A year has passed since five terrorists attacked Holey Artisan Bakery in Gulshan, Dhaka, killing 20 foreign and local patrons of the cafe and two policemen. There were two other people who were victims of the attack, and both were employees at the cafe.
Saiful Islam Choukider, 40, a pizza chef in Holey Artisan, was killed during the attack, but it is not confired whether he was killed by the terrorists when they stormed the bakery on the night of July 1, 2016, or by the security force when they conducted Operation Thunderbolt to end the terror siege next morning.
The other employee, kitchen assistant Zakir Hossain Shaon, 18, was detained by law enforcement personnel outside the cafe during the terror siege. He died a week later at Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) in police custody.
Police initially said Saiful was one of the terrorists, but later the Holey Artisan management and staff identified him. Shaon was detained on suspicion of being linked with the attackers.
Till date, police have not provided any evidence supporting their claim in either case, nor have they retracted their claims.
Because of this uncertainty, the families of Saiful and Shaon have not been able to process and grieve their losses properly.
“I was shocked when I heard that they had named my husband one of the attackers,” Saiful’s wife Sonia Akhter told the Dhaka Tribune. “If he really was a terrorist, why have police still not been able to find any evidence of that?”
In addition, the law enforcement officials buried Saiful without ever informing his family, Sonia said.
“We kept asking them [police] to let us have his body, but they did not pay any heed to our plea,” she told the Dhaka Tribune.
Shaon’s mother Maksuda Begum blames the law enforcement agencies for her son’s death.
“They tortured my son to death. I will never forgive them. I do not have the ability to take them to court, but every staff member of Holey Artisan knows my son was innocent. He was only trying to escape the hostage situation,” she told the Dhaka Tribune.
The Dhaka Tribune tried to reach Inspector Humayun Kabir of the Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crimes unit of police, the investigation officer of the terror attack case, for a comment on this matter, but he could not be reached despite several attempts.
A man liked by all
“Ask anyone in this area about Saiful, they will tell you how well-behaved he was,” said an irate Sonia while speaking to the Dhaka Tribune at her home in Naria upazila, Shariatpur.
His neighbour Selim Sarker said: “You cannot imagine how good a person Saiful was. I will never believe that he was linked with the terrorists.”
Aminul Islam Suhin, chef in the new premises of Holey Artisan Bakery, said he was shocked to hear that police suspected Saiful to be a terrorist.
“Saiful Bhai was the most senior member of our staff and very friendly and cooperative. Even on the day of the attack, we were taking a smoking break when he spoke to his wife over phone,” Suhin recalled. “He told his wife that he was going to go home for Eid in two days, and asked to buy Eid clothes for their two daughters.
“How can a man who just shared his Eid plans with me be a terrorist?” Suhin asked.
In a family of five, Saiful was the main breadwinner. His third child, a son, was born three months after he was killed.
“An innocent man has been accused of being a terrorist. What will I tell my children when they learn of this fact?” Sonia asked.
‘Police killed my son’
“My son just tried to escape the hostage situation like many other employees of Holey Artisan. But he fell into the hands of law enforcement officials,” said Shaon’s mother Maksuda Begum.
Shaon, the eldest son in his family, came from an impoverished family. He had joined Holey Artisan to help his parents.
Dhaka Tribune photographer Mahmud Hossain Opu was present at the spot when law enforcement officials detained Shaon.
“The photographers were not allowed to go past the police barricade around Holey Artisan that night,” said Opu. “We waited behind the barricade. Around the time of sehri, we saw Shaon being brought out to the streets by the SWAT personnel. I specifically remember that he came out from one side of the bakery; he was the first person to come out. He was walking normally, but seemed terrified. He had no shirts on and had blood stains on him. It seemed he was shot with rubber bullet.”
Opu said the SWAT members took Shaon to the United Hospital in an autorickshaw. “We were barred from taking his pictures. A SWAT member even hit me with his helmet when I tried to take Shaon’s picture.”
Shaon’s mother and brother Abdullah found him in the United Hospital the next night, but they were not allowed to meet him.
Maksuda said when she went to the hospital the next morning, she was informed that Shaon had been taken in by the Detective Branch (DB) of police for questioning.
“His colleagues who visited him told me he was in good condition at United Hospital. But when later I found him at the DMCH after the DB’s interrogation, my son did not even recognise me and his father. He kept saying: ‘Please, do not torture me,’” Maksuda told the Dhaka Tribune.
One of Shaon’s colleagues, seeking anonymity, said: “When I met him at the hospital, I shook his hand asked if he was okay. He smiled and said yes. But later, I saw on television that he died. I cannot fathom how he died with so many bruises on his body when only a few days ago I had seen him with no bruises.”