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New hope for children on death row

How much distress would the prospect of facing the gallows cause a fourteen-year? Raushan Mondol would know. Accused of the brutal rape and murder of Rikta Khatun (8) in 1999, his death sentence was confirmed in 2004, under the Nari O Shishu Daman Ain (Women and Children Repression Tribunal). Although Raushan was a child when he committed the crime, he was an adult by the time his case went to trial, and it was assumed that the laws preventing children from being put to death by the legal system no longer applied in his case. But a dramatic turn of events this year, has not only spared Raushan’s life, but possibly the lives of a host of other child offenders in the legal system, who face the death penalty.

On July 9 this year, a High Court bench ruled that Raushan Mondol cannot be put to death. Experts are lauding this as a landmark judgement, which will set a precedence that, children should be tried in the criminal justice system or any special tribunal establishment, under any special law.

‘The essence of this case was that for the first time, emphasis was put on the offender rather than the offence itself,’ said Fahima Nasrin, Advocate Supreme Court and Deputy Attorney General, Bangladesh. Nasrin was also the State prosecutor in Raushan’s case.

‘It cannot be denied that, this offence was grave, but the offender being a child, should be given a chance. Often, the determined date is the date of charge and trial and not the date mandated by the constitutional and other legal principles of the date of occurrence of the event; Therefore, it is more relevant and fair to take into account of the date when the crime was committed.’ Fahima further explains, that since most cases often take years in trial, by the time the final hearing takes place, the minor who committed the crime has crossed the age of 18 and become an adult. She cites the example of many children, including Shukur Ali, who is now twenty, although when his trial began he was a minor.

While the juvenile justice system of the country has been under much criticism as being ‘weak and unstable’, with Shukur’s Ali’s case being appealed once again after the confirmation of the death sentence, experts feel that, this judgement may play a significant role in establishing the right’s of children caught inside the criminal justice system.

‘In this case, the Courts relied on a novel interpretation of Article 28(4) of the Constitution, under which the state can take special measure for the advancement of women and children,’ points out Shahdeen Malik, Advocate Supreme Court and legal researcher. ‘Such special measures in favour of women and children cannot be challenged as being discriminatory. This Article is an exception to the non-discrimination principal of the Constitution,’ he says. Malik also assisted the Court in this case, as Amicus Curiae (friend of the court).

In Raushan’s case, it was argued that the Children’s Act, 1974, was a special measure in favour of children and no law can take away that special privilege granted to the child under Article 28(4). Therefore, as far as children are concerned, the Nari O Shishu Ain 1995 or 2000, cannot disregard this special privilege and try children in Tribunals established under these acts. This, however, was not taken into account, in case of Shukur Ali, who had committed the same offence as Raushan.

As the formal report of the judgement has been published this month, it has brought back hopes of Shukur Ali’s confirmation of death sentence to be ruled out. However, questions still remain, as any significant step, is yet to be taken.

‘In case of Shukur Ali, all we can do is wait for the final hearing and also the President’s response to the appeal for clemency (mercy) that was filed last year,’ says Nasrin.

According to officials of the NGO Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), Raushan’s judgment may change the various aspects of Shukur’s Ali, who was sentenced to death last year. The officials informed, that a meeting concerning the treatment of this Act will be discussed in a meeting before the final hearing in February, 2007. BLAST and Shukur Ali, had filed the writ petition in the High Court, challenging the constitutional validity of this decision, last year.

The judgment stated, ‘When the accused is a child under the Children’s Act 1974, irrespective of the offence alleged, that child must be tried by a juvenile court and not by any other court.’ This was ruled by the High Court bench of Justice Md Iman Ali and Justice AKM Fazlur Rahman, on the hearing of the case. Despite such explicit statement of rules, one can not help but wonder, as to why Shukur Ali’s case has not taken any step forward, as yet.

Till date, it has been almost five years since Shukur Ali is behind bars and waiting for a miracle. Last year, the High Court and Appellate Division had confirmed the death sentence of the minor, in the face of protests by several human rights organisations and bodies. ‘Such a confirmation by the High Court Division and the Appellate Division stemmed from an improper understanding or misunderstanding or wrong interpretation of a number of laws associated with Juvenile Justice,’ points out Malik.

Shukur Ali’s case is similar to Raushan’s. He was arrested on the charges of rape and murder of his neighbour, seven year old Sumi, in 1999. As the reports suggest, Sumi’s mother, Bhanu Begum found her daughter lying dead on the floor with ‘with vicious injuries on the leg and a reddish liquid by the side of her genital organ’. Soon, Shukur Ali was found on that afternoon, with Sumi’s missing ornaments. Following Bhanu Begum’s accusation, he was arrested on the charge of rape and murder under section 6(2) of the Nari O Shishu Nirjaton (Bishesh Bidhan) Ain, 1995 and put on trial by the special tribunal set up for speedy disposal of such cases.

‘In Shukur Ali’s case the fundamental right of a child was disregarded. Moreover, the concept of Juvenile Justice: that irrespective of the offence, the offender was a child, should have been taken into account,’ points out, Abu Obaidur Rahman, Coordinator, Advocacy, Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK).

As Shukur Ali could not engage a lawyer, a state defence was appointed for him. The trial continued for about two years at the end of which, Shukur Ali was found guilty. He was sentenced to death, a verdict later confirmed by the Supreme Court.

Reports suggest that, Shukur Ali’s case is not an exception; there are numerous cases of children like him, who have languished in prison in dreadful conditions facing possible death sentences.

‘Even if we assumed, as both the Courts found, that Shukur Ali was guilty of rape and murder, whether a child should be tried in the criminal justice model needed to be taken into account,’ says UM Habibun Nessa, advocate of the High Court and head of Programme (Protection), at the NGO Save the Children, UK.

‘At the time of the commission of the crime, Shukur Ali was a boy of about 14-15 years. So the question arises as to whether he should be tried under the Children’s Act, 1974 or under the special law,’ points out Obaidur.

Over the years, there has been much debate on this case. The first controversy is that this case ought to be under the Children’s Act, 1947 rather than the Nari O Shishu Nirjaton Act, 1995. ‘The Nari O Shishu Ain overrides the protection to children provided by the Children’s Act, 1974. A later law ought to be interpreted literally to exclude all other previous laws, even if such interpretation may reach the absurd result of putting lunatics of children for criminal offences under later laws,’ laments Malik.

‘All children under the age of eighteen are the responsibility of the state. Even if they commit an offence, it is the state’s duty to protect and support each child individually,’ says Malik.

According to Habiba, the proper way of dealing with cases like Shukur Ali’s should be different.

‘The first job of the judge would be to ascertain the age of the offender, and then, if found to be under aged, he would be handed over to the Juvenile Justice Administration. Individuals like Shukur Ali, would remain in the care of the Youth Development Centres (YDCs) until the age of 18 after which with information from the Centre, probation officer etc, the decision of what will be done in the future will be made.’

It is not a surprise that juvenile offenders return to their criminal activities after being released from jail. What the court fails to realise, in case of many juveniles offenders is the fact that it is not possible for such children to get back to normal life. In jail they live alongside hardened criminals. Sadly, instead of the jail acting as a correctional facility, it causes the children to sink deeper into the criminal life. The so called ‘corrected’ juveniles, usually take up criminal activities as their inevitable fate.

‘In recent years the public shock and outrage at violent crimes by children have increasingly been expressed in calls for tougher punishments to stop the perceived menace of spiralling juvenile crime. What receives far less attention is the way justice systems the world over are violating the basic human rights of children who come into contact with the law. Children are tortured and ill-treated in police custody. They are held in prisons in inhuman and degrading conditions. They are denied due process which should guarantee them fair trials. They are given sentences which disregard the key principles of juvenile justice - rehabilitation and the primacy of the well-being of the child,’ stated an Amnesty International report on Human rights and the juvenile justice system.

