As long as I can remember I always wanted to travel the world. I wanted to hitchhike across America, practically live on trains in Europe, boil under the Middle Eastern sun, eat sushi in Japan; the works. You might have noticed I said travel, not live. That’s because I never imagined living anywhere other than my home, Bangladesh. But here I am, freezing on an island in the middle of the Atlantic.
It was an ordinary day in February, 2013. Abdul Quader Mollah was going to be sentenced that day. As the daughter and a granddaughter of freedom fighters I always had a profound interest in our Liberation War of 1971. So, I was satisfied with the war criminal Abul Kalam Azad’s death verdict by hanging, and optimistic about the next one. But Abdul Quader Mollah was given life imprisonment. I’ve never been so angry and disappointed in my life. The vile scum was going to walk free after all the evil he did!
I have never been a supporter of capital punishment. But this time it was different. In 1971, when the Independence War of Bangladesh started, these war criminals helped the Pakistani Army and actively participated in genocide, murder, rape, torture and the worst betrayals on their own people. After 42 years they were finally on trial. Almost everyone aware of the situation wanted them to get the worst punishment permitted by law, which is hanging by death. Anything less would be a joke. Also, in our country, life imprisonment for someone with money and influence means they will live in luxury in jail and will likely be out in a couple of years. So Quader Mollah’s verdict was completely unacceptable.
I went home that day feeling angry and helpless. I didn’t even bother to check my social media and blog sites. The next day my mother informed me about the protest at Shahbag Square. I immediately went online and saw people erupting in spontaneous revolt. Unfortunately, it was too late for me to join them that day. So I settled for rallying up people online. The next day, I rushed to Shahbag Square with my friends, signs and banners in hand. Every day after my classes I went and joined the protest. Even though I didn’t know anyone there at first we all became a family very soon.
Our demands were simple. We wanted the death penalty for Quader Mollah and all the war criminals, we wanted the ban of Islamic terrorist party Jamaat-e-Islami from Bangladeshi politics, and a boycott of Jamaat institutions. Jamaat has been terrorizing our nation ever since they were formed. They support the terrorist organization Ansarullah Bangla Team and have had clear ties to the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and now ISIS. Their senior leaders were actively fighting with the Pakistani army against Bangladesh in the Liberation War. Activists, writers and bloggers have been opposing them in their works for years. But now, the public had also risen against them. The protest at Shahbag grew day by day.
On the tenth day of the protest Ahmed Rajib Haider was found dead. Someone had brutally attacked him with machetes in the dark of night. His death shocked and horrified everyone. Nonetheless, we kept going. I didn’t know Ahmed Rajib Haider, I only knew the pseudonym he used on blog sites. With thousands of people I also swore on Rajib’s coffin that we wouldn’t stop until our demands were met. But we underestimated our opponent. They used all their resources and started their campaign against the bloggers and activists. Fake Islamophobic blog posts were made and the screenshots were distributed all over the country. We were branded as atheists, blasphemers, anti-Islamic, and murdering us became justified by the Quran.
Soon after, a Jamaat-e-Islami supported an Islamic fundamentalist organization called Hifazat-e-Islam, which started to demand blasphemy law and the death penalty for all atheist activist bloggers. Their goal was to shift focus from Jamaat-e-Islami and the war criminal trials, and defile the Shahbag protest. The government started to monitor all blog sites and arrested four bloggers in response to their violent protests. We came out on the street once again to challenge this action. The government started to become forgiving towards the Islamic fundamentalists and became hostile towards secular activists and bloggers to satisfy the Muslim majority population. So when a group called Defenders of Islam published a hit list of 84 writers, bloggers, and activists everyone got frightened. Some fled the country, some stopped writing, while others became reserved and the blog community slowly died down. But that didn’t stop Jamaat-e-Islami and Hifazat-e-Islam. They kept pushing their fundamentalist ideas on people.
A year later, It was another ordinary day in February, I got home late that night from visiting the annual Ekushey Book Fair and heard the news. Avijit Roy was just attacked where I was merely an hour ago. I didn’t believe it at first. Sometime later the news was confirmed; Avijit Roy was dead. The American-Bangladeshi had been murdered in his homeland.
Avijit Roy was the person who everyone looked up to; even his opponents respected him. I have never seen him disrespect anyone or say anything without proper proof. He had a wise, caring aura around him. His books gave thousands of people like me the strength to think outside the norm. So, when I attended the protests the next morning I thought people will not accept this murder and rally in the streets demanding justice. But barely anyone showed up.
The death of Avijit Roy was a fatal blow to the atheist community in Bangladesh. Everyone in this small group became very aware of their online existence. When the government failed to make any progress in the murder investigation and their official statements sided with the terrorists, everyone realized that they will not protect us; we are all alone in this battle. The big names of the atheist and secularist community became very careful in their daily lives. Some started to make arrangements to leave the country.
