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     Volume 4 Issue 35 | February 25, 2005 |

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Cover Story

A Campus
on Edge

Shamim Ahsan and Kajalie Shehreen Islam

On the evening of February 14, Dhaka University (DU) looked like anything but a university campus. The previous day had been a festive one, with Pahela Phalgun being celebrated by yellow-saree-clad women, people coming to watch the film festival at the Teachers-Students Centre (TSC) and hordes of others pouring into the nearby Ekushey Boi Mela. That very day, the grounds had been filled with happy young people meeting up and celebrating a day of love, enjoying mock debates centring on the theme and just hanging out with friends when, all of a sudden, the celebrations turned into a chaotic tragedy.

Whether it is to welcome the New Year or celebrate the national cricket team's memorable victory, TSC has become the venue that pulls the biggest crowds. No wonder that Valentine's Day or the World Love Day programme attracted a few thousand youths to TSC where a stage was raised in front of the Swoparjito Swadhinota for a mock debate by the Dhaka University Debating Society (DUDS).

"There were lots of people," says Saiful, a fourth year student of mass communication and journalism, "lots of outsiders too, and everyone was just having fun."

At around 7:25 pm, during the second part of the programme, a parliamentary style debate on "recognising love as a constitutional right" was in progress. Just as the opposition leader had begun to speak, there was a loud sound. Most people thought it was a tyre busting and just ignored it. The debate resumed.

But when the next three explosions happened right in their midst at an interval of 20 to 30 seconds, people started to run, leaving behind sandals and bags, taking refuge inside the TSC, nearby residential halls and anywhere else they could hide. The fifth blast took place 15 to 20 yards from the stage. Three unexploded bombs were also later found in the area.

"When the first bomb went off near the Central Library, we thought they were fire-crackers," says Saiful. "It was only when one exploded six or seven feet from me, in front of DUS (Dhaka University Snacks), that I realised it was a bomb. I fell trying to save a friend and we got trampled on. Everything went dark."

Within seconds, the panic-stricken crowds were running helter-skelter in all directions, not realising where they would be safe. Many fell on the street from the pushing and shoving, especially women who were wearing saris. They screamed and begged for help, but no one looked back. Within seconds, a long patch of the street in front of the Swoparjito Swadhinota and the beautiful island-like lawn before the DUS that were filled to the brim with jubilant crowds became empty. The street was littered with sandals and shoes, wallets, money, torn pages of books and cards. Around 12 people were injured by splinters while some 40 were hurt in the stampede that followed the blasts.

"I thought I was going to die," says Mustafiz, a Master's student of social welfare and vice-president of DUDS, who was on stage when the explosions happened. "When I saw that I was okay, I started looking for my friends." Three or four of Mustafiz's club members were injured in the blasts.

Casualty-wise, it wasn't as devastating as other recent incidents, but impact-wise it was. The several thousand people who witnessed the attack and those horrific moments after being bombarded from what seemed like all around, are not likely to forget that evening anytime soon. As they relate their experiences, it is obvious that the trauma is still fresh.

Except for two female students of DU and a young man who were under treatment at Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH), others received mild injuries and were released later that evening after receiving first aid.

A day after the attack, 25-year-old Md. Shahin Mia lies wounded in Ward 32, surrounded by relatives. There are quite a few bloody spots from his left knee down to the ankle. The skin on those spots is torn vertically. He has already undergone a small operation in the morning (February 15) and has had 2 tin splinters removed from there. His relatives say he has another splinter a little over his left ankle, which the doctors thought would be better left alone for the time being. He also shows the bandaged back part of his right thigh that shows a splinter wound.

The attending nurse assures that these are not serious injuries. Her consolation is not lost on Shahin who appears enlivened by this revelation. One of his relatives, Farid (not his real name), a DU student, reveals that Shahin came to the campus to see him and stood among the crowd enjoying the debate as he just came across it on his way to SM hall where Farid resides.

