Issue: 2017-12-08 | The Daily Star

Tariq* was repeatedly molested by an uncle over three years since he was five. The uncle used to bribe him with chocolate and ask him nicely to not tell anyone about their “playtime”. As a child not understanding what happened to him, Tariq never spoke about it to anyone, but became a very distant and antisocial child, prone to sudden tantrums and angry outbursts. When he was 16, in midst of an argument, he finally broke down and told his mother about it. Mortified about such allegations against her cousin, his mother told him he must have misunderstood and asked him not to mention this to anyone. Now in his 20s, Tariq still sees his uncle at family functions who jokes around with him, as if nothing ever happened.

I learned of Tariq's story not from him but from his tearful older sister who learned about the incident by chance. She is worried about how Tariq has extremely low self-esteem and has isolated himself from his family. She said the matter was never brought up again and their parents never acknowledged it happened. She is full of resentment against her parents but doesn't have the courage to confront them or talk to her brother about it.

Tariq's story illustrates three things about us as a society:

One, we don't respect the agency and experiences of children. When they challenge us with something distressing, we try to convince them, and ourselves, that they either imagined it or are lying. And whatever the case may be, they will forget about it over time.

Two, we are so uncomfortable about talking about issues related to sex and abuse that we are willing to push them under the rug and ignore them out of fear—fear of dealing with the truth and fear of what other people might say. In this case, it was particularly difficult for their mother to deal with the idea that her son had been molested, and by a man no less.

Three, we are so in denial of the idea that those close to us can also engage in abusive behaviour, that we are completely unwilling to confront the crime so as to not create rifts in the family or attract undue attention.

But we need to get over ourselves. Enough newspapers reports and anecdotal evidence has shown us that sexual abuse of children is rampant across all strata of society, but our silence around the issue is deafening.

Children who experience sexual abuse tend to keep silent about their experiences because of feelings of guilt, shame, and confusion. Stigma around the issue and examples of muzzling conversations set by adults also discourage children from expressing their feelings out of fear of not being believed. It is this shroud of secrecy and denial that we need to shake ourselves out of, and one way of doing that is by openly communicating with children about it.

The positive impact of this open communication is demonstrated by the work of a student-led project called Nishu (Nirapod Shoishober Uddeshe) initiated by a group called Ground Zero. In December 2016, Ground Zero won the BYLC Youth Leadership Prize, a grant of BDT 750,000 from Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (BYLC) with support from UKAID. With help from other child rights groups, including Breaking the Silence, they created a child-friendly module for students reading between classes three and five, that disseminated accessible information on the threat of sexual abuse.

A baseline survey with 480 students from five different schools found that around 70 percent of the children were not aware that they had private parts, which were not supposed to be touched by anyone else. They held sessions with 1,200 students from various schools and, through the use of cartoons, poems and posters, were able to make them aware of their personal space and private parts, which are forbidden to others, understand how to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate touching, and what to do if someone did anything that made them uncomfortable.

Ground Zero's main intention was to reach children with the right information before they experienced sexual abuse. Through their intervention, they found that many children had experienced abuse at home by people they trust, but hadn't spoken about it either because they couldn't comprehend what was happening to them, or couldn't articulate their feelings of discomfort. Having someone speak openly to them about it helped them to understand their experience and speak to their parents. Several parents called the group afterwards, admitting shock that this had happened to their children right under their noses. In one instance, where a girl was being molested by her father, the child spoke to her mother after attending one of these workshops. Upon learning this, the mother moved away with the child and filed a police report. Ground Zero's initiative demonstrates that an act as simple as speaking to children on their level can have a far-reaching impact on their lives.

A lot needs to be done to address child sexual abuse. We need to find out the root causes of why it happens, we need to establish better processes for legal recourse and punishing perpetrators, and we need better counselling services for those who experience abuse and trauma. But these sorts of initiatives are often left for government services, hospitals, or NGOs to manage. A small but effective measure that each of us can take at home is to create channels for open communication and talk to the children in our lives about it. It doesn't have to be an uncomfortable, detailed, explicit discussion, but enough so that they are aware, able to protect themselves, and seek help if something happens. Hopefully then, we will have all played an active part in creating a society where no child has to suffer in silence as Tariq did.

*Names have been changed to protect identity

Shaveena Anam is Deputy Manager, Communication at Bangladesh Youth Leadership Centre.

"You have to dream before your dreams can come true.” As I remember these words by APJ Abdul Kalam Azad, I say to myself, they resonate so perfectly with what our late Mayor Annisul Huq believed and expressed as much in a speech the graduating class of Daffodil University.

As the Asr Azan rings in my ears, I can see the Army Stadium fill up with the masses from my window, the road in front chock-full of cars trying to reach the place on time for the janaza.

I have just finished listening to his speech to the graduates on YouTube. His statement were logical, rational and emotional. He spoke on behalf of his own generation, those of us who did not have the good fortune of choosing from many options for higher studies. Only we know what he mean by this. Dhaka University was the only place to study and a close second was Jagannath College in Dhaka. And of course, there was Chittagong and Rajshahi University. But no big dreams could be nurtured at the time unless one went out of his or her way to pursue their own dreams and struggled against all odds.

In one breath, the Mayor uttered the whole truth—a fact that cannot be ignored or sidestepped. Annisul Huq said “[I] envy all of you who are sitting beyond the second row of this congregation.” He will never be able to go back to his youth and see the future bit by bit and build a dream step by step. What a harsh reality Annis speaks about, standing on the podium only a year back. Little did he know that he had but one page of life left to live.

I have always felt that youth is the exceptional blessing of life. In one's green days, life is bountiful—you are fit, you are alert, and you are full of passion. All your senses are active and raging. What else can one ask from life? It is a harsh reality that all these attributes start to decay as the years go passing by.

Putting aside these thoughts, Annisul Huq moves on to encourage the youth to never be discouraged by the things that they may not have. Keep on fighting, he says. So what if you have not studied in a good university abroad? So what if you cannot speak English as well as the boy standing next to you? You can always win the race if the will is there. It is true that we are daunted by the slightly better, the more fortunate, walking by our side.

