Asia

Bangladesh cafe siege: Chef's family waits for answers

Bangladeshi policemen guard a check point where floral arrangements have been left by wellwishers on a road leading to an upscale cafe that was the site of a bloody siege in Dhaka, 3 July 2016 Image copyright AFP
Image caption The cafe siege on 2 July left 20 people, mostly foreigners, dead

The deadly attack on Bangladesh's Holey Artisan Bakery cafe, which killed 20 people, sent shockwaves through the country. But, two months on, many questions remain - and there is still disagreement over who carried out the attack. The BBC's Anbarasan Ethirajan speaks to one woman looking for answers, and still awaiting the body of her husband.

Sonia Akther usually received a telephone call from her husband, Saiful Islam Chowkidar, every night. He was anxious to know about the health of his seven-month pregnant wife. But on the night of 1 July he didn't call. Ms Akther felt a bit strange but she went to bed.

The shock came at midnight when someone told her that the restaurant where her husband worked in the capital Dhaka was under attack.

Ms Akther desperately called her husband's mobile, but there was no response. With no other option, she spent the night nervously watching news on television.

Image caption Saiful Islam Chowkidar was popular with colleagues

She feared the worst. A group of Islamist gunmen had stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery where her husband was working as a pizza chef and killed more than 20 people, most of them foreigners.

She had a ray of hope when news came in the morning that most staff members were safe. But then devastating news reached her. Mr Chowkidar was the only cafe employee who died on the night of the siege.

Another staff member, Zakir Hossain Shawon, died a week after the siege at a hospital while under police custody. Police said he was injured in the attack - but his family told AFP news agency he had been tortured.

Ms Akther wept inconsolably when she spoke to me on the phone from their village in Shariatpur district, central Bangladesh. Mr Chowkidar had planned to visit their home soon, to buy gifts for their two daughters, aged nine and seven, for the Muslim religious festival of Eid.

Image copyright Satyajit Ghosh
Image caption Sonia Akther says her daughters do not know their father is dead

"How can this happen? He was the only earning member of the family. What will I do with my two daughters?" Ms Akther lamented.

But their suffering did not end there. The family wanted to give him a dignified burial, as per Muslim tradition. But the Bangladeshi police have refused to hand over the body of Mr Chowkidar, saying he's a suspect and they need time to investigate.

"My world turned upside down when I heard the news. He's innocent. There's no evidence against him. We have only one request, please hand over his body. We want to bury him," Ms Akther said.

The death of Mr Chowkidar is one of the unsolved mysteries in the Dhaka cafe attack.

It is unclear how he died and who killed him. And it is unclear whether he could be a suspected militant, as police say, or whether he is simply an innocent victim, as his family claim.

Mr Chowkidar's colleagues say he was making pizza near the main entrance of the cafe when gunmen ran into the building firing guns and detonating home-made bombs. After the siege ended, Mr Chowkidar's body was found ridden with gunshot wounds.

What exactly happened was a mystery - and even the authorities seemed unsure.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Bangladesh police are continuing to investigate the cafe attack

In the days after the attack, some officials suggested that Mr Chowkidar might have been shot dead by security forces who mistook him for a gunman.

In another report, police said they had mistaken Mr Chowkidar, a hostage, for one of the militants - but would not confirm whether he had been killed by security forces during the siege.

These reports were later denied by the authorities, who said Mr Chowkidar was "a suspect[ed] member" of the militants.

And which group was behind the attack? That is also disputed.

The Islamic State group said it carried out the attack, and a website linked to the group posted pictures of five men it said were involved in the assault.

Image caption Saiful worked in Germany as a chef for 12 years before returning to Bangladesh

The five men featured in the photographs were eventually named by police - and Mr Chowkidar was not among the five.

But the authorities denied IS was involved, and said the attack was the work of domestic militants from the banned Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) group.

Mr Chowkidar was popular with colleagues at Holey Artisan Bakery, who do not believe he was involved.

MD Delwar Hossain, an assistant chef in the restaurant who survived the attack, said claims that Mr Chowkidar was a militant were "not true, totally incorrect".

"Saiful was a very good person. We didn't notice any bad behaviour or bad attitude from him. He was just a chef over there, a normal staff member like us," he said.

"He was a very good person and a chef - nothing more than that."

'A happy man'

One of the owners of the restaurant, Ali Arsalan, remembers his last moments with Mr Chowkidar with fondness.

"A couple of hours before the attack started, I collected some pizzas from him to give to a friend. He said the orders were picking up and he might need an additional hand."

The pizza chef was quite "a happy man, and hard working," Mr Arsalan said.

The Bangladeshi police say Mr Chowkidar is still a suspect and investigations are going on to find out whether there was any link between him and the militants.

Image copyright Satyajit Ghosh
Image caption Mr Chowkidar's family say they face an uncertain future without any income

"After finishing our investigation, we can tell you about his role in that incident," Masudur Rahman, a spokesperson for Dhaka Metropolitan Police told the BBC.

Mr Rahman said they were withholding his body for further forensic examination and awaiting a report.

"After we complete our DNA test report then we will decide, and if the family members apply to get the dead body then we will consider it," Mr Rahman said.

In the meantime, Mr Chowkidar's family say they have not received any financial help from anyone and are not sure how will they survive in the future without any income.

They fervently hope that his name is cleared and that they will not have to live under a shadow of suspicion.

Mr Chowkidar's body may be handed over to the family eventually but Ms Akther says a part of her also dreads the day.

"My two daughters are too young to understand what has happened to their father. They keep calling his mobile every day but it's switched off.

"My youngest one still thinks that he is in Dhaka and will be coming home soon with gifts."