In an exclusive interview with Dhaka Tribune’s M Abul Kalam Azad, photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol spoke of a shrinking world, constant apprehension and angst that plague his life since his release from jail.
He spoke plainly about his ordeal, from being considered missing for 53 days, subsequent arrest near the border, being released on December 25, and then, being completely abandoned by his journalist colleagues since.
“I am not behind bars anymore but I am not really free, and the world I knew no longer exists,” he said. He feels as if he is being followed all the time.
Kajol said all he wants is to return to a normal life, but my friend circles are gone, photojournalists seem to consider me a danger to themselves and avoid me. “I can neither take photos nor edit my newspaper. I have nowhere to go and nothing to do,” Kajol explains.
“I had hoped to get at least some support from the journalist community, but most of them are too scared to even meet me, let alone talk,” he said.
“I thought sharing my thoughts and feelings with them would make me feel better. As no one called or visited, I went to the National Press Club to meet fellow photojournalists. However, they appeared uncomfortable and treated me like a stranger and someone dangerous. That hurt me the most,” Kajol added.
He also spoke of the panic that descends on the faces of his wife, 20-year-old son and school-going daughter, whenever he tries to leave the house.
“Whenever I tell them I am going out, I can see the apprehension on their faces,” he said.
He also discussed several health complications that make it tougher for him to bear the burden of maintaining files and attending hearings for the three cases, including one under the Digital Security Act, that has been filed against him.
“I cannot walk properly, but I still have to maintain case files, sit with lawyers and appear before the court thrice a month. I need to free myself from all the false charges against me,” he said.
He claimed all three cases were filed by an influential group that thought Kajol’s Facebook posts would lead to trouble for them.
“It is not a crime to write about irregularities, corruption and injustice in society. The government itself is talking about how it is fighting corruption. Perhaps, they do not want citizens to talk about these issues,” Kajol said.
The photojournalist was reluctant to discuss the 53-day period for which he was missing, claiming he had been kidnapped. He says he doesn’t know who his captors were, but he knew why they held him.
“I was detained for my dissenting opinion and for telling the truth,” Kajol said.
On the day he went missing, he said: “I sensed trouble that day when I received a phone call. The caller asked me to go to the office of a party to discuss something, and I headed there after dropping off my daughter at school. On the way, some men in plainclothes on two motorbikes dragged me onto one of the bikes in front of the Bangla Academy and drove away.”
When they reached a narrow road in Tejgaon, Kajol was blindfolded, handcuffed and thrown into a microbus.
“I do not know where I was taken or kept, and they moved me from time to time. All I know is that I went through indescribable experiences and on many occasions thought I would suffocate. I would have preferred being shot to death over that suffering,” he added.
At the Benapole border
Kajol said the kidnappers inexplicably took him on a long journey one night, removed the blindfold and then threw him out of the microbus.
“I found myself standing in a secluded area. It was dark and I seemed to be somewhere remote, so I thought that I may be near the border. My assumption was soon proven right when I was taken to Benapole police station just before dawn and charged with intruding in my own country,” he said.
“I was happy that I was no longer missing and was sure that police would file a case against me. Interestingly, the on-duty officer did not accept the complaint against me, and it was filed later in the morning by another officer,” Kajol added.
He further said that he contacted his son and a journalist he knew in Benapole as soon as he was able, and then the world learned that he was alive.
Meeting Mushtaq Ahmed
Regarding writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who died in police custody on Thursday, Kajol said he remembered him as a gentleman with a big heart.
“We met at the Dhaka Central Jail. Cartoonist Kishore and I were in the same room, but I spent more time speaking with Mushtaq bhai. Either he would visit me or I would visit him. We loved speaking to each other,” Kajol said.
He added that Mushtaq spent most of his time in jail reading books.
“I am indebted to him. I took money from him several times and he often shared food with me. Unfortunately, we will never meet again,” the photojournalist further said.
Kajol also said the only time Mushtaq seemed anxious was when he heard that his wife had fallen ill. “He loved his wife a lot.”
Role of Journalists
“I am ashamed of the role journalists and their associations play nowadays,” Kajol said.
“They do not come forward and offer support when a journalist goes missing or is arrested,” he added, mentioning that some had urged him not to write anything and to stay silent.
“Am I a criminal? Don’t they know the charges brought against me are all baseless? Then why did they avoid me when I needed them the most?” Kajol asked.
He said journalists, like politicians, have become disconnected from citizens.
DSA should be scrapped
Kajol said the Digital Security Act should be scrapped immediately.
“It is a law that snatches away the voice of those it is supposed to protect. It is applied by the powerful to torture their critics,” he added.
The photojournalist further said: “A bank robber or murderer can get bail and walk out of jail, but not someone arrested under this draconian law.”
Keeping hope alive
While Kajol was in jail, he felt immense stress thinking about whether his daughter was going to school, how his wife was managing rent or whether his family could buy daily necessities.
He said he took his cancer-survivor patient wife to India days before his disappearance, but there has been no follow-up due to financial troubles.
“My family had to borrow a significant amount of money to support me and bear daily expenses. I feel stressed when I think about these realities. I am free, but I cannot work or do anything. It is like my world is getting smaller every day,” Kajol added.
However, he also said that he is yet to give up hope and his newspaper, Pokkhokal, might be the best option for bouncing back.
“Somehow, I will revive my daily which is now on the verge of closure because of the suspension of government advertisements after my disappearance. Also, I want to take photos again and publish Pokkhokal regularly. Work and earnings can settle me down in life,” he said.
“I have to win this battle to bring back smiles to the faces of my wife and the children,” a smiling Kajol concluded at Madhur Canteen on the Dhaka University campus.