Nearly two dozen people gathered on a rooftop in Shahinbagh, a sleepy neighbourhood in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, have one thing in common: all of them have loved ones who have been missing, some for years.
With vacant eyes that betrayed strain and weariness, each person at the gathering – mostly women and children – was holding the photograph of their loved ones who have disappeared.
The meeting on Wednesday was organised by “Mayer Daak” (‘Mothers’ Call’ in Bengali), a group that represents the families of the victims of forced disappearance of opposition members and activists.
Mayer Daak has been conducting such gatherings for nearly six years, apart from organising public rallies including one held on Saturday, where family members formed a human chain to press the authorities to find their family members.
“When my husband was picked up by some plainclothed men on the night of December 2, 2013, I was four months pregnant,” Farzeena Akhter told Al Jazeera.
“My son, who is nearly six years old now, has never seen his father’s face,” she said.
‘A thousand nights wait’
Akhter’s husband Parvez Hossain was the secretary general of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party in the Muslim-majority country.
Before the 2014 general elections in Bangladesh, Hossain, along with four other men, was allegedly picked up by law enforcement personnel in plain clothes.
“We have gone to many places, to the police, the detective branch (DB) and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) since then. None of them could provide any information. I have spent more than a thousand nights waiting for his return. Now, I just want to know whether he is alive or not,” she said.
The RAB is an elite anti-crime and “anti-terrorism” unit of police and military.
Akhter’s eight-year-old daughter Adiba Islam Ridhi couldn’t reply when asked what she remembered of her father. “I want my father back. I miss him so much,” she said, her voice choking.
Dhaka-based human rights organisation Odhikar has documented 505 enforced disappearances between 2009-2018, the first two terms of the Awami League (AL)-led Grand Alliance government, which returned to power for a third consecutive term at the beginning of this year.
A 2017 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and another produced last month by Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) detailed how state actors, including military and police, worked in tandem to make people disappear.
“Of the 507 cases of enforced disappearances that have been documented by civil society organisations from January 2009 to the end of 2018, 62 people were found dead, 286 returned alive, and the whereabouts of 159 disappeared persons are still unknown,” the FIDH report said.
‘Silencing criticism and dissent’
Both reports cited a rise in the forced disappearances of political workers and dissidents opposed to the AL-led government.
“The systematic nature of this targeting suggests that enforced disappearances are being used as a political tool by the government to silence criticism and dissent,” the FIDH report read.
“State law enforcement agencies – particularly RAB and the detective branch of the police – have been involved in secret detentions and killings, despite public assertions to the contrary,” the HRW report said.
Adnan Chowdhury, a BNP activist, was picked up from his home on the night of December 4, 2013 by a group of people wearing RAB uniforms.
“I am certain that RAB took my son,” said his father Ruhul Amin Chowdhury. “I saw people wearing that uniform coming to my house and take him.”
He says his son was taken because of his political affiliation.
“I believe the RAB can pick anyone but they don’t have the capacity to give them back unless there are orders from those with more power. This is completely the policy of the government,” Chowdhury said.
He said he had no hope now of his son returning after having waited for six years.
Asked why he attended the Mayer Daak gathering, he said, “Because my wife Fatema Begum still believes our son is alive.”
Begum said seeing others at the meeting gave her some consolation. “All of us here know how it feels. I can’t explain the agony of not knowing whether your near and dear ones are alive or not,” she said, holding her son’s photograph.
Mufti Mahmud Khan, head of the RAB’s media wing, denied the charges. “We don’t know anything about these missing persons,” he told Al Jazeera.
Hazera Khatun founded Mayer Daak in August 2014 to create a platform for the family members of the victims of forced disapearances in Bangladesh.
Her son Sajedul Islam Shumon was a well-known BNP leader from Dhaka’s Shaheenbagh area and was picked up, along with five others, on December 4, 2013 allegedly by the RAB.
Shumon’s sister Sanjida Islam said they met senior RAB officers after her brother went missing, who she said “informally admitted” to picking him and the others.
“One former RAB officer told us that the men were brought into his custody immediately after being picked up, but were then taken away by other RAB officials. He now assumed they had all been killed,” she told Al Jazeera.
Khatun hosted the latest Mayer Daak meeting at her home, with her family providing the main financing for the group. “I still hope my son is alive,” said the 78-year-old.
“We met before Eid-ul Fitr. We try to do that each year to let everyone out there know that we also have the wish and right to celebrate a joyous occasion like Eid with all our family members.”