Sherpa Hossainy's Blog

My close encounter with a hartal

Posted in Bangladesh, Dhaka by Sherpa Hossainy on January 1, 2011

It was the night before the countrywide hartal called by the main opposition – Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). I finished my work and went up to the Daily Star’s ninth-floor canteen to have a cup of tea and some puris to gratify my ever-hungry stomach. While pondering all the possible routes and modes of transport home, canteen-boy Arif came in running and shouted, “Fire! Fire!! Bus on fire!!!”

The burning bus at Farmgate in Dhaka on hartal eve

All of us rushed to the balcony to catch a glimpse of what was going on. The reporters and photographers quickly went downstairs to cover the incident. I tried to take some photos from the balcony but they were not as appealing as I would have liked them to be. So, I got into the elevator to go down, grabbing my point-and-shoot Olympus camera. It had been only a week in the newspaper office and I wanted some piece of action, and perhaps, had an urge to prove myself.

The 20 seconds on the lift felt like an hour. I was cursing the poor lift, mumbling about why it is so slow, which was quite unfair as the lift was as up to standard as it could possibly be. It was only adrenaline-induced me who wanted the whole world to move a bit faster.

The main entrance of the Daily Star was full of people. I went out after the guards reluctantly opened the gate and there it was at a close distance – the burning bus, which looked like a crashed tin can, only smouldering. A curious crowd was watching carefully from a distance and the place was swarming with newspaper and TV station crews. The bus was set ablaze near the Farmgate intersection of the city, which is in close proximity to all the major newspapers and TV stations’ headquarters.

My heart raced faster as I started taking pictures of the burning bus. I felt like doing something out of the ordinary. Probably, I was excited about the fact that I can show off to my boss about my hard news covering skills. When my senses started to creep back in, I observed anxiously, all the news crews who got close to the burning bus were wearing helmets and other protective gears. I felt vulnerable with only t-shirt and jeans on, but continued my seemingly chivalrous act. It was too hard for proud-me to flee the scene although I will not say that I did not want to, as the heat of the fire and the chaos all around was a bit hard for me to take.

I was getting frustrated, as my camera could not capture the scenes at dark night properly. I started to shoot videos instead and kept walking towards Farmgate along the footpath, which was only about seven meters away from the burning bus. When I reached Farmgate in a minute or two, I saw the police cordoning off the place.

(Youtube link of the burning bus video – 1)                                    (Youtube link of the burning bus video – 2)

I decided to stop for the day and get on a bus home. However, I was too excited to notice that there was not a single vehicle anywhere near the scene. I thought of taking a rickshaw from the other side of the road but decided otherwise and started walking back as I could almost hear the cry of the unfinished puris, or maybe, I was high on adrenaline. In the meantime, police started charging batons so I rushed my steps a little bit.

Suddenly, I heard the ominous hissing sound of the gas leaking out from the cylinder as I was going past the bus. I felt really stupid for not considering the blowing up of a compressed natural gas (CNG) cylinder before. So many thoughts started swarming around in my head; I thought to myself, “This can’t be the end, this can’t be THE END!”

I started running with all my might as the hissing sound started to amplify.  I saw a cameraman from the ATN channel (which I came to know later) shooting my gauche Olympic sprint for my life. I didn’t mind becasue making myself look athletic and cool on the camera wasn’t the priority at that time.

I, somehow, came close to the crowd who also started to move back, at a rather slower pace than mine. Then it happened – Boom! We heard the glass windows shattering to pieces, and to everyone’s respite, it was a small explosion and the splinters did not fly that far.

When the danger elapsed, I felt a bit disappointed. “Why there wasn’t a bigger explosion,” I muttered, completely forgetting that I was running for my life and hoping for no explosion at all, just a second before. I picked up my broken pieces of courage, which was smashed like the glass window of the bus, and started taking pictures again.

Curious crowd watches as the bus burns

I spoke to the people on the scene to have an idea about the probable cause behind the incident. Some of them said – masked BNP men came, drove all the people out of the bus, torched it and went away. Others said – the engine of the bus accidentally caught fire as it reached the intersection and all the passengers got down safely before it started burning on full scale. I have to say, all those accounts seemed too convincing and appeared to be rather convenient.

I wondered about the zero casualties from the alleged act of anarchy, or accidental fire, for that matter. I tried to picture nearly 40 passengers in a crowded local bus getting down safely after it was on fire; not that I’m complaining that everyone lived, but things seemed a bit fishy.

I started digging more, spoke to some more people, and I came across a shopkeeper who sells clothes in Farmgate who was among the rabble. I will keep him anonymous for the rest of the accounts to keep him protected.