This part of Annis' speech reminds me of what a nephew of mine told me the other day. He was relating his experience in Dhaka when he came from his village to study for the HSCs. As he looked at the boy sitting next to him back in college, he had said to himself, “So what if I have studied in the village and got a C in my SSCs. I can make an effort and get a much better grade.” He went on to say, “I dreamt of an A and I achieved it in the end.”

It is past Maghrib and our dear Mayor is being laid to rest in the Banani cemetery, but his words still ring in my ears. The men who were there for his burial tread out of this place of eternal rest. As I watch the people homeward-bound, Annis' face comes to my mind. He would always speak about getting his mother's doa—he sought it on every occasion. He spoke of the miracles that would come from his mother's prayers. We all ask for our mothers' doa, at all times. There is not a single home in Bangladesh where “Doa koro, Ma” is not uttered. I, for one, will not embark upon any venture without Amma's doa.

Annis felt the pulse of his people and the youth of Dhaka city. In his speech, he also paid tribute to his partner Rubana, describing the challenges she had to overcome to be in the place she is now. I thought this was indeed a modern man's speech for the youth of today.

I am convinced that Annisul Huq was a man who religiously followed his duty.

Time and again Martin Luther King's “I have a dream” speech came to mind while I was listening to the late Mayor. Maybe Annis was inspired by that historical speech, for example, when he says man never stops dreaming. He talked about his father, who at the age of 95, wanted to visit his village home. With his charismatic smile, he tells the youth in the audience, “But I can't carry him to his village, even on a helicopter, but this does not stop him from dreaming to go back to his roots, to his dear village.”

Our Mayor's speech was given to the youth from his position as Mayor of Dhaka North and it was no less than a call to action to Dhaka dwellers. “There is no limit to dreaming. A man dreams even minutes before his death,” he said. Annisul Huq wanted Dhakaites to have a dream and to act upon that dream. In the same way he had a dream for Dhaka and acted upon it, we too wish to have the Dhaka of our dreams and we must take a vow that we will act upon it.

Sara Zaker is a theatre activist, media personality and Group Managing Director, Asiatic 360.

This October, UNESCO recognised Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's March 7 speech as part of the world's documentary heritage. One of the most influential speeches of the country, those 20 minutes at the Ramna Race Course inspired tens of millions of Bangladeshis and laid the seeds for the country's freedom.

It begs the question, what makes speeches great? Is it just passion? Or do you need to plan and package your idea in the best possible manner?

In the case of the speech on March 7, it was both. When you listen to it, the first thing that hits you is its high emotional intensity. But at the same time, Sheikh Mujib had analysed his audience beforehand and his speech was designed with a clear purpose.

He knew that he was speaking to the masses and kept the words simple. Right from the very beginning, he tried to relate to the audience and therefore referred to those who were killed by the Pakistani Army as his own brothers and sons.

When you analyse the speech by the book you realise that it followed almost every step in the guide.

Attention-grabbing devices

The speech delivered on March 7 used what trainers often refer to as attention-grabbing devices in the introduction in order to relate to the audience.

Different speakers use different kinds of attention-grabbing devices in the introduction. It depends on what your target is. Steve Jobs's commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005 is one of the most shared speeches on YouTube. He begins with:

“I am honoured to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation.”

Jobs uses humour to interact with the audience and the raucous laughter that followed suggested that he was successful at it. 

Another popular speech that is often used to explain the importance of an introductory device is by J K Rowling. The writer was invited to speak at the graduation ceremony of Harvard University in 2008, and she began with the following lines:

“The first thing I would like to say is 'thank you.' Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world's largest Gryffindor reunion.”

She used humour and then went on to refer to a Hogwarts House from her fictional series.

Other speakers have used numbers and personal stories to grab the audience's attention right away, for example, Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid's often begins his speeches at graduation ceremonies with stories from his childhood, which going by YouTube, are a huge hit. Again, he analyses the audience first and then designs his introduction.

The importance of stories in you main body

The main body of a speech can be slightly trickier. You might have a lot of information. However, if you don't have a set plan for explaining it, you are likely to lose your audience's attention. A large number of speakers use stories to explain their main points.

Take for instance the case of Nobel Laureate Dr Muhammad Yunus. He often explains the technical aspects of microcredit and social business—his creations—through stories. Rather than talking about the benefits of social business, he narrates stories of the time he convinced Adidas to create a shoe which would cost less than one dollar. The shoe was created to be sold to the poor via a sister concern of Adidas and the profits would be used to make more shoes. And only after stories like these does he explain the model of social business.

According to Carmine Gallo, the bestselling author of “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs” and “Talk Like Ted”, stories help us break barriers. Brene Brown on TEDx once said, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.” That's because as human beings, we are accustomed to listening to stories from a very young age.

Conclude with a bang 

Like in the introduction, every good speech needs a concluding device, based on the motive of the speaker. Concluding devices can range from throwing challenges to imagining a better future. Sheikh Mujib challenged the people who had gathered there to fight for independence and freedom. He ended his speech with the famous lines: “Ebarer shongram amader muktir shongram, ebarer shongram, shadhinotar shongram” (This war is a war for independence, this war is a war for freedom), and asked the people to rise up.

In a similar vein, Martin Luther King ended his speech “I have a dream” on the Civil Rights Movement at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 by imagining the future, as depicted in this excerpt from the conclusion of his speech:

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” 

“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”    ― Dr Seuss

Be humane to animals

Thanks to Star Weekend for revealing the deplorable scenario of zoos at the district level in its last issue of December 1, under the title "Death camps for wildlife". The article was thought-provoking as it made me think of the importance of zoos in the context of present day. Earlier, the lack of availability of satellite channels and the internet was an issue. As a result, zoos were developed for the entertainment of children. Visiting zoos help people know about animals of different species in different parts of the world. But in the present day, people can know about animals easily through the internet as well as TV channels such as Discovery or National Geographic. So, the idea of entertaining people by giving so much pain to these wild creatures seems illogical to me.

There can be one central zoo in the country. The government must also restrict such parks or rich people from creating their own personal zoos. Zoos at the district level should also be closed as it has been exposed that they are not properly maintained. Seeing the skeletal bodies of animals at zoos will only make children sad instead of making them happy and learn about wildlife. So, we should all come forward to save these wild creatures and must be humane to them.

