Where Death Squads Struck in Bangladesh

The fields, sidewalks and entryways are lighted harshly and drenched in color, giving even the most ordinary locales an ominous air. There are no people, which drives home the point that Shahidul Alam hopes to make: these were perhaps the last scenes glimpsed by the victims of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion before they died.

Hundreds of extrajudicial killings have been linked to the R.A.B., an anticrime group formed six years ago this month. Little has been done to stop the executions. They have been dubbed “crossfire” killings — after the manner in which the police say the victims died: during an exchange of gunfire.

Crossfire” is also the name of Mr. Alam’s ambitious new installation at the Drik Gallery in Dhaka, which he hopes will jolt the benumbed psyche of his countrymen.

“The information about the killings is known,” said Mr. Alam, a photojournalist and human rights advocate. “The public has it. The police have it. The government has it. And it has not made a difference. So, we have to find something to provoke people into action.”

The Rapid Action Battalion death squads have, in some sense, filled a vacuum.

“R.A.B. is seen as the force that can take out a lot of violent criminals,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “In a place that has become lawless and corrupt, people want something — anything — to happen.”

Shahidul Alam

Instead of a literal document of the killings, Mr. Alam created a series of large images that are evocative of the places where the victims were murdered or discovered — a still-life film noir in Technicolor. With the help of researchers, he examined cases to point out inconsistent details in the official accounts.

A garment is photographed intact, even though the victim had been shot four times. A field that was supposedly the scene of a shootout is portrayed undisturbed, suggesting the corpse had only been dumped there.

At the Drik Gallery, spotlights will shine on the images. There will be an online Google map where people can add details about certain killings.

“We want to create a space where the public can get involved,” Mr. Alam said. “There are a lot of people whose lives have been affected by this, but they have not had a means of engaging the issue.”

The exhibition is curated by Jorge Villacorta, a Peruvian critic and curator who met Mr. Alam as part of a network of artists and writers participating in the programs of the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development.

Mr. Villacorta saw an echo of Peru’s past.

“The subject of disappearances is sadly very familiar to a Peruvian my age,” he wrote in an e-mail message this week. “I was born in 1958, and was in my early 20s when Shining Path violence started in Peru and the military’s murderous repression policies irreparably damaged the rule of law.”

Mr. Alam knows well the dangers of the path before him. An exhibition of photographs of Tibet provoked the Chinese government to protest the show and pressure the Bangladesh government. Riot police shut down the show.

Thirteen years ago, when the Drik Gallery was the meeting place for government opponents, the reaction was rougher yet. On his way to the gallery, Mr. Alam was pulled out of a rickshaw by a group of men who stole his computer, stole his camera — and stabbed him eight times.

“It was a particularly unsubtle warning,” he said.

His current show poses even greater risk, one which he feels he must assume.

“I haven’t been knifed in 13 years, so I’m doing quite well,” Mr. Alam said. “But the onus is upon us. I hope there is more credibility and good will for what we do. We’ll have to see.”

[original]

spotted by RS

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