Travelling in Bangladesh: Hartals

Hartals

Police presence during a hartal

 

A week before I was to fly out to Bangladesh the country entered a period of civil unrest and political tension. The media was telling me hartals (strikes) were occurring on a regular basis. Protests were being carried out in the capital Dhaka. 70 people had been killed so far and the violence was not looking like it was going to be ending soon. The unrest was due to continuing trials of alleged war criminals from the 1971 Liberation War. It was obvious that this country was in a period of turmoil. The question was: should I still be going to Bangladesh? I had a few contacts within the country and they told me that despite the news things were mostly fine and that I should just avoid the problem areas. Travel advice from my government was: reconsider your travel, exercise a high degree of caution. A few days out from my arrival the political party causing a lot of the tensions blocked the Chittagong highway and tourists (Bangladesh tourists that is) were stranded in the popular destination of Cox Bazaar. I felt like I was being pulled in too many directions and the more I researched the issue the harder it was to see it clearly. I decided to trust my Bangladesh contact who lives in Dhaka, I decided to still go.

I arrived into Bangladesh the night before another hartal. The first thing my airport pickup told me was, “We will take a motorbike? Is that ok? It will be safer.” When I asked why it would be safer his reply was, “Tomorrow is a strike so tonight lots of people are throwing rocks at cars.” I was horrified and also slightly confused, “Won’t they throw rocks at motorbikes?” His reply was simply, “On a motorbike you can get away faster.” This was my introduction to the country!

Despite the problems going on within the country I never once felt like I was in danger during my travels. While I was in Bangladesh 5 hartals were called. This meant some days there was nothing to do as life stops during a hartal. One day the political party derailed a train going from Dhaka to Sylhet. I was due to take that exact train the next day, needless to say I took a bus instead as I didn’t trust the erratic political party to not do it again. Though the hartals were an inconvenience for me, mainly because no public transport runs during a hartal, I was more struck at just how devastating these strikes were for the local people. The country shuts down during a hartal and this affects businesses greatly. Police presence is strong and the normally loud and boisterous streets are quiet and deserted. Unfortunately though for the Bangladesh people, hartals are a part of life.

The streets of Dhaka – normally the worst traffic in the whole world, but during a hartal the streets are deserted.

 

I felt very blessed to come from a country that doesn’t live with this ever present conflict. When you travel through a country where the political situation is so fragile, unpredictable and corrupt it opens your eyes to the fact that some people don’t live in a lucky country like Australia. But despite the problems within Bangladesh the people smiled. I think we can all learn something from that.

 

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