Nafis Sadik

Merul Badda

Dhaka

Ice camping with penguins in Antarctica

This story was like going on an adventure. I was totally absorbed in this travel-story, as if I was there with her. I learnt things like how seasick one can become on such a voyage. From this article, I also learnt about ocean life, the continent of Antarctica, and whales and penguins (albeit, not very much). This story has captured my imagination and I hope that The Daily Star will frequently publish ripping and adventurous travel stories.

Farid Islam

Rajshahi University

 

 

 

 

 

Living with HIV

I was shocked after reading the article "Living with HIV" published in the Star Weekend on December 1. Every year, December 1 is observed as World AIDS Day. Many remain unaware of their HIV-positive status. It is also disheartening to learn that many in the medical community feel that people who have HIV/AIDS should not be allowed to mix freely with other people. Those who are HIV-positive often have to hide their status from their families.

A concern is the current high use of drugs. Drug addicts are at high risk of being infected due to the use of shared needles. Following religious bindings and rules can be a guide here. The government should also provide holistic care for HIV-positive people and take more initiatives to prevent this disease. We can hope that our country will be HIV-free one day.

Marshia Afrin

Mirpur, Dhaka

For years now, the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar has been broadcast to the world largely through volunteers who use smartphones to send photos, audio and video clips out to the Rohingya diaspora, larger Muslim community and the world. In the camps in the south of Bangladesh, refugees show images and videos of scenes of violence back home on their phones. Members of these WhatsApp or Facebook groups include the Rohingya diaspora in countries as wide-ranging as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and the UK.

Rakhine state has been “closed” to the outside world with the government restricting access to the region to independent observers, journalists, rights groups, and the UN. “Due to the denial of access to the region, it is essentially impossible to get information,” says Rohingya refugee Mohammed Rafique, founder of The Stateless, a Rohingya community news portal.

What little has come out has been through social media, community outlets, and blogs. Two prominent sources of news online include the Rohingya Blogger and The Stateless.

Nay San Lwin, based in Germany, runs the Rohingya Blogger. The blog has become an important news media outlet for documenting human rights abuses against the Rohingya as well as featuring major international articles doing the same. Lwin's father, U Ba Sein, founded the website in 2005 and Lwin himself has been blogging since 2012. “We have gathered a great deal of evidence which arguably amount to show genocide has occurred against the Rohingya,” stated Lwin recently at a conference organised by the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit (RMMRU) in Dhaka.

The year 2012 marked deadly riots between Buddhists and the Rohingya in the state of Rakhine, with allegations that the subsequently deployed military committed human rights abuses in Rohingya villages. As the national media largely ignored the violence, Rohingya community leaders and members of the diaspora set up their own media outlets to document and report on atrocities being committed in the state.

It was at this time that both Rohingya Blogger and The Stateless came into being. Lwin formed a team of volunteers based in northern Rakhine state. His team members keep tabs on all the villages in the area to document actions of the Border Guard Police (BGP), military and civilian authorities against the Rohingya.

“We also have volunteers in central Rakhine state who are reporting about the situation of refugee camps,” says Lwin. Around 120,000 internally displaced Rohingya have been interned in camps across Rakhine State since 2012 with the government restricting the UN and aid groups from distributing vital food aid or providing healthcare services.

Rohingya Blogger also has volunteers this side of the border, who have covered several incidents in the camps. They do not have problems recruiting, says Lwin, because they are well-known and many are willing to cooperate for the sake of getting information of their plight out to the world. 

A Rohingya mobile reporter takes photos and video footage of a burning village in Rakhine state.

The Rohingya Blogger team works discreetly, even among the villagers who are their sources. They are also anonymous online as they could all be sentenced to long imprisonment for their activities, says Lwin.

“Two of our team members were arrested two years ago but they managed to get released by themselves. We didn't publicise that they were our members as they would have been sentenced to imprisonment for their work. Some non-members who sent reports to us were arrested as well and four people from Buthidaung township have been sentenced for six years,” says Lwin.

Mobile phones have been available in the villages of Rakhine state only since 2014. Even without, says Lwin, his sources are tenacious. Lwin says of his experiences over the years, “I used to receive handwritten information. They know how to send information and they know how to reach me. I have even received handwritten reports from prison cells.”

What's changed in 2017? For one, half of Lwin's team is now in Bangladesh, having fled there since the most recent spate of violence August onwards. The rest of the volunteers remain in their villages but mobility is no longer an option. Many of their contacts, too, have fled across the border. This has led to a change in focus for the blog. “As the atrocities against the Rohingya are mostly known to the world by now, we are shifting our attention to writing news updates in Burmese to better inform Burmese Buddhists,” says Lwin.

Lwin and his news site have come under attack by the government. An article published in January of this year was dismissed by the Information Committee of the State Counsellor's Office as “fabricated”. “Our work has been publicly attacked by the government and the military. The official Facebook page of the Office of the President has attempted to attack and discredit us. They claim that our evidence and reporting was fake news,” stated Lwin at the RMMRU conference.

The Stateless is also run by a member of the Rohingya diaspora, based in Ireland. This, too, is run with the help of volunteers based within Rakhine State who operate with no pay and undertaking enormous risk.

Mobile journalism has been crucial for the persecuted Rohingya to get information out, using social media groups in WhatsApp and WeChat among others.“We normally go through a process in the groups to verify the authenticity of information by confirming with other members and video or imagery evidence. Then we proceed in writing the report,” says Rafique.

Recently, there have been reports of journalists documenting the Rohingya crisis going missing, targeted by the military. Since October 9 of last year, nine out of 10 of their mobile journalists have either disappeared or been killed, reports Rafique.

Since August 25 of this year, hundreds of villages have been entirely destroyed by the military with over 600,000 having sought refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh. The Stateless is currently starved of information with no sources left in the villages of Rakhine, says Rafique. This draught of information also has repercussions for human rights activists and international media outlets which depend on community sources in the otherwise “closed” state for information from inside.

