If you have followed South Asian news via CNN, BBC or Al Jazeera over the past few months, you already know that Bangladesh is in the throes of violent political turmoil. Immature competition between the ruling Awami League and opposition BNP has polarized the country resulting in general strikes called hartals and, more recently (and christened with a much cooler name in my opinion), violent road blockades termed oborods. On the whole, we aren’t affected much by the unrest but the violence does worm its way into our lives from time to time.
Internationally publicized clashes between protesters and police invariably lead to enthusiastic (and very helpful by the way Mom :-) exhortations from our parents to “be careful” and canned emails from the Canadian and American embassies warn us to stay in the little bubble of a diplomatic zone. I’ve reproduced an email we received yesterday that’s almost identical to dozens of other emails we receive on an unfortunately regular basis:
You are receiving this email because you are registered with the Government of Canada's Registration of Canadians Abroad service. Please share the following important information with other Canadian citizens in your area.
The BNP-led 18 party alliance has called for another 72 hour blockade of roads, railways and waterways across Bangladesh beginning at 6:00 am on Saturday December 7, 2013 until 6:00 am Tuesday December 10, 2013. The BNP has also called for a 24 hour hartal which is scheduled to start at 6:00 am on Sunday December 8, 2013. Violence is expected throughout the country.
Recent hartals and demonstrations have deteriorated into violence which has included Molotov cocktail blasts, vehicles being torched and the use of firearms by protesters and police alike.
Canadians should remain vigilant at all times, avoid all demonstrations and large gatherings, follow the advice of local authorities and monitor local media.
Etc. Etc. Etc.
No offence to embassy staff but the people who write these emails clearly don’t possess a thriving imagination. It doesn’t really matter what is happening in Bangladesh…the emails all say pretty much the same thing: “remain vigilant at all times.” Well thanks for that! You have to remain vigilant simply to survive the traffic here…I don’t think receiving an email reminding me to steer clear of angry, cocktail-throwing crowds is going to save my skin any time soon. These warning emails would be much more exciting if they injected the occasional zombie outbreak in Chittagong, alien attack in Bogra or unicorn sighting in the Sundarbans. I would certainly read them more carefully!
I think the biggest impact that hartals have on us is at school: our kids don’t come! Some parents are reluctant to send their kids because protesters often torch vehicles during their strikes without regard to the fact that people are riding in them. Sometimes my attendance is down by 50% or more, which results in a butt-ton more work for me because I have to send work home as well as teach the students who actually come. It’s almost double the workload! It’s pretty tedious when day after day, week after week students are absent and you are still responsible for teaching them anyway but c’est la vie.
Police are extra visible on hartals compared to normal days (although the phrase “normal day” is a bit of a paradox in a hectic megacity like Dhaka) and they sport fashionably scarred riot gear bearing the scuff marks of chaotic street battles with protesters. They also brandish their archaic rifles a bit more proudly than normal days…but I highly doubt they would actually discharge. The RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) guys are also out in force, clothed in black from head to toe. They are significantly more intimidating than the common green-shirt police. Rumor has it they have a license to kill, they wear dark sunglasses and black bandannas, carry some serious weaponry and haven’t cracked a smile since they were babies. Well, maybe they smile sometimes, but they are definitely not the right guys to mess with!
The most positive side effect of hartals for us is fact that Dhaka is quiet. To a degree, it’s nice to have a break from the incessant blaring of bus horns and the squealing of tires. Biking is more peaceful and life moves at a slower pace. Running errands, provided they’re in the diplomatic zone, is quicker and on the whole, I feel more laid back on hartal days. We have heard and felt occasional bomb blasts from our apartment but we honestly feel safe on the whole.
In spite of the apocalyptic news reports on T.V. back home, we are okay and the violence in Dhaka hasn’t really affected us that much. Let’s hope it stays that way!