and I informed her of her status on VSO’s “Most Wanted” list. We went back to the office and made the call to VSO, confirming we were both in one piece (or I guess, more properly, two pieces) and that we would stay at home until we received further notice from them.

After two very tense days in Dhaka, a truce was negotiated with the mutineers and the hostages released. Though many were relieved that the worst seemed to be over, in the days that have passed since the crisis ended, the news has been just as dire. With the BDR Headquarters now reopened, investigators have found dozens of bodies in mass graves. The dead have been identified as officers within the BDR who were killed by the mutineers during the two-day uprising. Combined with the civilian casualties, the death toll now stands at over seventy people, with some officers still missing. The country has been shocked by the scale of the carnage. For some, the number of people killed invokes painful memories of the fight for independence in 1971, but some analyses have said this is even worse, as this battle involved Bangladeshis killing Bangladeshis.

Three official days of mourning have just been completed and fifty of the officers were buried together with full ceremonial honours. The government has now required all members of the BDR to report for duty and promises a full investigation with the assistance of foreign governments to determine who was responsible and bring the appropriate charges against them. This promises to be a difficult and extended process and will no doubt continue to dominate the headlines and remind the nation of all those lost during those two days.

But the people persevere, as they have through all of the disasters in their history, whether they be natural or man-made. Just one day after this crisis, my colleagues gathered to salute a child eating dry food. All of our past anxiety was forgotten for a couple of hours as we all ate dry food late into the night, happy to have an event celebrating life and providing a respite from the darkness of the previous two days.


cochrane said...

Glad to hear you're safe, man. Keep postin' and we'll keep readin'.

From the home-front,


Anonymous said...

I can't even begin to surmise how I would act or react in such circumstances. I shiver to think about being in a place like Mumbai during that raid.

I think sometimes being a naive foreigner is the only adequate stance, despite our being considered pains in the ass, or as you put it, ass pains. The things I don't know are often overshadowed by the things I don't want to know, and don't care to learn about.

You have to get up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror, wondering what the ethical, moral, humane, or sane thing might be to do. Being ignorant often insulates us from the need or desire to take sides or make a decision, and that naivete probably keeps us ass pains alive while traveling in foreign climes.

Last September, I flew from evening in autumnal Quebec to early morning in Paris [wow, what a city to see at dawn's early light] to early spring at midnight in Johannesburg, SA. Being pitch black I didn't see much of the country on the two hour drive from Jo-burg to Sun City, SA's gambling capital and all round fat assed resort for the rich.

I checked into a hotel in the compound, a facility not unlike anything I am used to in North America, and fell asleep in a fidgety kind of way -- too excited to be in "Africa" for the first time. Africa is in quotation marks because it is more like African Resort than real Africa, except for the monkeys you were warned not to go near.

I woke the next morning to a cool day with lots of sunshine, a brilliant blue sky, a wonderful breakfast, and the headlines blaring at me about the fall of the Mbeki Government at midnight, just as I had arrived in Africa for the first time.

At first, I did not take this news gracefully, although I didn't refrain from having a nice breakfast of fresh fruit and great Kenyan coffee. Despite the frisson of worry, I did feel a bit like a colonial reading news about what the natives were doing.

There is a certain insularity that goes with being a foreigner in a land that is undergoing political upheaval. It's that "we're Americans or Canadians or Europeans; this has nothing to do with us; go away and play"...well, as my friend Peter in Hong Kong always reminds me, "Remember, you are in their country and you are the alien."

I'm not sure just how much anxiety I felt as that Sunday wore on with increasingly tense news about the constitutional crisis in SA. Was this the press trying to hyper senstize us to a non issue so as to sell paper [the jaded NA view of journalism]? or was this a real crisis for the country?

The government will fall! Mbeki was being booted out by rivals in the ANC! this was internal party strife with broad and loud hints of corruption and so on.

Actually, the government did not fall; the ANC still held power, even if it ended up being tarnished, but Mbeki was replaced.

But at the time, no one knew what was going to happen. After all, even Kenya recently went down the road of insanity with shootings in the street and army interventions. No one expected a stable nation like Kenya to experience such internal troubles. It is not Rwanda or Uganda, after all!

So it was difficult for the foreigner to gauge what was about to happen in SA with these internal ANC troubles. What did not help was the fact that I was in a tourist, and predominantly white, rich enclave.