Burmese journalists have not been spared, even on this side of the border. In September, Minzayar Oo and Hkun Lat, two photojournalists from Myanmar, were detained for almost 10 days. According to Bangladesh police, they were arrested for conducting their journalist work while on tourist visas. Ironic, considering that the rest of the world's journalists have been going about their work in Cox's Bazar without the threat of arrest.

The international media have finally taken a sustained interest in the matter due to the influx of over a million refugees into Bangladesh over the last year. But the work of these Rohingya mobile journalists remains as important as ever. With Rakhine still closed to the outside world, information from the epicenter of the crisis is vital to the fight of the Rohingya both inside and outside Myanmar.

Dear Mr President,

On a terribly warm night in November, I sat on my couch, alone in Bangkok, and switched off my phone. If it was true, I wanted to see it. But if I saw it, I didn't want to talk about it. I had no way of knowing how I would react to the end of an era, your era, but I was almost certain I wouldn't share the unbridled joy of your (my) countrymen. Hope maybe, and perhaps even relief, but joy I knew not to expect.

What an era you have had Mr President! Is it even an era if it lasts 37 years?

I cannot recall the beginning, for I was not born, but you exist in my earliest memories. Much of my consciousness from this beginning is constructed— borrowed from my parents—but you lie along the creases of my imagination, hoping not to be disturbed.

My father likes to tell a story about the time my mother never spoke to him for two weeks. They had just arrived in Zimbabwe; and with no international experience and two children between them, she was convinced it was a mistake. She had always been close to her own father and her mother's role as our primary caregiver allowed her to be an accidental parent. She felt no fondness thus for the 50-hour journey into the wilderness (literally) that she would have to make or the destination she would reach at the end of it.

When we reached your city, our first company house was on a road leading away from Bishop Gaul Avenue. A sprawling two acres set in landscaped gardens, but as you will remember, Mr President, Harare was at the time expanding at the waistline. Although it was growing rapidly outwards, the city had not yet reached our area and my mother spent her nights lying awake, listening to the deafening silence of no life around us and the days sitting, and forcing us to sit, outside on the porch with her. In later years, she would grow accustomed to houses with swimming pools and orchards and tennis courts, but in those first few weeks, the space and privacy stifled her.

April 2005: Zimbabwe children hold cards making up a portrait of President Robert Mugabe during the 25th anniversary of independence celebrations at the National Sports Stadium in the capital Harare.

She tells me that she cried a lot during this time. Cried in anguish at finding herself in this land of obscurity where she neither spoke the language nor enjoyed the food. What sort of country was it anyway that didn't have the rice that she needed to make pilaf? Or any manner of fish whatsoever? Your landlocked borders were a culinary nightmare for my Bengali parents and you cannot fault them there. She cried in anguish too for the family she had left behind, the brothers and their wives, who all shared the same house. For the cacophony of 100 million souls pressing, prying, vying against each other for life and lung.

And she cried in anger at the husband who had wrangled her from all of that for a new life she did not know how to begin.

But on one of these afternoons, when my sister and I were playing on the porch and my mother was lost in a depression we did not recognise, I tripped and fell. At 30 months, I had developed instincts, but maybe not intellect, and I tried to break my fall by grabbing onto a cactus. The primal urges of a parent overtook the cold shoulder of a spouse and my mother was forced to call my father at work and ask him to drive us to the hospital. I think, Mr President, this may have been the inflection point for a woman who proceeded to fall devastatingly in love with your country.

She marveled at the skill your hospital staff deployed in extracting more than 100 thorns from her daughter's tiny palm. But also at the sheer handsomeness of your infrastructure. Your hospitals were a sight for sore eyes and your roads, in mint condition, canopied by greenery. I am not sure my mother was prepared, or willing to accept, that the city she had vowed to despise could be so beautiful. Or so organised. Your urban planners had been meticulous in their outward march, placing the uncongested business district at the heart of your capital and the residential areas spiraling in increasing radius around it. Each was fitted with a school, a doctor's chamber, a supermarket and a park. Ours had a natural creek with deer and swans we could feed.

April 2008: A Zimbabwean holds a newly issued fifty million dollar note at a street traders stand in the capital Harare. The country is suffering a severe economic and political crisis with official inflation figures at over 100,000 per cent. The new note is worth the equivalent of three loaves of bread.

It led up to our first school—the one which my parents spent less than an hour enrolling us into. How refreshing it must have been for them to know they did not have options with our early education; that every child was required by law to go to the school in his or her locality. And how refreshing it must have been, that absence of competition. Your schooling system—the best on your continent—was standardised to ensure quality and your curriculum favoured the nurturing of well-rounded human beings over academic accomplishment. With only four subjects and no homework until the age of 12, you disallowed the educational burdens that terrorise young minds and arrest creativity.

As my sister and I found familiarity in our school routines, our parents developed a routine of their own. More Bengalis, from either side of Bengal, had by then reached the southern tip of Africa, arriving in droves of architects, engineers and doctors. We became one big family, Mr President, undivided by background as we would have been at “home” and unclaimed by political identities as some communities are abroad. Our parents congregated every evening, in different permutations at different locations and we never left without dinner. Mothers are masters at improvising as only mothers can and they learned to manipulate their ingredients into imitating their childhood palates. We were raised on mishti made from scratch and bhorta that was pungent and at the end of every month, we knew how to sit quietly as they took us to the consulate when the Bangla paper arrived. They humphed and huddled over stale, outdated news and bonded in their collective fear over ever-rising crime in Bangladesh. Maids killing housewives and robbers stabbing students; but what did we know, Mr President? In our cocoon which you loomed over with your iron fist, crime was a work of fiction.

What was it then that converted my mother? Your well-planned infrastructure or your impeccable social services? Was it that she now had friends with whom she shared heritage? 21, 26 and 16 are important dates in my parents' history and in your land of acceptance and freedom of expression, they were able to celebrate every last one. We had rehearsals every evening from a month in advance and bleeding red and green, our fathers stayed up all night building backdrops for our events while our mothers connived to fit adult jamdanis on non-adult children. Was it this, this new-found sense of belonging, Mr President, or was it actually her admiration for her adopted people? Your people. Vanhu venyu. I use no hyperbole when I tell you that the Zimbabwean spirit is unrivalled—absolutely, maddeningly unrivalled—when it comes to kindness and patience and dignity. What more can you expect when your primary school curricula includes formal lessons in generosity and etiquette?

