My Dhaka Diary Part 3: Arriving in times of unrest
Before I new it, my travel day arrived – and although I woke up at my regular time for work, this day would be very different. Travel day, from Berlin to Dhaka via Istanbul in about 20 hours.
Flying through BER is never fun, but the usual 50-minute delay for security checks and and a few hours delay aside, my trip went smoothly – especially not much of the greatly feared air turbulence.
Table of Contents
Travelling across three war zones
I noted a heavy police presence in the airport, especially around the Check-In areas for El Al flights. There was a somewhat uneasy atmosphere lying over the hole airport – or maybe it was just my perception, feeling highly anxious and also sad to be leaving in these difficult and restless times. Little did I know that this would not be the only unrest I would experience over the next few days…
Also, my gingerbread biscuit set off the explosives screen, and everyone just seemed a bit jumpy. Even though, when two policemen came, armed to the teeth, shook the biscuit tin and asked where I am going. They had not heard of Dhaka before but were easily convinced that there is no gingerbread available there and let me pass.
Fast forward a few hours and a rather unrestful stay at Istanbul Airport, I arrive at my boarding gate to be surrounded by Bangladeshi men. Rarely a white face, very few women. And boarding was delayed – for how long, nobody would know.
After an hour with little to no information, everyone suddenly rushed to board. While I settled in my seat, happily noting an empty seat next to me, we were told that we would not leave for at least another 45 minutes. When after 45 minutes we started to taxi at a snail’s pace, it took another hour until take-off. Made me nervous but once we were in the air it was fine.
Since I chose to fly via Turkey, we gave Russia and Ukraine a wide berth, avoided the Mediterranean region with the freshly out-of-control Israel-Palestine conflict and avoided Afghanistan. As always, I felt super nervous while flying, but after a couple of hours of calm flying I actually rested a bit on my comfy “double seat”. But I am not gonna lie, I was concerned leaving my beautiful and safe home at times of such unrest.
After landing into the haze of Dhaka, satisfying the numerous questions from the immigration officer and retrieving my luggage in a chaotic luggage hall, I was out in the sun and right into the fold of the Caritas Bangladesh, who picked me up in an air-conditioned van and drove me to our project office, a modest multi-storey building in Savar District, about 40kmm from Central Dhaka.
Fresh off the plane and into hartal
Savar and the surrounding area is one of Bangladesh’s centres of garment production, and, sadly, infamous for the collapse of the Rana Playa some years ago. Since then, conditions for workers appear to have improved somewhat. For example, child labour is prohibited – and strictly enforced – , working hours appear to be regulated. But still, a garment workers salary equals about 80- 100 Euro per months, not a comfortable wage, yet garment worker is a comparably prestigious job, and many people strive for employment in the numerous garment factories.
We have one next door – a squat building with open barred windows, where a noisy generator is turned on between 6.30and 7.30 and turned off around 17.00 – the working hours for garment workers.
On the drive from the airport, we crossed a huge swampy river choked with weeds on what is essentially a mud road, with a highway being built. Everything is coated with a thick layer of reddish brown dust or grime. Dhaka was manic, with rickshaws and small gas-driven tricycles (called CNG here, for standing for “compressed natural gas”).
At this point, I was more concerned arriving safely, not melting and getting a bit of sleep. After dragging myself and my backpack up three flights of stairs, I meet my new colleague, a fellow German Doctor who’s been here for three weeks already and knows the ropes, a few resident staff members… we have cook and housekeeper on site, as well as a driver, a pharmacist, receptionists, social workers, a nurse, translators, a couple managerial people… I will eventually be able to remember everyone’s name and face but right now I am dazed and a bit shell-shocked about the heat, dust and noise.
After a brief chat, I unpacked my necessities in my bright but really spartan room. It’s a bed with a decent mattress, a metal cupboard, a low table, a chair, and a cool rocking chair. The bathroom is a shower over toilet with a bum gun, reached across a tiny balcony with a view of the garment factory.
Ok. I managed to sleep with my earplugs in, sweat like crazy, wake up after three hours wondering where the hell I am and feeling incredibly homesick. Thanks to my incredibly calm and kind colleague, who’s widely travelled and pretty unfazed by everything, I feel distracted and less unhappy. Soon dinner arrives, and we spend the rest of the time chatting.