Shahin is apparently alright but seems a little disoriented when answering questions. The attending doctor believes the trauma he went through hasn't left him yet and might take years to get over.

He remembers the moment he received the injury. "I was standing about a hundred feet away from the stage. Suddenly, I felt something blast right beneath my feet, as if I had trampled on it somehow, making a big sound," he says. Though he claims he didn't lose consciousness, he doesn't remember what happened after he was hit except that his eyes were burning and that after a while he was carried by some unknown faces.

Fatematuzzohora Tuhin, a second year student studying Arabic literature, and Halima Akhter Deepa, a second year philosophy student, both of whom have sustained injuries on the lower parts of their legs, are in the same cabin, No 30, on the second floor, at DMCH. They are friends and on that fateful evening they had gone to the programme just a couple of minutes before the bombs started exploding. Since Tuhin is a member of DUDS, she and her friend found a place on one corner of the stage.

"We had just taken our seats and asked one of the volunteers who was standing near us what the topic was and after he had said only one or two words I was deafened by a huge sound," Tuhin says.

Her friend, Deepa, who was sitting right beside her says, "For a second I didn't know what was going on and what I should do. At first I could not see anything as there was thick smoke all around. The moment I regained my senses I jumped down from the stage and started to run in the direction of Rokeya Hall. As I was running there were at least three more blasts and all of them seemed to have happened right beside me. When I reached near the hall gate, a man stopped me and showed me that my shalwar had caught on fire," she says.

Their injuries are not serious either and they will recover soon, but they probably won't ever forget the hellish moments they experienced that evening. "I have never been so scared before. As I was trying to work out in which direction I should run in the smoke, it seemed to me I was dying," relates Tuhin.

Needless to say, for most people, the incident was shocking. Most students spent the next day calling home to inform their families that they were alright.

"I just don't go to public gatherings of any sort anymore," says a shocked Farhan, a student of the university.

Interestingly, Farhan says that when he was passing through the place of the disaster later that night, there was no electricity in the area and people were cleaning up the scene of the crime. The next morning, there was no trace of the tragedy, and, some say, no evidence either.

An explosives expert related to Shumon, a fourth year DU student, who reached the scene 10 or 15 minutes after it happened, that the bombs were Improvised Explosive Device. If put on the ground, they would be set off by any sort of vibration. In his opinion, such explosives would not kill or severely injure anyone but give out a lot of smoke and noise, to, basically, disperse crowds.

"I have a feeling this was just an experiment," says Shumon, "to see how people react. Perhaps something that might be applied later."

Shumon does not seem visibly traumatised by the incident. It has just become too common, he says. But, like most people, he is obviously frustrated.

"I was sitting outside the Boi Mela the day after the incident," he says, "having tea at a stall. The tea-seller was saying that sales had been low that day because hardly anyone came to the mela. A bearded man, around 40, said he wished that three or four people had been killed in the Valentine's Day blasts."

What surprised most people was that, despite extra security on campus that day with the hartal and the book fair going on, something like this could have happened. The police and Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) proved ineffective in preventing the attack. Though everyone going to the Boi Mela had to go through a metal detector, people attending the Valentine's Day celebrations didn't go through any sort of security check, as has become routine for most celebrations after the Ramna Botomul blasts in 2001.

Most students don't seem to think that the attacks were carried out by any large organisation, but, perhaps a small group that just does not like the concept of Valentine's Day.

"They may not even be religious extremists," says Farhan, "rather, some random people who want to take advantage of their reputation." Farhan does not believe that the attacks were in any way related to the August 21 carnage or the Habiganj blasts that killed AL leader SAMS Kibria. "It might even have been one of the student organisations," he adds.

