The three of them of them sit perched at the edge the sofa, hands clenched in their laps, uncertainty and tension etched on their faces. They seem ready to flee at any moment.
They are so thin! It looks as if they haven't had a decent meal in days. They are engulfed by an aura of helplessness. I met them at an office in Kandapra, Tangail, about ten days after their eviction from the brothel in that town. Something twists painfully within me and their faces are imprinted on my mind.
They are around 20 to 30 years old. They'd rent a room in the brothel area and peddle sex. On July 12, the last day of the eviction drive that began at the beginning of this month, they left the locality in haste. The girl in dark blue says, "We fled for our lives."
The girl in a blue and white print sari says, "In the afternoon a group of men came and threatened to pour petrol over the place and set it on fire if we didn't leave within two hours. They disconnected the power lines." She had to leave behind the few possessions she had -- a thin mattress, three pillows, two electric fans and some pots and pans. She has left her infant with a relation and is now on the streets, having to "do" people for survival. There are many other girls on the streets too.
During the day they take refuge in the day-shelter of an NGO. They work the streets at night and sleep in an open verandah. They say at night, boys chase them, beat them up. They even beat up a pregnant sex-worker, leaving her legs sore and swollen. The girl in blue says that she sometimes earns only 50 to 100 taka, roaming the streets the whole night. Last night local hoodlums threatened her with a knife and took all her money. She has been raped. She voice chokes up as she speaks of losing her mother as a child.
I can't erase these three faces from before my eyes.
I remember an incident from 15 years ago. Officials of various government departments and a few hundred police carried out the eviction of the Tanbazar and Nimtali brothels in the dark of night. I was walking around the houses in Tanbazar the next morning, when I saw a girl in a room tucked away in the interior. She was unconscious, suffering from fever for three days. She was oblivious to the eviction, the hue and cry of the night. She rose from the dead in the morning to look at the devastation all around here. The vacant look in her eyes can never be forgotten.
Shamim Osman, who had been MP of the ruling party in Narayangang-4 at the time (and is presently MP too), was behind the Tanbazar eviction. The merciless eviction drive, in the name of rehabilitation, had blessings and active support from the top level of government. The actual motive of the MP was to destroy the financial standing of the brothel's pro-BNP landlords.
Now 15 years on, yet another July, those reportedly behind the eviction of the brothel in Tangail, are also all ruling party persons. They are the municipal mayor Shahidur Rahman Khan alias Mukti (General Secretary of the local Awami League unit), and his brother Zahidur Rahman Khan Kankon (General Secretary of the district businessmen's alliance and chamber president). Amanur Rahman Khan alias Rana, MP of Tangail-3 and District Awami League Religious Affairs Secretary, is also their brother. Another brother, Saniyat Khan alias Bappa is the central Vice President of Bangladesh Chhatra League.
The paternal home of the Khan brothers is adjacent to the Kandapara brothel.
A visit to the area on July 23 reveals that the three-acre locality has been almost completely razed to the ground. Even Ma Fatima Mandir, the sex workers' place of religious worship, has not been spared. The labourers inside the walled-territory are demolishing the buildings. Who are they working for? Some of them say, the landlords, others remain silent.
Lying in the rubble in a fancy frame is the image of a girl, posing next to a film star -- a dream dashed to the ground. In front of a demolished house lies a pair of high-heeled sandals, a child's shoes and a discarded condom.
The NGO HIV/AIDS Alliance Bangladesh (HASAB) had a health project in this century-old brothel area. According to a survey they conducted last June, 622 active sex workers and 129 children lived in 804 rooms of the 'village'. Then there were the ex-sex workers, now mashis ('madams'), pimps and others, about a thousand or so people in all residing there. Nari Mukti Sangha, the sex workers' organisation in Kandapara, maintains the population of the area was much higher.
There are 63 landlords of 68 plots in the area, according to the pourashava records. About 40 of them are women, former sex workers. Most of the male landlords are related to sex workers. Many of the landlord lives in the town and on the outskirts. They'd collect daily rent, 200 to 300 taka per sex worker, or more.
On the night of July 22 I went a few kilometres from the town, in search of some of the landlords. I found a sense of terror prevailing there. The people were unwilling to take in any tenant. The landlords were evicting some. Local ruffians from the town had even warned the human rights workers to keep their mouths shut.
The move for eviction began with the formation of the Tangail Oshamajik Karjyakolap Protirodh Committee on July 1, a committee purportedly to resist 'anti-social' activities in Tangail. President of the committee Al-Haj Moulana Abdul Aziz is the district Amir of Hefazat-e-Islam. The members are mostly ulema of the local mosques and madrassas. (A similar 'citizens committee' had been the front for the Tanbazar eviction drive.) On July 6 this committee submitted a memorandum to the municipal mayor, demanding that the 'body trade centre' be shut down immediately. On July 10 some people terrorised the sex workers. By 12 to 13 July, the terror has spread throughout the locality. The next day demolition of the houses began.
In the meantime, sex workers, people from all walks of life and even officials of the administration, say that the mayor and his brothers were behind this move. The name of the mayor and his brother Kankon is being heard the most. The ones issuing threats and spreading fear are Sanwar Hossain alias Sanu (Joint Secretary, district Jubo League) and Nasir Uddin Nuru (Joint Convenor, district Schecchashebok League) among others. They are said to be close associates of the mayor.
The leather warehouse of Al-Haj Mohammed Badsha Miah, Vice President of the 'resistance committee' is right on the doorstep of the brothel area, possibly upon the grave of the landlady Tora. Badsha denies any involvement with the mayor. He says on July 13 morning he saw Sanu and Nuru in front of the brothel area, but they claimed to be there to help the girls. Badsha says, there were no threats or coercion, the landlords left on their own accord.
A senior official of the administration, on condition of anonymity, says that the media made such a fuss about Shamim Osman, but even he is nothing compared to the Khan brothers. As I walked towards the pourashava, I looked intently at the posters of the three brothers posted up on the walls all over town.
The interview with the mayor was interesting indeed. He was dressed in pristine white kurta pajama, a dimple appearing every time he smiled sweetly. He said there was no scope for allegations because the girls had changed their professions voluntarily and left the locality. The official of the administration, sex workers and many others feel that the eviction was carried out in order to occupy the costly land located in the centre of the town. The mayor appeared shocked at such an allegation.
Earlier, a close associate of the mayor, who was the husband of a sex worker-turned-landlady, had dismissed such allegations. He was devastated at having lost his daily income of about 10 thousand taka from 52 rooms. However, he said that he would surely get the plots back in the coming days. The other landlords were not quite so confident about getting their land back. The landlords were quite particularly apprehensive.
The landladies and sadarnis who made their money off the girls, would manage. But the very common sex workers who lived submerged in poverty, crime and all sorts of exploitation, were devastated. Like the girl in the blue and white print sari said, "You can't live like this. Even a dog has a better life."
Before the eviction, no one from the administration, NGOs or human rights bodies came to stand beside them. The entire process was carried out with such speed, executed before anyone could make sense of what was happening.