Stunned residents after terror attack: ‘Bangladesh was never like this’

Updated 7:53 AM EDT, Sun July 3, 2016
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Dhaka, Bangladesh CNN —  

Except for the stern-faced police officers standing guard while a swarm of television journalists jostled for the best vantage points, Gulshan Road No. 79 looked no different this Sunday.

Cars blared their horns at rickshaws drifting into their path. Street peddlers scurried by, calling out the names of the fresh fruit nestled in baskets on their heads. Pedestrians hurled profanities at drivers as they dodged and weaved in between traffic.

If Dhaka is in mourning after its deadliest and boldest terrorist attack, it certain doesn’t show it.

An optimist will call it resilience — a city buckled but unbowed.

A pessimist will call it resignation — a people so numb to the depressing regularity of attacks that the shock has worn thin.

But talk to some of the residents and they’ll tell you that this time, it’s a different emotion that overwhelms all others: Apprehension.

“You know that quote? ‘First they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out?’ That’s how we feel,” said Mamunur Rashid. “Whenever there’s been an attack, we would say, ‘Oh, that’s just an isolated incident.’ ‘Oh, that’s something that’ll never happen here.’

Until it does, right?”

Rashid stood in a knot of gawkers by the barbed barriers that blocked entrance to the road where Holey Artisan Bakery sits.

He said he’s shaken but he’s not showing it. And he suspects that’s how many others feel – utterly unable to come do grips with what’s going on.

This wasn’t a blogger, accused of blasphemy and hacked to death by misguided fundamentalists.

This wasn’t a pipe bomb at a rally, an unfortunate and frequent M.O. of political rivals.

This was a coordinated attack, carried out by gunmen who sought maximum exposure and picked the most public of targets: a bakery in an area frequented by foreigners in the evening when restaurants are packed.

“These weren’t people armed with machetes. These were people armed with guns,” said Shamim Ahmed. “You can’t just pick them off the streets. Someone gave it to them. Imagine what that means.”

What it means, said many residents, is that the government needs to unbury its head from the sand and acknowledge the reality: Bangladesh has a terror problem.

MORE: Bangladeshis mourn hostages and officers

The terror problem

For far too long, the government blamed religious attacks on opposition parties. It claimed they were trying to destabilize the nation. It denied that ISIS militants had burrowed their way into the country, brainwashing disillusioned college kids that Bangladesh’s secular life is antithetical to Islam.

Those contentions fell apart after the Friday night attacks — after the terror group claimed responsibility and posted a picture of the attackers, smiling and holding guns.

Dhaka may be a massive city with millions. But people know people. And even though the government hasn’t released the attackers’ full name, tongues started wagging as soon as the photo appeared.

These were young men that many knew - someone’s son’s friend from college. Someone’s second cousin.

“How can you still say this is not an issue we need to tackle?” Ahmed said.

Nadia Samdani, who lives in Gulshan neighborhood, knew two students who had been killed in the attack.

“We are completely shattered,” she said. “Bangladesh was never like this. It has always been crowded and chaotic but has always been a safe country. I’ve never worried about my safety or thought about taking guards anywhere.”

“We are praying that all this gets over soon and we are praying that we feel safe and secure again soon.”

MORE: U.S. students among those killed

If there was another pervasive emotion, it was anger. Anger at the government for doing too little for too long.

Abdul Halim is a rickshaw puller. For the millions in the city, he never set foot inside the Holey Artisan Bakery. For that matter, he never shopped in any of the upscale stores that dot Gulshan.

A sandwich at Artisan costs him as much as he makes in a day, he said.

“But this affects me too,” Halim said. “This is my country and it is being hijacked.”

Soon afterward, Oliur Rahman Majumdar, a man in his 70s, walked up to the officers and loudly berated them.

“Do your job!” he yelled.

Others around him murmured their approval.

CNN’s Mallika Kapur in Delhi contributed to this report.