Published in The Independent on 23 August 2011

A petite redhead stares out the window from her ward in United Hospital.  Dhaka’s skyline is unusually gloomy, but appropriate in the circumstances.

“It’s so frustrating,” says the Hungarian, while shifting uncomfortably in a hospital bed.  “I don’t even know what Bangladesh looks like.”

Eszter was robbed of that opportunity within six hours of arrival — along with her bag, passport, credit cards – and 20 percent of her skin.  When a nurse enters to check on her dressings, Eszter begs for more painkillers but is told she must wait another half hour.  She is crestfallen, but somehow finds the strength to recount a brutal mugging that took place three days earlier.

Muggers caught by Gulshan Police. Photo: NAYEM AHMED JULHAS

After settling into a hotel in Gulshan 1, Eszter and her travel companion decided to have dinner at The Eight.  As it was nearby, the hotel’s receptionist recommended they travel by rickshaw rather than CNG.  Once outside, a local told the rickshaw driver where to go – but, unbeknown to Eszter and Andrew, the driver proceeded in the direction of Banani.  As the rickshaw approached Kamal Attaturk Avenue along Banani’s Road 11, a hand stretched out from a passing car and grabbed Eszter’s bag, which was strapped diagonally across her waist.  She hit the road like a brick, but for a few seconds desperately tried to resist losing the contents of her bag.  Andrew watched in horror as his friend was dragged along the road at a high speed for around 150 metres, before the muggers eventually released their grip and sped off.  Andrew spent the next three days battling with an insurance company to move forward their return flights and to cover medical expenses.  When he arrived to visit Eszter around nightfall, he appeared pale and drained.

Immediately after the attack, Andrew had called Kamal, the only person he knew in Bangladesh.  When he arrived on the scene, Kamal was horrified by the gravity of Eszter’s injuries.

“There was a lot of blood and her clothes were torn.  She’d lost a lot of skin on her calves, thighs, back, and bottom – I could see the flesh.”

While receiving initial treatment in a small emergency room in Prescription Point, Eszter shook as she tried to hold onto the bed; she was barely able to stand, but sitting down was out of the question.

Kamal recalled, “She looked at me and said, ‘I’m not a ‘mummy’s girl’ – it’s just that the pain is so unbearable that tears are rolling down my face.”

Eszter cried out as her leg was washed and rubbed with cotton wool, but Kamal noticed that, “the doctors and nurses seemed unaffected.”

When the police arrived, they refused to take a statement and insisted a general diary be filed at the station.  Andrew complied on the incapacitated victim’s behalf.

Kamal said, “The police told us there have been other incidents like this, but they weren’t helpful or compassionate.  They treated it as a routine job.”

A few weeks later, Eszter wrote to me from Hungary.  “The bandages are off, but it will take some time to digest what happened.”  Two weeks later she wrote again, “I am much better…  The big downside now is that I can’t go under the sun.”

After visiting Eszter in hospital on that grey afternoon, I was so disturbed that I couldn’t sleep until noon the following day.  Not only was the crime utterly reprehensible, I knew it wasn’t a one-off.

A couple of months earlier, I’d heard of another woman who had suffered a similar fate; though some of the details were even more sinister.  The victim described her ordeal to The Independent on condition of anonymity.  “A” had arrived home with a friend one night when a car pulled up as they were knocking at the entrance gates.  Before the security guards appeared, the victim saw a group of men jump out of the car and run towards her: she has no memory of what followed next.  Her friend, who was not targeted, watched the men beat “A” with a gun, stick and shoe, while trying to pull her inside the vehicle.

The next thing “A” remembers is being dragged along the road by her arm, while the attackers pointed a gun at her face.  Her head was centimetres away from being crushed under a tyre.  After 100 metres or so, the criminals released her and took off with her bag.

“A”s feet, legs, hips, arms, torso and head were injured, and a wound on her knee required stitches.  A considerable amount of skin and flesh had been scraped off her shin, so she was referred to a plastic surgeon.

“I was on crutches for about a month, and it was about six weeks before I was back to full strength – apart from the scars, which may never go.”

Why was “A” beaten and dragged along the road at gunpoint when her bag could have been stolen as soon as she was confronted by a weapon?  As she sees it, “It was an awfully messy, excessively violent and inefficient tactic… It seems as though [the criminals] were intent on causing as much short-term damage as possible.”

According to Officer in Charge of Gulshan Police Station Shah Alam, incidents of mugging by “car-dragging” began five years ago.  The tactic is reminiscent of the violence depicted in the film A Clockwork Orange; where a young psychopath called Alex leads a gang that engages in “ultra-violence” for pleasure.  Material gain is not the aim of their game.

