In Bangladesh, blogging can get you killed

Charbak* who recently escaped Bangladesh after his name appeared on several kill lists, reflects on what the recent murder of Faisal Arefin Dipon and others means for the future of free thought in Bangladesh.

I have come to tell you this with so much helplessness, suffering and agony in my heart. The post-independence young generation of Bangladesh – my generation – who collectively dreamt of a secular homeland, has lost another one of our own. Just over a week ago, machete-wielding extremists tore Faisal Arefin Dipon’s body to pieces, tearing our dream as well.

This time it wasn’t a blogger who was hacked down, but a publisher of secular books. So it seems that any kind of activity that facilitates free expression (not just blogging) will not be tolerated by thesegroups.

In Bangladesh, not many are willing to defend the few of us who are at the frontline of these machete attacks. The regime in power remains undisturbed, our politicians silent in the face of “atheist killings”. Even our artists-scholars-intellectuals say nothing, busying themselves with their “important” pieces of work. They are happy to let freedom of speech, the protection of life of every citizen, and secularism remain safely within Bangladesh’s Constitution – so long as it isn’t practiced in reality.

Extremists release kill list

In 2013, Ansarullah Bangla Team, the group many believe to be behind the recent spate of murders, published a hit list of 84 secular bloggers. My name was on it. (This was not the only list, nor would it be the only time my name would appear on one.)

I was listed because, like many of my fellow writers, I wrote blogs and Facebook posts supporting a scientific outlook, women’s rights, and minority issues. I was also critical of religious fundamentalism.

When on 26 February this year, prominent blogger and Bangladeshi scientist Avijit Roy was hacked to death, I and my fellow writers burned in anguish. We demanded the immediate arrest of those responsible for Avijit’s killing but the government remained silent and inactive.

As we later discovered, Avijit’s killing was not an isolated incident.  Washiqur Babu, Ananta Bijoy Das, Niladry Neel and the latest, Arefin Dipon, all fell victim to the “machete-reply” – an extremist response to scientific questions, opinions and secular activities. The government’s continued reluctance to bring justice in these cases further endangers other targeted bloggers.

12 November marks six months since the murder of Ananta Bijoy Das, who worked closely with Avijit, yet there has been no progress in finding his killers. To date, there has been no serious investigation of any of the other murder cases, including Ahmed Rajib Haider who was killed by the same group of extremists in the same way and for the same reason two and a half years ago.

Too afraid to go to work

I stopped going to the office after one of the machete killings. I was absent for so long, I was about to lose my job. I was the sole breadwinner of my family – the financial impact would have been dire. But what else could I do? My name was on several hit lists published by extremists yet the police were not willing to protect me. At least, that is how I felt after hearing from other bloggers who asked the police for help without success.

I tried to confine myself to my home. But, of course that was impossible. You can’t imagine the panic I felt, thinking I might be chopped to pieces at any time by anyone in the street. I monitored people around me constantly, checking whether anyone was following me. It was as if everyone in the street was my possible killer. It was a horrible, haunting situation.

No one could save me. My killers would never be prosecuted. Rather, they would be regarded as heroes by certain sectors of society.  It was not even safe for me at home. Niladri Neel adopted that strategy after asking the police for help, but ultimately he was hacked to death in his own house.

Somehow, with help from Amnesty and other humanitarian organizations, I managed to flee Bangladesh. Apparently, I am now in a safer place than my fellow bloggers are. But each time I read about another killing, I know how my friends feel in Bangladesh, and remember how I felt, too – how the cold current of fear would flow up my spine. 

A generation living under “machete terrorism”

I don’t think any other generation in Bangladesh’s history has lived under the threat of “machete terrorism” for such a long period. No other generation has had to live with the constant fear of death on its mind.

We are not smugglers, killers, rapists or traitors. We simply write blogs and express our opinions. Some of us publish books, some of us write on Facebook walls and many of us have demanded justice for war crimes.

But the irony is that our opinions are seen as heinous crimes, so we are being killed or exiled. Groups of young bloggers, writers and activists are fleeing the country and heading for Europe.

And the number of people willing to condemn these killings shrinks, as pens are being stopped every moment in Bangladesh.

*Name changed to protect the blogger’s identity.  

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