HE WAS kind and cooperative. It was a pleasant surprise. I had two questions for Brigadier General Mohammad Jalaluddin, director, Chittagong Medical College and Hospital, when I dropped in at the hospital on April 27.
First, what was Romel Chakma’s medical condition when he was admitted to the hospital? And second, what did he die of?
I’m not too well-informed of the treatment the patient had received, he began slowly. He had improved quite a bit, I was surprised to hear his kidney had failed.
He rang several doctors, asked questions, listened keenly, jotted down what they said, then told me the following: Romel Chakma’s name was mistakenly spelt as ‘Royel Chakma’ (in Bangla) a mistake which never got corrected, hence, all hospital files, reports and documents of the patient are recorded under this name. He was admitted to the Casualty department first, received treatment from 6-12 April. He was transferred to the Nephrology department on April 13, he died there on April 19. The Casualty department had sought the opinion of a urologist, while the Nephrology department had consulted a cardiologist.
When he was admitted, his chief complaint was body ache, but he was not suffering from any organ failure; there was no major complaint or problem. His creatinine was high as was only to be expected, 1.5 is the normal, it was 2.2 on admission. It later shot up to 13.9, by then he was a patient of the Nephrology department. He was fully conscious when admitted, registering 15 on the Glasgow Coma Scale. He had an injury on one of his forearms, it was a bruise, there were no cuts or broken bones.
He died of rhabdomyolysis, that’s the medical term, said the brigadier. He developed septocaemia. The immediate cause of death was cardiac respiratory failure, but I speak from memory, he added. A word or two might be missing. He underwent dialysis when he was in the Nephrology department.
And what about the post-mortem report, I asked. That is confidential. Only the principal of the Medical College, and the assistant professor of Forensic Medicine who conducted the post-mortem, only they know. It’s their preserve. I don’t tread on their toes.
As I thanked him and bid him farewell, he repeated, I have largely spoken from memory, there might be a few gaps here and there.
Since Romel Chakma had died in custody, a magistrate inquest was held at the CMCH on April 21, to investigate the cause of death. Aung Shwe Prue Marma, ward member, Burighat Union Parishad, was one of the witnesses. When I interviewed him he said, ‘I entered the morgue and saw dark bruises all over his body, all of us present looked closely, we found dark bruises everywhere, on his back, chest, hands, feet. The magistrate noted it down. We left.’
I spoke to Jogendra Chakma, member, Ghilachari Union Parishad, he was also a witness in the surat-e-haal examination at the CMCH. He said, ‘[We were] taken to the room where he was.’ I noted Jogendra used ‘uni’ (a form of address usually reserved for someone older) when he spoke of Romel, who’d only been 20 years old; it is a common practice in rural culture where educational achievements, hard to attain, are respected, and a collective badge of honor for the community. Disconcerting, however, was Jogendra speaking of Romel as if he were alive (‘Romel jokhon laashkhanay ashe’, when Romel came to the morgue). Was it because Bangla was not his native tongue? Or was it grief? Trauma? Maybe all, and more.
‘They turned Romel this way and that, [he had been reduced to] nothing but skin [and bones], his body was dark in colour.’ Jogendra pointed to his own left and right thigh, his right elbow and right shoulder, Romel’s ‘were dark,’ he said. ‘His earlobes too, it was all dark, black. I didn’t say anything when I was inside. He was wearing a lungi, nothing else.’
Later, after I’d returned to Dhaka, a Chittagong correspondent of New Age spoke to Arafat Hossain, the magistrate who had conducted the inquest. The correspondent told me, the magistrate says a surat-e-haal investigation is conducted from the outside, and I could see no noticeable injury. Light bruise marks on both thighs, and left elbow, but they are light, indicative of nothing which could cause death. I have recommended that the doctor on duty should determine the cause of death. I asked the correspondent, no mention of what the two witnesses have told me, that Romel’s skin was dark, he had bruises, all over? No.
