Sadaf Saaz, a poet from Dhaka, had just finished participating in an interactive panel discussion on “Women and Parity”. This was in Singapore, where writers from six countries had been invited to speak during the first edition of the Women Writers’ Festival, organised by the media group, India Se. News about the horrific attacks in her hometown were trickling in. There was a great deal of confusion, as at that point it wasn’t clear what exactly was going on inside the Holey Artisan Bakery. Sadaf looked extremely tense and troubled as she frantically phoned friends and family back home. The popular cafe was her favourite hangout. Had she not been in Singapore for the Lit Fest, she would almost certainly have been at Holey, enjoying a cup of Italian coffee with her friends. Sadaf’s home is a short distance away from the scene of the carnage.
I could barely recognise Sadaf when I met her in the lobby of the hotel the next morning. She was pale and drawn... her eyes covered with large dark glasses. We hugged in silence. I had read her short message sent to the Singapore group over WhatsApp, which conveyed the sad news that her close friend Ishrat hadn’t made it. The same Ishrat who had chosen to be butchered when asked to recite verses from the Quran. The same Ishrat who was not wearing a head scarf. The same Ishrat who was relaxing with a group of Italian friends, who were slaughtered.
Sadaf spoke about her with tears in her eyes. She showed us Ishrat’s FB pictures — her open smile, bright eyes and inspiring words, were all that Sadaf had to hang onto. There was sorrow and disbelief, as more news started to come in. Our hearts went out to Sadaf, as she waited quietly for her flight back home — the first one available. The last time I visited Dhaka was a few months ago. Sadaf had bravely organised the Dhaka Lit Fest in the face of tremendous odds. Even at that time, the political situation in her city was pretty volatile. Nineteen foreign writers who had accepted the invitation had pulled out at the nth minute. Sadaf had stuck to her resolve to carry on with the Lit Fest, even with drastically diminished participation. Two aged “war criminals” were hanged during the same period. There were curfews in some parts of the city and the overall atmosphere was sinister. People we spoke to talked about worse times to come. Last week, it became obvious their predictions were spot on.
Sadaf expressed her astonishment at the profile of the attackers, who she said, were young boys “from good families, good schools and universities”. Today, the world knows about the background of the machete-wielding killers. Reading the public apology issued by the father of one of the boys, the gravity of the crisis becomes far more acute. Imtiaz Khan Babul, a politician from the ruling Awami League party, was quoted as saying: “It is very shameful for us...” His son, Rohan Imtiaz was one of the attackers. Mr Babul has urged the authorities to track the “missing boys” of Bangladesh — boys like his own son Rohan who, on the surface, betrayed no signs of being indoctrinated or brainwashed by extremist groups. Mr Babul talked candidly about entering his son’s room, and not finding any suspicious material.
There has been a fresh attack during Id prayers at Kishoreganj, 90 km from Dhaka, that has claimed additional victims. Twenty innocents and two policemen had lost their lives during the Holey cafe siege. In a new video, ISIS has warned of more attacks in Bangladesh (“This is just a glimpse...”). Militants are urging indoctrinated members to go out and kill infidels during holy days, in order to reap “extra benefits”. How does anybody win such a war? Mr Babul’s poignant message ends with the words, “I am a forlorn father, a failed father. I seek pardon to all...” Imagine the anguish of a father who has to utter such words after discovering his son has cold-bloodedly participated in the merciless hacking of innocent people.
Despite the grimness of this particular narrative, there are also uplifting, heroic accounts of people who chose to die when they could have escaped. Like Faraaz Hossain, the young friend of the slain Tarushi Jain, who refused to abandon his group even when he was given the chance to escape, or Ishrat Akhond, who died, head unbowed. These are huge triumphs of the human spirit we need to hang on to, when everything else appears hopeless and numbing. All we can do is stand shoulder to shoulder with our fellow beings, wherever they are. Dhaka’s darkest hour can as easily be ours. While expressing solidarity and offering sympathy, we need to remind ourselves to stay vigilant.
Babul’s father has spoken on behalf of thousands of fathers and mothers across the world who are losing their precious children to a senseless and brutal war that can never have any real winners. There is nothing “fashionable” about joining a terrorist organisation. The challenge is for all of us to send out a simple but powerful message to misguided youth falling into the trap of signing up for murderous missions, that life is the most precious gift of all. Nobody has the right to snuff it. There’s nothing “cool” about being a terrorist. Heaven has no place for cowards....