Zimbabweans celebrate outside the parliament building immediately after hearing the news that President Robert Mugabe had resigned.

Someone once asked me what excuse Zimbabweans had to be any different. With more (fertile) land than they knew what to do with, an abundance of natural resources and a regional powerhouse economy that defied the very African trajectory of post-independence ruin, what reason did Zimbabweans have to not be peaceful and grateful? The answer is in the future, Mr President. The future that went on to show us that the dignity of the Zimbabwean spirit will persevere in repression and deprivation just as it did in growth and stability. But I think you knew that already. You would not have taken your liberations with them if it were otherwise.

The liberations that began with populist rhetoric seemed at the time harmless to my pre-teen political awareness. At the two decade mark of independence, you called for a redistribution of wealth from the remnants of a colonial minority who continued to own 80 percent of your factors of production. Could I fault you for this then? Can I fault you even now? Where else would a former regime exert full economic control 20 years after independence? You had me on your side until this point, Mr President.

But then commenced the farm invasions. For a man so known for deliberation and careful consideration, did you honestly think this was the way to do it? To reverse the order between ownership of resources and capacity building to manage those resources? Did you think, Mr President, that your economy, or any economy, could survive international isolation? Of all the things you pre-empted, how are we to believe you did not pre-empt absolute destabilisation? My family left at the very onset of Zimbabwe's collapse, but not early enough to have been spared the overnight queues for petrol when you could no longer import oil. Not early enough for hyperinflation to rear its ugly head.

What I know of the decade that followed, I try my best to deny. People carrying wheelbarrows full of your defunct currency to empty supermarkets to buy a loaf of bread, only to have the price change by the time they reach the front of the line so they resort to bartering their shoes to make up the difference. Entire neighbourhoods of Harare going for weeks without electricity or water. Weeks, Mr President, weeks. Weeks when children chased the dying light of the sun to read the novels that your education system so strongly encouraged them to borrow from your beautiful libraries. Weeks when people resorted to digging holes in their backyards to relieve themselves after dark, because where was the water to flush their toilets Mr President?

You have presided over shrinking life expectancy, now one of the lowest in the world, abject poverty, now one of the highest in the world and a deprioritisation of literacy. But you have presided. Presided still. And where has that taken the Zimbabwean spirit? Hustling to put food on the table; telling lies and selling lives.

And what of your regime, Mr President? Was it the global persona non grata that allowed you to assume full authoritarian control of your constituents? To be accountable to no one for human rights abuse and zero tolerance for freedom of expression? Was it easier to unleash campaigns of violent oppression on your opponents and bleed Zimbabwe dry for personal gain because you were a political pariah? Or was it because you felt you had been wronged by the international community?

I may not ever know what your reasons were, but I do know that you used to be a great leader. Until you no longer were. And as I waited for your resignation that evening in Bangkok, I am almost ashamed to say I could not bear to see you grovel. To see you so reduced. I did not share the jubilation of your people Mr President, because I did not suffer on your account. But I did get a sense of what they must have been feeling: for a man who had subjected them to such indignity, only an undignified ousting was fitting.

Subhi Shama is a Bangladeshi-Zimbabwean. For all intents and purposes.

Do you love reading? If yes, then this article is especially for you. What if there was a space in busy Dhaka where you could spend hour after hour browsing shelves and finding one gem after another? What if you could curl up with a bowl of cashew nut salad or simply sip on coffee while losing yourself in your book of choice? What if your kids could learn and play and dream on the green grass? Just pay a visit to DipanPur in the capital's Elephant Road and delve into a unique combination of literary and culinary delights.

Reading and snacking aside, this charming book café has a sad albeit inspiring story behind its conception. And before going there, you would do well to know this.

DipanPur has been named after Dipan—our very own Faisal Arefin Dipan, the publisher of Jagriti Prokashony, whose only dream was to enlighten people. The dream faded when he was brutally hacked to death inside his office by suspected religious extremists for promoting freethinking and secularism through his publishing house.

But it is also true that you can kill the dreamer, but not the dream. DipanPur is an attempt to continue Dipan's dreams. It started its journey on his 45th birthday—July 12 of this year. This time, the dreamers are Dr Razia Rahman Jolly, Dipan's other half, and 21 of their close friends.

Dr Razia Rahman Jolly founded DipanPur in memory of her husband, Faisal Arefin Dipan. Photo: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

“It's a very emotional place for us and we are very passionate about it. We don't consider it a business venture. When Dipan left us, we decided to do something in his memory. We went to the city corporation to name this road after Dipan. But that was not possible due to the bureaucratic tangle and we ultimately gave up. Afterwards, we decided to do this so that people can know about Dipan and his passion for books. I know it's difficult to manage the whole thing, as I belong to a completely different profession, but I tried,” Jolly says. “Dipan and I were childhood friends and we grew up together. He couldn't live without books. Though he was a student of economics, he would read a lot outside of his regular studies,” Jolly reminisces.

Upon entering DipanPur, you will notice the chair and the table where Dipan sat when he was murdered. He had been sitting there checking proofs of books to be published when the unknown assailants killed him. More than two years have passed, but the dried blood stains on the chair, the proofs and his bamboo pencil holder with pens and markers remain. The memorabilia have also been displayed, one after another, on the table. The materials themselves recount the story—the story of the bookworm.

More than two years have passed, but the dried blood stains on the chair, the proofs and his bamboo pencil holder with pens and markers remain.

What is not there in DipanPur? According to Jolly, DipanPur houses a collection of around 15,000 books, including a wide range of contemporary, classics, and children's books. The shelf containing Humayun Ahmed's books is visible from afar. Next to it is a collection of Muhammad Zafar Iqbal's. You can browse from shelf to shelf to find books on the Liberation War, poetry, novels, travelogues, and much more. And for all this, you do not need to spend a single penny. If you want to buy books, you can do that too. If you fail to find something you're looking for, don't forget to share it with the staff. They will deliver the book to your doorstep. Apart from these, there is also a “Not for Sale” section where you can find a collection of rare books. 

