Hunkered Down in Dhaka

Four years ago this month, there was a serious security incident in Dhaka. After that, the Embassy enacted some serious security restrictions on Embassy personnel. It was years before the security officer determined that it was safe for Americans to go outside alone, walk around, go to restaurants, etc. By the time I arrived at post, things were getting back to normal. We still couldn’t walk around alone after dark, there were still no-go areas in the city. But we could do some normal daily tasks like grocery shopping, for example. We found a restaurant where we liked to have weekend brunch. Post even got the go-ahead for officers to bring their young children to post. The international school in Dhaka enjoys a reputation as an excellent school. Things were getting back to “normal.”

Then the worldwide pandemic hit. Suddenly “normal” was thrown out the window. A city-wide curfew shut down the city for weeks. No more eating out at restaurants. They were closed. Many went out of business. The legendarily impossible Dhaka traffic vanished. The city was like a ghost town. The State Department ordered all Embassies to stop all routine visa services, in the interest of safety. The feeling when walking to work in a deserted city was eerie, like a post-apocalyptic scene from a movie.

We went through the excitement of evacuating Americans on seven different repatriation flights, during which more than half of my fellow officers also returned to the United States. After that, those of us who stayed behind hunkered down to wait for things to get better.

And we’re still waiting.

We adjusted our staffing plans so that people only came to work for essential work. Most of us are teleworking. Today I saw one of my coworkers in person for the first time in five weeks. Even in the Consular section, we have a skeleton crew in the office at any time. We are still providing essential U.S. citizen services.

I’m still busy. There’s always work to be done. But I’m sad that I can’t do more of the visa work that I came to Bangladesh to do. We are doing a very small number of mission-critical visas. This week I issued visas to three doctors to work in U.S. hospitals. We’re processing a handful of immigrant visas for spouses of U.S. citizens. Nothing close to the volume that we were doing back in March, though.

Because of the curfews and closures, Dhaka’s already-limited entertainment options have been reduced to almost nothing. We go to work in the morning, go home at night, and sit in our house. Luckily, we have a big house. But even a gilded cage is still a cage. I’ve been spending time on TripAdvisor, planning a vacation that we might not be able to take until next year. Which is still six months away.

We had some fun last week, moving our home office from the smaller unused bedroom to the larger. This room also enjoys better natural light.

Before: a storage room.
After: an airy and bright office. Another desk is coming tomorrow, it will be in the window alcove on the left.

So after that excitement, what’s next? Back to hunkering down.

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