Whoever the culprit, as always, the general students of Dhaka University are the ones to suffer. Two days of strike have already been enforced by the Anti-Communalism and Anti-Terrorism Alliance, consisting of the student front of the Awami League, Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), BCL Jasad, Chhatra Dhara (student front of Bikalpo Dhara Bangladesh), Chhatra Samity, Chhatra Oikkyo and Chhatra Moitree, with threats of an impending indefinite strike if one of the arrested BCL leaders is not released. Tension rules at the university residential halls where the different student organisations are at daggers with each other, with hardly any atmosphere for co-existence.

The usual investigating committee has been formed, headed by Pro-Vice-Chancellor Prof Yusuf Haider, but has not yet made any headway. In the meantime, students remain scared, anxious and on edge -- as does the whole country, it seems -- almost as if waiting for the next attack.

Seven days into the TSC bomb blast, the police are yet to make any breakthrough. SI Naser, the Investigation Officer says the probe is on, but refuses to say if they have made any progress.

In the meantime, three madrassa students were arrested from the Ekushey programme at Jahangirnagar University (JU). They were found with a timer and an audio tape of a speech by an unknown religious cleric defending Osama bin Laden, Mufti Amini and Shaikhul Hadith.

As the TSC bomb blast occurred after a series of bomb blasts and grenade attacks over the last few years, there is a general tendency to link them. After some 20 such incidents since 1999, the terror of bomb attacks never seemed so real before. We are living with the fear of the next attack; we just don't know when and where it will happen. The fact that the much hyped RAB was in charge of security along with the regular forces shows how insecure we are. Many have vowed to avoid any type of gathering, but that is not a realistic solution. The obvious remedy is to catch the perpetrators and bring them to justice. Everybody knows this but nothing is happening to that end.

Living in a

Ahmede Hussain

While all the major political parties remain indifferent, ordinary citizens have been trying to come to terms with the bomb blasts that have created a sense of panic in this dangerously divided society.

Twenty-four-year old Moumita Chowdhury was talking to her fiance at a Pahela Baishakh gathering when a bomb went off in Ramna Green in 2001. Panic gripped her and she ran for cover as a string of blasts soon followed. Shrapnel hit her left thigh when a bomb exploded in an abandoned package a few paces away.

Moumita, then a student of economics, was taken to a private clinic where her left leg was amputated. Four years after that traumatic incident she is still trying to grapple with life. Her fiance left her immediately after the surgery; and Moumita, a budding Rabindra Sangeet artiste at that time, quit singing. "I know my life will not be the same again," she says.

Like several other blasts that have ripped through the country in the last 10 years, police investigation into the blasts has failed to make any significant headway.

The subsequent governments' failure to bring the culprits to book has given birth to widespread rumours. Of them, a long-running conspiracy theory, primarily aimed at the ruling BNP-led coalition government, blames Islamic extremists for the attacks. In its full five-year term, the Bangladesh Awami League (AL) could not nab the culprits behind the blasts, but this did not deter the party from speculating about the identity of the culprits. Fearing an electoral defeat to the BNP, the AL fed several rumours before the 2001 general elections that pointed the finger at BNP's electoral allies Jamaat and Islamic Oikkya Jote.

The AL, however, failed to get the cutting edge over its archrival in the general elections. The BNP, with the help of its Islamic allies, came back to power riding an electoral landslide; and blasts, meanwhile, have continued to rock the country at a regular interval.

Another conspiracy theory has taken birth at the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) headquarters. To repel a barrage of local and international criticism that accused the party for being lenient with the religious fundamentalists, the BNP shifted the blame on the AL. Immediately after coming to power in 2001, the party blamed the AL for planting bombs in public places to portray the country as a haven for Islamic extremists. This disturbing trend repeated itself when grenades were thrown at Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the opposition, at a rally in Dhaka on August 21 last year.

In fact, in the aftermath of the killing of the former finance minister SAMS Kibria, in a characteristic display of arrogance, the BNP has blamed the AL for taking the injured leader to Dhaka on a microbus, instead of waiting in Habiganj for the government-sent helicopter to come. The party has never publicly apologised, though local newspapers have found that it was the government that took an unusually long time to make any decision about sending a helicopter for the injured AL-leader. In fact, investigation shows that the government never really informed the AL or Kibria's family about the availability of the helicopter, if such a decision was taken at all.

