We had had a five-hour stopover at the Oslo airport before we boarded the plane to Bergen, the city that was going to be my home presumably for the rest of my life. The man who received us in Oslo told me that he would take care of the baggage, and if we wanted to go out to have a walk, we could do that. My son and daughter were eager to go outside. (My wife was unable to accompany us to Norway yet due to a passport problem. She carried a government-employee passport, which was not eligible for the visa we had been approved for.) So, we went out. That was the moment I realized what freedom was. I forgot when I had last gone outside without closely watching the place and the people around me. It was such a great feeling, inexpressible in words. I took several deep breaths of the mildly cold July air and smiled. My daughter noticed the happiness in my face. She said to her brother, “Dada, look at papa. Have you seen such a broad smile on his face in recent times?”
I remembered a morning only a few weeks back when I was in a restaurant taking breakfast alone and noticed a man standing in the middle of the road with a shopping bag in his hand—the type of bags used to carry machetes by the killers in almost every case of the bloggers being murdered in Bangladesh. The man was talking on a cellphone and peering at me quite often. I was so scared, I thought it was going to be my last day on earth. I clandestinely took a photo of the man, hoping if something were to happen to me, the photo would help the police. I tried hard to make myself think that the man had nothing to do with me, but I failed. The weather was very hot, and there was no reason for him to remain standing directly in the sun; he could easily come under the shed of the restaurant. I took a long time to drink my tea and wait for the man to leave, but he did not. Then another man with the same appearance – a trim beard and a tupi (Islamic cap) – arrived too. It was nearly 10.00 am, and if I did not leave then, I would be late to work. I was the boss of the office and had the keys of the vault, so I had to take the risk of leaving. I came out of the restaurant, walked past the men and then almost ran to the office. I did not know who the men were or what they intended to do there, but I passed the later days in ultimate fear.
Actually, that was how I had passed two and a half years. It started in January 2013, after Asif Mohiuddin, an atheist blogger, had been hacked in front of his office. And after Ahmed Rajib Haider alias Thaba Baba, another atheist blogger, had been murdered in the next month, I was almost sure that one day theywould come after me too. I started writing a diary with a title ‘Waiting to be Killed’. At Oslo Airport, I realized that the waiting was over, and now it was time to live again.
Rajib Haider was one of the organizers of the Shahbagh Movement, the movement that had started in 5thFebruary following a verdict against a war criminal named Abdul Kader Mollah. The movement had initially been started by secular bloggers demanding capital punishment for all the war criminals who had finally been brought to trial for the atrocities they committed four decades previously. Though the persecution of the secular and atheist writers was not a new phenomenon in Bangladesh, the killing of someone for writing was something new. Earlier most of the writers who had faced a mass protest from radical Muslims had either left the country themselves or the government had forced them to choose an expatriated life. That had been the case for poet Daud Haider, feminist writer Taslima Nasrin, and cartoonist Arifur Rahman. Only Professor Humayun Azad, an author and linguist, had been hacked, but he had survived. Rajib Haider’s identity as an atheist blogger provided the right-wing media the pretext to call the Shahbagh movement as an atheists’ movement, despite diversity within the movement itself. They started publishing lies and mendacities regarding the movement and the bloggers. It gave the rise of Hefazot-e-Islam, a radical Islamic organization. And finally there came the list – a list of 84 “atheist” bloggers.
I was not surprised to find myself on that list since I was expecting to hear something like that. However, it brought a major change in my life. Immediately after the list had been published, the police arrested four bloggers with a view to placating Hefazot-e-Islam’s movement. Now I also feared being arrested. And if I were arrested, there was a possibility that I would lose my job. I could not go into hiding too since that would bring the same result concerning my job. I could not even tell my wife about the list, fearing that the knowledge would hamper the happiness of my family. She was in the dark about the list until March 2015.