What is more depressing, is the fact that, in many cases the children who are caught and sent to jails may not have committed the crime they are accused of. A participatory research work, named ‘Shoshur Bari’ which was carried out by a group of street children and co-ordinated by Save the Children UK, revealed some tragic stories, about innocent children wrongly accused and put behind bars. The stories also shed light on some of the horrors of staying in jails along with aged criminals and also the fundamental rights of children are disregarded.

According to Pakhi (15), she was caught by the police while staying with her friend at Shadarghaat Launch Terminal and accused of prostitution. She had previously run away from the Arambag Club run by Aparajeyo Bangladesh due to some disagreements with the staff there. Despite her repeated requests and explanations, she could not make the police believe that she was innocent. The next day, Pakhi was produced before the court and was sentenced to imprisonment in the Dhaka Central Jail. ‘The magistrate did not ask me any questions relating to my alleged involvement in prostitution. He just gave the verdict. Many girls like me suffered the same injustice’, complained Pakhi in the report.

She also described her sufferings in prison:

‘We were all abused at the station, which included scolding, beating and other special punishments. The police tried to force us to give them information on girls suspected of being engaged in prostitution and other “bad” activities. They did not even provide any food at the station. Sometimes, they compelled us to do their personal work, namely, washing clothes, cleaning floors and toilets etc. The police regularly forced adolescent girls to have sex with them while in police custody and the girls had no option but to give in.’

The research showed that while street girls like Pakhi, were often accused of illegal prostitution, boys were accused of being involved with antisocial activities during ‘hartals’. Rafiqul (12) was picked up by the police while sleeping on the footpath near the National Stadium. ‘At around midnight, a policeman came and asked me whether I wanted to eat ‘khichuri’, which I readily accepted as I was hungry. The policeman asked me to follow him to a certain place, where a police van was waiting. As soon as I reached the police van, I was apprehended and taken to the nearest police station, where I found many other children like me,’ explained Rafiqul in the report.

Like everyone else, Rafiqul was charged with ‘antisocial activities’ during a hartal. He received no justice and after almost three months of imprisonment, he was sent to the rehabilitation centre at Batila, Manikganj District, where he spent three years before finally escaping. His descriptions of the rehabilitation facility reveal horrifying truths.

‘It is a “prison” where children are treated as adult prisoners, and regularly subjected to both physical and mental torture. Sometimes I was tied to a tree and beaten with a cane and sometimes I was locked up in a small room continuously for a week or more. The food that we were given over there were appropriate only for animals; they were dirty and full of stones. We also had to do very hard work ranging from cooking to massaging bodies of the police officers and other staff, who beat us severely for committing very simple mistakes. For instance, while cleaning the office grounds, we were beaten if we missed picking up a single leaf. Sometimes, the older children beat the younger children, which is why it is particularly hard for the younger children, who desperately seek ways to escape from that place’.

The vivid descriptions of Rafiqul, leaves little to the imagination on what goes on at the government-run Kishore Unayan Kendra which is tasked with rehabilitating these children. Unfortunately, most children are not as lucky as Rafiqul and have to spend years, and sometimes decades, in these conditions. Whether it is genuine offender like Shukur Ali or innocent boys like Rafiqul, fate is equally unforgiving for the juveniles behind bars.

‘We were kept with adult prisoners, who frequently abused us, and this was accepted by the jail police, who were no better than the prisoners. This was part of our everyday life in jail,’ added Manik (15). What makes things worse for these children is not only the dreadful conditions and experiences they endure at an early age but the fact that they are kept with adult criminals who not only affect these children physiologically, but also physically.

According to section 27 of Act IX of 1894, ‘Prisoners under the age of 21 shall be kept altogether separate from other prisoners, and of, the form former, those who have not arrived puberty shall be separated from others. This applies both to convicted prisoners and to prisoners under trial.’ And yet the reality is a stark contrast.

‘This means, every jail in which juvenile prisoners are detained must be provided for separating those four categories. Arrangements must also be made to separate adolescents guilty of grave crimes from other adolescents. Girls may be kept in the female ward but separation from adults must be arranged,’ stated a report relating.

Despite the clearly stated laws concerning juvenile justice, there have been contradictory actions taken on the part of the Court, Jail and Kishore Unayan Kendra.

According to experts, it is clear that the state has to ensure that the juvenile justice system is properly enforced and funded, but also to take alternative steps to help less fortunate children have a chance to lead a normal life. They further point out, that it is most important that the state should first assume responsibility of homeless street children and those trapped in a vicious poverty cycle that ultimately lead them to crime.

Experts hope that Raushan’s case will be taken as an example to improve such cases.

‘This should start the separate justice system where police, probation officer and the court together will assess the culpability of a child in regard to the offence he/she is accused of, and the juvenile court will never hand down the punishment of death penalty or lifelong imprisonment to a minor,’ said U.M Habibun Nessa.

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The boat sister

At the remote coastal areas and shoals she is known as the ‘Nouka Apa’—boat sister, roughly translated—the woman who has helped restore the rich heritage of boat building, an age old livelihood. Nouka Apa has also made health care accessible with her floating hospital.

At forty-eight, she is energetic, brave and passionate. Back at the shoals, she laughs and works with the boat builders as though she were one of them. One cannot help but wonder if she is indeed the Nouka Apa at the ambassadorial parties in Dhaka in her high heels and evergreen charm.

If Runa Khan Marre were to a write a biography, it would have much more than the her recent title of being the first Bangladeshi to win the prestigious, Rolex Enterprise Award this year or restoring the heritage of boat building in Bangladesh, it would also be the tale of a woman of many avatars—homemaking, fashion designing, teaching, writing, working as a consultant and about ‘Friendship’, the floating hospital.

Determined and unconventional are perhaps just a couple of words to describe Runa. She always picked the unlikely jobs. ‘People thought I was not “in” for the kind of work I did, with my high heels and demeanour,’ she says at her Dhaka-based non-governmental organisation Friendship.

‘I always did things the unconventional way and that certainly raised a whole lot of questions and disapproval from many people, but I guess what kept me going all the time was determination and confidence in whatever step I took.’

Having married at the age of eighteen, Runa found herself somehow trapped in the role of housekeeping and looking after her two children. ‘There was so much I wanted to discover and do, but my marriage kept getting bitter,’ she remembers. It was during this time, that she wrote some of the best books for children, that have now been included as part of the school curriculum in many schools including Viqarunnisa Noon and Agrani Girls School. ‘I also taught special needs students as a young girl, so I also built a special curriculum for them.’

After publishing ten books including a revised version of children’s fairytales, she shifted to fashion designing in 1990. ‘I was living in a joint family, with no room for being able to write, so I shifted to something I could do at home and fashion designing was just that. With the success of the outlet and her clothing lines being displayed in Europe, it was evident that she could achieve greater heights, had she continued with it.

‘One fine morning I woke up and realised, I did not want to spend the rest of my life designing women’s clothes, I wanted reach out to the people, somehow,’ she adds with a hint of nostalgia. ‘I closed down the boutique the next day. The closure was followed by my divorce.’

‘Being a single mother with two children, I had to earn a living. I started as a consultant for AkTel, and surprisingly I did very well! I know it sounds strange but my divorce following the bitter marriage did not hold me back. It rather opened new frontiers.’

‘There was a time I felt there is something seriously wrong with me,’ she says. ‘I did not face problems being single and as I continued working and came up with unique ideas, people thought I was turning into a man!’ she chuckles.

