Today, I just came across a tweet from Somen Debnath, whom I met in June 2013 in Baghdad, Iraq has now reached the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Debnath has been travelling across the world on a bicycle to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS. His concern about the neglect and unawareness surrounding HIV started growing after he read an article about AIDS at the age of 14. The tweet rekindled my memory of him. He’s a jolly good fellow.
Since the start of his journey at the age of 21 on 27 May 2004, Debnath has been on the road and travelled over 185,400 km and visited 170 countries. He reached Baghdad in the year 2013 and stayed in the city for around a week. He also visited our house. He started his tour on his bicycle from his home village, Basanti, near Sundarbans, in the South 24 Paragana district of West Bengal, India.
While travelling, Debnath’s possessions include a bicycle loaded with a bagful of essentials such as clothes, a bed mat, a sleeping bag, a tent, and what he calls his most treasured possession — bracelets (that he never removes) collected from different places across the world.
During his tour, Debnath met with countless NGOs in both urban and rural areas, as well as visited schools, colleges, universities, red light areas, public events and numerous restaurants raising awareness and encouraging local people to start new initiatives to educate people about HIV/AIDS. He ensures that he can interact with students, youth groups and communities likely to benefit from the programme. So far, he has reached out to over 7,500 different institutions and 139 red-light districts.
His journey has not been very pleasant. Robbed in multiple countries, beaten by skinheads and captured by the Taliban and blindfolded for three weeks in a dungeon was never going to be enough to stop Debnath’s lifelong self-imposed international journey.
He narrated the story about when he was captured by the Taliban in Herat, Afghanistan. As he travelled through the remote region of Herat, he inadvertently wandered into Taliban territory where he was assumed to be a spy or an informer of the Indian Army and taken hostage by armed militants. He spent 24 days blindfolded and strapped to a chair in a pitch-black 10-foot-by-10-foot dungeon living in daily fear that he would be killed. Debnath spent his last 11 days with the Taliban cooking for them, making a spicy Bengali curry. The story was also reported by the Telegraph on 06 November 2009. Well, that’s the soft power of Bengali cuisine! I never knew it before. 🙂
According to Debnath, he had met with 72 Prime Ministers, 38 Presidents and 6 Kings across the globe so far during his tour. As his journey turned global, the horizons of his mission also widened. Other than spreading awareness about HIV, Somen Debnath has also become an ambassador of Indian culture.