After two successive murders in 2015 with roughly one-month interval—writer and blogger Avijit Roy on 26thFebruary and blogger Washiqur Rahman Babu on 30thMarch—I had to tell my wife about the list. She was shocked. She was also afraid for the future of our children. It was not just her; many of my friends and well-wishers were worried too. I remember the messages they sent requesting me to leave the country for the sake of my children. I had never thought of leaving the country. In fact, until then, I didn’t care for my life. But the messages made me think of the future and examine the alternative of continuing with my life and family. And after Ananta Bijoy Das, another blogger from the list, had been hacked and murdered in the same way, I decided I had no other option.
It was not that easy to make the decision. Both my wife and I had a bright and secure professional future—I was a bank manager, and she was a primary school teacher. Choosing an uncertain refugee life while sacrificing our careers and lives in Bangladesh was viewed by our relatives as a serious mistake. They indirectly blamed me for destroying a secure life and future. My son was reluctant to leave the country since he would lose his friends. Although my wife was compassionate to me, she was hurt to leave the country for it was uncertain when she would be able to meet her parents and relatives again. I suddenly felt myself liable for all that was happening. I still feel the same. Okay, I might have been killed by the Islamists if I had continued to live in Bangladesh, but when I see my wife struggling with the new language and sometimes regretting her decision to leave her job to accompany me, I can’t still measure my decision with the live-or-dead account.
What else could I do? No, I could not get any help from the police or the administration. In May 2015, while I was still in Bangladesh, Niloy Neel, another blogger, went to the police to register a general diary after he had been followed by two persons. The police did not register the case; instead, they advised him either to leave the country or stop writing. Niloy wrote about the whole incidence on Facebook. What did the post bring? Nothing indeed. He was murdered after two and a half months.
Online activists brought Niloy Neel’s post into the open to ask for security for the bloggers. The government was not eager to listen to the blogger’s call for security; instead, they tuned together with Hefazot-e-Islam and other Islamic organizations, blaming the victims for their writing. They, from the police to the prime minister, said the same: it was the bloggers who had brought upon the death by themselves. This governmental support was exactly what the killers had wished for.
In 2014, Ahmed Shafi, the head of Hefazot-e-Islam, had preached in an Islamic meeting, “It has now become imperative to kill the atheists.” No, the leader of Hefazot-e-Islam did not face any trial for this provocative call. He was rather rewarded. He soon became one of the behind-the-scene advisers of Awami League government. Hefazot-e-Islam’s recommendations for removing secular views from curricular books for the children have been followed to the point. Its demand for closing Chhobir Hat, a rendezvous for the writers and the artists, have been followed immediately too. And instead of bringing the madrasah education under government control and merging it with mainstream education, the government granted it the same level as the general education even though a Qawmi student, all through his student life, does not get anything other than Islamic education.
The government’s subservience to the Islamists has resulted in the reign of a perpetual fear. It was a green signal to the jihadists. Islamists increased the intensity of their selective killings. They killed publishers to stop them from publishing books containing secular and atheistic views. Now even the booksellers do not sell any books having a bit of controversial content. They have murdered LGBT activists, professors, foreigners, non-Muslim priests, Sufis and many more. Fear of death has now engulfed freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Those freedoms now exist only in the Bangladesh constitution, not in reality. As a result, the people who would express their views and beliefs and those who could not accept the atrocities of the Islamists have either mummed themselves or left the country, both against their will.
How are we now? My son has been doing well in his school, but still he has been struggling to find a fruitful friendship; my daughter has lost all her enthusiasm to cultural activities, which she was very fond of back in Bangladesh. And I feel like a fish out of water because the society I live in does not have the things I write about. I depend entirely on online newspapers and social media for information. As a result, my writing now lacks the observation, which was at one time the main source of my writing. It lacks liveliness and spontaneity. I think most of the bloggers and writers have been having the same problem. We know that we have to go on with this writing until the day comes. However, I cannot hope that the day will come in a near future.
Ratan K. Samadder is an ICORN guest writer, living in Norway.