The year 1994, not only brought a new dimension to her life but also romance. ‘I discovered a new world and a new form of happiness,’ she says, beaming affectionately. ‘Yves Marre was staying with my parents in Dhaka after sailing from France to Bangladesh on a 38-metre river barge to be used for humanitarian purposes. He wanted someone to make use of it and it was then that I got to know him.’

‘He wanted the barge to be converted into a floating hospital. That was how the seed of the organisation “Friendship” was put in place,’ she remembers. Since 1998, the organisation has addressed need-based health and development issues to help the marginalised segments.

‘His passion for the river and boats turned out to be so contagious,’ she tells me as her eyes sparkle with warmth and passion. ‘And it did not take me long either to become addicted.’

As the romance grew, things started getting better. And a happy marriage followed. It was because of him that Runa experienced the life at the shoals and found her niche in preserving the boats in Bangladesh.

One of their first joint achievements was the restoration of a Malar, a 30-metre sailing boat they bought in 1996, which took local craftsmen over a year to bring back to life. ‘My husband’s technical expertise, coupled with my own ability “to get things done”, helped us establish a bond of mutual trust with the marginalised char people,’ she explains.

‘The realisation of the fact that this rich heritage was dying struck me. It’s a pity that in less than two decades, the traditional boats started to disappear. The cost of modernisation is the loss of the traditional fleet together with the skills needed to build and maintain wooden boats. The number of craftsmen is also dwindling,’ she tells me with a hint of concern. ‘Their techniques have been passed down from generation to generation for over 3,000 years. So is it not our responsibility to restore such a craft?’

What struck Runa more than anything else was the life at the shoals. ‘I guess the impact is more, when you see the sufferings of these people for the first time in your life. I cannot explain how terribly they live there—it is a picture of poverty at its worst. It broke my heart,’ she says, overcome with emotion.

As much as it hurt Runa, it also built within her strong sense of determination and confidence. It was with this determination that she started her work. ‘That’s when the “Friendship Lifebuoy” floating hospital became a greater challenge. And it is due to the support and determination of many people, that we are treating around 11,500 people of the shoals, every month,’ she says proudly.

‘About the boats, we realised we needed to save the knowledge and techniques of the traditional boat builders. So we gathered boat builders from across the country and offered them to make scale models in exchange of a token money.’

It certainly was not an easy task to convince them and begin something like this. ‘These were men who had been building 90-foot (28-metre) boats and we were asking them to come and make models!’ But they agreed soon.

‘They all stayed at my garage and made these models.’ Touched by their compassion and effort, a close friend gave them the money to begin with their work. It’s now been six years since we initiated preservations of this old Bengali craft.

There are now hundreds of these replicas, reproducing 27 different types of boats which are built using the same techniques and materials as those for full-sized boats. They provide an accurate record from which carpenters are able to build life-size boats. ‘So in a way, we provided employment to carpenters, blacksmiths, rope makers and unskilled people as well as those who now work for the Living Museum which will open to the public by mid-2007.’

‘Abul Khair Litu has given us the land for this museum, including an exhibition area, a model-building workshop, shop and research centre.’ It was this endeavour that earned her the Rolex Enterprise Award.

As her assistant rushes her for her next meeting to draw up the plans for a second floating hospital, she says, ‘I try to live my life according to my belief, whether I finally succeed or not is irrelevant. As long as I can make a difference and leave something behind for this country, my purpose is served.’

‘I love this country and its people. My strength comes from my husband’s love , my father’s trust, my children, my roots, the smiles of the people of the shoals, and the dedication and commitment of the people of our organisation’.

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Dance performance held in city

A dance performance organised by France-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry was held at a city hotel on December 15.

French ambassador Jacques-Andre Costilhes, president of the France-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the French Embassy’s Trade Commissioner, Dominique Simon and renowned personalities from the socio-cultural arena were present at the programme.

The event began with a dance performance, based on Rabindranath Tagore’s famous poem Bhanushinger Padaboli, the third production of Shadona, a Centre for Advancement of South Asian Dance and Music which is one of the leading organisers of classical dance and musical events in Dhaka.

This particular dance was choreographed and directed by a young talented dancer Samina Hossain Prema who also performed as Radha.

Samina has studied Manipuri at Chayanaut under the tutelage of Kalavati Devi, Shantibala Sinha and Sharmila Banerjee.

The second dance of the day was an outstanding and rare act by Kader Belarbi, a famed dancer of Paris Opera.

Kader visited Bangladesh especially for this show, which was organised to strengthen
the France-Bangladesh relationship.

The star ballet performer started training at the famous school of Opera, the Ecole de l’Opera.

‘This is my first visit to this beautiful country,’ says Kader. ‘I am glad that I have been able to visit this part of the world and meet such wonderful people’, he added.
A spectacular part of his performance was undoubtedly, his surprise package especially for the Bangladeshi crowd. ‘I choreographed this part of the dance especially for Bangladesh. Therefore, I directed my dance with Esraaj and Tabla’.

Both the performances enthralled the audience.

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Freedom song

Around early 2001, almost five years after the heady and painstaking years spent making the documentary Muktir Gaan, the film-making duo Tareque and Catherine Masud were spending time in the US with Catherine’s family. On a Saturday afternoon, Catherine’s mother took the two to a nearby Indian restaurant for lunch. As they seated themselves, a Bengali man, in his late 50’s approached Tareque, and asked if he was the one who had made Muktir Gaan. Tareque nodded, and found the old man struggling to fight back tears of pride and joy. The man, it turned out, could be seen in one of scenes of the documentary.

‘Muktir Gaan’ (Song of Freedom) is the first-ever full-length feature documentary on Bangladesh’s 1971 liberation war.

Some of the exclusive and original footage is undoubtedly, Sheikh Mujib’s famous speech of 7 March 1971 (This time the struggle is for freedom); the scene where Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, rejected the Bengali victory in the 1970 Pakistan election, tearing up a United Nations resolution and storming out of the Security Council—with the Ambassador to the UN looking on, and also the portraits of the countless unnamed soldiers that also includes the man Tareque had met in the restaurant.

This man was one out of the countless soldiers whose images had been shot by an American film maker during the war in 1971. Like everyone else, he had forgotten all about the American man, until 25 years after the War of Independence.

In 1995, when the feature documentary was released in Bangladesh to remarkable success, this old man’s sister had watched it and was elated to see her brother among the soldiers whose activities were shot in the refugee camp. She also managed to send a copy all the way to US, where her brother now worked in a restaurant.

‘He even showed me the ring with the blue stone that he had been wearing when the movie was shot,’ said Tareque as we sat and chatted in the cozy living room of his Dhaka apartment last week. ‘He was filled with joy and pride, when suddenly he broke into tears and asked “what has happened to the country that we fought for?”.’

‘We wanted to make a film which could speak to contemporary audiences in Bangladesh, particularly to a new generation of young people for whom the Liberation War was nothing more than a confused legend,’ says Catherine Masud. ‘So we showed the spirit of the war through the struggles of a young troupe, whose footage was taken by [American film-maker Lear] Levin.’

‘Back in 1995, when the documentary was first released, in many ways, it paid a tribute to people like him who were long forgotten and also to a whole new generation who were deprived for years politically and socially. These young men and women had missed the true spirit of the liberation war,’ remarks Tareque.

More than a decade later, this documentary is being released again, on the eve of the Victory Day and the12th anniversary of the original release of the documentary. ‘With the re-release of Muktir Gaan, we aim rekindle this spirit of unity among the new generation,’ says Tareque enthusiastically.

For those, who missed the era of spirit and passion, the War of Independence is lost in the pages of history. To the young generation, the war of independence depicts violence, bloodshed and destruction. ‘We often blame them for being so ignorant about the Independence Day, but has there been any significant effort in showing the spirit, the unity and the passion with which we won the independence?’ asks Tareque.

