Saturday, June 22, 2013

Travel Essay Contest -- Entry 15

I Must Be Off! is having its first annual Travel Essay Contest. Each entry will appear at first without byline or bio. These will be added at the end of the contest. As you enjoy these travel essays from around the world, please feel free to comment; but if you offer criticism, remember to be positive. These writers are my guests.


A Month in the Life of Bangladesh
by Paola Fornari

23 April: Calm before the Storm

Hartal. Strike action, it means, but it’s so much more…

After eight consecutive hartal-free days, the main opposition party has called two days of hartal, demanding that jailed leaders be released on bail. A dozen buses were torched in pre-hartal violence yesterday. We’re lying low in the ‘expat bubble’ again.

24 April: Building Collapses

A nine-storey building housing five garment factories, a bank and a market, collapsed in Savar, just outside Dhaka, this morning. Scores of people have died, and hundreds are injured. Many are still trapped. The opposition called off their hartal to facilitate rescue operations. Just yesterday, cracks appeared in the building and it was evacuated. But, heedless of engineers’ advice, the factory owners threatened not to pay the workers if they didn’t go in.

29 April: Hope Dwindles

Day Six: it would be a miracle if anyone were found alive. Yesterday a fire killed a woman who was close to being rescued. The death toll has reached 398. Large machines are now dismantling the debris. The building owner has been arrested. Garment workers are thronging the streets, refusing to go back to the factories.

But there are some heartwarming stories too. A woman who gave birth under the rubble has survived, with her baby boy.

There is a strange sense of relief that it’s almost over. Soon, the country will be able to grieve. But Savar will remain raw for a long time.

1 May: Sriti

My journalist friend Sriti came to visit today. She has had a tough time, covering Savar. She texted me last week: ‘Is there a God?’ and ‘I am sick with the smell in Death Valley.’

We chatted at length. Her bruised soul will not heal quickly. This evening she sent another message: ‘I am tired, tired and tired. Feel like seeing my mom, niece, nephew, even my lovely river. I need to talk with myself.’

5 May: Dhaka under Siege

I called Sriti. ‘Things are bad,’ she said. ‘No-one knows which way it will turn. I am scared. Everyone is scared.’

Hefajat el Islam, an Islamist party has, according to our Daily Star, ‘…been holding a “Dhaka siege” programme, blocking all the entry points of the capital since Sunday morning to press home their 13-point demand…’ Thousands of activists are holding a rally in the city.

6 May: A Violent Night

The BBC reported that 27 people died when police moved in to disperse protestors late last night. There are rumours that the death toll may be higher.

10 May: Reshma’s Miracle

I have just watched the most agonizing live TV: the rescue of Reshma, a garment worker, 17 days after the Savar building collapse. Trapped in a prayer room in the basement, she had managed to find food and water. Truly incredible. What must have gone through her head for 17 days?

The death toll has leapt to 1043.

11 May: No Place to Call Home

Today I visited a photo exhibition entitled ‘No Place to Call Home’. It showcased the plight of the Rohingyas, who are considered by human rights groups to be ‘the most persecuted people on earth’. One of the photographers, Bangladeshi Saiful Huq Omi, explained how his family had been refugees during the 1971 Liberation War, but had been able to go home afterwards. ‘The Rohingyas have no place to call home,’ he said. ‘They have nowhere to go.’ He finished by asking us not to forget them.

The first photo had me in tears: a man stands on the horizon pointing over wasteland into the distance. ‘My home is two miles in that direction,’ the caption reads, ‘but to me, it is two million miles away.’

15 May: Rain, Rain, Go Away

I went to the Blue Sisters’ slum dispensary today. It was a humbling experience. The fragile newborn baby I’d seen last month, who had lost his mother and was being breastfed by a neighbour, had died.

We walked around the slum. All the kids clustered around us. One little girl had flower petals in her hair. I can’t believe how cheery these people are.

On the way home I stopped by a street kids’ school on the pavement just near my home. ‘Rain, Rain, Go Away,’ the children chanted happily.

But the rain is coming big time, with cyclone Mahasen careering across the Bay of Bengal towards us. I wonder how the slum and street kids will fare. And the Rohingyas, in their refugee camps on the edge of the bay.

May 18: After the Storm

Mahasen spared Bangladesh. Comparatively. A million people were evacuated. Fifty thousand homes were destroyed. But Bangladesh has come a long way in cyclone preparedness, and the damage could have been much worse.

 May 20: Visiting Savar Survivors

The Savar death toll has reached 1125.

Yesterday I went to Pongu, a government hospital, with my counsellor friend Sister Gloria, to visit the Savar victims. I’m not sure why: it was something I had to do, but could not face till now. There were fifty people in the ward I visited, and all the relatives wanted to take me to see their injured family member. Not all the patients I saw will survive.

I felt useless, until I saw that by simply holding a hand, stroking a brow, or saying ‘I will pray for you’, I could raise a smile. ‘I can see from your face that you are strong,’ I said to a man who had lost his leg.

But I was less strong.  When we left the ward I collapsed. ‘There is no God!’ I said to Sister Gloria. But I will never forget the smiling woman who said ‘I have lost my left arm, but Allah spared my right. Soon I will be able to work again.’  

This was the toughest but most enriching experience I have had in Bangladesh. We, the fortunate, have a lot to learn from the resilience of Bangladeshis.


Paola Fornari was born on an island in Lake Victoria, and was brought up in Tanzania.  She has lived in a dozen countries over three continents, speaks five and a half languages, and describes herself as an expatriate sine patria.  At present she is living in Bangladesh.