This article is being republished from the Dhaka Tribune's archive on the day of Holey Artisan militant attack verdict
As I walked into my favourite bakery in Dhaka on Friday afternoon, I had only one thing on my mind: Finding the right bread to pair with olive oil. I had returned to Bangladesh the previous morning after a week and a half of vacation in Italy with my mother, and was looking forward to sharing my haul of Italian food with a friend over a home-cooked dinner.
Traffic was busier than a typical Friday afternoon, since the approach of the Eid holiday brought with it the last minute rush of shoppers that will be familiar to Americans; imagine a suburban mall the Saturday before Christmas, and it will give you a sense of the atmosphere.
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Fortunately, Holey Bakery didn’t disappoint. As I looked over the display case filled with lime-glazed donuts, sesame bagels, and apple tarts, I zoomed in on a stack of ciabatta loaves, and knew I had hit the jackpot. A minute later, I was walking out of the glass door, ciabatta in hand along with a croissant for good measure.
I crossed the broad grass lawn on the way to the car, and my favourite waiter from the adjacent restaurant smiled and waved. “Eid Mubarak!” he shouted, and I returned the greeting, wishing him a happy holiday before plunging back into the noisy scrum of Dhaka traffic to finish shopping for dinner supplies.
Five hours later, seven heavily armed young men stormed the bakery and restaurant, and began shooting indiscriminately. But I can imagine what the scene looked like an instant before they entered: A table of college students sharing stories from their studies in America; a group of Japanese engineers discussing a project to create Dhaka’s first subway system; Italian textile workers having dinner with friends before heading back home to their young families.
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By the next morning 20 hostages -- both foreign and Bangladeshi -- as well as police officers would be gone, dozens more would be injured, and a city of 15 million people would be full of fear and sorrow.
Over the past days, I have struggled to come to terms with what the events of Friday night can and should mean. Of course, there is the “there but for the grace of God go I” feeling of guilt and relief and shame -- the same emotions that I felt being in Boston after the marathon attack or in Bangkok following the Erawan Shrine bombing. Even more, there is the fury and pain for the lives cut short, the dreams unfulfilled, the families left bereft of the victims, the place that has lost some of its innocence.
At the same time, there is a defiance and determination that is stirring in many of us that love Bangladesh: We must not let the world do a second injustice by giving the terrorists what they want.
That scene at Holey Bakery the moment before the terrorists arrived was a microcosm of so many of the great things about our world today. Thousands of young Bangladeshis have experienced new cultures, encountered new worldviews, and brought back valuable skills by studying overseas. Hundreds of infrastructure projects have improved quality of life for everyday people in Bangladesh by bringing local and foreign experts and resources together.
And the garments industry has helped millions of Bangladeshi women become financially independent and self-sufficient. Engaging with the world has made Bangladesh strong and confident, and it has helped her people escape poverty, disease, and illiteracy.
This progress is anathema to the thugs who brutalised Dhaka on Friday and to their backers and supporters. They desperately want Muslim families in Bangladesh and elsewhere to be worse off, to be poorer, to be sicker, and to be ignorant. They think that they can use terror to achieve this, and that if they do they can create a clash of civilisations between East and West.
I have lived in Bangladesh long enough to be absolutely certain that the terrorists are wrong, and that they will fail. First of all, there are nearly 150 million Muslims living in the country today. Seven were involved in Friday’s attack. The numbers are akin to the Branch Davidians in Waco representing all Christians in America. The idea that they are igniting a “movement” just does not add up.
But what is in people’s hearts matters even more than statistics. And like every other expat I know, I constantly bear witness to the openness, inclusiveness, and generosity of the people of Bangladesh. This comes in both small moments of human connection like the broad smile of a school student in a village or an elderly woman in a hospital, as well as in selfless commitments, like my driver pledging to me that: “Don’t worry, brother, if something bad happens, I will die first.” These values are at the bedrock of Bangladeshi culture, and they cannot be altered by acts of violence, no matter how heinous.
Those of us from and in the West must do our part as well, now more than ever. In the coming days and weeks, there will be pressure to act on the pain, sorrow, and fear we feel by pulling back from Bangladesh and other countries hit hard by terror. And some so-called leaders may, instead of suggesting real, serious approaches, cynically offer quick “solutions” that further divide and isolate us from each other.
We cannot undo the tragic events at Holey Bakery on Friday night. But we can decide how to respond, and we can choose to build bridges instead of tearing them down. We must mourn and pay tribute to those we have lost. And then we must get back to the hard work of building a world that does them justice.