From the authorities, there was heavy-handedness; and from the protesters, there was empathy
On Saturday afternoon, August 3, upon learning that a friend of mine found herself trapped near Dhanmondi Road 2 while she was on her way to work -- close to Jigatola, the area where the conflict between the student protesters and government jackboots was at its most concentrated -- I threw caution to the wind (something rather uncharacteristic of me) and decided to try and get her out of her predicament.
I fed my mother -- whose eyes had been glued to numerous screens keeping up with current events for the better part of the day -- a convenient tale about meeting up with some friend at Road 8/A, far from the where the melee had been taking place, yanked my wallet from my desk drawer, and made a mad dash to the streets as soon as I was sure no one at home was watching.
Surprised to find a rickshawallah willing/brave/stupid enough to haul my keister as close as possible to the area of conflict, I didn’t bother haggling and kept my hand clutched to my wallet -- which housed my press ID -- throughout the ride, just itching for the probable moment I get accosted by a law enforcer for my presence there.
I was dropped a little ways off from road 3/A, and while I would love to be able to say that I found myself in the middle of a heated battle between the forces of justice and the forces of order, the truth is much less glamourous.
The area seemed dead, it was still heavily populated by students, the police, and “ruling party cadres” (you could easily profile them by their apparent age and proclivity to try and out-shout their opposition), but it was like being dropped into the middle of a battlefield mere minutes after the tide had subsided.
Canvassing the area, I watched a young man be carried away by two burly men on their shoulders, the (supposed) teen sobbing like there’s no tomorrow, and perhaps even believing so. There was a fair amount of drying blood on the sidewalks, while broken tree branches and brickbats were strewn across the asphalt like garnish.
What I did not realize, as I absentmindedly walked the streets looking at people shuffling about -- a police-armoured personnel vehicle parked imposingly near the entrance to road 3/A, reminding everyone who’s in charge -- was just that: I was walking on the streets. A revelation I had upon being directed by a young man in a polo shirt asking me, in the most polite manner, to “please take the sidewalk.”
Rushing through pockets of people near the local shopping mall, that’s where I saw them: Young boys clad in white shirts and black trousers, going about the street, pleading mildly-panicked pedestrians to refrain from walking on the road and to take the sidewalk instead.
They looked slightly roughed-up, collars loose and hair askew, with a sense of urgency to their step, as they kept the actual roads clear of people, even though there was nary a vehicle in sight.
Making my way up to the coffee shop my friend was holed-up in, I patted one of the young men on the back and uttered “good job,” for seeing me through to my destination in the safest way possible -- the quizzical and mildly annoyed looks he gave me indicated that perhaps he wasn’t in a mood to accept my gratitude.
He’d clearly seen some s***.
After some confusion regarding my friend’s exact whereabouts, we managed to meet up at Road 5, a little deeper into the bowels of Dhanmondi, where there were even more (mostly young) people huddled in small groups, looking scared and chattering to each other.
Our deliberations of the situation at hand was cut short, as a sudden surge of people rushing across the street adjacent to us meant that it was time for us to high-tail it.
Sticking to every nook and cranny of Dhanmondi that we were acquainted with, all the while enlisting a few stray dogs we found on our way for added security, I was able to see my friend through to her workplace at road 3/A -- the centre of the brouhaha.
After a hug and some verbal pleasantries, I slipped through the crowds and once again found myself safe in the relative security afforded by my room.
I apologize if my account wasn’t quite the harrowing tale of strife and struggle that the title would suggest. While I did witness signs of grave injustice and government heavy-handedness that day, more than anything, what I witnessed, and experienced, was empathy -- a trait the students have been showcasing and promoting through their ceaseless movement to fix our roads and highways, in ways that our administrative bureaucrats could not, or rather would not.
It was never about the age-old battle of right versus might. It is, and always has been, about the sanctity of life, and how destroying even one life means the utter destruction of every life. A nation depends on its citizens, after all -- we saw each other through to our country’s independence, and more recently we did so to the relative economic prosperity we currently enjoy.
The only question now is -- where exactly is the ruling government shepherding us?
Rubaiyat Kabir is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune. He can be followed on Twitter @moreanik.