I asked him whether he’d been back to the hospital, whether he had spoken to anyone. I have, but I’ve been told ‘ei case nie khub bipode asi’ (a lot of trouble over this case). No one seems willing to talk.
Many hill people I spoke to, were convinced that Romel’s body had been burnt to destroy evidence of torture. Why weren’t his parents allowed to see him in hospital?, they asked me.
True, I thought, two weeks is a long time. Even patients in prison hospitals, are allowed weekly visits by family members. Even the tried and convicted arch war criminal Ghulam Azam, had been allowed to die peacefully at the age of 91. Even his body had been handed over to his family, not to mention government permission to hold his janaza at the Baitul Mukarram. Poor little Romel had only been 20 years old, the army claims he’d torched a truck, and looted 2 buses (hardly compares with war crimes), but even these allegations are unfounded. The thana says, they have no cases against him.
I was telling a close friend, an activist herself, about his parents having been denied access (Raja Devasish Roy writes in his FB post, Romel’s sister had spoken to him several times on the phone, kindly arranged by someone in government employ, but they’d ceased suddenly), and she asked me sharply, who signed the dialysis consent form then? I don’t know, the thought hadn’t occurred to me. C R Abrar has raised a very crucial question, ‘what measures have they [CMCH] taken to preserve documents related to Romel?’ (The Daily Star, April 26, 2017).
I discussed Romel Chakma’s medical symptoms with doctor friends (whose names I would rather not disclose). I searched the internet, and came across a research paper, published in a medical journal.
It’s written by a group of South African doctors, they write, ‘Rhabdomyolysis leading to ARF [Acute Renal Failure] has been reported in victims of torture’, ‘it is well recognised in South Africa after beatings with the sjambok.’ I read on, the sjambok is a whip, it was traditionally made from rhino hide, but the use of synthetic/plastic is more common nowadays. Phrases stick to my head, ‘it produces extensive soft tissue injury’ which is not ‘apparent on initial assessment’, the ‘skin is often intact’, ‘rose-coloured urine’, and then, I come across this sentence, ‘Patients with adverse factors may respond to fluid loading and recover uneventfully while other patients with normal measurements on admission may develop acute renal failure.’ And, die. (Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol. 95, June 2002).
No disciplinary action has been taken yet, against any army personnel at Naniachar. Until and unless that happens, one cannot blame people who say it was the ‘army’s fault, ‘they’ were responsible.
But even if the ‘bad apples’ are identified, investigated, tried, and court marshalled, larger, overarching questions about the Chittagong Hill Tracts remain.
History has proven, time and again, both in this land, in the region, and the world over, that political problems must be resolved politically, consensually. Military options, whether war, or counterinsurgency, don’t work. The world’s strongest military has not been able to crush the spirit of resistance of the invaded and occupied, neither in Afghanistan nor in Iraq, despite both countries having been ruined and devastated.
They only work, when the entire native population is exterminated, and the remaining handful, put away in ‘reserves’. As in the case of the USA, Canada and Australia. Is that the ulterior motive? But that would be genocide.
It is still possible to retrieve our humanity. But merely implementing the CHT Accord will not be enough. Nearly two decades of ‘de facto military rule’ has created more bad blood. The CHT should not only be delimitarised, not only should land be returned to the hill people (restituted, alternative plots allocated from state-owned land), not only should Bengali settlers be relocated, a constitutional amendment must necessarily be made, one that accepts plurality and diversity, that does not force all other ethno-linguistic groups to submit to being ‘Bengalees.’
Romel’s mother Alo Debi Chakma had only these words for me, ‘I didn’t get to see him. Neither alive, nor dead. I wanted to keep him at home for the night, but they didn’t let me. I want true justice.’
‘After bringing the body to our home they brought kerosene and did all kinds of I know not what...,’ Binoy Kanti Chakma’s voice trailed off.
‘The rib cage helps to protect the organs in the chest, such as the heart and the lungs,’ says an online medical portal.
Romel Chakma’s rib cage protecting his heart, had required an extra dousing of petrol, to burn to ashes. That is how tyrannical the rule of the majority can be.
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