Bangladesh Catch-22: What Did They do With Shahidul Alam?

This should not be read as an obituary. But widely acclaimed Bangladeshi social activist and photographer Shahidul Alam has vanished into the black hole of security detention.

At his Aug. 12 appearance for a court order to extend his arrest by the dreaded Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a limping Shahidul declared he was tortured, and his clothes washed to remove bloodstains. He is hauled back into the malevolent void again, where no one can hear or see what is being done to him.

Shahidul was streaming live on Facebook as university students protested the killing of two teens and injury to many others by a runaway bus. The authorities mishandled their demands for road safety, allowing the protest to mushroom into broader calls for redress on other matters, including extra-judicial killings and disappearances. That politicized the protests. It drew the youth wing of the ruling Awami League as enforcers, as police looked on.

On Sunday night, Aug. 5, Shahidul was live on Al Jazeera, explaining the context of the protest grievances. The RAB swooped on him at his home. International outrage followed from many institutions and friends calling for his immediate, unconditional release. There is no indication when he will be.

Election year jitters

Sheikh Hasina Wazed, who heads the Awami League is in office by default, as the 2014 election was boycotted by the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP). The Begum is acutely aware of her government’s lack of legitimacy. A General Election is due at the end of this year. Shahidul’s scathing analysis on Al Jazeera, hot from his FB Live video footage of attacks on students by the party’s goons, upset the guilty.

This is Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s third round as prime minister, in a duel of musical chairs for two, with Sheikh Khaleda Zia, who leads the BNP. Their rivalry is called the “Battle of the Begums.” They took turns at national leadership with the Anti-Corruption Agency charging both for corruption at different times.

Khaleda Zia is currently serving a jail term, indicted for corruption. Hasina was let off by the High Court on the technicality that she cannot be charged under Emergency Laws for crimes committed before they came into effect.

The Awami League is secular. The BNP allies with Islamic fundamentalists. It shares blame for religious vigilantes attacking ‘un-Islamic’ bloggers, Hindu and Christian minorities. Western governments are silent on Hasina. She let in 700,000 Rohingya refugees to settle in border camps with Bangladesh shouldering the bulk of the costs. The international community is relieved the crisis is locally contained.

Conflict cameras

In conflict zones photographers suffer a high casualty rate because they witness the action. Their images carry the power of authenticity. Shahidul sums up his life-mission knowing the dangers:

“As a journalist, your only space is at the edge. You have to be constantly feeling the heat. Go back one more step, and you may cease to be effective. There are no safe options, and no prizes for popularity. If you’re not making certain people uncomfortable by your presence, you are probably doing something wrong.

“The struggle for change is a never-ending process that requires you to be constantly alert, and forever swimming against the current. It is a lonely, stressful, tiring and immensely gratifying journey."

Witness to injustice

Shahidul Alam has a doctorate in chemistry from London University but photography is his life’s mission. It takes him beyond the urban comforts of the middle class, to witness the everyday injustices inflicted on the powerless. Shahidul’s lens gives permanence to the memory of victims, who otherwise vaporize as political roadkill. He believes his images would trigger national shame, remorse, and redress.

Shahidul was deeply affected by the work of an earlier generation of photographers thrust into the senseless killings of the 'War of Liberation' against military occupation in 1971, which began as a fight for identity, language, and culture, against the hegemony of West Pakistan. The repression was extreme. And so was the response. A brutalized society never quite recovers. Mob justice, embedded in its psyche, erupts reflexively in cycles, no matter what the cause, or who the victims.

Killer & victim vanish

Shahidul immortalized Kalpana Chakma, a defiant tribal girl of the Chittagong Hills, who was ‘disappeared’ by the military in 1996, for demanding basic rights for her people. His team undertook meticulous research of records, with visits to the displaced villagers, and the police – who knew but didn’t tell. Kalpana’s Warriors showed at national museums and galleries abroad.

This is his insight into that documentation of 2013:

“I’d grappled with the question. It was as if Kalpana herself was a figment of our imagination. This fiery, courageous, outspoken woman, who had dared to demand that she, an indigenous woman of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, also had rights; had the audacity to speak out against military occupation by her own army; had the temerity to insist as a citizen of a free nation, she too needed to be treated as an equal; was something the state wanted us to forget. Most of all, they wanted us to forget that 17 years ago, in the early hours of the morning of 12th June 1996, she had been abducted at gunpoint, by our own military.

That until today, 17 years to her abduction, Lieutenant Ferdous has never been questioned by the police. That next to Kalpana, Lieutenant Ferdous has been the only key player we have been unable to trace. The military, it appears, has no record of him. He too has ‘disappeared.’ ”

In December 2017, I browsed the mournful Kalpana exhibition at the Biennale show of the National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. Straw mats, laser-etched with the images, hung from the rafters like lost souls. Light from flickering candles in earthenware receptacles, recreated Kalpana’s village world. It brought you up close to the helplessness of the victim, and the horror of unaccountable, faceless power, over life and death. Her screams went unheard, her people dispersed.

Eye in the sky

In October last year Shahidul wanted me to help him secure a super-drone to document the flow of Rohingya refugees crossing the Myanmar border. I welcomed him to my home, and drove him around for the drone hunt. He picked the top model at the DJI showroom in Causeway Bay.

On his return, Shahidul was drone-filming within a week, the sad, slow lines, of Rohingya trudging from their burning villages, with stuff strapped on their heads, ferrying cooking utensils, babies, and grandparents, in wicker baskets. It was poignantly mute. The world is in refugee-fatigue mode. The Rohingya would be forgotten as news programs fill with other distractions.

Free him unharmed

We should not allow the incarceration of Shahidul Alam to continue. He represents a spirit too precious for humanity to surrender. He, and others like him, hold our collective conscience. Shahidul has exercised his responsibility and is punished for it. We, who are able to add our calls for his release, must not slack. Let us relentlessly shout out till he is freed, unharmed.