Children face state brutality as they protest for road safety in the Bangladeshi capital
Bangladesh was created with the blood of our grandfathers in 1971, a liberation war the stories of which we’ve all grown up hearing. Take a walk through the capital, Dhaka, and you’ll notice even the street names reflect our proud history. My own father was in the army, so I grew up surrounded by that rich history. I’d always considered the atrocities committed during the war to be a thing of the past – until six days ago. Two children, Diya Khanam Mim, 17, and Abdul Karim, 18, were killed on July 30, 2018, when a reckless truck driver lost control of his vehicle. Approximately nine others were injured as well.
These buses and trucks are a reality of life in Dhaka. Every one of us is uncomfortably familiar with blaring horns, underage drivers, falsified licences and unfit vehicles barrelling down the roads. My sister still insists on taking my hand every time we cross the road.
The people demanded justice. The desire for safe roads did not seem to be too much to ask for. What was unexpected, however, were the protesters: tender-aged high school students. These teenagers, wearing their school uniforms and backpacks, gathered by hundreds. Their crowds hampered traffic on a major roadway, but they had public sympathy. The victims of July 30 had been school-going children, with bright futures ahead of them that will never be realised.
The demonstrations continued for six days. I, like so many others in the capital, expected pandemonium; we witnessed perfect order instead. These children, these teenagers, found their demand unfulfilled by the government and took matters into their own hands. For the first time in my memory, I saw emergency lanes on the roads. Children in their school uniforms – their school logos proudly on their chests – stopping each vehicle on the road and demanding to see whether the driver has a valid driving licence or not. Those who did got a large white “OK” written on the windshield with chalk. My own car carried one of these badges of honour. As for those who didn’t have a valid licence, they simply wrote “INVALID” in clear chalk over the drivers’ vehicles. Once again, I expected violence, and I witnessed order.
Social media roared in support. Pictures emerged of mothers carrying bags of food for these children trying to better their country. These protesters were like nothing we’ve experienced before. Instead of burning and breaking, they were trying to do the right thing – and it was working.
Until the news broke yesterday afternoon. Four male students were allegedly murdered, four females dragged into police boxes and raped. They were attacked by the Chattra League (a students’ political group allied with the ruling government, Awami League) and the police themselves. The government denies this, claiming rumour-mongering and demanding the students either return to school or go back home.
Yet there are photos, videos, even eye-witness’ accounts flooding Facebook and Twitter showing crowds of demonstrating students and passersby being chased and harassed by uniformed policemen. The gunshots in the background are ear-splitting. Their authenticity is doubtful, but the sheer volume of it is overwhelming. Some of these students allegedly had their eyes gouged out, with the gory, blood-covered pictures all over social media. Someone I know helped medically treat one of these maimed children.
I myself received a frantic call from a friend last night. He lives in Dhanmondi, an affluent district of the capital which currently resembles a war zone. He had gone to Bashundhara R/A, a residential area which is where his university campus is, and couldn’t leave because there were allegations of a protester having just been killed at the gate. The streetlights had gone out there, the mobile networks mysteriously jammed, and the roads began to be referred to as “killing fields”. He could not go home and was forced to take shelter at the home of another friend nearby. And through it all, the media has appeared to be as silent as the graves of Karim and Mim, the two young road victims who propelled this movement.
We’ve all read dystopian stories of teenagers rising up to overthrow a corrupt government. But here, we do not have a Dumbledore. Our Harrys, Rons and Hermiones are being crushed in the streets, our Lily Potters have to watch their children try and fail to build a safe nation. What did the protesting children want, after all? The girls who will face the trauma and stigma of rape for their entire lives, and the boys whose graves will be forgotten in a year – what did they truly want?
A Bangladesh where my sister does not have to hold the hand of her 22-year-old sibling to walk to the shop on the other side of the street.
These children are trying to bring about a dream that should already have been a reality. The fact that they’ve had to go to such lengths to get what they want implies a terrible flaw in our justice system. What we need is a government who truly listens to us: improved public transport, a stricter method of screening when it comes to granting driving licences, and above all, justice for Karim and Mim.
It truly does not seem too much to ask for.
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