Though 22 AL-workers, including party leader Ivy Rahman, died in the August 21 blasts, questions were raised by some BNP members as to how Hasina survived the mayhem when so many people had died.

Bomb attacks, meanwhile, have continued; on February 16, eight people were critically injured in two identical bomb attacks on two BRAC offices in Naogaon and a branch of the Grameen Bank in Sirajganj. Three grenades were later recovered from another BRAC office.

Public opinion about the blasts has remained dangerously divided in a country where politics dominate people's lives. In the absence of any proper investigation, rumour has remained people's only source of information.

Brig Shahedul Anam Khan, a security analyst, thinks both the major political parties' indifference is helping the culprits to get away with the crime.

"The AL has never been serious in its claim; if they had really believed what they say now, they would have been able to arrest some zealots while they were in power. The BNP, on the other hand, has been amazingly soft on the extremists. Otherwise, how would you explain the fact that when the whole world believes in the presence of religious extremists in the country, why would the BNP try to hush this thing up?" Anam asks.

In fact, as the history of these blasts go, both the parties' ambivalent political stance has been the prime hindrance to a proper investigation.

"The government, it seems, does not want to run an independent investigation as they fear it will open a whole new Pandora's box.

"How can one expect the police to nab the culprits when the prime minister herself thinks the AL is behind the killing?" Anam asks.

The government has remained conspicuously silent when the so-called Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (Awakened Ordinary Muslims of Bangladesh; JMJB) has been killing ordinary citizens in the name of Islam. Though the PM has ordered a crackdown on the militant outfit, the police have failed to arrest Bangla Bhai, the so-called operations commander of the JMJB.

Lately the police have made some arrests, and of them, Shafiqullah, a member of the JMJB, has confessed the party's link to some blasts that took place across the country.

"The JMJB is determined to carry on attacks on all forms of anti-Islamic activity until an Islamic revolution takes place in the country," he says in a statement given to a First Class Magistrate. He admitted that JMJB had been responsible for a number of bomb attacks on NGOs.

Farman Ali, another JMJB member who was arrested in Natore, told the police that JMJB operatives regularly held meetings at the Baitul Mukarram Mosque and Kakrail Mosque in Dhaka to chalk out their plans.

In fact, alarm bells were raised on September 19, 2003, when police arrested Maulana Abdur Rauf, leader of Jamiatul Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB), along with his 17 accomplices. Though Rauf confessed to going to Afghanistan to fight for the Talibans, the militant leader was later granted bail. The police, too, have lost tab on him, and recent arrests made by the police suggest that Rauf is back to where he belongs-- different madrassas across the country to train aspiring militants.

The recent arrests also make a surprising revelation. "Dr Asadullah Al Galib, a teacher at the Arabic department of Rajshahi University, is involved with the JMJB and is leading it towards an Islamic revolution," Shafiqullah told the police. Farman Ali, too, says that Dr Galib is the regional commander (South) of the group.

"I was introduced to Galib and Shahi Bhai (Abdur Rahman, leader of JMB), at a religious programme in a graveyard in Narayanganj and we discussed ways to bomb anti-Islamic programmes in the country," Farman says.

The story took a dramatic turn on February 17 when a docket containing Shafiqullah's confessional statement went missing from the court in Bogra. Sources said a top staff of the Bogra police took the docket to the office of the Superintendent of Police (SP), though the SP does not have any authority to read any confessional statement. Police, however, told journalists that they know nothing about its whereabouts.

Though both Shafiqullah and Farman's confessions implicate Dr Asadullah Al Galib as a terrorist, the professor remains a free man. "Of course we have political ambitions for an Islamic state, but we don't follow traditional politics. We have our Islamic way of invitation and Jihad, which is devoid of terrorism. We will continue our movement unto death," Dr Galib tells journalists.


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