Family checks bodies dragged from river after mutiny

Lt. Col. Robiur Rahman's family says they're checking bodies as they're pulled from the Buriganga River.
Riaz Hussain rushes to the phone on the first ring. His family huddles around him, straining to hear what the voice on the other end of the line is saying.

The conversation is brief. He hangs up, shakes his head. “Nah,” he murmurs. No, not him. Fifty-one sleepless hours have passed since Hussain’s family last heard from his cousin, Army Lt. Col. Robiur Rahman. “The hardest part is the not knowing,” Hussain said Friday afternoon. “The phone rings, our hearts jump. A knock on the door, and we hold our breath. Still, nothing.” An army dental surgeon, Rahman was stationed at the Bangladesh Rifles, or BDR, headquarters in the capital, Dhaka, when the paramilitary troops who live there staged a fiery and deadly rebellion Wednesday morning. The Rifles took dozens of their superiors — all military men — hostage, threatening to burn down the headquarters if their grievances were not heard. By Friday, the standoff had ended with the mutinous rebels laying down their arms in exchange for amnesty. Authorities officially confirmed that at least 62 officers had been killed, after 40 bodies were discovered inside a hole in the compound. Watch how the mutiny spread ยป The bodies were found in a grave behind the BDR mortuary building in the Pilkhana area of the capital, said Cmdr. Abdul Kalam Azad with the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite internal security team that is helping with the recovery effort. Earlier, 22 bodies had been recovered from the Buriganga River after the rebelling troops dumped them down a sewer during the standoff, authorities said. “It’s a bad scene,” Azad said. “You can only see their legs. We’re carrying away only as many as we can fit in ambulances. Then we’re going to go look for more.” But Rahman and more than 100 others have not been found.

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Throughout the day, firefighters combed through the expansive compound looking for them. Outside, anguished relatives waited. Women anxiously bit the end of their saris. Men mumbled prayers. Grandmothers, clutching pictures, wailed. “Everyone has been affected,” said Dhaka resident Mahfujul Khan. “Everyone knows someone who’s awaiting word from a brother or a husband or a son.” Discontent had been bubbling for years among the ranks of the BDR troops, a 65,000-strong paramilitary outfit primarily responsible for guarding the country’s borders. The recruits complained their army superiors dismissed their appeals for more pay, subsidized food and opportunities to participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations. Bangladesh and its South Asian neighbors contribute the most troops to such U.N. operations. And the pay is far greater than the meager salary the jawans — as the BDR troops are called — make. Wednesday morning, the jawans rose in revolt. It was the second day of BDR Week, when army officers and troop members from various BDR outposts along the border were in the capital for celebrations. At the time, 168 army officers and more than 11,000 jawans were inside, Azad of RAB said. An hours-long gunbattle ensued. Stray bullets struck and killed at least one passerby and wounded several others. The jawans ransacked officers’ quarters, taking what they could, authorities said. They let some women and children go. Rahman’s wife and two boys were safe. She left that morning to take them to their elementary school. The army gathered outside the BDR headquarters and awaited orders to move in. The jawans threatened to kill everyone if they did. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urged the men to lay down their arms. She came back to power in December in peaceful parliamentary elections after two years of army-backed rule. The mutiny is the most serious crisis for her new government, and she intended to exhaust all peaceful options before resorting to force, said Mohammed Sajjad Haider, spokesman for the information ministry. “It’s not every day that you get to see tanks and armored vehicles right outside your doorstep,” said resident Sadeque Rahman, who ventured outside to take pictures. “And then you see the occasional chopper fly right over your heads. And at that moment you forget about your [horrible] cell phone videos and dive on the ground.” The government and the jawans began negotiations. The crisis dragged into Thursday. Then, the bodies began to appear — men in uniforms who had been shot, floating in the river. The mutinying Rifles had dumped the bodies down sewage drains, authorities said. The drains deposited the victims into the Buriganga River, where the waters carried them miles downstream. “Every time a body was pulled out, we sent someone to check on it,” Hussain said. “But it’s not him.” Late Thursday, the jawans waved white flags and walked out. About 150 jawans who had fled their barracks, rather than surrender, were quickly captured, Azad said. With their close-cropped hair, they stood out even in civilian clothes, he said. Still, it’s not known how many got away. Ministers went door-to-door at officers’ quarters to assure frightened women and children it was safe to come out. But the officers who had been taken hostage were not found. In the absence of facts, rumors became a ready substitute. A telling example was the way media outlets reported the fate of BDR chief Maj. Gen. Shakil Ahmed. The jawans had killed him, they first said. We don’t know for sure, they then corrected themselves. All the government will say is that his body has not been found. “We heard a lot of ‘Well, I heard,’ ” Javed Khan, another area resident, said Friday. “But the fact is, no one knows — even today, after so many hours — exactly what is going on.” And so the wait goes on. The last person to hear from Robiur Rahman was his father.

The dental surgeon placed a quick phone call Wednesday morning, right about the time the rebellion broke out. Keep praying for me, he said and hung up. With little else but faith to sustain them now, Hussain said, they’re doing just that.