What is really unique about DipanPur is how they created a space that is not just a bookshop, but an environment that is pleasing for book lovers. Money plants on the brick walls, a view of the bustling city from the window and the smell of books create a captivating environment for the reader. One will surely be satisfied with the food of the café as well. Named Dipanjoli, it provides delicious snacks, meals, drinks, and fresh fruit juices.

Diponpur has a special corner for children called Dipantor. Photo: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

Since the University of Dhaka (DU) is located nearby, a large number of students come to DipanPur on a regular basis to escape their mundane daily routines. One such regular visitor is Prethee Majbahin, a third-year student of the Department of Criminology at DU. “I think it's the complete package—a good environment, good books and good food. And there must be more DipanPurs for the bookworms. A generation cannot grow up without books,” she says. Majbahin comes and spends time there whenever she can after classes.

DipanPur has become a place for gathering and sharing of ideas by people of all ages, especially on holidays, as there is a small corner named Dipantola, where different events such as music performances, poetry recitations, book unveilings, meetings and simple get-togethers are held. Sometimes, it cannot accommodate all the visitors. Rita Rani Debnath, Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Eden Mohila College, prefers meeting with her university friends at DipanPur. “Earlier, we would go to restaurants or cafés or open places at DU for our hangouts, but now we try to do it at DipanPur. One of my friends recently had the unveiling of his book cover here and we prefer meeting in a place that has an air of academia to which we belong,” she says.

Photo: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

Professor Debnath also brings her six-year-old son Roktim, as Diponpur has a special corner for children called Dipantor. Dipantor contains plenty of colourful children's books, comics, fairy tales and other reading materials. Dipantor is a worthy opponent against our children's gadget addiction as it offers a small art school on holidays. A few students have already enrolled and it is looked after by a fine arts student from DU.

“I'm trying to increase the number of children's books and activities here. From the experiences of my own children, I have found that we fail to give them a space to read like we enjoyed in our childhood. In the past, every house would have bookshelves; there was a keen interest for books among children as well. The level of interest has fallen in comparison and children are constantly on their gadgets,” says Jolly. “Currently, we are planning on opening a music school, which won't be very academic, but I just want them to spend their time in a learning environment,” she adds.

Photo: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

Jolly and her friends are working on expanding DipanPur and collecting more books. “If it becomes successful, we might open a few branches, perhaps in other parts of the city. But, currently, we are concerned about how feasible it will be financially, as it is quite difficult to afford such a large space in a commercial area without a business purpose. We are trying our best to run it by ourselves. The minimal money we are getting from it cannot cover the total cost yet,” she adds.

Even today, though some fear taking their children there, in light of what was done to Dipan, DipanPur can still be a place to awake and enlighten our souls. If you have not visited yet, but intend to, get yourself or your loved ones a gift that will help them be better human beings.

Children are most abused at home. image: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

Over the last month Star Weekend surveyed and interviewed 300 people to find the answer to this question: why do child sexual abuse cases not get reported, and what can be done to rectify it? The respondents included social workers who deal with these cases, lawyers, eye-witnesses and 195 child sexual assault survivors themselves.

Of those who self-reported their cases, 31 were rape survivors—but none of them had ever sought legal support or police help. 22 of these survivors, including 12 male respondents, never told anyone about it—neither family nor friends. When asked why, most of the survivors said they were ashamed. “No one will understand, and I allowed the same thing to happen to my younger brother. I didn't understand that it wasn't okay,” writes another male survivor who was raped at the age of eight by a domestic helper.

And an even more terrifying one by a female respondent, “I was raped by my father. I did not want my parents to separate.”

What if the survivor had reported the incident? How would the system have protected her? One nine-year-old girl told her mother that her stepfather had raped her. In fact, she told her mother that she was raped several times. Her parents separated alright, but now the mother-daughter duo is living in abject poverty. The mother, a Quranic teacher, whose face is always hidden under a niqab, mustered up the courage to take it to court. She faced her daughter's rapist at a courtroom last Friday and broke down in tears when he was granted bail. Clutching a prayer mat like a talisman, the white-robed, bearded man, who had walked into the courtroom in handcuffs, left without them.

“My lawyers did not show up because I could not pay them,” the mother sobbed at the injustice of it all, “I also need to fight for my denmohar without which I cannot survive.” She was crying so much that she was barely incoherent.

Photo: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

The younger you are

The same thing happened with three-year-old Tuni at court. Tuni, which is a pseudonym to protect the identity of the survivor, was even younger when she was raped by her family's landlord. The accused rapist Latifur stood in the dock scowling, while Tuni's tearful father Lokman pleaded for the rapist's bail to be cancelled. The hearing came to a quick and unfavourable end for Lokman because of two reasons: the investigating officer of the rape did not include the forensic doctor's certificate and Tuni herself was not present.

“She is so young. How do I bring her to court to face her rapist?” says Lokman, pointing out a flaw of the courtroom, “I myself am scared of facing him.” The Child Act 2013 mandates that courtrooms be child-friendly. Tuni has not yet forgotten about her rape. “Uncle hurt me down here,” says the girl, clutching between her legs, when asked what her uncle did to her. “He gave me bakarkhani to eat,” she goes on. Her medical reports detail heartbreaking particulars about the state of her tiny body as a result of the incident. “After the rape, the place was inflamed and she kept crying and wetting herself,” says her mother describing the child's trauma.

Tuni's hearing was being held at the Dhaka Magistrate Judicial Court, while the family had fled to Kishoreganj district; they commuted four hours each way to come to court. “We moved to Kishoreganj right after the incident because Latifur threatened to 'finish' us unless we shut up. I do business in the Dhaka area, where we used to live, so I run into him often, and he pressurises me to withdraw the case,” adds Lokman, “that is why it was important for us that his bail be cancelled.”

