COLUMN ONE : For These Returnees, Suffering : Unlike Western hostages enjoying their warm homecoming from the gulf, Bangladeshis find deepening poverty at home--and neighbors who still revere Hussein.
There were no yellow ribbons in the cracked and crumbling lanes around Shantinagar to welcome Anisul Haq Khan home to the ghettoes of Bangladesh when he returned from Kuwait a wrecked man last September.
One of 64,000 Bangladeshis working in Kuwait when Saddam Hussein’s forces overran the Persian Gulf nation Aug. 2, the 42-year-old Khan was a catering supervisor at a Kuwaiti air force base. The job for the past nine years was the sole income for 10 of his relatives back home and the basis of his dreams for a future free of the poverty of his homeland.
“I have been very sick since I got home--mentally disturbed,” Khan said this week in a near-whisper. “For so many years I have had a dream, a plan, a future. Now, I am not even out on the sidewalk; I am in the drain.”
Perhaps it was the way Khan’s dream was so cruelly shattered that made it so hard to bear. Perhaps it was the shared anonymity of poverty awaiting him on Dhaka’s mean streets, where he became sick after his return.
But Anisul Haq Khan’s tragedy is not just a personal one. Hussein’s invasion touched off a national disaster for Bangladesh, making the already impoverished country almost unimaginably poorer. Already, it has cost the nation half a billion dollars, one-seventh of its annual budget, in lost workers’ remittances and export earnings from Iraq and Kuwait.
The gulf crisis instantly impoverished nearly 1 million people in a nation where the annual per-capital income was only $115 even before Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Khan’s is just one of tens of thousands of untold horror stories in the Third World, nightmares deepened by destitution and all but ignored by a Western world preoccupied with its own human drama in the crisis.
Unlike most of the freed American and European hostages streaming out of Iraq this week to warm welcomes back home, Khan was not treated well by his Iraqi captors. He was caged in a Baghdad warehouse along with 1,100 other Asians, held at gunpoint for 44 days with no room to sleep and only a handful of rice and bread each day.
“We suffered much more than the Americans and the British,” said A. S. Tajul Hassan, another refugee from Kuwait who now heads an association set up to look after fellow returnees like Khan. “The Iraqis did not consider us as human beings. . . . They thought we were just like animals.”
And there were no television cameras on hand to record Khan’s story when he arrived at Zia International Airport 20 pounds lighter, his insides ripped up from the used radiator water that his Iraqi guards provided for drinking. And there was no sympathy from his relatives, an extended family of 40 that shares a seven-room house in downtown Dhaka, where already there was too little for too many.
In fact, Khan returned to a wholly unsympathetic nation where the crushing poverty breeds resentment of the more “fortunate” like himself. And he came home to a fervently Islamic country where Saddam Hussein is revered as a great and powerful hero, where there is no popular outrage toward a conquering dictator who abused his people and those of Kuwait.
Here, the bazaars are bedecked with Hussein posters and the living rooms plastered with Hussein calendars. For Khan and his fellow returnees, it was a homecoming not unlike that of an American prisoner of war returning to the taunts and jeers of anti-war protesters after months in a North Vietnamese bamboo cage.
The support for Hussein is paradoxical, considering what his actions have cost Bangladesh. Already first on a U.N. list of the world’s poorest countries, it now is also first on the U.N. list of nations worst-hit by the international sanctions against Iraq.
And, against the backdrop of internal political unrest and rampant unemployment, the gulf crisis has sent home to Bangladesh at least 64,000 workers who had each supported, on average, 11 relatives here, a ratio nearly double that of Pakistan, India, the Philippines and other suffering nations.
“We’re at the top of the list of most-affected nations, but we have not yet received a single taka (the Bangladeshi currency),” said A. R. Shamsud Doha, a former foreign minister. “We’ve gotten a lot of black-bordered letters, but, aside from internationally financed flights to get our people home, what have we gotten? The British call it tea and sympathy, but even the tea is our own.
“Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, the so-called front-line states, have gotten billions in compensation, but what has Bangladesh gotten? We’re not front-line, with a million people affected?”
One need not venture far from the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka to feel the full impact of the gulf crisis here. It has devastated entire villages--places like Mandail, a 20-minute ride from Dhaka in an ancient dugout canoe that remains the staple of transport in riverine Bangladesh.
When Hussein invaded Kuwait, there were just 10 young men from Mandail working in Kuwait, but the hundreds of thousands of taka they sent home each year was the main support for the village of several thousand.
Almost a tenth of the population depended directly on their earnings, and, working on razor-thin profit margins, the village’s tiny shops--made of corrugated tin, bamboo and straw--depended on their patronage as well.
When two Western journalists dropped in on Mandail this week, virtually the entire village turned out to discuss the impact of the crisis. They gathered around the tiny, two-room shed of Mohammed Rafique Kaisar and listened as the 35-year-old day laborer, who fled Kuwait in late September, spoke of the dimensions of the disaster.
