Enforced Disappearances: Return them to us, or acknowledge
"He was picked up on January 15, 2016. Then he was officially taken into remand on February 15, a month later, at 3:45am. He died the same day at 8:00am of internal haemorrhage. They broke his rib cage."
One could have found a couple of hundred tragic tales inside the Jatiya Press Club hall room where families of victims of enforced disappearances gathered yesterday, but they had not come just to shed tears.
They were seeking acknowledgement that their pain was caused by injustice, and some form of redress for having their loved ones snatched inexplicably away.
Many had lost the sole income earner in the family, throwing them into the abyss of poverty and financial hardship.
There were dozens of children who had never seen their fathers, or have not seen them in years. Tears flowed in the company of fellow sufferers.
While Raisa spoke on stage about how her father was missing for a month before being found dead, a woman in the audience wept quietly.
After getting up on stage, Raisa, a teenager, said, "What will I say? There is nothing to say.
"I cannot see my father even if I want to -- not even on my birthday," she said. "Since my father died, my mother is my father. We are three siblings, and my mother goes through a lot of hardship to support us."
The woman who had been weeping quietly had not gone up to the stage to talk, nor had she gathered with those holding placards and photos of their loved ones.
As Raisa spoke, however, the woman's sobs intensified, and it was easy to guess that she was Raisa's mother.
"My husband is Anwar Hossain Mahbub. He was picked up on January 15, 2016. Then he was officially taken into remand on February 15, a month later, at 3:45am. He died the same day at 8:00am of internal haemorrhage. They broke his rib cage," she said.
Mahbub, then 45, was the joint secretary of ward-23 of BNP's Dhaka South City Corporation unit, according to rights organisation Odhikar.
The long-suffering families said simply categorising enforced disappearance as a tragedy is a tragedy in itself -- it is an act of injustice, and that must be acknowledged.
"Either return them to us, or acknowledge that they have been forcefully disappeared," was the common refrain of family members speaking at the event organised by Mayer Dak, a platform of families who lost their loved ones to enforced disappearances.
Rights bodies say the government does not recognise enforced disappearance as a phenomenon. Such instances are relegated to being missing or abduction cases.
"The Bangladesh government has repeatedly denied involvement in hundreds of enforced disappearances of activists, critics, and opposition members, and has taken no steps to investigate them," Human Rights Watch, Robert F Kennedy Human Rights, and the Asian Human Rights Commission said in a joint statement yesterday.
On Sunday, Ain o Salish Kendra circulated a statement demanding that a specific law be crafted to recognise enforced disappearance as a crime, instead of simplifying it as abduction.
"Tears will only take us so far. Let the tears give us the strength to build a defence," said Faizul Hakim Lala, secretary of Jatiya Mukti Council.
The leaves of every tree around Shaheed Minar, the Jatiya Press Club and nearby areas (where Mayer Dak has been protesting for a decade), are witnesses to the volume of tears shed under them, but the government is not listening, said Afroja Islam Akhi, one of the conveners of Mayer Dak, and the sister of Sajedul Islam Sumon, who became a victim of enforced disappearance in 2013.
He was the general secretary of ward-38 of BNP's Dhaka city unit.
"Many families of victims of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh feel helpless in the face of the authorities' repeated denials, and the world should act and use the tools at their disposal to spur accountability and stop these abuses from continuing," said Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, liaison officer at the Asian Human Rights Commission in the joint press statement.
Mia Seppo, UN resident coordinator in Bangladesh, tweeted yesterday: "All allegations of #EnforcedDisappearances in Bangladesh must be investigated impartially and those responsible should be brought to justice. 63 nations have ratified the Convention on Enforced Disappearances but only 4 in Asia - it's time for Asia and Bangladesh to ratify."
She was replying to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres's tweet on the occasion of "International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances". The UN secretary general said enforced disappearance was used as "a method of repression, terror and to stifle dissent".