Over a dinner of naan and curried vegetables in a small, hole in the wall restaurant in Kathmandu’s Jawalakhel neighbourhood, exiled Bangladeshi journalist William Gomes once told me, “I feel like a prisoner here, in my room, in Nepal… I cannot go home. I don’t have my own money, or anything. I have enough to cover food every day, but that is it. Once my allowance runs out, then what? Then where?”
William and his legion of other exiled South Asian journalists are paying the ultimate sacrifice for being critical, and speaking up for injustice. They are from countries where reporting and researching abuses inflicted by the state can get one imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. They are from regions where those fighting for their countrymen’s rights in burgeoning young democracies are risking their lives, or at least lives as they knew it – forced into perpetual exile from family, friends, colleagues, and country, never to return home. They’re forced to live in countries of foreign customs, language, food, and people.
William, and later Dipal Baruwa, both from Bangladesh, have crossed my path recently. William first arrived at my guesthouse four weeks ago, shipped out of Bangladesh courtesy of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). While working with the AHRC as a journalist, documenting cases of human rights abuses and disappearances in Bangladesh, he was picked up by the Bangladeshi military in a black jeep near his home, shuttled to a government prison facility. Stripped, blindfolded, submitted to cold temperatures, drugged, threatened, and verbally abused, a clear warning was made by the Bangladeshi authorities to cease his activities, or else retribution. He was dumped in the same place of his abduction near his home.
(Dipal on the left, William on the right)
Two weeks later, Dipal, a Buddhist monk, arrived in Kathmandu at my guesthouse, courtesy of the AHRC again. His story was similar to William’s – a Bangladeshi human rights activist tortured and threatened by the Bangladeshi authorities, warning him of serious personal harm if his activities continued.
Two weeks ago, William rushed into my room in the morning, “Corey, hurry upstairs, there is an emergency with Dipal.” And there was Dipal, lying beside his bed, not talking or answering to us. He had tried to hang himself during the night, and William had found him just in time, returning from the bathroom.
My colleague Prakash Mohara from the Jagaran Media Center (JMC), who also works with the AHRC, soon came over. We agreed to not leave Dipal alone, and would get him to a hospital. As Prakash and I were downstairs, making coffee and discussing the situation, William joined us to quickly grab a coffee. We rushed upstairs, as Dipal was left alone. He had bolted the door shut, and wouldn’t answer our calls. Three strikes with my shoulder, and the door fell, to Dipal again trying to hang himself. Medical staff soon came, and Dipal received the treatment that he needed. He has since been released, doing much better, and smiling again.
And that is the plight of some of those who are sacrificing their lives for the rights and dignities of their compatriots. Some are suffering the same traumas of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as war veterans – depressed and disturbed by what they have experienced, and traumatized from their terrible treatment inflicted on them by state officials.
In South Asia, independent and critical journalism is a precarious enterprise, with those questioning governments’ official narrative risking persecution and personal safety. Over the past several years, numerous South Asian journalists have disappeared, been killed, or forced into exile – most reporting on national security issues. Most recently, William’s friend Saleem Shahzad was found dead in Pakistan – a journalist researching the Pakistani military’s links to Al Qaeda.
In Karachi, only weeks ago, captured by video and widely circulated on YouTube, a young man was shot and left for dead by the Pakistani military, in broad daylight. Clearly, parts of the state apparatus have different ideas when it comes to meting out justice and valuing life. Reforms towards more respectable democracies have ways to go in some countries, but publicizing these instances of injustice are an important part of the reformation.
William and Dipal want to continue their advocacy work, but are now unsure where they’ll land, to continue their lives. Visa applications to foreign countries are pending, and scholarship applications for postgraduate work have been submitted, and their waiting games continue.
In the meantime, William and his friends in Bangladesh have started a Facebook campaign, “Demand justice for journalist and human rights activist William Gomes” . It now has over 1600 members, and Bangladeshi journalists and law students have been spreading posters throughout the country, and have marched in Dhaka, demanding accountability and transparency for what happened.
It is clear that William and Dipal’s lives are fractured, and their consciences tormented by what happened. They’ve paid the ultimate sacrifice in standing up, and have to begin their lives anew. But I suspect that William and Dipal and his fellow exiled colleagues would not change the past, and would continue on in their fight knowing the risks involved.
Posted By Corey Black
Posted Jun 26th, 2011