I don’t remember the moment I heard Washiqur Babu was attacked. My brain has a tendency to forget painful memories. It’s like a coping mexhanism. I vaguely remember scrolling through Facebook when coming across someone’s status saying a blogger named Babu was attacked. As I ran to check the TV news, not even for a second I thought that it was my friend and brother Babu. But it was him; he was attacked right in front of his home.
I don’t even remember how I ended up on the floor clutching myself. In that moment I could only concentrate on the fact that the news had spelled Babu’s name incorrectly. They were reporting that he was taken to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. Thinking he might still be alive I got up and dropped everything and rushed to the hospital. Some of his friends were already there. As we made our way into the hospital and out through the back door I realized where we were going. It felt like we are walking for days, then we stopped in front of the morgue. They could not save my brother, there was nothing left to save.
Babu was a very introverted man. He had a small frame and even smaller voice. Every time we talked I had to nudge him to talk louder. You would not believe this shy man could write such sharp, witty and clever posts. He had a very small circle of friends and I was lucky enough to be in it. Few people knew Babu’s identity as a blogger. He only had one or two pictures of him on his social media. But when he got comfortable around people nobody could make him stop talking. He will talk no more.
Babu’s murder had a bigger impact than Avijit Roy’s. Before this, the small, unknown bloggers thought they were safe; no one will come for the ‘nobodies’. With Babu’s murder the terrorists announced that popularity, name, recognition doesn’t matter; they will hunt down everyone. Also, Babu’s murder proved that there was a mole in our group. After that, the circle of trust amongst ourselves became non-existent. The protests became irrelevant gatherings, the conversations became small talks. A rising, thriving community became a shallow, muddy puddle.
A month after Babu’s murder, writer and scholar Ananta Bijoy Das was chased and hacked to deaty in front of his house. By this time we lost our ability to be shocked. Ananta’s death was a loss for the whole country. His books, blogs and activism were all for the good of the common people. For this, he was a very popular name in the intellectual community. His magazine was a point of pride for us. Prior to his murder, Ananta was trying to get out of the country but was denied a visa. Maybe just a few more days and he would still be alive.
By now we figured out the pattern. The terrorists were systematically eliminating their targets while instilling fear into everyone else’s heart. We knew that the next target will be someone not that much known. Bloggers were shutting down their accounts, leaving their homes to hide elsewhere, leaving the country to save their lives. It was like living underwater. The pressure was too much and I couldn’t breath.
Niloy Chatterjee, known to his friends as Niloy Neel, was one of the first few friends I made at the Shahbag movement. Being friends with him was very easy. We could actually talk to each other without any fear of judgment or criticism. He had very outlandish ideas about society and relationships and we frequently fought over them. After Babu’s murder, I lost touch with everyone including Niloy. In one of our final conversations, he informed me that someone was following him. He went to the police to report but they didn’t help him. He told me that he doesn’t want to leave the country but he didn’t want to die either. I found out about Niloy’s death through a phone call. The murderers went into his house, locked his wife and sister-in-law in another room and hacked him to death in broad daylight.
By now we had a set drill. After hearing about a friend’s murder we would be shocked even though we knew this was coming, lose track of time while crying, go to the protests even though we knew it was pointless, come home early and then hold our breath for the next attack. Surely, there was another attack a month later. This time, respected publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan. After that, secular writer Nazimuddin Samad, LGBTQ+ activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy.
Bangladeshi Government is extremely considerate of our feelings. Instead of finding the killers and bringing them to justice, like a serious government would, they were trying to make us laugh by telling us to stop writing. Some would say that this is a violation of our freedom of speech but we took it as a joke. What else could we do? Our religious families were ashamed of us, the whole country was against us because of Islamist propaganda, we couldn’t trust our friends and our law enforcement refused to protect us. So when the Prime Minister said that the victims were responsible for their own death, they shouldn’t have written those things and we should stop writing because it hurts people’s feelings, we had no choice but to take it as a joke.
One day my mother noticed that someone was standing in a dark corner beside a shop and was watching our house. She wasn’t much aware of my blogging and activism. So she was very confused when I anxious and scared out about it. A few days later I had to go out alone to repair my mobile phone and noticed two men following me. I went to the police immediately. At first, they thought I was joking. When I explained the situation they told me they won’t file my report. Some days after this, while I was out with my cousin, a car came out of nowhere and suddenly stopped beside me. My cousin noticed its door opening and screamed loudly while pushing me out of the way. This time the police had no choice but to file my report. I decided to leave the country then and there. My application to ICORN was accepted and soon after Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland invited me to their city as a guest writer.
Reykjavik is giving me a lot of opportunities to become a better person. Here I can exercise my freedom of speech without any threat. Here I can actually become someone my departed friends would feel proud of. I know I’m safe here, I can be happy here but I’ll never get back the hope, the optimism and the innocence I lost in the last few years. It’s not fair that I had to lose my brothers, my friends, my family, my whole life just because I expressed my opinions. Sometimes I feel jealous of my dead friends. At least they don’t have to live with the murder of their comrades, live with the guilt of surviving, live knowing that they would never get justice, live without hope.
Naila Zahin is an ICORN guest writer. She lives in Iceland.