I was in Sun City for a conference and the local SA organizers felt this was the safest place to convene all these foreigners. That alone added a piquancy to being in SA -- security, protection, so on.

There was no word about military intervention. There was no word about the government as such falling, although the ANC leadership was at war with one another. Rule of law remained in effect throughout the entire time. Everything went smoothly, even if someday Mr Mbeki might find himself on trial for corruption [the favorite device used to get rid of someone in such a situation].

Beyond the emotional tensions exacerbated by context and location, there is also my post "traumatic" reaction to consider. I tell the story of this situation with the surprise of a foreigner who didn't expect the rule of law to prevail, but who expected chaos, blood on the streets.

Being self critical, such a western and North American "expectation" should be embarrassing as a form of imperialism -- racist or otherwise. After all, "what can you expect from an African nation but destabilization".

I'm not sure if being amazed there was no blood on the streets is worse than witnessing blood on the streets [well, let's face it, no one wants to get shot at]. It says something about our world perspectives.

No one among the Africans at the conference gave the incidents a second thought. We could be conspiratorial about this and surmise they were afraid to speak, but I think that would be too much paranoia on our part.

Life went on; it was a constitutional crisis, not unlike the Canadian experience when Paul Martin and his numbnuts henchmen ousted Jean Chretien as leader of the Liberal Party, the party in power at the time. Just because it happened in Africa does not mean we should expect bloodshed, but my personal surprise seems to say otherwise. How fascinating.

I never had to be evacuated from anywhere I ever traveled, nor was I ever restricted in those travels...up to a point, that is. I recall on a return flight from China, settling down in the business class section of an Air Canada flight and reading of riots in rural China on the front page of the weekend Globe and Mail. This surprised me. I spent a week in the country [but not the same area] and read the China Daily every day, and knew nothing about these riots.

Yet, it seemed they had been going on for some time and were particularly nasty -- intervention by the militia, dead peasants fighting for their land, corrupt officials, and so on. Yes, of course this is a case of controlled press and information. I'm not naive. But it's amazing what gets publicized and what doesn't.

For instance, the arrest of the Party Secretary of the People's Government of Shanghai for corruption made headline news everywhere in China. This was an "exemplary" story, intended to demonstrate to the people that the Party leaders [Wen and Hu] were on a warpath to weed out corruption. It was also part of a power struggle since it involved the arrest of a very powerful man with strong connections into the top echelons of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party].

It did not precipitate a national/leadership crisis as Tianamen Square had, but it was about intimidation and control: if you lop the dog's head off, he and a lot around him will die.

While it has not yet occurred, it is anticipated the trial will be long and public -- again for the same reasons: power, leadership, ending corruption, and so on.

It is very unusual in China to air dirty linen in public, unless there is an ulterior motive. In this case, there obviously is.

I was in Shanghai when the arrest was made. And this was the only time I was "restricted". By that I mean I couldn't schedule a meeting with any of my colleagues and friends in the People's Government of Shanghai. Everyone dove under their desks; no one was "allowed" to speak or be seen speaking to foreigners. That frisson of fear was not mine, but it did have an impact on me.

I think I travel encased in a bubble of naivete. Or maybe it's the locals who are so astounded that someone would be stupid enough to walk the streets that they simply marvel but stay at arms length. You know there is a whole range of superstition: people are afraid to catch your disease, and stupidity might just be my leprosy.

I've walked through areas of US cities that were supposedly off limits to a white guy [Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, etc]; I recall people staring at me, but I was never sure if it was fear or astonishment or malevolence I saw in their eyes.

I live in a Chinese neighborhood in Shanghai where the presence of a westerner is a rare occurrence. I cannot speak or read the language, and I do get stares as I walk through the streets. But I've learned to smile a lot, have an open and friendly face, occasionally say hello in Chinese.

After a few days, I'm considered the local mascot: somewhat patronized, but no longer feared or fearful. Once that settles in, then I'm comfortable being the alien in a foreign land.

None of us wants to be where there might be blood in the streets; I personally never want to hear the sound of gun shots [in all my years growing up in The Bronx I've never heard a gun being fired]. It is not fun being a foreigner in a foreign land, and there are many places I would never venture to, but then again, there are so many places I would go to...no matter what.

How strange we humans are in our thirst to satisfy our curiosities, even if it means we become someone else's ass pain.


Anonymous said...

Keep safe my friend!
Jen MacLellan