All the buses plying in Dhaka roads have a definite route number, e.g. no. 6, no 15/A. The bus that caught fire was no. 3, which runs in Mirpur – Uttara route and owned by local Awami League (AL) leader Kamal Mazumder, who is currently a member of the parliament (MP). BNP leader SA Khalek also owns many buses in this route.

The shopkeeper said, “It’s just a setup. Do you think BNP has the muscle-power to torch Kamal’s bus while he reigns?

“The AL high-ups asked Kamal to torch three or four of his buses on the major intersections to show people how radical the BNP guys are and in return, he was promised a fleet of 20 brand new buses instead of the broken and almost un-drivable, unfit ones that he owns. That was the secret deal.”

I have to say I am in two minds about his allegations but I thought I should share what I have learnt. This inside scoop, if true, will give us a better idea of how Bangladesh’s politics works, with sabotage and destruction guiding the way.

“That bus was dead anyway, it was out of order. Why was no one arrested? They got all the passengers out, put petrol and set it on fire and went away under police’s eyes,” the shopkeeper kept on saying, being sceptic about the apparent expediency of the incident.

Ironically, the opposition does not seem to mind if others create anarchy to put them off. Maybe, they think their work is half-done because they want some buses to burn, glasses to blow apart anyway, and probably some easy lives to get perished in the process.

The burnt bus after fire fighters took control

Bangladeshis have seen irretrievable damage done to the national economy since the inception of democracy in 1991 due to hartals. The political parties have chosen hartal as a way to squash the government for accepting their demands and have never been able to find a substitute in almost 20 years.

Late Shah AMS Kibria, former finance minister of Awami League, told a seminar in 1998 that Bangladesh suffered a loss of $55 million (Tk 386 crore) in a day of hartal. Other statistics show that Bangladesh lost about three years because of hartal in thirty-nine years of its existence, so the damage is staggering.

The country has been experiencing hartals from the mid eighties for which both the major political parties – Awami League and BNP – are equally responsible. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina once promised that her party would never inflict hartals, even when it would go to the opposition, but unfortunately, she did not keep her word.

The history of this land provides proof that hartals were successful against the dictators in both pre- and post-independence era, mostly in the political evolution of the country since early 1960s, but not anymore. Whatever positive role it played before, is inapt in this democratic era because hartal has lost its positive role and effectiveness as a political tool.

Undoubtedly, Bangladesh has more population than it needs. Too many people, especially the poor, is a headache for the government and all the concerned. Is this abundance making those lives expandable? This culture of hartal has been talked about a million times; how it destroys the economy, how it puts everyone’s life to a standstill, the figures and facts, and not to mention, all the lives that perished.

The shopkeeper said, “The politicians are completely worthless.” I don’t know if he is right or wrong but unfortunately all these things point to that direction. Our politicians are not performing the way they should be or “performance” might bear a very different meaning to them.

It might sound selfish that I’m only talking about hartals when it almost claimed my life. Sometimes realisation comes to you only when you experience it first-hand and the incident made me understand that any of us could fade away at any moment because this charade is happening too frequently and we are unable to put a leash on it.

I did not forget my puris though — I went up, had my auspicious puris for which I was about to give my life away, had a cup of tea, came down again, and saw the fire fighters taking control of the fire. I started to walk back home with a head full of thoughts and quite a big appreciation for the beautiful thing we call – LIFE.


12 Responses

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  1. Ehsan (Buddy) said, on January 1, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Serpa Bhai,

    I am not sure what you are up to, but this is the second article of yours, that I am reading. I am not sure were this is leading you, but I must say, I knew a completely different Serpa Bhai, not that I am trying to judge, but I like the way you are anyways. Carry on….Cheers to life.

  2. Jessica Mudditt said, on January 1, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    Fantastic article Sherpa. Keep ’em coming 🙂

  3. Tabassum Aziz said, on January 2, 2011 at 12:28 am

    Awesome writing!!! And, i think the comments here should be related to the writing and not some personal judgment stuff. We have our inbox for that.

  4. samrin said, on January 3, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    great article… hartal should be banned… i think bangladeshi politicians are the only stupid ppl who are dumb enough to call hartal every other day…

    • Sherpa Hossainy said, on January 3, 2011 at 5:44 pm

      thanks a lot sam. And yeah, hartal should be banned and moreover the dumb culture of sabotage and destruction should be put to a stop.

  5. jim said, on January 6, 2011 at 12:20 am

    i like it

  6. kyle said, on January 16, 2011 at 12:48 am

    sign me up

  7. kourtnie said, on January 17, 2011 at 3:56 am

    how do i join

  8. Rezaul Haque said, on January 27, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    Insightful composition!! Keep it up Leper Mesiah( cum Sherpa) vhai!! 🙂

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