I was once hired by Unicef to write the national report on children for the Bangladesh government in 1996. It was supposed to be presented at the SAARC Summit for children. Both Unicef and the Government were pleased with the report which was nice. I was also invited to join the delegation to Rawalpindi where the meeting was to be held. It was headed by the State Minister of MOWCA and accompanied by the Secretary, several Jt. Secretaries, DGs. etc. A very full, very big and very VIP delegation. It was the only VIP trip of my life.
The “VIP” experience began in Dubai when we stopped on the way. We were met by Embassy staff who informed that the airport VIP lounge was ready. Everyone was very happy except me. I wanted to go to the Emirates Club class lounge which as a frequent traveler I knew was one of the best around. But the Embassy staff stopped me. “You came with the VIP delegation, you have to go to the VIP lounge. “
When I argued that i was not a VIP so didn’t want to go there, he became fairly abusive. ‘You have to go the VIP lounge. You came with it.” When I protested more, he screamed, “What can you do? Right about me in media? Go on, write. nothing can happen to us, we are Government officials.” Others intervened and said its best to go to the VIP lounge where the Minister and the rest were waiting to be treated as VIPs.
The lounge is bare, very formal with large sofas and no decor, no refreshment bar etc. I was very disappointing. Soon a tray of VIP glasses of orange juice and a plate of nuts arrived. I wanted to weep. I mean the free food and drinks in the Club lounge was incredible and staff so friendly. And I don’t even have juice. But others were very happy, drinking juice, chewing peanuts and talking to a low end Emirates staff consigned to look after us. We were VIPs.
Pindi, ISI and shopping
At Pindi we were housed at the Pearl Continental where my friend Kanak Dixit of Himal, Kathmandu was also staying. I met several old Unicef friends too. I became very friendly with Jt. Secretary Sirajuddin Ahmed bhai who had rebelled after the killing of Sk. Mujib in 1975 and took over Borguna as the SDO and declared it “independent.” A man of honour and commitment, he had spent a long time in jail for his belief and actions but had no regret. He wasn’t treated well by his own AL chasing bureaucrats because unlike them he wasn’t a “chamcha”.
Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto inaugurated the meet and all went all. Later on, while in the hotel lobby I was informed that the ISI wanted to talk to me. My first thought was, “Oh God, they got me for 1971 now”. The matter was far more dramatic.
The ISI agent was of course the “shoe polisher” as I suspected, sitting in the lobby and watching everyone. He informed that barring five members, the entire Bangladesh delegation was in the Pindi shopping mall. They had missed the ceremony but ISI was informing me because they were wondering if the visit was part of their official duties or not instead of attending the opening ceremony?
So I went looking for the Secretary who went looking for the Minister who informed that it was he who had nodded yes. “They are all senior officials. They know what to do?” It was very embarrassing and the delegation became known as the “shopping delegation” at the meeting. In fact, for a week they shopped and saw sights and never even attended a sub-committee meeting once.
Framing the Declaration
When the all night Declaration drafting committee session began, bizarre as it may sound, the DG Foreign Affairs was the only official attending. Other countries were in full strength. was there but I had no status. Rest of the delegation members were sick, sleepy or not interested. The DG was very nervous as the BD proposal was going to be vetoed by Pakistan. It was on child trafficking.
Through Kanak Dixit, I had met the Indian Foreign Ministry DG, who later became the Foreign Secretary. A very friendly guy, he took things easy. When I had told him that Bangladesh was worried about the fate of its proposal, he said, “I will help if you with it if drink whiskey with me.” We compromised and I had a non-alcoholic beer and the three of us chatted the evening away.
As our DG nervously waited to table the proposal, the Indian delegation suddenly popped it unexpectedly as their own. The proposer winked at me and of course it sailed through as the Indo-Pak deals on what to pass or stop were all done. Our DG was very happy. “We have done it.” He had no idea what a shared non-alcoholic beer can do.
The baggage handler at Karachi and the VIP heart attack
The VIP experience started in full swing as we were returning. Everyone went to the Pindi airport VIP lounge and sat there waiting to be served orange drinks. But PIA refused to load their boxes unless identified individually and they would not get out of the lounge. I went and identified mine. Rest stayed on the loader belt. The VIPs refused to move.
A BD Embassy staff came to me and pleaded to help him identify the baggage as none would be loaded abroad otherwise and he would lose his job. So there I was identifying and loading suitcase after suitcase of VIPs into the waiting cart. Everyone had 2/3 bags, I saw. Finally, ten of us took over for Dubai in the first round.
There, we duly went to the VIP lounge. Another 10 members arrived a plane later. They were taken to the normal lounge. That’s when the seismic explosions shook the delegation.
The official Arab position was that the Minister and his delegation were VIPs as per rule. Ten had arrived with him and all were given VIP status. The 10 later had arrived normally without a Minister so normal status applied. Their weeping, ranting, screaming shook the corridors of the airport till the security staff threatened to arrest them. The DG of Social Services was so upset that he lay down on the floor and screamed, “I am a VIP, a VIP. I am being treated like a common criminal.” And then he had a heart attack of sorts.
The airport doctor was refusing permission to him to fly but he said he had shopping to do so he was finally let go and went to the mall. He tried to enter the plane with a huge bag full of airport goodies but was stopped. He almost had another attack. Finally, after much convincing, he was let go.
What happened after the VIPs landed at Dhaka is for another day. q