Raise your hand who knows Bangladesh! I do not speak of those who have heard of it, but of those who know its history, its cultural roots, the current economic and social situation characterized by the exploitation of workers – even minors – by large multinational companies in the sectors of the textile and agricultural production (as for rice and tea), the condition of religious minorities, including the Christian one, the role of women …. And I could go on ahead.
Bangladesh is a very complex country that the West began to follow, mediatically speaking, on the night between 1st and 2nd July 2016, when the video cameras were lit on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Gulshan, a restaurant in the wealthy neighborhood in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh. To be clear, the neighborhood where most of the embassies of the world are located, including the Italian one. And that night, among the victims, nine of our countrymen lost their lives – after being tortured – in an attack carried out in perfect Daesh style by young rich scions who had attended international and renowned institutes and who, before killing, asked to recite verses from the Koran, slaughtering those who were not able to do it, and all this close to our diplomatic representation. Some of the victims were celebrating with their relatives and friends the return journey home that they would make the following morning. Death always knows how to be extremely cruel and mocking.
An event of such proportions had never occurred until then. And Italy had never been struck to the heart so violently and unexpectedly. So much so that the president of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, in those days visiting Mexico, felt the need to return home to accommodate the bodies of our fellow citizens at Ciampino airport. It was 5th July 2016 and few newspapers devoted space to this news, unfortunately judged marginal and of little national importance.
In fact, Bangladesh had been the focus of media attention a few years earlier, on 24th April 2013, with the collapse of the Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building in the Savar area, also in Dhaka. It took more than twenty days to extract the 1,129 victims and 2,515 injured by the rubble. An event that has gone down in history as the most serious fatal accident in a textile factory since ever, as well as the most deadly accidental structural breakdown of the modern era. To spark with optimism and confidence the spotlight of the world on Bangladesh, was Pope Francis with his recent trip, from 30th November to 2nd December last.
To try to understand better in what kind of country the Holy Father had chosen to stay for his twenty-first international trip, immediately after the visit to Myanmar, with the complex matter of the outcast Muslim minority of Rohingya, I went, a dozen days before of his arrival, both in Dhaka and in other more remote places of Bangladesh: in the north-west, in the tea region, in the center of Syleth, and in the north-east, in the area of Dinajpur, not far from the border with India.
The goal was to see with my own eyes and translate into images for Today (the TV2000 television programme about overseas, broadcast every Monday, in the late evening, on channel 28 of the digital terrestrial and 140 of Sky), the former East Pakistan, that part of territory divided from Pakistan after a bloody war of independence lasted a few months, from 26th March to 16th December 1971. A country ruled by a woman Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, orphan daughter of the Father of the Nation, the former President of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, killed in an attack along with other family members, by army officers in August 1975.
Having landed after endless hours of travel, with a stopover in Doha, Qatar, in the chaotic international airport of Dhaka – which does not really have anything international – my dismay was remarkable: noise pollution, smog blanket that envelops the city and makes you breathe with difficulty, and general misery that characterizes its inhabitants – and not only in the slums of which I was able to interview the inhabitants thanks to the help of the Sisters of Holy Child Mary who have always accompanied me throughout my journey – they are omnipresent, night and day, 24 hours a day. Because Bangladesh is still the most densely populated country in the world and, although in recent years it is experiencing a real economic renaissance, thanks to the very low price of labor, exploited by several textile multinationals that also find in children the fodder they need for their profit, economic development does not go hand in hand with the protection of religious minorities, such as Christians and Hindus, who are increasingly being attacked. And even if I never felt in real danger in the days when I traveled far and wide to Bangladesh, often visiting places where no Westerner has ever set foot before me, much less a journalist with a video camera, it is also true that I have often perceived the indiscretion of the looks and the pressing and intriguing proximity of people. But it is part of my job and Bangladesh remains for me a welcoming and moving country in which I do not deny that I want to come back one day.