Thousands of kilometres from their home country, where their cries for justice for the 1971 war crimes spilled on to the streets from online posts, there is a bitter sense of closure for Bangladeshi bloggers. Jamaat-e-Islami leader Motiur Rahman Nizami has been executed for his role in the massacres, but even this victory remains pyrrhic, coming at the cost of their own freedoms.
“Why should we flee the country and stay in fear? Even perpetrators of war crimes and those who attacked us live freely with power and money in Bangladesh,” says Md. Mahmudul Haque Munshi who founded the Blogger and Online Activist Network and was one of the organisers of the 2013 Shahbag protests. Mr. Munshi has been living near Cologne in southern Germany since November 2015, having fled a few weeks after the murder of fellow blogger Niladri Chatterjee.
Bloggers under threat estimate that around 50 members of this “close-knit community” have already fled the country, many escaping through family ties in the U.S., the U.K. or Canada.
Mr. Munshi is one among at least 20 bloggers who have sought asylum in mainland Europe since 2013. Most have come through scholarships and fellowships from private foundations, some of which have received hundreds of applications from fleeing Bangladeshi bloggers and writers.
Through their networks, these bloggers believe that at least 1,000 activists and journalists have come under the scanner of fundamentalist groups in Bangladesh. With April seeing more murders of professors and editors in Bangladesh, the exodus may intensify.
This is not to say, however, that these countries are safe havens; threats follow these bloggers in their flight. In September 2015, the Ansarullah Bangla Team issued a “global hit list”, which included bloggers in exile in Germany, the U.K., the U.S., Canada and Sweden. “We will liquidate them wherever we find them across the world,” the threat read.
Journalist and blogger Nirhjar Mazumder, seeking anonymity of the country that he has escaped to, fled Bangladesh nearly two years ago. But he sees his name “in conversations by Syrian jihadist groups online”. Mr. Mazumder, whose writings have antagonised Islamists as well as the Bangladeshi armed forces, says: “The police took me to safe custody, and ensured my identity was removed from accessible public records. I have been asked to minimise the use of social media, and even reduce communication with my family.” Killing a blogger abroad sets a narrative of fear that aids the organisations which now claim affiliation to the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, he says. Back in Bangladesh, Mr. Mazumder’s family continues to receive threat calls from radical outfits as well as security agencies.
In 2004, secular writer and scholar Humayun Azad fled to Germany after he was attacked in Dhaka. A few weeks later, he was found dead under suspicious circumstances in Munich. Though the memory of his father’s death is yet to fade, 26-year-old Ananya Azad, an atheist blogger, has sought safety in a similar way a decade later. “There are many Jamaat members now living in Europe. Islamic fundamentalists can do anything anywhere. Paris and Brussels are proof, and so we can’t say we will be safe in Europe,” he says. His name also features in the “global hit list” that was published after his arrival in Hamburg in June 2015.
In the months before he left his country, Mr. Azad says, he would stay locked in his house. If he ventured outside, he would ensure he wore a helmet. Others like him have described their last days in Bangladesh as living in fear of who would be attacked next.
For Mr. Munshi, it was a chance encounter with a fellow Bangladeshi at a dinner party a few weeks after his arrival in Germany that served as a rude reminder of his identity. “He approached me, asked about my work in Bangladesh, and my life here. He even insisted on taking pictures with me… It was only later that I found out that he was a member of the Jamaat seeking asylum here,” he says.
In Bangladesh’s fractured politics, it isn’t just radical Islamists who force writers out. In New York, a freelance journalist has sought refuge after the Awami League-led government filed cases against him for his stories of police atrocities. “The situation is such that you can neither say anything against fanatics nor be critical of the government,” he says on the condition of anonymity. Hiding for more than a year now, he believes his “silence” could pave the way for his return. “I have been out of the country for a reasonable time. I have stopped writing about dangerous issues in Bangladesh. Just becoming silent about everything is a good option,” he says.
The new normal
In some ways, the violence has had the impact the Islamists wanted. Bloggers, says Mr. Munshi, fear writing. “Before 2013, it was relatively easy for anyone to write about religion. Now, everyone is silent.”
Not everyone agrees, however. “If we don’t write, how will people understand that religious fundamentalists are the enemy of mankind,” asks Mr. Azad. “Gross violations of human rights have been sidelined in the name of a greater Islamic cause. If we don’t write, fundamentalists will win.”
Mr. Munshi says he uses the free time offered by his exile to write his memoir, Fighting With The Darkness, while others continue their activism through social media despite the threats that fill the comments section.
But the bloggers harbour little hope of return in the near future to their country. With the list of those being attacked now growing — LGBT activists and minority groups included — “Bangladesh, in no sense, is a secular country at this moment,” says Mr. Mazumder. “And I have doubts whether it could be secular again.”