Since last week, scores of workers, particularly blue-collar job holders, were leaving Dhaka in a hurry. The exodus intensified over the last two days because of the weeklong lockdown starting today.
"People die when infected with coronavirus, but we will die from starvation even before we get infected," said Rahul, a 27-year-old rickshaw puller who on Monday waited for nine hours to get on a truck, which would take him to Bogura.
Rahul was not the only one. With the suspension of inter-district buses and other modes of transport as part of the lockdown, civilians felt as though they were stranded.
Desperate, many sought unconventional ways – that too at a high price – to reach their village homes.
There were approximately 1,000 people, mostly men, waiting at Karwan Bazar area on Monday night. They were trying to negotiate a price and book a spot on one of the many trucks parked in front of the kitchen market.
Every day, trucks carrying vegetables or fish come to Karwan Bazar at night from northern districts. They unload the commodities and then the vacant trucks make their journey back north. Like Rahul, many were trying to hitch a ride to the north by sitting on the back of these trucks.
"Last year, I went back home when the lockdown was announced and stayed there for four to five months," said Rahul. "I lost Tk50,000-60,000 in income over those months."
"There is an overwhelming current of people who are trying to book a spot on our empty trucks," said Hanif Mia, a truck driver who travels from Bogura or Rajshahi to Karwan Bazar.
"There are about three to four checkposts from Dhaka to Bogura, and each costs us Tk50-200 to go through with passengers."
A spot on these trucks came at a cost of Tk1,000-1,200.
After hearing about the crowd at Karwan Bazar, Poritosh Chandra, officer-in-charge of Kalabagan Police Station, sent police officers around midnight to disperse them.
"Trucks are not allowed to stop here anyway. This is not a pick-up point. Moreover, the government, as per the lockdown protocol, said no one would be allowed to leave the city," said Poritosh.
Rahul, along with many others, looked for city service buses or CNG-run vehicles to reach Gabtoli bus terminal from Karwan Bazar. Empty trucks returning to northern districts were taking on passengers too. At around 2:30am on Tuesday, Rahul finally managed to get on a truck.
They all seemed to be gripped by a strong sense of urgency. Anguished and panicked, workers in thousands were scrambling to find any possible means to reach their hometowns.
On Tuesday afternoon, many cars were picking up passengers at Gabtoli bus terminal. Car drivers would stop at the terminal, negotiate a price, and then ask passengers to walk 500 metres to reach the other side of Gabtoli bridge where they would be picked up from.
The drivers did so to avoid getting caught by police. They were charging Tk1,500-1,800 per person.
Mahmuda Khatun paid Tk450 for a bus ticket to come to Dhaka from Magura last week in order to see her husband off at Hazrat Shajalal International Airport. The husband was flying to the Middle East.
Now stranded and left to use unconventional means, she had to pay Tk1,550 for a trip back home by a car, which had a few more passengers.
"This is the fate of poor people. We are the ones who are left behind," said Mamun, a 37-year-old van puller. His van service caters to people who are shifting houses.
"Who will change houses in the time of lockdown? What will I do in Dhaka without an income?" he said.
Once he goes home, the money problem will persist since agriculture work is limited at this time of the year, he suspects. However, deciding to stay put in Dhaka makes no sense to him.
Similar to the first nationwide lockdown last year, members of the working class are the ones to pay the heftiest price. While corporates and businesses fret over their profit margins, as legitimate as their concern may be, it is workers who suffer the most. Their livelihoods are stopped and they are left in panic and fear.
Rafiqul Islam failed to manage a spot on any of the goods-laden trucks in the city that would take him to his village home in Natore. He found his way to Bangla Motor and booked a space atop of tiles in a pick-up van along with four more passengers.
He would make a 12-hour journey in this arrangement to his loved ones.
The surge in homebound civilians is well reflected on highways. While approximately 25,000 vehicles travel from Dhaka to Chattogram every day, the number increased to 40,000 – sans buses due to the lockdown – each day in the last two days, according to highway police headquarters.
Chaos at ferry terminals
Ferry terminals were no exception. With the intensified current of people returning home, city docks became a scene of rush and panic.
"For the last two days, we are seeing a drastic uptick in passengers and cars at the terminal. Every ferry is carrying 500-600 passengers. Most of them are homebound passengers exiting Dhaka," said Md Ashikur Rahman, inspector at Shariatpur ferry terminal traffic outpost.
A ferry can normally accommodate 250-300 people.
Although waterway transports were also restricted in the lockdown starting on 5 April, the Shariatpur ferry authorities had to revert back to 15 operational ferries from six when the lockdown was announced.
Even then, passenger loads could not be managed, according to Md Salauddin Ahmed, Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation's Banglabazar ferry terminal manager.
Distressed passengers were getting on speed boats, trawlers, or small boats to cross rivers. Ferries were loaded with cars and people, with barely any space to stand.
"Because of the stringent lockdown, I am leaving Dhaka for Khulna. I may die in Dhaka without an income and food. So, it is better that I go to my village even if it means that I get infected by coronavirus," said Russel Ahmed, a ferry passenger.
At Paturia, Manikganj and Aricha terminals, passengers were waiting for 20-25 hours to make a 30-minute journey to cross the river on Tuesday.
Not just people, but an overwhelming surge in cars and vehicles crowded the ferry terminals too. Shibaloy Police Station in Paturia set up a checkpost six kilometres away from the terminal. They were letting civilians pass first and goods-laden trucks were allowed later.
But even then, the congestion of cars and goods-laden trucks in the hundreds could not be resolved.
In the southern west, the trail of the Mawa main road to Mawa ferry terminal was occupied with cars and trucks, so much so that it covered two kilometres of roadway.
In the last two days, the rush of homebound civilians created mayhem and chaos, and forced many to seek unconventional routes back home.
Although this is a recurring phenomenon in the country during Eid or long holidays, but during the second coronavirus wave, it is the poor families who are having to risk their lives to go back to their hometowns in hopes of a better survival.
Our correspondents from Shariatpur, Manikganj, Munshiganj, and Lakshmipur contributed to the story