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Bangladeshi Independence Day


I started the day with the usual brekkie routine where inexplicably one intelligent looking soul was shocked somehow to learn that I was not Korean. Maybe it was the only foreign place he had ever heard of? It was a bit of a trek out in blistering heat to track down the Zia Memorial Museum, housed inside what the colonials had dubbed Circuit House. I originally mistook the building next door for it which was suitably grand and whitewashed and full of uniforms milling about, but it must have been some gathering for the impending ceremonies related to Independence Day. Not for the first time I knew that there had to be a parade of sorts going on but there was no information on it to be had it seemed. Circuit House had been Zia's presidential residence and was the spot at which he was subsequently assassinated in 1981, with bullet holes and blood spatters on a stairwell still left as a reminder. Displays showed the radio set with which he had declared Bangladesh's independence to the nation on 16th December 1971, with an effigy of him holding the transcript, notably written in English. Many photos showed him with other world leaders and also on a visit to the Bangladeshi community of Manchester. Eternally porting dark aviator raybans he looked a right bastard, he was almost akin to an African dictator in his perceived image of brutality. His native home at Bogra resembled a tiny Portugese church, which is perhaps what it had once been. As a founding father, it struck me that he was a poor excuse for a national hero and left me with the impression that he was symptomatic of the petty thuggery which had blighted this country from the start.

Another long sweaty trail out to the Chittagong Imperial War Cemetery was my first ever visit to a site of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, proving to be small but well tended as is their universal repute. It is one of 9 war cemeteries located around Burma, Assam and Bangladesh associated with the Burma campaign of World war II, having been fought against the invading Japanese from December 1941 until the Allied victory here, only realised just in time to see the armistice. My coming here was in part also a compensation since I had long hoped but failed to reach the more notorious battlegrounds of Kohima and Imphal in Assam, but the security and permit situation had not been conducive to a visit. This cemetery had originally been assigned for hospital deaths, Chittagong having served as a major Allied supply and support centre. The presence of many flight crews revealed how this had later been widened to encompass other isolated losses. To start with, a book at the entry gate holds the names of 6500 Allied seamen lost at sea, that being their only grave. Set out in neat rows with small squarish headstones, the majority of the graves were of Indian servicemen (pre independence and partition of course), though there were notably many Africans too. Among the unfortunates was a 16 year old of the Bhopal Own Infantry and "Fred" of the Rhodesian African Rifles, others only bore single names such as Paul, Samuel and Youngboy. Amongst more unusual ones was one bearing the crest of the Kingdom of the Netherlands but perhaps an Asian name, and the grave of a jewish boy of the RAF bore the Star of David, lost at the age of 19. One read Ali-Alam, Iceman, Merchant Navy, 12/2/1946, and there were token victims from various Scottish regiments including a Lt. Colonel MacLaren of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers. Even a guy of the Army Pay Corps copped it here. Of the aircrews, it was tragic to see whole groups of boys who had obviously been lost in the same action, with several Royal Canadian Air Force crews of 5 and an RAF crew of 9 lost like so many others after VE day, the stories of their demise left untold. Of the individuals, there was an Australian Wing Commander seconded to the RAF, also a couple of New Zealanders. What was most notable was the youth of the pilots, the guys were regularly aged only in their early 20s. All in all there are around 700 of the total Allied campaign losses of 45,000 here, many with names unknown.