Indeed, a unique aspect of the documentary is the young troupe of musicians, called Bangladesh Mukti Sangrami Shilpi Shangstha who were traveling through refugee camps and ultimately crossing the border zones into the liberated part of Bangladesh, at that time. The troupe included people like Mahmoodur Rahman Benu, Shaheen Samad, Tariq Ali, Naila Khan, Lubna Marium, Swapan Chowdhury, Dulal Chandra, Bipul Bhattachraya and many others.

‘We were a group of young artists who were a part of “Shadhin Bengal Kendra” and it was then that the group was formed by Sanjida Khatun and her husband. We would then go to different refugee camps, villages, the liberated zones, and so many other places and sing,’ remembers Naila Khan.

‘When the movie was first released, it was extremely traumatic for many of us; it brought back the memories of genocide and the bloody images,’ recalls Naila. ‘I wish we had spoken about our experience and let the younger generation know.’

It was during this time that Lear Levin was taking footage of villages, Bengali guerrilla camps in India and also the young troupe of musicians who he met by chance. ‘We were anti-American at that time,’ remembers Naila Khan. ‘So when he wanted to travel with us for his recording, we were quite skeptical about it and were not really keen on having him around. But he was so persistent and eager that we finally let him come with us.’

‘We were so busy with our own efforts and movement that we hardly remembered him at the end of it all,’ says Swapan Chowdhury, another member of the troupe. ‘But when I saw the documentary in 1995, it brought back the old memories; it felt as if were back in that time struggling and hoping for an independent country’.

This live footage and the story of spirit took twenty-five long years to reach its people. Lear had left Dhaka with more than twenty hours of footage of the freedom fighters, the cultural troupe, images of village life and so much more.

By the time Levin returned with over 20 hours of footage from India and Bangladesh, the war had ended, the country liberated. Life had moved on and the interest towards such an event faded and took different meanings. Disheartened by the lack of interest and possibility, the reels he shot ended up archived in his basement.

It was the result of a series of happy coincidences that, Tareque and Catherine came to know about the Lear Levin footage.

‘The footage was in the basement. Over the next few days, using simple equipment, we searched through the rolls. There were 91 rolls in approximately 18 hours!’ remembers Tareque.

‘What unfolded before our eyes, was a beautiful document of the birth of Bangladesh. It contained exquisite photographed footage that attested to the genius and sensitivity of Lear Levin as a film maker. A major portion of the footage was on this young troupe of musicians,’ says Catherine. ‘There were also some materials on the freedom fighters, images of village Bengal and detailed activities of refugee women.’

‘That’s how the Muktir Gaan project began and we gave all our efforts and might in the making of this documentary,’ smiles Tareque, as he remembers the struggling days. ‘We decided to build a more narrative approach, building on a story of the troupe and giving it a musical structure and put archival footage from several sources together.’

‘We ended up purchasing extensive footage of the refugee exodus, genocide, guerilla activities, battle scenes, guerrilla hospitals and victory celebrations,’ remembers Catherine, ‘It was expensive but certainly worth it.’

It was their sheer perseverance and determination that kept them going. ‘There were moments of frustration. In fact I went into depression as we were not getting any funding or co-operation from anyone. We had given up on our jobs and had given up almost everything to make this film,’ remembers Tareque. ‘Despite the struggles, the lack of fund, the Censor Board’s complications, we didn’t give up’.

‘There was so much of maneuvering to be done — from dubbing the unclear voices, adding songs to putting different footage into one single documentary,’ laughs the director, out of the success of the documentary.

‘The hard work has paid off now,’ smiles the director, remembering the difficult times. ‘Back in 1995, Muktir Gaan couldn’t reach the big screen because we didn’t have enough funds and today, halls are requesting us to show it. Back in that time, it was the young men and women who volunteered and helped us show the documentary on the streets.’

A fascinating aspect of the film is the illustration of the puppets acted by the group, that show how Pakistani leaders like General Yahya Khan were transformed into beastly villains. There are countless other scenes that are remarkable in terms of quality and the underlying message.

There are hardly any graphic scenes in the film. The brutal violence and rapes of thousands of victims and the loss of millions of lives is implied. ‘Have we really done anything at all to compensate the lives of thousands of soldiers who died?’ asks Lubna Marium, one of the members of the troupe.

‘I still remember an incident when an old man said that it was only the cultural activists who were recognized and their sons who gave away their lives were not even mentioned once. I just want to reiterate, that what those unnamed and forgotten soldiers did was far far greater than our contribution,’ she adds.

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Master of a few

Years ago, a fresh graduate from Shanti Niketan would sit at his desk in Adcomm Ltd, and wonder if this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. For everybody else, it was a prestigious job, and an interesting one, but by the time the clock would strike five, he would rush home. Six months later, he quit the job, amidst the consternation of many.

For most of his life, this multi-talented and creative singer Arnob, and now the CEO of Bengal Music Company Ltd (BMC), searched for his own niche. And after years of experimentation in various fields of arts including painting, graphic designing, film making and much more, fusion extraordinaire Shayan Chowdhury Arnob has finally realised his true calling.

This past week, as my colleague and I walk into the music company that has created quite a stir nationwide, we are directed to Arnob’s office. The place is still under construction, but the wooden floors, the huge space and the high tech instruments, shows that this might turn out to be the biggest audio studio in the country.

Sitting before the computer screen in a room filled with musical instruments, Arnob is designing the cover-sleeve for a new album. He greets us warmly and as we sit and chat inside the cosy room, and I see a young, energetic and friendly young man.

Leaning back comfortably in his chair, wearing his signature style attire—a panjabi and jeans, he tells the tales of his association with almost all forms of art, his life at Shanti Niketan, moments of disappointment, his life at a rehabilitation centre and finally finding his own place in singing and promoting the efforts of young singers.

Arnob spent most of his life and almost the whole of his childhood in Shanti Niketan. ‘The place itself inspires so much art that you are bound to be associated with it. Moreover, it was compulsory for everyone to sing,’ says Arnob. ‘It was there that I learnt classical dance as well and I loved it. But I left it completely by the time I was in sixth grade, as everyone used to tease me for doing something so girly,’ he says, laughing as he thinks back on those days.

‘Later, I learnt playing the esraaj and I really took to it’.

Arnob’s father, Swapan Chowdhury, an eminent artist, says Arnob has always been experimental and creative. ‘He started learning the tabla when he was only two. Ever since then he has played almost all kinds of musical instruments but I must say he has been best at playing the esraaj,’ says the proud father. In his popular track

‘Hok Kolorob’ Arnob has combined a variety of instruments with the esraaj.

‘I guess I was best at playing the esraaj because I had learnt it well. There are many things that I had learnt and had prospects in. The only regret that I have today is probably the fact that I did not focus on one particular field completely. Had I done so, I would have been somewhere else,’ he says with a hint of disappointment.

It is evident that despite the downs in life, Arnob has always been optimistic. ‘I learnt a lot from every field. Indeed, things could have been different but, I feel in many ways, my association with so many forms of art has helped me as an artist and also as an individual,’ he says smiling.

What perhaps brought Arnob under the limelight and created quite a stir nation wide was his first song ‘Shey je boshe ache eka eka’. Many feel that it was the beginning of the era of fusion in the country. ‘I composed the music and sang it and went back to Shanti Niketan.’

‘When I heard that the song was a hit I was surprised and overwhelmed at the same time,’ he says.

The song till this day brings back many fond and nostalgic memories for Arnob.

‘Sahana had written the lyrics of this song and also “Ekta chele”,’ he beams affectionately. ‘I grew up with her. She has been by my side throughout- the worst and the best times of my life,’ he adds.

