ON THE NIGHT OF 5 AUGUST, a couple of dozen men turned up at Shahidul Alam’s house in Dhaka. They dragged him from his apartment, bound and screaming, smashing surveillance cameras on the way out. A few family members and friends who lived in nearby apartments heard thuds, shouting and the screech of tyres. Alam’s partner, Rahnuma Ahmed, was with a neighbour, so she could not react in time.
By the time anyone fully realised what was going on, Alam had been thrown into a white van and driven off into the night’s darkness. When they rushed downstairs and reached the spot where the vehicle had stood, there was only the dust the van had kicked up. The timing, the men and the van all seemed to suggest one thing—that one of Bangladesh’s most famous photographers had been disappeared. For a while, it looked like that was the case.
This happened in the midst of unanticipated turmoil in the country. About a week before the photographer’s abduction, a bus plying through the streets of Dhaka ploughed into two schoolchildren, killing them. Road accidents are frequent in a city of around 20 million—there are nearly 3,000 incidents per year. But this one sparked an uproar. In the following days, thousands of students took to the streets demanding better road safety and rule of law, and asking for greater accountability from the government. They closed down parts of the city in protest, blocked roads and started managing the traffic themselves. The government clampdown was violent. The police fired at the protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, threatened journalists who were reporting the events and turned a blind eye to members of the ruling party, the Awami League, beating up students.
From the vantage points of Dhaka’s roofs and street corners, Alam caught images of the clashes. He uploaded Facebook videos explaining what he had seen, added information on the number of injured students, based on reports from his contacts at hospitals, and put up pictures such as the one of members of the youth wing of the ruling party wielding a machete in “full view of police as they chased unarmed protesting students.”