I had had to hang around just killing time over cold drinks and suspiciously milky black coffee due to the cemeteries lunchtime closure, which left me purportedly too late to catch the Ethnological Museum open, but I hoofed maybe 3Ks in search of it anyway. A neighbouring hotel housed the GMG Airlines office where I wanted to reconfirm my flight due to the dubious nature of a seat suddenly becoming available after being told it was booked out. It also had the added incentive of a bar, and with the exception of another marathon trek to secure 3 tins of pricey grog in Dhaka, I had singularly failed to trace a beer in Bangladesh despite rumours to the contrary. The guidebook said that the stuff was freely available in Cox's Bazar for example but the only thing it had plenty of was aggressive rickshaw touts. Crap map syndrome put paid to that though, where the museum and hotel should have been turned out to be a filthy warren of metal workshops and shanty dwellings, I could not have imagined them being within a mile of this place. In compensation I finally managed to trace an elusive net cafe where important work was to check out the impending Bangkok airport and a city map. Believing there to be 2 airports at Bangkok, I learned that actually Suvarnabhumi was brand new and had only opened 6 months earlier to replace its overstretched predecessor. Accordingly, it had been designed with a foresight required to accommodate Asia's booming aviation sector, now sporting the worlds largest terminal, the longest runway and tallest control tower no less. I also thankfully managed individual emails to neglected friends at long last. It had been a really hot one that day, 36 degrees the paper had forecast, and so dark now with little else to do, I dodged the filth and destitution lined main drag in search of a beer once again. The guidebook told of a seedy haunt known as the Railwayman's Store, perhaps a widely known local euphemism, but all I found was a plain doorway with Restaurant and Bar written overhead. The suspiciously doubled layer of security seemed happy enough for me to supplement their wages so in I went to find a respectable looking restaurant with black and white decked waiters almost imperceptible in the darkness. I presumed instinctively that it was just "load shedding", local terminology for a power cut, but no, the reception was vaguely lit, the fans were turning, there was TV. It was just symptomatic of the hypocrisy and doubtless corruption which governed alcohol consumption hereabouts that it had to be done illicitly as it were. You literally couldnt be seen to be doing it in public, and so you did it in the dark. Of course the powers that be knew about it, they were probably partakers, it just had to be suitably smothered and inflated in price to cover their bribe. The onus certainly proved to be on the bar and not the restaurant aspect when they couldnt even muster so much as rice. I plumped for a few token offerings of beef with cucumber, washed down with the star attraction, a slightly warm tin of genuine bona fide Heineken. I got a shock upon receiving the bill though when it transpired they were asking a whopping 300 Taka a pop, the guidebook had suggested 170 and its similar quote for beer in Dhaka had been spot on. Suspecting a special foreigner price rip off, I queried 2 similarly imbibing boys through the gloom at the next table, but sure enough, it was 300 smackers, around 2 pounds 30 for a tin of Heiny. Nothing but nothing in Bangladesh ever cost that much. Having reckoned I was pretty spot on budgetwise, I had not wanted to be lumbered with a wad of doubtless difficult to change Taka after all, I now found myself short. In truth I could have covered it with my set aside airport fare and/or brekkie fund, but that would have necessitated drawing overmuch from an ATM to replace it, just to hand some of it to the Mafia. In a fit of daring, fuelled by distaste for the whole sad charade, I thereupon decided to take the only other option open to me. In Bangladesh of all places, I pleaded poverty. The incumbents I had first queried were obviously well heeled and offered to help out but that would have been a step too far, I just stuck to the guidebook line and offered them every last Taka I had. Obviously the godfather behind the desk wasnt impressed and wasnt having it, but asking what else I could do amid a series of excuses, I miraculously got off with it in the end. It had been a risky course to take but it was clear these guys werent short of a bob or two, unlike so many others just outside. I walked away making sure I wasnt about to get bounced, I would have almost fancied having a crack however at guys who epitomised what had forever buggered this country up. My conscience was clear and my tolerance level commensurately low enough so that that one tin of Heiny bagged me my first decent nights sleep in a week or more. On the way back to the hotel I tackled one more obstacle course around haggard individuals, contrasted by the odd tragic beauty asleep on the pavement like a fallen angel. Together with the unrivalled stench of strewn rotting garbage and random toileting, it made Chittagong's main drag Station Road a model of all that was wrong with the subcontinent, and though the people had proved endearing I now had my eyes firmly fixed only on Thailand.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Bangladesh

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