Sahana, is Arnob’s wife and though she teaches English at Dhaka’s BRAC University, she is a singer in her own right. ‘She has also gained a lot of popularity and her album of Rabindra Sangeet will be released soon,’ Arnob says.

Despite the success of various songs and undoubtedly ‘Bangla’, the popular band which also featured stars such as Anusheh and Buno besides him, there was an abrupt halt in the artist’s career during a in his early twenties.

‘I was very messed up. It was a time when I was most uncertain and confused about life,’ he says softly, remembering those difficult days. Surprisingly, it is Arnob who brings up the subject of his years of drug abuse, talking about his stint at a rehab in Bombay and recalling how he overcame the habit.

‘Life at Shanti Niketan is different from Dhaka. The lifestyle is so much more slow and inexpensive; back here I was lost in the middle of the fast paced life and stress, I guess that was one of my reasons for what happened’.

It was during this time that Arnob did some of his painting and graphic works which were exhibited jointly with his father. ‘Most of my work depicted complex aspects of life. I guess it was because of the state I was in.’

But his father feels every piece of Arnob’s art has been exclusive and of great artistic value.

What was the one thing that he learnt from his stay at the rehab? ‘It was responsibility. My responsibility towards my family, music, studio and supporting other young talents’.

The difference between who he was and who he is now is evident explains Arnob. ‘The place also helped me realise what I really want to do. Moreover, when you are in a place which instils within you a great degree of confidence and positivity, things automatically fall into place.’

While talking about his job at the company, his mood brightens up. His enthusiasm and energy is evident when he continues telling me about their coming albums, the recording studio and their plans. He is all praise for the chairman of BMC, Abul Khair. ‘Had it not been for him and his belief in me, I would not have been here,’ he says.

‘We intend to make this an ‘all in one agency’—one that will advertise, record, design and carry on the chain of making music come into being,’ he adds, his eyes glittering with determination and hope. The recent released albums ‘Hok Kolorob’and ‘Bujccho?’ have already hit the market.

Our conversation ends as he sings his captivating song ‘Hok Kolorob’

Shayan Chowdhury Arnob
CEO, Bengal Music Company Ltd
Birth date: 27th January
Home Town: Chittagong
Education: Graduate in Fine Arts and Masters in Graphic Designing, Shanti Niketan

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The junk that kills your kids

Twelve-year-old Dhaka school-goer Tahmid is addicted to junk food. In fact, like countless children across the city, he hates homemade food, and throws a temper tantrum if his mother puts fruits and vegetables on his plate.

Recently, Tahmid has been diagnosed as ‘overweight’ with a likelihood of developing high blood pressure and heart disease by the time he is in his late thirties. At 45 kilogrammes, he is already sluggish in his movement, his school grades are unremarkable and he has few friends, and five minutes of running around with the other children in his apartment complex often has him wheezing to catch his breath.

Does it sound familiar? That’s because it is. A recent study of middle and upper income families in Dhaka reveals that one of every four children are overweight, headed to obesity, and vulnerable to fatal illnesses as a result of their unhealthy eating habits.

The profile of Tahmid’s family does not fit the Western formula for overweight children. From numerous documentaries and news articles, we know that in the West, children eat junk food because both parents are busy with day jobs, are often a low income demographic and cannot cook or afford to buy fresh produce for every meal. Junk food and microwave dinners are the cheap, easy alternative.

Tahmid’s father Rafiqur Rahman, in contrast, is a successful businessman in his mid-forties, while his mother is a housewife, and they have a bevy of maids to cook, clean and do other chores around the house. Tahmid and his younger sister Rehnuma are not suffering from obesity because they are uncared for or poor; on the contrary, the problem is that their parents care a bit too much, and as their disposable income has risen, lavished them with junk food and soft drinks for almost every meal, even when they were eating at home.

Tahmid’s mother Amena Rahman reluctantly admits that there is a problem. ‘I think its baby fat and Tahmid will lose it when he becomes a teenager,’ says Amena. ‘I agree that we do eat out a lot, but now Tahmid’s father has signed him up at a gym and he will lose weight if he exercises there three days a week,’ she says.

According to Tahmina Begum, child specialist, department of paediatrics, at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, a large number of children across the city are on their way to becoming obese.

‘Childhood Obesity is a serious health problem that is rarely recognised as a risk in our country,’ says Tahmina. ‘We notice it the most among the affluent families, mainly the higher and lower middle class group, who have adopted the wrong set of food habits and lifestyle. Parents often fail to realise that in an attempt to give their children a “rich” lifestyle, they are actually killing their own children.’

According to experts, obese children typically develop persistent obesity, adult cardiovascular disease, orthopaedic problems, diabetes, and obstructive sleep apnoea (a disorder in which the air passage is blocked by tissue during sleep) they are also at increased risk of poor self-esteem, which, in turn, is associated with frustrations and stigma.

Latest estimates of the UK-based International Obesity Taskforce, which works as part of International Association for the Study of Obesity (an organisation that represents 43 National Obesity Associations across the globe), show at least 155 million school-age children worldwide are overweight or obese. Furthermore, a report by Department of Paediatric, National University of Singapore, globally an estimated 20 million children under five are overweight.

In the last two decades, childhood obesity has doubled in US, and similar escalating rates have been observed in developing countries. While national prevalence rates of obesity are naturally low in Bangladesh as over 90 per cent of children are more likely to be underweight or undernourished than the other way around, the prevalence among high income families is steadily rising.

While developed countries like UK and USA, are taking action to reduce childhood obesity through very recent steps of banning junk food advertisements, encouraging consumption of nutritious food and exercise through innovative TV shows, studies reveal the dire need for awareness on the risk of obesity in developing countries in Asia such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Surveys in Bangladesh show increasing trend of obesity in adults and in children. A recent survey conducted by Centre for Women and Child Health and Eminence Associates showed that 26 per cent of urban slum women are overweight. ‘Every day I see increasing numbers of children who are overweight or obese. Bangladesh as a developing country has already the double burden of diseases i.e. malnutrition, infections and infectious diseases. It also has also the double burden of malnutrition i.e. deficiency disorders and diet related non-communicable diseases,’ says professor MQK Talukdar, professor and chairperson of Centre for Woman and Child Health. ‘The present trend of obesity is now penetrating this country not only in the urban middle aged adults but affecting urban semi urban and rural areas in all age groups contributing to the largest non communicable killer diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure and even certain cancers’.

Maliha,15, like her friends at school is always prefers to eat junk food. Apart from her rich diet, she spends most after-school hours lying on the sofa and watching television. She is already obese, and by the time, she is eighteen she may be at risk of diabetes, heart disease, anaemia and anxiety, and worse of all, a shorter life expectancy. Despite her obesity, her mother feels she does not eat enough.

Dr. Kishwar Azad, professor of paediatrics and project director of ‘Parental Care’ at Dhaka’s reputed BIRDEM hospital points out forced feeding as one of the major reasons for childhood obesity. ‘It has become a fixed perception for parents that a plump child is a healthy child. It is extremely common to have mothers coming to us with the concern that their children are not eating adequately. But when we weigh them, they are in fact overweight!’

According to Kishwar, while malnutrition is a serious problem in the country, recent cases show an increasing pattern of childhood obesity. ‘Owing to the sedentary lifestyle and complete absence of any form of physical activity, we are seeing a rising trend.’

‘In a country where malnutrition is excessively high, people naturally feel that obesity is an irrelevant factor,’ says Dr Shamim Hayder Talukder, chief executive and researcher of Eminence Associates, a medical research group in Dhaka.