The younger the child is the less likely they are to seek institutional support from the police or social workers. Of the people who came forward to participate in the survey, there were only two narrated incidents where the police were involved if the child was under eight years of age. In both cases, the victims were raped. Compared to that, there were eight cases reported to the police for victims who were older. One 17-year-old even sought legal support for cyber sexual harassment. Another male survivor told a social worker about the time a maternal uncle tried to rape him. 

Nasrin Akter Joly, Deputy Director of Girl Child Advocacy Programme, narrates an incident to show how it is difficult to gather evidence for younger victims. “In Shyamoli, a five-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by an older male domestic worker from another apartment. The police questioned the girl to get detailed information about the event, which was traumatising for her so she could not properly provide information,” says Joly, “The elder brother beat up the perpetrator out of frustration, and for this offence, the family was harassed by the police and they had to leave their apartment eventually.”

Tuni looking out at Dhaka City. image: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

The poorer you are

When asked about involving the police, a staff from Social and Economic Enhancement Programme, an organisation working with street children, said: “We do inform the police but not often because these [incidents] are deemed insignificant [by the police].” The interviewee's reluctance to seek help from the police is ominous because street children are undoubtedly the most exposed to sexual violence. 

“Almost all the children we rescued from the streets were sexually assaulted, but only one case was picked up by the media,” states Forhad Hossain, the Executive Director of Local Education and Economic Development Organisation (LEEDO), “we do not have the organisational ability to prove that abuse happened, so we don't report to the police.” Over 200 kids he dealt with in the last three years were under eight years of age.

Social workers who deal with street children were interviewed separately for some more precise numbers on how many such cases they encountered and in which areas, from 2015 to 2017. Unsurprisingly, the major transport centres and entry-points of the city had the highest number of cases—these include Sadarghat Launch Terminal, Arambagh Bus Terminal, Gulistan and Kamlapur Rail Station. 11 of the social workers interviewed by Star Weekend worked in those areas, and between 2015 and 2017, they encountered as many as 526 children who were sexually abused. It goes without saying that the actual number is higher—much higher. In fact, 526 is only slightly less than the annual national approximate that media reports circulate. In the past three years, another organisation, Breaking the Silence, dealt with hundreds of cases of child sexual abuse but only five or six were reported in the media.

Aparajeyo Bangladesh's Executive Director Wahida Banu has a personal story about the dangers of under reporting by the media. “A policeman was dragging away a street child in handcuffs outside of Dhaka when our NGO worker intervened. The police threatened to harm him so he called a journalist for help,” she describes, “the journalist was just not interested and the child was carried away in handcuffs.” While such a small-scale incident does not reach larger Dhaka-centric national newspapers, local community media can really play a part, Banu thinks.

The other group who can never report sexual violence against them is the massive fleet of underage domestic workers hidden away in city apartment blocks. We interviewed teachers who run centres for these children in residential neighbourhoods and they all had stories to tell. Beginning from “the 70-year-old grandfather who made her give hand-jobs” to incidences of rape and murder, the one thing that these teachers claimed unanimously is that they cannot get the police involved.

“The girls come to us for a safe haven. If we start calling the police on the employers then we cannot run these centres,” says a teacher. They chose to remain anonymous precisely because of that as well—if it comes to light that they have been talking to reporters then their centres might get shut down.

“The parents or guardians of these girls too are difficult to convince—they have to choose between poverty and rape,” says an interviewee, “One time I called the sister of an eight-year-old girl who was being sexually abused, but she just assumed the girl was making excuses to get out of working.”

“In another incident, a father of a child worker told me it is better than starving,” she adds.

How do you monitor and report these hidden abuses where one party is clearly more powerful than the other? Housing societies and local civic associations like ladies' clubs need to step up, according to experts who work with child domestic workers. “Local area management committees exist everywhere and they can definitely play a bigger role in monitoring—maybe have someone designated to deal with gender violence,” says Nasrin Ahmed, who works with a child rights organisation.

Nababganj Boro Masjid where Farhan was raped. photo: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

The less able you are

But it's not like local committees are always helpful either. They certainly did not report the rape of 17-year-old Farhan. Farhan, whose real name had to be concealed, has Asperger syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He vehemently opposes being categorised as disabled. “He just cannot concentrate on one thing at a time,” says his mother. Behaviour-wise, she categorises him as a child.

“He was raped for five or six months straight at the Nababganj Boro Masjid. He used to come home and tell me that it hurts. Because he is like a child, he always told me whenever he was hurting,” says the mother. “Nobody would believe me—or him—and I had to watch my child go through this for months,” she says. “When I confronted the father of one of the rapists, he said that I was perverted for even having such thoughts.”

“One used to show me videos on his mobile, while the other hurt me. They did it in the bathroom. I was on the floor. It was dark,” says Farhan, in short sentences punctuated by long silences.

The mother never sought help from the government. “I'm tired of institutional help. I've been trying to get my son into a school for years, but he keeps getting turned away because he is not 'autistic enough'. On the one hand, he is too autistic to survive in a normal school. So I've pulled him out,” she says. She has never received visits from any social workers.

Her chance came when Farhan was discovered in the bathroom with his rapists by Mohammed Saber, the head of a local association called Crescent Club, who saw the boys lead Farhan towards the second floor bathrooms and got suspicious. “Something about it felt strange—I just had a feeling. I followed them and found them inside a bathroom with the door locked,” he describes. He banged on the door and the boys came out.

Now that there was an eye-witness, the mother alerted their ward commissioner Humayun Kabir. “Humayun is like my uncle and he told me to settle the matter internally, so I agreed,” she says. Why not tell the police and file a case? “I could not decide what to do, so I let the ward commissioner be the best judge of the situation,” she says.

The rapists were brought to a public hearing and publicly beaten with shoes. Ever since the hearing, however, the mother does not let Farhan out of the house. She is afraid that because he is a rape survivor, others might also take their chances with him. Because he has never been through the system, he is yet to get tested for AIDS. 

The burden of proving it happened

At the end of the day the burden of proving it happened falls on the survivors, and so, they don't speak out. “We consult lawyers about all cases of sexual violence, but cannot take action for all of them since many lack circumstantial evidence,” says Rukhsana Sultana, Executive Director of Breaking the Silence. In the past decade, the lawyers could only pick up cases of rape—all other categories of violence were brushed aside.

