Bangladeshi immigrant Kartik Chondro was assaulted by a mob in Rome, an attack linked to the far-right's anti-immigrant campaign across Italy. We visited his home in Dhaka to find out why this life-threatening event hasn't forced him to return home.
ROME/DHAKA — On October 29 last year, Kartik Chondro had finished his night shift as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Rome. He was bantering with his coworkers with his head down, unaware of a group of men who were rushing towards them. “Dirty nigger, what are you doing here?” they yelled.
With his poor Italian, Kartik didn’t understand he was being racially abused. He was quickly surrounded. Kicks and punches rained on him, throwing him off balance. The 27-year-old Bangladeshi man lay on the ground unconscious, almost dead, with his blood splattered on the floor.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world his mother was waiting for his phone call. When she didn’t hear from him, she tried his number, but his phone was switched off. She then called one of his friends, who told her Kartik was taken to hospital after he complained of breathing problems. “I didn’t believe him,” Usha Rani, his mother, told TRT World.
She begged to hear her son’s voice, but Kartik, wrapped in bandages and unable to speak, pleaded his friend to restrain from telling the truth.
A week later, Kartik finally spoke to his family. “I have eight people depending on me,” he said. “For this reason, I asked my friend to lie.” The family was led to believe Kartik was run over by a car.
Kartik is one of 140,000 Bangladeshis living in Italy. He is part of Rome's 36,000 strong Bangladeshi community, which began to settle in the capital city in the 80s and 90s, thanks to the country's former policies that had eased immigration rules. But the recent wave of migrants aren't welcomed with the same spirit. The country, grappling with financial instability and widespread unemployment, now perceives the influx of the new arrivals as an economic burden.
The wars in the Middle East and deadly conflicts in Africa has pushed tens of thousands of people out of their homes. Italy has become the epicentre of this migration in Europe. In 2016, 181,000 refugees reached Italy, according to the Italian government, while in 2017, after signing a deal with Libya, the figure fell to 119,000.
Like other electoral campaigns in Western Europe, immigration has become one of the hottest topics in Italy’s forthcoming elections. Last month Luca Traini, an Italian with extreme right-wing views, shot and wounded six African immigrants in Macerata city. The crime was linked to prevailing anti-immigrant sentiment fuelled by several political outfits. The three parties running for the centre-right coalition: Lega – which Traini had unsuccessfully run for at the local elections last year – Forza Italia and Fratelli d’Italia, distanced themselves from the attack; but instead of considering it as a shocking display of hate crime, they blamed it on the centre-left government, saying they “filled the country with illegal immigrants.”
On top of this, a recent poll shows that 59 percent of Italians feel “threatened” by the presence of immigrants, and 11 percent condone, to some extent, Traini’s actions. While another 12 percent believe that he is a criminal, but in the same breath they say the African immigrants are to be blamed as well, since they are "invading" Italian cities.
Only Forza Nuova [New Force] has openly celebrated Macerata’s attack. This political party invokes the nostalgia of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime and combines it Catholic fundamentalism.
Although Forza Nuova has never been a major force at the ballot box, some of its candidates this year are running for Italia agli Italiani extremist coalition, opening a possibility of having some of them as members of the Italian parliament.
Kartik's assault wasn't the first one against the Bangladeshi community in Rome but its sheer brutality has unsettled many Italians.
A judicial investigation revealed that the men behind Kartik's assault were supporters of Forza Nuova. It further stated that at least 59 Bangladeshi people have been attacked by Forza Nuova since 2011.
“A Bangla-tour is when you end your night with a bang, because you finally punish a Bengalino [short Bangladeshi person].” This is the description a young Forza Nuova (FN) activist gave to an Italian newspaper La Repubblica last November.
“Why did we choose Bangladeshi people? Because they are quiet and receive our blows without reacting,” he added, describing the cruel details of some of the most violent acts perpetrated by the FN in recent past.
In Kartik's case, the judicial investigation showed that the mob had acted out of intense indoctrination, infused by the FN leaders. Some of them were referred to psychologists to overcome their rage and hatred.