Shamim has conducted a joint research with Dr Khurshid Talukder, research coordinator, CWCH on the Integrated Nutrition Project. ‘The study was focused on malnutrition in rural and urban areas, but it was a sudden revelation to us that, these high rates of malnutrition now co-exist with overweight/obesity in adolescents and married women aged 15-49 years.’ The study further revealed an estimated figure in 2004 to be 5.8 per cent and 19.5 per cent in rural and urban areas respectively,’ he says.

According to Shamim, people in the Indian subcontinent are more prone to obesity and therefore, there is a dire need to be more careful. ‘Genetically, we are more prone to being obese. Studies show that we have more fat tissue compared to that of developed countries.’

He further adds that the factors that cause childhood obesity begin from the time a child is born. ‘Studies show clearly, that children who are breast-fed are more likely to have a healthy life. The use of cereals, which contain chemicals and preservatives, is perceived to be healthy for children but it is in reality, risky for them.’

One of the major problems, therefore, has been the lack of awareness among parents. The same story goes with Tanzima, mother of nine month Samia, ‘The use of cereals for infants is so widespread, I have seen everyone around me feeding their children the canned cereals and it certainly does have healthy effects on the baby. Besides, it’s easier and faster to make.’

Experts point out that, these easy-to-make cereals for children contain preservatives, which are harmful for children. Moreover, these are so soft that children swallow the mixture immediately, instead of chewing which is more effective.

Samina Firoz, a housewife, faces the constant problem of her son crying and complaining about the tiffin she packs for him to take to school. ‘He often complains that I embarrass him by giving him homemade bread or potato chops. We end up having a huge row over it and at the end of it I realise he throws away his tiffin when he doesn’t bring it back home untouched.’ Failing to find any alternate solutions, Samina, like many other mothers, gives her son the french fries and other deep-fried food that he loves. ‘Do I have a choice? I agree what he is asking for is unreasonable, but when the rest of the children are having junk food and tempting sweet things, I can not let him feel inferior,’ says Samina.

Dr Farzana Islam, a specialist in child mental health, at the Dhaka Shishu Hospital agrees that Samina’s problem is now a common problem. ‘The number of cases of childhood obesity is increasing. It is mainly due to the social structure and urban living that the pattern of composition of diet and lifestyle has changed.’

According to her, more and more educated parents are giving in to the demands of their children. ‘We are noticing that conflict at home and depression are linked with obesity. There is also the stigma associated with being obese and at the same time the social setting that suggests that rich food and the unstructured lifestyle is a statement of identity.’

Dr Kishwar agrees that it is the social structure that has played a role in making junk and other unhealthy food including highly sweet food, a part of the regular diet of children. ‘These children are more likely to suffer from hypertension, diabetes, lower life expectancy and so much more. It’s a vicious cycle which leaves a lot of risk to the overall health,’ she says.

‘Obese children are also more likely to suffer from lower self esteem and depression, which can lead to poor academic performance, addiction to drugs and more,’ points out Dr Omar Rahman, pro-vice chancellor Independent University of Bangladesh and research fellow in psychiatry in Harvard Medical School.

Dr Omar further points out the role of media in promoting junk food in a society that is increasingly characterised by a sedentary lifestyle. ‘There is hardly any form of physical exercise; people hardly walk or lead an active lifestyle if they can afford not to’.

New studies reveal the relevance of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus and mortality from coronary heart disease are higher in people including children of South Asian families (Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi) living in urban societies than in other ethnic groups. ‘The high prevalence of diabetes is one major sign of a pattern of metabolic disturbances related to obesity and insulin resistance,’ points out Dr Fouzia Mohsin, a paediatrician at the Endocrinology and Paediatric Department, BIRDEM.

Kishwar and Fouzia, both point out the presence of type 2, non-insulin dependent diabetes in a number of children. While, the disease was mostly observed among adults in the past, with increased obesity, they are being detected among 10-12 year-old children.

‘Our daily schedules are so jam-packed that we don’t really have a choice and I have hardly any time to prepare healthier meals or force the kids to exercise. Moreover, my husband does not seem to share any of the responsibilities and at the end, I must rely on these,’ justifies Nasrin Akhter, a working mother.

Nasreen has three children: Tamanna,15, Nasfia,11, and a nine-year-old son Tasbid. While she works from nine to six and often longer hours, her children she has to keep her children placated with a diet of their choice: full of sugar and saturated fat. The health consequences are severe.

While Tamanna and Nasfia are already obese and at risk from diabetes, chronic digestive diseases and more, little Tasbid is undernourished and eats much less than the recommended amounts, he is vulnerable to anaemia, low blood pressure. ‘Undernourishment and obesity are two extremes of the whole spectrum of malnutrition, both of which pose severe hazards,’ points out Kishwar.

Tamana is almost all the time prone to mood swings and Nasfia has very low self-esteem, owing to being obese and faced with teasing at school. The three children watch TV until late night and wake up late in the morning often being late for school. ‘I don’t know what to do. They spend the entire day in front of the television and computers. Whenever, I try to stop them, it gets worse,’ says the frustrated mother.

‘More than ever, their lives are without any physical activity — children spend more time playing with electronic devices, from computers to handheld video game systems, than actively playing outside. Television is a major culprit behind such cases,’ points out Farzana.

According to her, parents seem to be less confident on being able to handle their children. ‘Firstly, they seem to be more focused on children’s academic success. As a result, they are rewarding their children with junk food. Secondly, our country does not have any form of parenting training, which has compounded the crisis further,’ she adds.

It is clear that childhood obesity, affects the child’s mental health, resulting in low self-esteem, mood fluctuation and early puberty. ‘Obese children are likely to experience early puberty. They have early growth compared to other children and this results in a feeling of inferiority and they tend to be less social,’ says Dr Tahmina.

Experts further point out that, the consumption of high-carbohydrate soft drinks is a major factor to the increasing calorie counts, adding to that the increased fast food consumption and intake of rich food, makes them more vulnerable.

‘There is a need for an indicator for the appropriate weight of a child. One such measure is the BMI, which is once again not very well known or understood,’ says Dr Chowdhury Yakub Jamal, paediatrician, child health department, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University and Hospital.

‘BMI is an internationally accepted standard to measure body weight. It uses height and weight measurements to estimate how much body fat a person has. A child with a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile for age and sex or a body mass index (BMI) of 30 kg/m2 is considered overweight.’ According to him, to calculate the child’s BMI, his or her weight must be divided by his or her height squared.

There are certainly ways to combat the deadly effects of childhood obesity. Studies show that a completely new family approach — preparing a proper routine and working together can result in a healthier life. ‘More over, the society as a whole needs to take effective steps to be able to reduce the growing problem,’ adds Dr Shamim.

‘There should be programmes that will encourage children to incorporate safe physical activity into their lifestyles. Individual doctors must continue to work with families, especially during the early childhood years when eating and exercise habits are formed and when interventions involving parents are most likely to be effective,’ points out Dr Tahmina

‘Drawing examples from the different ways of encouraging and educating both parents and children adopted by the developed countries could certainly help reduce the number. Media has a great role to play in bringing attractive cartoons that would help children get out of the vicious cycle of obesity before it’s too late,’ adds Dr Kishwar.

‘Public education campaigns must begin and reach every household on the dietary habits on the basis of food based dietary guidelines (FBDG),’ points out Dr Talukdar.

Experts agree that although obesity is rising gradually, it is preventable. Therefore, a move towards balanced and nourishing meals, increasing physical activity for the whole family can help decrease this pattern. Moreover, schools could incorporate such aspects as part of their effort to help reduce the problem, helping children to be healthy and happier.