Then, due to jet lag it’s lights out for me at 1am, and I work the next day in a clinic in our building. The next days were punctuated by political unrest. Although I try to follow the news, I am finding it really difficult to assess the situation properly. On my day of arrival, the opposition party, BNP, had called a political rally, and there is police present everywhere stopping private vehicles from entering Dhaka. So the traffic, according to my project manager, isn’t quite as crazy.
Nevertheless, it resulted in bloody clashes with the police force, the arrest of several high-ranking BNP members and riots the following days, which results in riots in central Dhaka all through the next day. Usually, there are deaths, many injured, and numerous arrests. As a result of that, the opposition party, BNP; has called for a general strike for the next days, called “hartal”. During a hartal, businesses often close, many government offices, too, buses ands trains stop running, and road blocks are not uncommon. Unfortunately,a hartal is seldom peaceful, and there may be arson attacks and violent clashes with police and between supporters of different parties also.
Current situation in Bangladesh
The current situation is because of upcoming governmental elections, set for January 2024 about two to three months ahead. For many years, since Bangladesh’s bloody war of independence in 1971, there has rarely been a stable period for this emerging country. Between 1975 and 1991, the country was under military rule, and the parliamentary system was introduced in 1991.
Two main parties, the centre-left to centre Awami League, and the centre to centre-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party were the ruling parties in the last elections, the 2001 general election was won by BNP and the election s of 2008 and 2018 elections by Awami League, making the Awami League, making them the political leading force for the last 16 year. There are other parties, too, but it’s usually a battle between those two, taking the majority (303) of the 350mseats in the Jatiya Sangsad. Election follows the previous colonizers system using the first past the post system for 300 seats, whereas 50 seats are reserved for women using proportional representation by the elected members. . Whoever leads the party with the majority of votes becomes te prime minister and head of government.
And add to that the fact that Bangladesh s one of the most corrupt countries on earth where nepotism plays a major role too, and you have the perfect recipe for unstable governance even though elections are usually held for a fixed five-year term, they make great efforts to encourage women to vote and engage in politics, and in general this looks lie a straightforward democratic electoral system.
Into all this, well over two months before the elections, whose date has not even been set, I arrived, fresh faced an anxious into the hazy Dhaka heat. Barely 48 hours passed until I experienced my first bona fide hartal (general strike) complete with roadblock and violent demonstrations from garment workers in our district, leading us to turn round and being asked not to leave the house for the rest of the day.
In addition to this there is a strike of garment workers, which lasted 12 days. They protested for a fair wage, as the current monthly wage of around 8000 Taka (about 70Euro) is not sufficient to cover even the most basic needs, especially if there is just one wage earner in the family. They demand that the minimum wage be roughly tripled, whereas the government has offered a rise to about 12.000 Taka (104 Euro). Although they took to the streets peacefully, police intercepted many of the demonstrations, ans riots also broke out punctually in our and other textile industry areas, leaving four garment workers dead at the end of the protests.
Bangladesh’s main export industry is ready made garments, historically to Europe and the US, amounting to 56% of its Gross Domestic product (source), and 84% of total exports (source) yet garment workers do not earn a decent wage and one of the reason we work where we work is to provide basic medical care to low wage earners, among them many garment workers. I may write about this a bit more in a future post. Although I am no expert, I gained a small insight into our patients daily life and yes, also lived in a major garment area for a short period.
So, what’s to happen for the next few weeks?
Having mostly worked through my first hartal, using alternative modes of transport to get to our clinics, I felt relatively safe after a day, getting to know my surroundings and the people we work with, talking to staff who were very keen to explain the situation and offering assistance. Work has been mixed, with many garment workers seeing us on strike days while other days were relatively quiet.
At first, I had no idea how to assess the situation as international news were sparse and the English language Bangladeshi paper, the Daily Star has a relatively peculiar English, making it quite hard for me to get a grasp how serious the situation is. I am definitely going too stay put for the time being, as the practices are mostly run by volunteer doctors, so if we were to leave, human resources would be thin on the ground. I came to lend a hand and to hopefully make a small contribution to improve quality of life for the underpaid workforce here in my area, who make the Bangladesh garment industry the top source of growth in Bangladesh’s economy, yet are underpaid and underappreciated… and not to be scare off by poverty and politics.
As and when I have time, I will update here about some of my work and NGO work in general, but also write about our touristy bits in this country of wonderful people. Please understand that I cannot go into details about certain issue or take too much of a political point.
If you have any questions, feel free to drop me an email!