What’s the purpose of these attacks? “We do it for fun and for discouraging foreigners from either staying or coming to Italy,” one FN activist told his psychologist.
Many anti-immigration activists were sued for racial incitement but that didn't change much. The violence didn't force immigrants like Kartik – who now has a steady job – to leave the country. “I never thought about going back to Bangladesh,” he said almost five months after the attack, still unable to see properly. “There’s nothing to do for me there.”
For socially and economically marginalised youngsters like Kartik, Bangladesh has nothing to offer. Though the Bangladeshi government attempts to promote the country for new investments, describing it as the new Asian tiger, Dhaka, its capital, is full of poor and desperate people, begging on the streets.
The city is a mass of clustered buildings. A thick layer of smoke-clouds hangs in the air, making it difficult for people to breathe. The streets are noisy with cars blaring horns, pedestrians talking loudly and jostling for space. The lack of essential services is puzzling and the population is so miserable that their discomfort has few equals worldwide. Jobs are available for those who want to work for 20 cents an hour and risk the in crumbling factories.
The situation in rural areas is far worse. Kartik’s family lives in a small village of Chhaysuti, about 100 kilometres from Dhaka. The bus from the capital runs through a potholed road leading to rice fields that reek of burnt plastic. The cultivated crops are rimmed with rubbish, an assortment of discarded plastic bags and tiles and worn out pieces of cloth. At a closer look, you'll spot a trash picker rummaging through the junk.
The water ponds are polluted and they stink like latrines. The wells, from which villagers fetch drinking water, have been contaminated with arsenic for 20 years.
It took us eight hours to reach Chhaysuti. Kartik’s brother, Palash, insisted on carrying our luggage, leading us through a muddy trail that ended at a neighbourhood of makeshift houses. “My plan was to reach my brother in Rome and help him,” he said. “Unfortunately, due to the change in the migration policy, I couldn’t do it. I am spending the whole day at home doing nothing. I only think about going to Italy.”
At home, his mother sat on a bed that occupied most of the room. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she narrated her story. At 15, she got married with Kartik’s father, who was born in a peasant family but worked as a carpenter. The initial years of their union went smoothly. They fell on hard times as they accumulated some debts and felt pressured to marry their daughters off. “We didn’t have any choice, other than withdrawing Kartik from school,” she said.
From his early teens, Kartik started cutting and assembling wood for his father. One day he heard a loud thud behind him while working at his father's workshop. As he looked back, he found his father lying stiff on the floor.
"He stared at me, trying to tell me something. Later, I convinced myself that he was asking me to look after my family,” said Kartik, sitting on the hospital bed in Rome.
Kartik started to plan his way out of Bangladesh. “In our village, there are many agents and traffickers, as you call them. I gave 10,000 euros to one of them to take me to Dubai, but after a year I was still there and he gave me half the money back," he said.
He spent six months planning to go to Saudi Arabia, but he ended up dropping the idea. Soon after, a friend of his deceased father, who lived in Italy, offered some help. Kartik got a seasonal visa and with his mother’s savings he bought a flight ticket to Rome.
First he started off working as a car washer, then switched to being a gas station attendant. Whatever little he saved, he sent the money home. It was never enough, though.
Finally, during a night walk in Rome, Kartik met Mossad, whom he refers to as his “new Egyptian baba”. Mossad not only offered him a job, but also helped him obtain a residency permit. Kartik's economic circumstances improved.
But as the lynch mob pounced on him, he was no longer the same person. Six months after the attack, he still struggles to eat and sleep. Though he's back to work, he feels lonely and misses his family back home. At the same time, as he thinks about his former life, he said resolutely: "I don't have any happy memories. At home, I had to work day and night to fulfill my family's basic needs. Happiness is a word I've never known."
As the March 4 polls is likely to culminate into the convergence between right and far right, immigrants like Kartik are feeling like scapegoats, whose future rely on the changing political contours of Italy.
Even after surviving a deadly attack, Kartik has hope in Italy's judicial system. "I want and [will] ask for justice," he said. "But I've never thought, not even once, that I would go back to Bangladesh. There is nothing for me there."