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When Australian post-grad student Nerita Taylor decided to come to Bangladesh last year, her family and friends were surprised and shocked in equal parts. As it is for many abroad, Bangladesh to them called up images of floods, cyclones, poverty and corruption. Going to a country like Bangladesh, which is literally non-existent on the world map, seemed surprising to many of them. ‘I was then completing my Masters in International Development and had long wanted to live and work in a country very different from my own,’ says the young Australian. ‘I was also looking for something more personally challenging in my work as an Occupational Therapist. The opportunity to come to Bangladesh in the heart of Asia offered a unique experience.’
What Nerita’s friends and family didn’t know is that her decision to visit Bangladesh and volunteer for humanitarian work here adds her name to the ranks of a new breed of travellers, who are opting out of the conventional ‘backpacking through India’ or ‘clubbing in Thailand’ holidays for a nobler option: Voluntourism. At present the trend is becoming increasingly popular as more and more young people like Nerita come from the US, EU and the rest of the world to volunteer in countries like Afghanistan and our very own Bangladesh, literally off the map as far as tourism goes. They come from different places, different cultures, different backgrounds and speak different languages. Yet what draws them to these backward countries is perhaps the two feelings they share — compassion for fellow human beings and an interest in different cultures.
Over the past year Nerita has been volunteering to assist the training of Occupational Therapists at the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP), in Dhaka’s Savaar. ‘Not surprisingly, I’ve learnt an incredible amount from this experience both professionally and personally. I have also been immensely inspired by the enthusiasm and passion with which my colleagues work to establish the profession and provide much needed services in the area of rehabilitation,’ she adds.
Several organisations around the world like the VSO, WFP and the various wings of the UN, as well as the local governments, are providing such young volunteers with these opportunities. It was through one such organisation — the Australia Youth Ambassador of Development Programme — that Nerita came to Bangladesh in September 2005 as a volunteer. At CRP, like many other volunteers, Nerita works closely with the people who suffer acute states of paralysis and treats them. ‘Each day has brought new and unique experiences, particularly in working with those whose lives have been filled with tragedy, loss, hardship and impacted on by disability,’ says Nerita while speaking about her work as a volunteer at CRP. ‘I remember an instance in an outreach clinic I attended when I met a remarkable man who was born without arms. I was struck by the immense personal challenges he had overcome to become a role model in his community and was humbled by this experience.’
For most of the voluntourists who come all the way to countries like Bangladesh, the motivation comes perhaps from the unique experiences that await them.
For young Marion Grimm of Switzerland, the decision to come to Bangladesh for volunteering was more of a personal challenge for her — that of adapting to a completely different culture and the many traditional habits and practices that she had never seen before. So she stepped into a land which people avoid. Nevertheless, Marion took up the challenge because she wanted to discover not only the culture but also feel the unique satisfaction of having made a difference through her work. Settling down into a remote area like Sitakunda was a challenge much bigger than she had expected. Like many others coming to Bangladesh, Marion took about a month to adapt to the local life, culture and community. However, she soon overcame the difficulties and commenced work with the YPSA (Young Power in Social Action). In another month she stepped onto the field level.
‘My main job was to help teachers in a local NFPE (Non-Formal Primary Education) school. Everyday I visited a school where each class had thirty children. During the first month I mainly observed the teaching methods as well as children’s behaviour, and tried to find out what kind of ideas and concepts I could introduce to them.’ Though Marion had a lot of ideas at hand, there was one factor that prevented her from coming closer to those children — her language. She therefore took up the next great challenge — to learn Bangla.
‘The point of learning Bangla was to get closer to them.
Then I could teach them some English and Mathematics, and also correct their exercises,’ explains Marion. For her it was the discovery of a new language and a new way of coming closer to people from a very different background than hers.
‘Before I came to Bangladesh a lot of people asked me, “Why have you chosen to go to Bangladesh? It is one of the poorest countries in the world and floods and cyclones hit it every year!”’ Such responses from other people are common for people volunteering to come to Bangladesh. It was true in case of Nerita, Marion and even Sarah.
‘When I told my family and friends about coming to Bangladesh, they just freaked out!’ says Sarah Barnett Louise, a Briton. Sarah came to Bangladesh last year through the VSO and is currently working at Rupantar, an NGO in Khulna. What Sarah experienced at the beginning was not simply a challenge but a test that many fail to pass. ‘I felt as though I was dropped in the middle of nowhere; in a place I didn’t know with people I didn’t know. It was my decision to come to Bangladesh and I had to live with the ongoing frustration of homesickness and getting lost now and then,’ says Sarah, now able to laugh at her teething pains. ‘All my life in Britain I lived an independent life and when I came here I realised I had to take help from people and ask for directions. That was when I came to know how hospitable and supportive Bangladeshis are.’
Not only do these volunteers come and help the people in whatever way they can, some even work in extremely difficult and insecure conditions and stake their lives with the single determination of being able to make a difference. To many Bangladeshis, they come as blessings.
Thirty-year-old Ann Lily from Bahaginan in the Philippines is a volunteer from VSO. She works with Zabarang Kalyan Somity and the NGO called ALO in remote Khagrachhari in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Besides her work as a management advisor, Ann is working hard with local movements to establish rights for women in the area. ‘Now some of them know that they can speak up for themselves,’ says Ann.
While speaking about her experience in the Hill Tracts she laughs at the concern of the military for her protection during violence and other incidents. ‘I told the military men that they are dealing with a Filipina who has lived in a country with three ongoing wars and I don’t have any fear while moving around there.’
These volunteers often come to the Third World countries to experience a new culture and perhaps a change, but often, at the end of it all, they find themselves personally involved and ready to sacrifice everything and come forward to help people less fortunate than them. These sacrifices do not earn them any prizes, but often leave a significant mark on their lives. The benefits of ‘voluntourism’ are not only evident in Bangladesh or Afghanistan — it has had life-changing impacts on the people who volunteer for such work.
The outstanding achievement of young Toshika Kitahar has received worldwide appreciation. She single-handedly collected funds to build an entire girls’ school in a remote area caaled Ragh in northeast Afghanistan. As a UN Volunteer with the World Food Programme (WFP), Toshika was determined to make the education of females a priority. It was her single-minded determination to build the first ever girl’s school in Ragh that brought her success. Starting from Afghanistan and places across the globe, this young woman persuaded companies, donors, countries and anyone and everyone she met to contribute. In the end her fortitude and compassion led to the opening of the first girls’ school in Ragh. ‘The last time I visited the project site, the girls, their parents and local authorities were excited to have a new girls’ school. They may not be aware of my personal commitment to the project, but to me it is not important if they know about me or not. The most important thing is that the girls have access to, and receive, quality education,’ says Toshika in a report published in the World Volunteer Web. She is still campaigning for about $35,000 that is required to pay off all construction costs which totalled $181,000.
Be it Ann or Toshika, their successes have not remained unsung. Although in many cases people who benefit from these activities remain unaware of the volunteers’ contributions, their success stories have an impact on many. The extent to which the commitment of the volunteers can take them is at times astonishing. Their selfless determination more often than not defies all obstacles. The barriers of weather, culture and especially language cannot prevent them from doing their best. Some like Marian and Sarah try to learn Bangla to get closer to the people they are helping.
To others like Yunyun Fhahni Paryani it is a challenge to communicate with the locals through any means possible. This young Indonesian woman has done a study on children in emergency situations, ‘Response to Cyclone in Bangladesh’, which seeks to reduce the vulnerability of children during natural disasters by deepening the understanding of child protection methods. At present she is volunteering for Children Protection issues in emergencies and visiting various coastal areas like Atiya, Nihjum Dwip, Chittagong, Patuakhali, Teknaf and Cox’s Bazar, which are the areas that are most affected by cyclones.
Knowing little English and no Bangla, the greatest challenge for her is to communicate and understand the issues she works on. ‘I cannot grasp what people say if they speak fast in English and my grammar in written English needs to be improved. So I am working hard on it and hope to break through the language barrier,’ says Yunyun, who remains determined not to let the language barrier keep her away from the rest of the volunteers who reach out to help the disadvantaged and poor in various areas.
Increasingly more people from different parts of the world are taking up voluntourism, be it during vacations and in between jobs. Nowadays many young students volunteer to travel to underdeveloped countries during study breaks. Most come with little or no experience, but leave with a lot of it. Many struggle through the challenges and return home victorious, many come back for more and some simply fall in love with the new life.
‘There is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t think of my time in Bangladesh in some way,’ writes a young Canadian, Jocelyn Helland, in an e-mail to New Age. ‘I fell in love with Bangladesh, its culture, its ever loving and hospitable people who made me feel at home.’ Three years back Jocelyn was one of the many young graduate students who had applied to Young Professionals International (a Canadian government project) that focuses on partnering with Canadian universities to sponsor young Canadians who have recently graduated from university to work professionally abroad. Jocelyn was immediately accepted and sent to Save the Children (UK), Bangladesh, where her work centred on advocating a more child-sensitive Poverty Reduction Strategy for Bangladesh. ‘I was fortunate to join such an amazing, intelligent and passionate team of people working hard to promote children’s rights!’ adds Jocelyn.
Like most others, Jocelyn’s perceptions of Bangladesh changed dramatically once she started her work here. ‘The people of Bangladesh are strong survivors, are proud patriots and have a very generous spirit. My Canadian culture has many things to learn from the Bangladeshi culture,’ says Jocelyn, who had not expected Bangladesh and its people to have such an impact on her life.
To Jocelyn, voluntourism has given her an unforgettable memory. For Sarah Barnett, it has changed the whole concept of home. Coming back to Bangladesh after a two-week holiday, she explains, ‘Now going to Britain is more like going away from home. It is not possible for me to leave this country after getting so attached to its culture and its people. It feels good to be back in Bangladesh, back to my home.’