“A”s description of the criminals seems to fit within the sadistic theme, though drug abuse is also a likely contributing factor.  She said, “They were well built, clean-shaven and well-dressed, wearing punjabis with trousers and jeans.  They looked like the private university types.  The car, a Toyota Corolla, looked new.”

“A” said, “Psychologically, I wasn’t as traumatised as I’d expected… I thought I seemed as I was before and carried on… Though of course I didn’t go out alone for some time.”

“Only about two months later did I realise I was suffering from a kind of low-level anxiety – not really feeling myself, feeling low, and lacking in motivation and energy.”

Although many of “A”s friends and family members provided sympathy and support, others said she’d asked for trouble by staying out late.

“I was already going through a complex well of emotions – including guilt and shock – as it is, without people telling me I had invited such brutality upon myself. That still upsets me to this day, several months later.”

In Bangladesh, as well as many other parts of the world where feminist movements to “reclaim the night” have not taken place, there is a perception that the night “belongs” to men.  Unsurprisingly, “A” said that the patriarchal attitudes expressed impeded her recovery.

Gulshan police with cars recovered from muggers. Photo: Jessica Mudditt

Many foreigners revel in Dhaka’s nightlife, whether it be foreign clubs or house parties, but a significant proportion cannot afford to follow the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office’s safety and security advice for Bangladesh, which is in line with that of most other nations – to travel by private car.  The foreign office’s website cautions that, “Passengers using ”cycle rickshaws” and ”CNGs” or traveling alone in taxis are particularly vulnerable, especially at night.  If traveling alone, you should try to avoid using public transport. We do not recommend ”cycle rickshaws” as a safe mode of transport.”  Moreover, Associate Professor for Sustainable Development at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh Rathana Peou said that several interns have been mugged in the morning while traveling to work on rickshaws.

An embassy on request of anonymity told The Independent, “We are aware of at least fourteen incidents of robbery or mugging against foreign nationals in the Gulshan 1 and 2 and Banani districts so far in 2011.”  Although the statistics are not comprehensive, each of those reported were using public transport or walking at the time, and most attackers used firearms or bladed weapons.

In terms of what action a victim of crime should take after an offence, the UK’s foreign office website’s states, “We have had reports of officials sometimes abusing their authority. You should be accompanied when visiting police stations.”

When a woman’s bag was stolen in front of Gulshan Police Station, his fiancé  filed a case at Gulshan and called RAB.  He said, “I was ashamed and disgusted at the officers, who couldn’t have cared less.”

There is also a public perception that police are reluctant to enforce the law against certain offenders, namely the Chattra League, the ruling Awami League government’s student wing.  When I put this allegation to Shah Alam, he said that during his four-month tenure, “No crimes were committed by members of the Chattra League.  Some of the criminals were BNP members.”

“Write that down,” he added.

A senior police official (name withheld) said, “We have a guilty conscience because these criminals should be punished.  Only some are caught and treated as per the law.”

He added, “In my opinion, the modus operandi of the muggings involving cars indicates that there might be groups of criminals who only target foreigners.”

However Shah Alam was keen to emphasise that, “We are very serious about the safety and security of foreigners.  We will stop the criminals – it’s our duty.”

Alam reported that over the last four months, he has arrested 18 muggers and recovered six cars – every time, it’s been a white Toyota Corolla.  Several lie rotting at Gulshan police station.  However he also pointed out that more funds are needed in order to catch more criminals – he has enough personnel, but an inadequate number of vehicles to patrol the streets.

When I asked for an emergency police contact number, Shah Alam said, “999.”  However when I then tried to dial the number using my mobile phone, he informed me that it only works from a landline.  The alternative offered was 0119 100 1144, and he said he would ask his superiors to make 999 calls operational from any type of phone*.

While conducting research about muggings in Dhaka, I was overwhelmed by the number of foreigners and Bangladeshis who contacted me to describe their personal ordeals.  According to Shah Alam, “Crime in a general sense has gotten worse.”   Sadly, perhaps it will have to get even worse before it gets better.

* On October 3 2011, Gulshan police advised that there is now a 24-hour help desk at the Gulshan Police Station to assist foreigners who are victims of crime in the diplomatic zone. Foreign victims of crime can contact the 24-hour police hotline for assistance on this number: 0171 339 8355.

An Australian High Commission press release advised: “If you are a victim of a serious crime in the diplomatic zone, we advise you to report the crime to the Gulshan police by calling the hot-line and then file a First Instance Report (FIR) at Gulshan Police Station.”