When Jakia Sultana Rupa returned to her village home for Eid last year, she promised her widowed mother: “Ma, wait a few months. I’m getting ready so I can take care of you. I’ll make sure our family is settled.”
Rupa, 25 years old, was a middle child, the third of five children. But ever since her father, a farmer, died two years ago, she had taken responsibility as the breadwinner of the family. Her modest job as a marketing executive promoting consumer products for the local branch of a multinational company helped support her mother and younger siblings as well as pay for her law classes in Dhaka. She had lofty dreams of becoming a lawyer and helping the poor, her family and friends told the Dhaka Tribune.
Rupa had promised her mother Hasna Hena that when she cames home for the Eid-ul-Azha holidays at the beginning of September, she would take Hena to see a specialist at Rajshahi Medical College Hospital.
Those dreams were shattered last week when she was brutally raped and murdered on a moving bus on the road to her workplace in Mymensingh.
“She took a job to support us, her job took her life,” Hasna Hena said from a bed in Tarash health complex where she was admitted after the shocking death of her daughter.
What happened on that dark, rainy night of August 25 has shaken the nation, sparked protests by rights activists and led many to question whether Bangladeshi society has failed to address the vulnerability of working women, especially those who have to travel solo.
'I have to get to work'
Rupa’s younger sister Mahfuza Sultana Popy told the Dhaka Tribune that Rupa had called her that morning to say that she was going Bogra to attend the Non-Government Teachers' Registration and Certification test. After spending the day there, she decided to start for Mymensingh, where she worked, after 5pm.
Reaching the bus station, she boarded a bus belonging to Chowa Paribahan. On the back of the bus, in large letters, was the word 'Nirapod' or ‘safe’.
The bus route passed through Sirajganj, her home district. While she was having her supper in Sirajganj town around 8pm, she again called Popy. Hearing Rupa was at Sirajganj, she advised Rupa to go to her village at Tarash for the night and resume her journey early Saturday.
But Rupa said starting from Tarash might delay her a lot and she might lose her job. “I have to get to work,” she told her sister. She assured Popy that a male acquaintance was traveling with her and that she would be fine.
So she continued her journey. “Sometimes it feels that if I could insist a little more she might be alive today,” Popy said.
By the time the bus reached the Bangabandhu Bridge on the Jamuna River, all the passengers had got off one by one. Rupa's male colleague had also reached his destination and departed. As the bus crossed the Jamuna, Rupa was the only passenger left.
There were five men in the bus, the driver, a supervisor and three 'helpers'. Usually a bus like this carries three staff members, but on the Chowa Paribahan bus, two additional men were present.
[caption id="attachment_212896" align="aligncenter" width="900"] Courtesy
In confessional statements given to the police, the driver and supervisor described in chilling detail how Rupa was assaulted and then murdered.
As the bus sped through the night, one of the helpers, Shamim approached Rupa. Sensing his intention, she offered him her mobile phone and Tk.5,000 in cash she had with her. He took the money and the phone. Then he and the other two helpers, aged between 35 and 19, dragged Rupa to the rear of the moving bus and took turns to rape her.
When she screamed and fought back, they decided she had to be silenced. One of the men took a wheel jack and proceeded to smash Rupa’s face with it to render her unrecognisable. The heavy blows cracked her skull and crushed her face. The killers then broke her neck to make sure she was dead.
By that time, the flat rice fields had changed to the dense Shaal trees of Madhupur forest. The killers threw her blood-soaked body out of the bus, hoping it would look like a road traffic accident.
They then went on their way. To avoid suspicion, they continued to work on the bus route as normal from the next day. Within a few hours, police found Rupa’s body and finally arrested the five men on Monday as the bus crossed the spot where they had disposed of the body.
There is striking similarity between the backgrounds of Rupa and her killers. They all grew up in poverty. All five bus staff were born and raised in Mymensingh. Sons of farmers, they had little or no education. Staff members of Chowa Paribahan said they were often resentful and rebellious, especially the younger 'helpers'.
Among them three – Jahangir alam, Akram Hossain and Shamim confessed to the rape and killing while the bus driver Habibur Rahman, supervisor Safar Ali alias Genda said they saw how the crime took place but they did not participate in the rape. All the arrestees were sent to jail by the court.
But despite coming from comparable backgrounds, their paths had diverged. Rupa's life had taken an upward curve.
Despite growing up in a conservative village in the Tarash upazila of Sirajganj district in Rajshahi division, Rupa had always been self-reliant and proactive. When her poverty-stricken father couldn’t support her studies, she took tuition at Tk100 per student.
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Rupa's family members mourn her shocking death Courtesy
She wanted to establish her younger brother Ujjal Pramanik in business and get her younger sister Popy married her off to a decent man.
“She promised these to me during the last Eid festival,” her mother said between sobs. “But her promises have been broken. All her desires remain unfulfilled. Now I don’t know who would care for me,” she said.
Her elder brother Hafizur Rahman has a small grocery shop in front of the tin-roofed family home, although he admits that struggled to support his family. “We relied on Rupa,” Hafizur said. “She was a woman but as strong in spirit and courage as any man.”
Her younger sister Popy passed honours examination this year and Rupa managed to her a job at her company’s Jamalpur branch.
Rupa’s childhood friend Obaidu lHuq told the Dhaka Tribune that Rupa was a very decent, energetic but introverted girl. “She talked little but had a very good quality to make friends with all,” he said. “Everyone in the village loved her. She was an example for others.”
Assistant Professor of Accident Research Institute, Kazi Shaifun Newaz said transport workers worked long hours in a macho environment which encouraged road rage incidents and unhealthy competition on the road. They were also forced to be away from their families for long periods which might encourage antisocial behaviour.
Bangladesh Bus-Truck Owner Association Chairman and also the Managing Director of Sohag Paribahan, Faruk Talukder, told the Dhaka Triune that to avoid such incidents, “we have already urged the owners of the buses, to verify the background and criminal record of a person before employing them.”
Women's rights activist Ayesha Khanam said women have come forward in large numbers in Bangladesh and are playing an integral role in improving the socioeconomic conditions of the country. “Violence against working women is too common. This cannot continue. We have to ensure the safety of working women,” she said.