Australian Volunteer Nerita Taylor came to Bangladesh in 2005 and is a volunteer at the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed, in Savar, and assisting in the training of occupational therapists.

On arrival I was first struck by the colour and intensity of Bangladesh. Having lived in a more remote regional area in Australia with few people across large distances, Bangladesh was quite a change. I have so many amazing and memorable experiences that will remain vivid in my mind long after I have returned to Australia. Riding rickshaws, drifting down rivers on small wooden boats, walking amongst the tea fields in Sylhet and crossing the ocean to St Martin’s Island are just a few. Each day has brought new and unique experiences, particularly in working with those whose lives have been filled with tragedy, loss, hardship and impacted on by disability. One instance I recall is from an outreach clinic I attended when I met a remarkable man who had had no arms since birth - I was struck by the immense personal challenges he had overcome to become a role model in his community and was humbled by this experience.
What I knew of Bangladesh before arriving was fairly limited to what I’d read through my studies but being here brought the images alive. Not knowing quite what to expect, being in Bangladesh didn’t so much change my perception of the people and its culture as develop one. Initial impressions of Bangladeshi hospitality, strong family ties, the sense of community, particularly in village life, the language and music are all things that I have come to see and appreciate as part of the rich cultural interplay and complexity of life here. Most rewarding has been sharing my experience with friends and family back home for whom Bangladesh is now an intriguing and not so distant a place.
My experience in Bangladesh has not only broadened my world view but instilled in me greater compassion and an appreciation for the complexities and differences between cultures and different ways of living. The sometimes difficult challenges of living and working in Bangladesh have not outweighed what I have gained, and what I hope others may have gained, from this unforgettable experience. Whilst many may believe volunteering is simply a way of biding time, to me it has been the beginning of a journey to someplace else and an enriching one at that.


Wilm van Bekkum, a Dutch VSO volunteer works for Green Hill in Rangamati as a management advisor. He recounts his experiences.

It was in 2004 that I was trying for an international job. I wanted to live for a longer period in a country of different culture and traditions. It was through an advertisement that I came to know about VSO looking for management advisors as volunteers. I immediately, took up the volunteering position in Bangladesh over Kenya.
Bangladesh is a strange country, which I love. It is totally different from all my travel experiences in the last 10 years. The people are very friendly and hospitable. Even when a family has nearly nothing for themselves, if you come to visit them they will put everything they have on the table. Not eating is not polite but if you take too much you know they won’t have any left for themselves.
We live and work in local areas between the Bengali communities in Rangamati, in my case also between the indigenous communities. After nearly two years, I have a good understanding of life in Bangladesh. I’m happy and satisfied with the opportunity I had and the possibility to feel the Bangladeshi life.


Voluntourism has set a trend across the globe. Recent trends suggest that even Bangladeshis are availing themselves of such opportunities. Today an increasing number of young students are crossing borders for undergoing international experiences through traineeship and volunteering.
A number of organisations across the country are providing such opportunities for young people. BRAC, for example, has set up links with countries like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, etc and is opening up more doors for the young to avail themselves of international experiences.
In a year BRAC has approximately around 150 volunteers coming in from different parts of the world. 'There are also Bangladeshi students returning to volunteer. We would certainly love to provide international opportunities to Bangladeshi students who volunteer in other branches of BRAC across the world,' says Mohammad Abdur Rahman, senior trainer and coordinator of BRAC's internship programme.
Another innovative platform for the young to avail themselves of international opportunities is AIESEC, which has been working with four leading private universities of the country: NSU, BRAC, IUB and AIUB. Since AIESEC Bangladesh started operation in 1999, it has offered young Bangladeshis a new kind of opportunity with its international Traineeship Exchange Programmes. These consist of exchange experiences, which come in the form of management, development, technical and education internships. Ranging from eight weeks to eighteen months, these programmes allow students to work with a myriad of companies, NGOs, governments, universities and other organisations. It is through this platform that more and more students are getting international experience and attaining greater confidence.
'I feel that every individual must avail himself of opportunities such as these, to know oneself better, to have a clearer idea of ones capability and be a more processed entity in order to serve ones society,' says Maria Chowdhury who went to Turkey through AIESEC. Maria went on a 10-week tour of an educational traineeship under the World Project based on the idea of minimising racial differences through visits to Turkish schools and helping them to communicate in English, and also by presentations.


Ann Lily from the Philippines has been staying in Rangamati, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, for a year. She jots down some her memorable moments associated with Bangla phrases she learnt here and also a note to her family.

Aste aste bhai. This phrase I immediately learnt to avoid accidents in the streets of Bangladesh — while riding the rickshaws, CNGs and taxis. For the first three months I was holding my breath and desperately clutching the seat, but now I am just cool about it.
Bujhi na. Moving from the plains of the north to the Hill Tracts was tough. Seeing me wearing a tribal skirt, some teachers thought I was a Chakma and spoke in that language, so when I did not answer, they shifted to Marma, and lastly Tripura. When I said, ‘Ami bujhi na’, they said, ’Oh, you are bideshi’. I have now learnt to speak the CHT tribal language, which is a mixture of Bangla and Chinese.
Banglish, Chakmish and Marmish. To overcome the language barrier, and because most of the staff wanted English lessons (which is outside key result areas of VSO), I told the NGO staff to speak in a mixture of languages until they gained confidence. I studied Bangla for a month and they studied English in school, so I said, ‘It is no shomoshya. Or in Chakma — bujong?’

About the Hill Tracts
The Hill Tracts are safe and beautiful, albeit remote place with diverse cultures. I told my bondhu military officers who check on us on a monthly basis, ‘You are asking a Filipina with three wars going on in her country to be careful’. There are incidents of violence, but confidence building takes several decades.

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