Before the invasion, Kaisar said, he was earning about 6,000 taka a month (about $160) helping skilled bricklayers at construction sites in Kuwait. His younger brother was working there, too, at about the same salary, as was his nephew. Together, they sent more than half of their earnings home to Mandail each week.
It was a financial windfall for his large family, added Mohammed Nawad Mia, Kaisar’s leathery-skinned father, who reckoned his age at 80 and stroked his white, foot-long beard. Once, he recalled, the family survived by farming a half-acre but was driven toward the city when the river eroded it away.
“I was so happy when my sons went to Kuwait,” the old man recalled. “The money used to come from there and we could run our entire family with that money--15 or 16 people in all. We were so overjoyed.
“It raised a lot of hope in the family. My two sons are in Kuwait, I thought, and it will lift us from the hardship. But it’s all hardship now, hardship and pain. Where can the dream be now? There is no hope.”
Kaisar said he has spent each day of the three months he has been home looking for work, but there is none.
“So I’m doing nothing, really,” he said. “I’m borrowing from friends in the city and just hanging on. I’ve borrowed 35,000 taka already. I don’t know what to do. And the hardest part is, well, we just don’t have any money.”
It’s hard on Mohammed Ashraf, too. He owns a tiny shop in the village where he sells biscuits and bread.
“Before the crisis, I was selling 1,000 to 1,200 taka worth a day,” he said. “Now, it’s down to 300 or 400. Now, I’m borrowing money from others, also. I was born here, my father was born here. My grandfather was born here, and, since I have been aware of things, I have never seen the situation as bad as it is now.”
Eventually, the conversation came around to Saddam Hussein, the man responsible for Mandail’s nightmare.
“Well, what can I say about him?” Kaisar said with a nervous laugh. “I used to think he was a good man, but Saddam now has kicked me in my belly. How can I say he’s a good man now?”
But inside the day laborer’s two-room tin shanty, which he now shares with his wife, two children and four members of his brother’s family, was a 1991 calendar bearing Saddam Hussein’s beaming portrait. Kaisar looked as surprised as his guests when they asked about it.
“My nephew bought it and put it up just this morning,” Kaisar said finally, after asking around the group gathered outside. “It hurts to look at. I’ll take it down. But the boy didn’t mean any harm. He’s just a . . . little boy, and he doesn’t know any better.”
Outside the hut, Kaisar produced the boy, 8-year-old Munir Hussain.
“I bought it for three taka (about 10 cents) in the market,” Munir explained. “My father gave me the money for food, but I bought this calendar instead.”
“Why?” he was asked.
“Because it looks beautiful,” he replied.
“Do you know who Saddam Hussein is?”
“Yes. He lives in Iraq.”
“Do you like him?”
“Yes. I love him.”
“But this is the man who invaded Kuwait and hurt your family,” the guests prodded the boy.
“I know. It’s not a good thing. But I love Saddam.”
The guests then tracked down the shopkeeper selling the Hussein calendars, a young Mandail resident named Sohel.
“The whole of Bangladesh is full of Saddam Hussein’s portrait,” Sohel said, attempting to explain the contradiction. “The kids come and ask for school notebooks with his picture on it. They love him. I love him. I love him more than my own life. If Saddam is not there, I am not there.”
“But how can you love Saddam after he has ruined your village?” the shopkeeper was asked.
“It (the invasion) was bad for those who were there, but for us here, we don’t see the connection,” Sohel replied. “We see only the strong man of Islam, the tiger who defends the faith.”
Back in the capital, Tajul Hassan, the president of the Bangladesh Assn. of Kuwait, which is looking after returnees like Kaisar, had a more convincing explanation.
“You see, for 10 years we built up Saddam Hussein as the great leader of the Arab world who was bravely defending Islam against this mad ayatollah,” Hassan said, depicting Iraq’s 1980-88 war with Iran as a struggle against the fundamentalist Shiite branch of Islam preached by its late religious leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Hassan added that he, too, has spent many unsuccessful hours trying to persuade his own relatives that Hussein is not a hero.
“We cannot change this overnight,” he said. “And besides, ours is a country that loves strong leaders. We worship people like Genghis Khan and Hitler for their power and strength. So, of course, the majority of my country loves Saddam Hussein even now.”
To further illustrate the gap of experience between nations such as the United States and his own, Hassan told what happened to him when he finally escaped Kuwait and arrived at Dhaka’s airport in late September.
After 10 years of working as a naval architect for the Kuwait Shipbuilding & Repair Yard Co., Hassan left behind a late-model Japanese car, color television, videocassette recorder and a houseful of furniture when he fled. And he endured a five-day odyssey through the refugee camps of Iraq and Jordan.
Throughout the ordeal, he carried just one suitcase containing a jug for water and clothes for himself, his wife and 4-year-old daughter. But when he got home, everything in the suitcase was stolen, apparently by the baggage handlers in Dhaka.
“What I had protected for five days, the last of my worldly possessions, had been taken from me in the distance from the plane to the baggage belt here in Dhaka,” he said with an ironic laugh.
“You see, you just cannot compare our situation and your situation. If a country is poor, it is poor in all respects.”