Iain Guest

Iain founded AP in 2001 after many years of writing about and working with civil society in countries in conflict. He was a Geneva-based correspondent for the London-based Guardian and International Herald Tribune (1976-1987); authored a book on the disappearances in Argentina; fronted several BBC documentaries; served as spokesperson for the UNHCR operation in Cambodia (1992-1993) and the UN humanitarian operation in Haiti (2004); served as a Senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace (1996-7); and conducted missions to Rwanda and Bosnia for the UN, USAID and UNHCR. Iain recently stepped down as an adjunct professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where he taught human rights.

Strange Travels – Leaving Bangladesh

21 Aug

Barisal, August 21: We are coming to the end of our visit to southern Bangladesh, and I am thinking that visits like ours must be very strange for those on the receiving end: Outsiders arrive in big car, jump out carrying cameras, and rush around taking photos of ordinary stuff – dogs sleeping, women washing in rivers, piles of manure. Orders are barked, strange questions are asked. Crowd gathers, people push and organizers push back. Visitors leave. Dust settles, life resumes.

In our case, we’re asking villagers to disclose confidential information about their lives, on camera, in front of their neighbors. I wonder whether their stock rises after we leave, or whether they’re resented for having caused a public nuisance. Hopefully, the former.

From our side, the pressure increases to capture that fnal photo as the time for departure draws nearer. With fatigue come mistakes and impatience. Equipment becomes an obstacle course.

I’m realizing how far I am from understanding what is really going on in these villages. We’re certainly coming up with good information, but there are some aspects of this visit that seem more suited to Comedy Central than a serious investigation.

Lasrul Islam, 18, who receive a loan of 9,000 taka from BERDO and a 2,000 taka grant from us, will have none of it. It’s bad enough that his shop is suddenly surrounded by dust and a crowd of onlookers. He draws the line at appearing on camera. Danita and I secretly applaud, and I wander off to film a man sewing.

Sabbir, the 20 year old rickshaw driver, is very happy to be filmed but sits ram-rod straight on his rickshaw with a serious expression on his face. We don’t want him posing, but it takes ages to get this across and encourage him to ride his rickshaw slowly past the camera. He’s still wary and my efforts at direction must look hilarious. The resulting video interview is also amateurish. But hopefully some of Sabbir’s trusting, reflective, character comes across.

The ride back to Barisal takes us through green paddy fields and more picturesque villages. But our attention is focused on the road. We quickly conclude that this road is made for people, not cars. This is where the washing is dried, the rice is laid out, and the dogs take a nap.

Our driver takes a different view: to him, everything must move for the car, and he sits on his horn during the entire journey. This almost produces a very nasty accident. We come around a bend, going much too fast, and almost collide with three schoolgirls who are crossing the road and looking the other way. The car slides to the left to avoid them, but one girl backs into the car and spins out into the middle of the road. Luckily she is unhurt. But we are shocked and the driver is sheepish.

The boat trip back to Dhaka produces one of the strangest episodes of the trip. Danita, Saidul, Maksuda and I are deep into our dahl and rice in one of the cabins when there is an almighty crash and the boat shudders to a halt. We pour out onto the deck and find that we have hit an oil tanker. Luckily it was prow to prow rather than amidships, but the crash has caused a huge gash and our ship drifts away towards the shore as if seriously damaged.

Danita and I begin to calculate who will carry Saidul if the boat sinks and whether we can rescue our cameras. Besides us an elderly man is hopping up and down, and speaking on two mobiles. (He turns out to be the boat owner). The crew of the tanker unleash a stream of invective. Eventually our boat recovers, and limps off towards Dhaka. We return to our cabins, unnerved and tired.

Morning comes quickly and brings another downpour. We head up the channel towards Dhaka, pass mile after mile of rusting tankers and small skiffs that are battling the storm.

Today will be spent at the BERDO office in Dhaka, visiting the braille library and other facilities, and spending some time with Danita, our Peace Fellow. That will be the subject for a future blog.

Filed under: Bangladesh | Tagged: Advocacy Project, Bangladesh, BERDO, blind, micro-credit | 1 Comment »

Posted By Iain Guest

Posted Aug 21st, 2008

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