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Living in fear in Bangladesh
New York Times - November 7, 2015
In the past, Farzana could survey the danger from a professional distance, reporting the facts each time militants murdered one of the bloggers campaigning against fundamentalist Islam.
Then, last month, a shadowy group – the one that claimed responsibility for killing the bloggers – sent a letter to a television news channel warning that unless news media stopped employing unveiled women as journalists, "the outcome will be dreadful".
Last Saturday, militants carried out simultaneous attacks on two book publishers – not secular activists, this time, but low-profile businessmen who acted as intellectual supply lines for some of the country's most prominent writers.
Foreigners, too, have been targeted. Australia warns Australians to exercise "a high degree of caution" in Bangladesh because of "the high threat of terrorist attack". Australian officials have been advised to avoid travel at night, and only by vehicle in Dhaka, and Australian travellers have been advised to adopt similar security measures.
Farzana, 37, cannot shake the feeling that, as she puts it, "there is a blueprint", and that someone, somewhere has added her name to a list.
"I am really scared this time," she said. "I have something in mind that maybe they would like to open up a new chapter and kill a woman. These days, you may not have a single idea how you are related to the whole thing. But maybe you are the target. You never know."
So far this year, four bloggers and one publisher have been hacked to death in Bangladesh, a tiny number for a country with a population of around 160 million. But anonymous threats are common, and the cumulative psychological effect has been profound, prompting public figures to steer away from discussing the terrorist threat openly.
Salil Tripathi, chairman of PEN International's Writers in Prison Committee, approached a long list of Bangladeshi writers for a commentary after a blogger was killed in May. All refused, saying that attaching their name to the subject would be too dangerous. He was reduced to publishing a column written by an expatriate, under a pen name.
By threatening intellectuals, "you're trying to silence opinion, and shape opinion, and I think that's happening," said Tripathi, the author of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, a book about Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence from Pakistan and its legacy.
The sensitivity has become so great, he said, that Bangladeshi friends have sometimes asked him not to tag them in Facebook posts that discuss attacks on bloggers.
With a handful of exceptions, "I can't think of any Bangladeshi intellectual who is writing under his or her name on this issue", he said.
Over the last month, the range of threats, typically issued from anonymous accounts via social media, have broadened to include foreigners, female journalists and members of the country's Shiite minority.
A statement issued on Saturday titled Who's Next attributed to Ansar al-Islam, the Bangladesh division of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, listed broad categories of targets, including "well-known writers", poets, "so-called intellectuals", newspaper and magazine editors, actors and journalists.
Organisers of the Dhaka Lit Fest, a gathering scheduled for late November, fear that as many as 10 of their 70 featured authors will drop out.
Already, many writers and opinion-makers have withdrawn from public life. Ahmad Mostafa Kamal, 45, a novelist whose name was included on a 2013 "hit list," says he rarely leaves his office and regularly turns down invitations to speak in public.
"My life is totally isolated", he said. "A writer always feels the need to move everywhere. They have to talk. They have to go to public places. They have to talk to readers."
Kamal has never reported threats to the police, he said, because he thinks they will tell him to leave the country. He has ruled out that possibility, but after the weekend's attacks the level of anxiety among his friends and family has shot up.
"Last night, my son was talking with me, and he was saying, 'Father, will they kill you also?'" he said. "This is my son. A teenager. He is asking me whether I will be killed. What can be my answer?"
Similar tremors were running through Ekattor TV, a cable news channel whose editor-in-chief, Mozammel Babu, made it a policy to hire women as reporters and anchors because, as he puts it, "women bashing strong men, I like this".
Babu's reporters are more and more cautious. One of his best-known faces, Nobonita Chowdhury, discovered in June that her name was included on a hit list of 25 celebrities known for their secular views. She is now on a hiatus from television, for health reasons and for the sake of her family.
"My brother freaked out," she said. "He said: 'Stop doing this. Stay home for me'."
Another of the station's reporters, Farzana Rupa, 38, said she had decided against covering the publisher attacks over the weekend. After credible threats appeared on her Facebook page, she stopped driving her own car. But the drivers she hired kept quitting, six of them in a row, saying they believed that working with her was too risky.
Recently, Rupa has begun talking frankly about the danger to her daughter, who is eight years old, and other children in her household. "I tell them, 'Nowadays, anything can happen to Mum, so you should learn to be independent,'" she said.
For Farzana, the challenge has been to think about anything except the heightened sense of danger. Her mind wanders to the question of what the man on the street would say if she was, in fact, murdered.
"Deep in my heart, I feel that maybe, if it happens, people will say, 'Why did she have to cross the limits?" she said. "People really think: 'Why are these women coming out without veils? Why are these women talking too much? Why are these women so outspoken?'"