An eerie calm in Bangladesh

Xulhaz Mannan, courtesy of USAID

Five free-thinkers in Bangladesh were killed in 2015. Four more in April 2016 alone. Such killings have almost become mainstream in Bangladesh today. The news doesn’t shock me anymore. But this one was personal. I knew Xulhaz Mannan, a journalist murdered this week in Bangladesh, though very briefly. We’d worked on a couple of projects together. There was a certain calmness in his presence, the kind that made you feel comfortable even in an unknown place.

Now he is dead.

Reports say people posing as “courier men” forced their way into the apartment and killed him and a friend, Tanoy, who was at his place. Xulhaz’s mother was also in the house. And now, there is blood on the floor of his home where he recently welcomed me. His face is plastered across the newspapers — both at home and abroad. He has joined a long list of writers, publishers, academics, professors and bloggers who remain under constant threat for expressing their liberal views.

Something eerie happened in the aftermath of Xulhaz and Tanoy’s deaths. As night fell that day, one by one, gay rights activists and minority rights activists started disappearing from social media. In bits and bits.

The roots of Xulhaz’s murder lay in the Pride Rally that was banned this year. For the past ­­­two years, Roopban, the LGBT magazine that Xulhaz was the editor of, organized a pride parade on April 14, a day that also celebrates the Bengali New Year.

While there hadn’t been much protest against the rally in the past, this year, it was shut down by a group ironically called The Voice of Bangladesh. They threatened to kill activists involved with the pride parade. The parade was thus cancelled, and four members of the LGBT community arrested.

Less than two weeks later, Xulhaz was killed.

Crowds gathered outside Xulhaz Mannan’s home.

Everyone — even the loudest and most outspoken activists — knew that this case wasn’t like the other ones. This was different. This was the first attack on a member of the LGBT community. This was the first attack that transcended a class boundary. Xulhaz was an official at USAID, a former protocol officer of the U.S. Embassy and the cousin of Bangladesh’s former foreign minister.

“If someone this well connected can be the victim, then people like me don’t matter at all,” a friend and LGBT activist from Bangladesh told me.

When I first heard the news and tried contacting some of my other friends, the searches came up empty on Facebook. Many had deactivated their accounts. Many had gone into hiding. Some friends who shared angry rants on Facebook in the immediate aftermath of the murder had also begun either deactivating their accounts or deleting their posts.

People were — literally — shutting up.

Imagine, a city against the night sky. A city with buildings and houses, with lit windows. And imagine, one by one, the lights begin to go out.

On the night of the murders, that’s what it felt like: the lights were going out. One window at a time. Those that weren’t put out by the others were now putting themselves out. A sense of deadly calm took over, replacing the chaos of protests that had spread through in the immediate aftermath of the murders.

Something about it looms ominous, and the people in Bangladesh know that. This was a sign that no one — no one — is safe.

This eerie silence, this calm after the storm in Bangladesh, reminds me of the calm in Xulhaz’s apartment on the evening two months ago when I visited him. Except this time it’s not the presence of the nice breeze through the window — it’s the presence of fear. A fear that has shocked us into silence, a fear that has seeped into our words, a fear that is here to stay.

Editor’s note: We are withholding the name and identity of the writer because of the sensitive nature of this topic.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.