‘They attacked us because we are Hindus’
"The Narail I know, the Narail I have grown up in -- this is not that Narail."
Deepali Rani Saha can never forget this Friday night when she watched her house burn down.
"After one group looted all our valuables, another group came and found our door open. As there was nothing left to loot, they set our home on fire."
While the looters attacked, the 62-year-old was hiding under the bed in a shed adjacent to the house with her son Gobinda.
"They could not break in [where we were hiding] as it was locked. They then attacked the temple next door and vandalised the idol."
Deepali's was among the three homes and dozens of shops that were vandalised or burnt down in Sahapara village in Dighalia union of Narail's Lohagara upazila.
The attacks were carried out by mobs protesting a Facebook post that reportedly hurt religious sentiments.
Locals alleged the post was made by Akash Saha, an 18-year-old college student of the village.
They gathered after Juma prayers and protested in front of the student's house, demanding his arrest.
As he was missing, the mobs spread to neighbouring Hindu homes -- homes of people who had nothing to do with the Facebook post.
In the evening, the police detained Akash's father Ashoke Saha to "bring the situation under control", while they prepared to file a case under the Digital Security Act against Akash.
None of the attackers, however, have been arrested yet.
Yesterday morning, Deepali stood embracing her eight-month-old granddaughter Rai Saha in front of the charred remains of their home.
She pointed out how even little Rai's possessions were not spared.
"Only because the student is Hindu and I [too] am Hindu, my house was burnt down.
"I don't know how long this threat of violence will haunt us. Who will give us justice? Who will give us security? ... If I were in the house while they set it on fire, I would have died. God saved me. But is this any way to survive? All I have now is the sari on my body."
Many people from the administration have been coming since yesterday morning and giving assurances of safety, but she is unconvinced.
"I am not asking for money; I am not asking for help. I am seeking answers -- why was my house set on fire?"
Her son Gobinda, a betel leaf trader, sat on yard sobbing on the phone, with relatives calling from abroad, as he listed all they had lost.
His wife Chandra Saha was not home the night of the attack. When she returned yesterday, she stood shell-shocked in front of the carnage.
"I don't want to stay here with my children. I don't want to be a victim," she said.
Police have deployed additional forces to ensure security, but locals still feel unsafe.
After the attack, an eerie and empty silence took over after the 108 Hindu homes in Sahapara village.
Beauty Rani, a former female member of the reserved seat in Dighalia Union Parishad, said most of the able-bodied people have left the village after the attack.
"Almost all houses are locked. Only the elders of some families are home. They too are scared."
Visiting the village, this correspondent came across only two old men in a small house. One was 65-year-old Shibnath Saha, president of the village's Radha-Govinda temple.
"Police are on guard in the village, but we cannot trust them. After detaining Ashoke on Friday, the officer-in-charge and upazila nirbahi officer told everyone that they were deploying additional forces and that our community would be safe. The attack took place within a few hours."
Beauty Rani echoed the same. "When we were being attacked, the police were there. They were watching from a distance and no one came to our rescue. The police can no longer be trusted and that is why people are leaving the village."
Gopal Saha, a fertiliser dealer at Dighalia Bazar, described how he was assaulted by the mobs.
"I have been doing business in the market for 22 years. The only reason they beat me up was that I was Hindu. The accused boy's house is far away from mine. How is this my fault? … As a Hindu, I don't feel safe in this village anymore."
Azgar Ali, union parishad member at Dighalia, said, "I went to the spot and tried to bring the situation under control. Police are examining the evidence to see if a case under the Digital Security Act can be filed against the student.
"In addition, the government is giving Tk 26,000 to the affected families, with the promise that the houses that were vandalised will be repaired."
Haran Chandra Pal, inspector (Investigation) of Lohagara Police Station, said legal action will be taken against the attackers, adding that none of them has yet been identified for arrest.
Rights bodies across the country condemned the communal attack.
Mashrafe Bin Mortoza, parliamentarian and ex-captain of the Bangladesh cricket team, who represents Narail, in a Facebook post said, "The Narail I know, the Narail I grew up in -- this is not that Narail."
Meanwhile, Ain o Salish Kendra in a statement, said, "This is not a new incident. We have seen such attacks before -- these keep repeating because there is no independent investigation and no probe [is done] in due time."
Bangladesh Udichi Shilpigoshthi also issued a statement saying the impunity given to perpetrators of communal violence paves the way for more such attacks.
Chandra Nath Podder, general secretary of Bangladesh Puja Udjapan Parishad and a mathematics professor at Dhaka University, had visited the spot.
"What kind of people do this? Are we living in a civilised society? I demand a prompt investigation."
Meanwhile, 21 eminent citizens, including artistes Ramendu Majumdar, Mamunur Rashid, Ferdousi Majumdar, Sara Zaker, M Hamid, and Shimul Yousuf; historians Shahriar Kabir and Muntasir Mamoon; and writers Selina Hossain and Abed Khan, among others, condemned the attack in a statement.
"Within a month, Narail has seen two communal attacks. The local administration and political elites in the area can barely criticise these attacks, let alone prevent them," they said.