After a long evening spent with other dissenting writers in 2001, I hailed a rickshaw to take me home. Previously, a ride late at night in my hometown, Barishal, Bangladesh, would not have worried me, but this was an anxious time.

A few months prior, two political parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami and Bangladesh Nationalist Party, unexpectedly formed a coalition government around Islamist, nationalist principles. Just 16, I was among an angry younger generation who knew the Jamaat-e-Islami as an Islamist party that helped the Pakistani army kill hundreds of thousands of people during the 1971 Liberation War in Bangladesh.

Now the party controlled our beloved country again. They committed some barbaric acts, such as burning houses belonging to Hindus, a minority religious group in Bangladesh. I began publishing a literary magazine with editorials criticizing the new government, and the local Jamaat-e-Islami members took notice.

As the rickshaw pulled onto the street where my family lived, a group of men with handkerchiefs covering their faces were waiting for me. The rickshaw driver vanished in fear, and I felt a sharp pain from being stabbed on my left side. I ran toward our apartment, banged on the door and screamed in pain as the group fled the scene. Though my clothes today conceal the 5-inch scar carved into me that night, the memory is still fresh.

I’m not alone among refugees in having such nightmarish memories, nor in my decision to share them. As war, political unrest and climate change drive ever-larger numbers of people to flee their homelands, it’s easy for societies on the receiving end of the flow to wonder: Why don’t people stay home? Why don’t they fight to improve their countries?

For me, the answer is: I tried.



Kidnapped at gunpoint

A person in a vest standing in front of a book shelf.
Tuhin Das, a refugee from Bangladesh, at City of Asylum on Jan. 31, in the North Side. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Being attacked didn’t stop me; I recovered and fervently published more. I wrote for other magazines across the country. A few years passed, and the looming general election bred hope that the final days of the dual-party coalition government were drawing near.

On a chilly night in 2006, I was again reminded that my writing was not considered appropriate by everyone. While walking home, I was kidnapped at gunpoint by a government law-enforcement agency.

The commanding officer put his 9mm pistol to my head and asked, “How cold is it?” Then his team blindfolded me, beat me with wooden sticks and squished me in the back floorboard of the car.

I remember the painful pressure as they pushed their feet on me. I assumed they would take me to their headquarters, but they drove me out of town, removed the blindfold and told me to get out of the car. As I looked around and saw a field, I heard someone say, “The last moment of your life has arrived.” I tasted blood, and though my mouth was bleeding, I could not reach up to wipe as my hands were tied behind my back.

I next remember them driving me to their heavily militarized station with tall brick walls, where I was continuously beaten for the next four hours. Hog-tied, my hands were restrained in front of me, and my legs were lashed to a metal pole. I was interrogated about my writing; they wanted to know why I was mad at the Islamist leadership. Toward the end of the questioning, a doctor entered the room and gave me some medicine. I did not trust him, so I discreetly spat the pills out after he departed.

I could not sleep the whole night as I watched the sky from my tiny prison window. I remember understanding that night the value of art in a time of emergency, and I promised myself I would never be compromised in this regard. The next evening, they left me on the street and told me to leave the town before the election.



On an al-Qaida-related hit list

But I didn't leave because I had important university exams to take.

The elite force returned to my house a week later. I was afraid, so I went into hiding in a neighboring town. Using a pen name, I continued writing newspaper articles advocating for a more secular Bangladesh.

After the coalition government lost the election a few months later, I felt it was safe and returned to my hometown. I continued writing and publishing and reading my poetry at public gatherings, marches and candlelight vigils as part of a nationwide effort led by activists and bloggers in 2013 pushing for a trial against prominent Islamist leaders accused of war crimes dating back to 1971.

Tuhin Das, a refugee from Bangladesh, sits outside of the Comma House on Jan. 31, in the North Side. Das designed the facade of the house, painted in the colors of the Bangladeshi flag and featuring his poetry in cut metal, above and to the left, as part of City of Asylum’s Exiled Writer and Artist Residency Program. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Fundamentalist groups started counter-protests and declared war against the activists and the bloggers. In 2015, a local al-Qaida-related militant organization published hit lists, and one for my hometown included three poets, myself included. I went to the police for protection, but they made copies of my writing. Feeling unsafe, I went into hiding.

I went to my relatives in a nearby village, but they had seen the list on TV and in newspapers and were terrified. I spent one night with them and then went 10 hours away to Chittagong, the second largest city in Bangladesh, and lived with a friend. Later, when I realized someone had started following me, I left and moved through four different cities.

I received news that two different militant groups attacked two publication houses at the same time. One publisher was killed, and three other people were injured. During these attacks, the publishers’ pictures were broadcast in the media, and old video footage of me speaking was included, putting me at even greater risk.

From disorientation to blending in

Like fellow writers being persecuted in Bangladesh, I applied to the International Cities of Refuge Network in Norway. I was very fortunate that soon after, Carnegie Mellon University invited me to be a visiting scholar, and City of Asylum invited me to join their Exiled Writer and Artist Residency Program. I left Bangladesh in 2016 and moved to Pittsburgh’s North Side. During the month I arrived, I learned that four writers were killed in Bangladesh and I received additional threats, so I decided to apply for asylum.

I was depressed that I had to leave behind my life, my family and my belongings, but I was relieved that I didn’t need to look behind my shoulder to see if an assassin was following me. The support from the City of Asylum was life-changing as I was provided a stipend, a quiet, furnished house and other support as needed.

Books open on a table under a pink light.
The literary works of Tuhin Das, a refugee from Bangladesh, at City of Asylum on Jan. 31, in the North Side. His debut book, “Exile Poems”, was published last year by Pittsburgh-based press Bridge & Tunnel Books. The books are photographed in purple light, the color of the water lilies frequently grown in the region where Tuhin was born. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

I felt safe and secure in this house, and it enabled me to complete a poetry manuscript in which I shared my experiences in exile, and my debut book, “Exile Poems, published in 2022 by Pittsburgh-based press Bridge & Tunnel Books.

I also wrote my first novel, about the persecution of the Hindu religious minority in Bangladesh, which I was unable to write when I lived in Bangladesh because of the fatal consequences for writers who question religious-based oppression. Though I miss my friends back home, I am fortunate to have made good friends here with whom I can share my thoughts and concerns. My neighbors have been welcoming; even those I don’t know will often wave hello as they pass by.

I had never left my home country before I came to Pittsburgh, and moving to an unknown place where people speak a different language and share different customs felt disorientating when I first arrived.



Local organizations that help immigrants navigate life in Pittsburgh, such as Literacy Pittsburgh and Jewish Family and Children's Services, offered me long-term English classes, computer training and other career development services. I received a grant to translate my works from Bengali to English from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, which enables me to continue writing as I connect my former life as a dissident in Bangladesh to my new identity in Pittsburgh, thus bridging my own culture with my audience here in Pittsburgh.

Though coming to Pittsburgh provided me with safety and protection, standing up for literary and political freedom required me to physically separate myself from my family and homeland — an immense pain that I feel every moment. My initial culture shock has lessened over the years, which suggests to me I have become more blended into American society.

At a recent poetry event in Pittsburgh, Jason Irwin read his poem, “Darién Gap,” which describes the dangerous journeys of asylum seekers who cross the jungle in Panama to reach the United States. Though I had a different path, I relate to their experiences, and I know that I will continue to fight for the freedom of expression because it’s worth risking everything to ensure basic human rights are protected.

Tuhin Das is a Bangladeshi writer who lives in Pittsburgh and former writer-in-residence at City of Asylum and can be reached at dastuhinbd@gmail.com.

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