As Farhan's case shows, if female rape victims are not taken seriously, then males are even less so. According to our survey, only 14 male respondents out of 67 revealed to friends or family that they had been sexually abused. In the case of females, nearly half of the respondents shared. This is made harder by the fact that perpetrators themselves usually originate from inner circles. According to our survey, the victim's uncle was involved in most of the incidents, followed by religious teachers, home tutors, cousins and staff at school—in that order. When children are up against adults who are allies with family and society, the courtroom and counsellor's couch moves further and further away. 

Star Weekend is very grateful to all survivors who shared their experiences. Rubana Mussharat and Sharmin Rashid contributed to the data collection. The survey was circulated on Facebook, including the women's group Meye: a Sisterhood.  

Translated by M A Hye Milton and Andrew Eagle

Through his more-than-six-year journey as a professional artist, Zahangir Alom has ever-refined his innate capacity to translate heartfelt observations of the natural world into artistic compositions infused with insight. The result, a rare unity of physical geographies, thought, emotion and interaction, can be witnessed in the mainly watercolour wash collection of “The Uncaged,” his latest solo exhibition, at La Galerie in Dhanmondi's Alliance Française de Dhaka.

An artist who habitually draws from the wellspring of his experience of Nature's sights, sounds, textures, tastes and smells, Zahangir routinely connects with the innermost recesses of the Soul of the earth, water and forest. He delights in embodying its music and patterns in his works.

When a human being is imbued with intellect and exuberance, delights in the fullness of life and revels in Nature's diversity, their creative output indeed becomes as one with the creative self of the Universe. This truth lies at the heart of the inability to detach Zahangir's artworks from his life philosophies and vision, which are not less creative than the paintings.

The nature-lover and avid traveller employs his boundless curiosity and memory of familiar and foreign landscapes too, although with intuition as chief guide Zahangir can as easily find himself illuminating the buoyancy of a folksong as a Himalayan twilight.

A further source of muse, if any were needed, arises from his work as a critic. In the course of penning reviews of music, dance, drama and of course the visual arts, Zahangir interacts with other artists. Therein arise moments of exhilaration and clarity of just the sort he might later transform with a brush into shapes, figures and colours.

At the same time in the artist is a preoccupation with themes, forms and techniques. The company of fellow painters as well as art admirers, not least during previous exhibitions at home and abroad, has left him with no meagre understanding of such matters. Although his painting is primarily a creature of impulse, the addition of solid methodology has led to his developing a distinctive language within watercolour wash technique.

In several of his paintings, the cloud-like shapes of feminine figures are expressed through colour interplay. No effort is made to award them definitive shape; rather the focus is on the essence of flesh and blood within the physical world. Through long practice Zahangir has mastered his ability to produce such an effect, aided by close study of the Oriental heavyweights. Importantly, while not deviating from institutional principle and discipline, it is here that he has developed his novel combination of Oriental wash and Occidental tertiary colour splotch.

Recurrently his works rely on the primary colours of the Bengali landscape: blue and green. The rainy season, the smell of earth drenched by rain, the gentle breeze and music's tune: all intermingle in his paintings.

In a nod to the artists of the New Bengal School, mythological heroines including Radha, Lalita, Bishakha and Behula frequently appear, in Shongkirton style. The presence of the Eternal Soul can be felt in particular in a series representing Raasleela on a moonlit Dolpurnima night. Here, the impressive unity between the natural world and artistic expression that Zahangir skilfully preserves is developed further into a new world where Nature's beauties are observed with great passion, virtues extolled beyond inhibition.

In my experience working alongside Zahangir in the same studio, I not only learnt a new life philosophy but discovered his artistic maturity in his confidence in creatively mixing colours to a degree that impressed time and again. Some of his works are semi-abstract, which also reflects this mature understanding. 

Another characteristic to impress is the selflessness of Zahangir's devotion to art. Even should he return to the studio late at night with an idea he will commence a new painting at once to be completed and uploaded on Facebook by dawn.

Among his themes it is unsurprising that a visual artist enamoured of music will incorporate melody, poetic rhythm and the playful gestures of damsels dancing. Such references include Gaudiya dance as well as Desh, Bageshree, Khamaj or Malkauns Raga, with a highlight being the depiction of the late-autumn twilight where, according to mythological narrative, Bengali women gather and dally.

Another early series from this artist, “Celestial View of the Earth from Space” is represented, which offers a distinctive style of thick dots to depict a bird's eye view, in recognition of the overarching beauty of river, field and forest. This series demonstrates the breadth of the artist's imagination.

In the series “Mystique Romance of the Woods,” Zahangir documents Nature's soulful silence. Paintings here include surreal floral and arboreal imagery, clouds and water, almost as a range of characters from a novel, with colour enlisted to convey beauty's allure. A theme that harks back to the artist's wanderlust and strong communion with nature, these paintings are so moving as to offer the viewer the chance to communicate independently with each character.

The series “Sorachitra of Bengal” alludes to folk art in a new language, while a further series “Post-mortem of Post-modren Painting” delves into an imaginative chemistry of flowers, trees and female physique. An outstanding painting, “Song of Silence” meanwhile offers an expanse of trees with sparks of light filling apertures from some distance, a light-and-shade combination formed of nostalgia for childhood.

The task of selecting works for “The Uncaged” from the hundreds of images that comprise Zahangir's catalogue was arduous; but the result is an exhibition that tantalises in its representation of the artist's breadth of skill and purposeful progression.

The exhibition at La Galerie, at Alliance Française in Dhanmondi, is open from Monday to Thursday, 3 pm to 9 pm and on Friday and Saturday from 9 am to12 noon and 5 pm to 8 pm until December 15. On the final evening there will be a closing ceremony featuring music and dance. 

Dr Malay Bala teaches at the University of Dhaka as Associate Professor at the Department of Oriental Art in the Faculty of Fine Art.

M A Hye Milton serves the Government of Bangladesh as Senior Assistant Secretary at the Security Services Division, Ministry of Home Affairs. Andrew Eagle works at The Daily Star and is an art connoisseur. 

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