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Horror and Sorrow in Dhaka

By Tahmima Anam

July 4, 2016

When I was last in Dhaka, I used to take my son out in the car every afternoon. “Let’s go to Holey!” He would cry out from the back seat.

The Holey Artisan Bakery, just two years old, had become our firm favorite. The cakes were delicious, and it was the only place near home that had an open lawn. We took his mini-sized soccer ball with us, staying until dusk when the mosquitoes from the nearby lake drove us inside.

When the bakery first opened, it was just a counter with pastries and cakes. My husband and I sometimes joked we’d have to take out a mortgage to pay for the croissants — they were expensive — but the sunshine, the field, and the view of Gulshan Lake always lured us back.

As Holey became a popular family hangout, the owners built a pizza oven in the front, hired someone to make gelato and started serving tapas in the evenings.

On Friday, it was perhaps the tapas, or the pizza, or the open sky above the lawn that drew the dinner crowd, a mixture of Bangladeshis and foreigners. At about 8:45 in the evening, a group of heavily-armed men stormed and seized more than a score of diners as hostages.

The police arrived quickly, but when they attempted to enter the restaurant, they were met with heavy gunfire and grenades. Two officers were killed and many others were injured.

Over the course of the night, as the families of those inside held vigil on the street outside the restaurant, occasional gunshots could be heard. The militants singled out the foreigners for execution.

After nearly 12 hours of standoff, as dawn broke over the city, the army Special Forces finally succeeded in breaking the siege. Inside, they found the bodies of 20 victims and rescued at least 13 hostages. Among the dead, according to the police, were nine Italians, seven Japanese, an American, an Indian and two Bangladeshis.

Reports are still emerging about what exactly transpired. By some accounts, the gunmen assured the Bangladeshi hostages that they would be spared. Hostages were told to recite verses from the Quran in order to save themselves. According to an Indian newspaper, an Italian businessman who had stepped into the garden to make a phone call managed to hide in bushes and then escape — not knowing until later that his wife, trapped inside, had been murdered.

One victim’s story that stands out because of his courage was that of Faraaz Ayaaz Hossain, a 20-year-old Bangladeshi who had gone out to dinner with two friends, Tarishi Jain and Abinta Kabir. Mr. Hossain and Ms. Kabir, an American citizen, were both students at Emory University, in Atlanta, on vacation; Ms. Jain, who was from India, was studying at Berkeley.

According to witnesses, when the militants heard that Mr. Hossain was Bangladeshi, they offered to release him, but he refused to leave his two friends behind. When the army broke through the terrorists’ barricade, they found the bodies of all three, with Mr. Hossain are bearing marks of an intense struggle.

On Saturday morning, after the siege had ended and after many frantic calls and text messages exchanged with my family, we began to take stock of the carnage that had come to our capital. For those who lost loved ones, the loss is unimaginable and irreparable.

For the rest of us, the accounting means adjusting to a new and broken world. We know that our country and our city will never be the same again.

We know that the assurances of the authorities mean little. Given what just happened, last month’s police drive, which saw the arrests of more than 11,000 people supposedly in a crackdown on terrorism, merely exposes the government’s impotence in the face of these murderous militants. We may hope that the government will make peace with the opposition in order to tackle this darker threat, but we fear that this outrage in Dhaka will lead to more surveillance and exacerbate authoritarianism.

Further reports suggest that the assailants were not, as many expected to hear, from disenfranchised backgrounds. They were privately educated and from wealthy families — young men who easily might have been friends with some of the victims. Where does that leave us, knowing that these killers had every privilege in life and yet chose the path of nihilism?

It leaves us with this conclusion: We must accept that the story we have long told ourselves about our country may no longer be true. For months, I and many of my fellow Bangladeshis have wanted to believe that the targeted assassinations of writers, bloggers, publishers, gay rights activists, Hindu priests and foreign workers did not mean that Bangladesh was necessarily on a road to destabilization by violent extremists.

We felt sure that things must eventually go back to normal — normal being a Muslim-majority country with a secular Constitution and a robust tradition of social justice, diversity and pluralism. We did not believe Bangladesh could become one of those places where the wealthy barricade themselves behind high gates and private security, where embassies issue travel warnings and evacuate their staff, and where — God forbid — America sends its drones to target the militants.

Right now, all I care about is my city, about the innocent people who died in the café where my son learned to play soccer, about the three kids from my high school who met violent deaths beside the lake that was an oasis of calm in this bustling city.

Tomorrow, I may recover my sense of those truths about my country that I know to be fundamental. Today, I can only mourn what we have lost.

Tahmima Anam is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Bones of Grace” and a contributing opinion writer.