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     Volume 7 Issue 23 | June 06 , 2008 |

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Special Feature

Sajek 30 Days Later

Over a month after the arson attack on the homes of Paharis and Bangalis in Sajek, whole families live under the open sky, waiting to rebuild their lives.

Kajalie Shehreen Islam, back from Sajek, Rangamati

A month after the April 20 arson attack in Sajek, Rangamati, the affected villagers remain homeless. Some are staying with relatives, others in the nearby Buddhist Bihar, many, under the open sky. Their possessions burnt to ashes, many of them have nothing to wear but the clothes on them, nothing to earn a living from, from which to feed themselves and their families. The relief goods (5 kg rice, 2 kg potatoes and 1 kg lentils) distributed some weeks ago by the Army Chief was far from enough. The Tk. 10,000 per family which was promised is yet to be paid.

The extent of the damage is still unclear. The Paharis say that 79 Pahari and 30 Bangali houses were burnt, while Bangalis claim that 182 houses in total were burnt, 103 of which was theirs. They also say that 50 Bangali families did not receive relief goods from the Army Chief.

When a relief team led by Sultana Kamal, human rights activist and former adviser to the caretaker government, went to Sajek at the end of last month, both Paharis and Bangalis claimed that not all victims had received relief. The Bangalis, in addition, claimed that whoever came with relief goods gave it all to the Adibashis, leaving them out. According to sources, however, among the burnt houses which belonged to the Bangalis, most were not permanent homes, but just stakes placed there to claim the land as their own. Most of the Bangali families have and live in permanent homes away from the village. For the Paharis, however, many lost in the fire everything they owned.

A Pahari home being rebuilt on the old, burnt foundation.

Bashona Chakma watched her house being looted -- wheat, clothes, kitchen utensils, “all the good things” stolen -- before it was razed to the ground along with her banana trees.

Dipti Chakma, a widow, has no place to stay after the attack. “They burnt my house and then broke down what was left of it after the fire,” she says. Not only is there no one to help her rebuild it, but she is not even being allowed to do it on her own. “Some people came and threatened me, saying this is forest land and I cannot rebuild my house here. For now I am living under a makeshift roof, but what will happen when the rains come?”

This is the fear of many of the Adibashis who are somehow making do for the time being but who do not know where they will go for shelter during the rainy season. Some families are beginning to rebuild their homes on their own. But conflicts arise when a Bangali attempts to set up a house where there used to be a Pahari home and vice versa.

A fortnight after the attacks, Smritimoy Chakma's fruit garden -- his only source of income -- was set ablaze.

So far, no headway has been made in the arson case. The main suspects of the attacks, Ali and Babul, were taken in for questioning by the army and released and are now nowhere to be found. On the other hand, some Paharis were arrested for possessing arms, namely bows and arrows. They were later released after pressure was applied by the fact-finding commissions which visited Sajek after the incident.

The simultaneous setting alight of selected houses across 4.5 km of land shows that the attacks were pre-planned and must have involved several people. In an area where regular citizens have to go through questioning and security checks every little while as if in a war zone, how the houses burnt within metres of an army camp (scattered throughout the area for security purposes and to counter insurgencies) remains a mystery.

The lives of the local children have also come to a standstill after the fires. Their books and school uniforms burnt, most were unable to sit for their first term exams. Shabbhabadi Chakma, a teacher at Baghaihat School and one of the two teachers whose houses were also set afire, says that, of the 37 children whose families were affected by the fire, only two or three sat for their exams. Not only were they not able to prepare for their exams, but their guardians are also fearful of sending them to school.

“Even throughout the year it is difficult for children to attend school,” he says. “For families who have to worry about their next meal as soon as they finish the current one, buying school books is a luxury they cannot afford and neither are they easily available in an area as remote as Sajek. Even though there are waivers and awards for good students, not everyone can afford to attend school.”

Bangali families in Sajek claim they are not given relief.

Getting to school is also a major problem. There is only one school in the union, which is located in Baghaihat. For some children, it is a 19-mile walk from their homes. For the Paharis, it is even more difficult when they have to cross tension-ridden areas populated by Bangali settlers to get to school. In a remote village in Sajek, a father of seven says none of his children go to school due to poverty and because of the distance from the school after the one nearby was closed down due to lack of maintenance. The recent rodent invasion has made it even more difficult for the Adibashis to make a living with their jhoom and other plants destroyed.

The April arson attack is only one of the recent manifestations of the communal tension in Sajek. About a fortnight after the attacks, Smritimoy Chakma's five-acre fruit garden was set ablaze. His banana and jackfruit trees were razed to the ground, leaving him no means of making a living. “I work as a day labourer when I get work,” he says. “When I don't, there's nothing. I cannot feed my family, not even rice. I don't know how I'm surviving.”

A Pahari and a Bangali woman both claim ownership of the same land.

Though local authorities claim that there is communal harmony between the Adibashis and Bangalis, locals claim that tension has risen between the two since March when illegal Bangali settlers from plain districts, backed by the army, started building houses beside those of the Paharis in areas like Baghaihat, Gangaram and Massalong. This settling has been going on for decades, with Bangalis from as far as Comilla and Noakhali settling in the hill tracts, reducing the one-time majority Adibashi population to between 50 and 60%.

There are many ways in which this is done. Sometimes, a Bangali will tell a Pahari that he does not have a home and asks to set up a temporary abode beside that of the Pahari's, and the latter, unsuspectingly lets him do so. At other times, a Pahari will be financially indebted to a Bangali and let him build a house next to his if the debt is not repaid on time. Sometimes, a Bangali will simply plant a tree on Pahari land and later, allegedly backed by the authorities, claim it as his own. At times, the same plot of land is registered to both a Pahari and a Bangali and both end up claiming ownership.

An Adibashi home razed to the ground, within metres of an army camp.

Budhorbi Chakma, a Pahari, and Fatema Akhter, a Bangali, are both claiming ownership of the same land. The former says she has been living there forever, while the latter claims she moved there, legally, two years ago when her house up north in Baghaihat was washed away by the floods. This is the reason given by many Bangalis for settling in the hill tracts, that their homes were washed away or they could not make a living from where they were. Budhorbi Chakma says she has moved but is still under threat.

The Adibashis have owned hill land for generations by customary law and do not necessarily have legal documents. It is alleged that an administrative building in Khagrachhari was burnt down to destroy the documents that some of the Paharis did have.

According to Anirban Saha, an investigative officer with the Ain o Salish Kendra, it has been found that some local leaders charge money for helping out Bangali settlers. “During our investigation we found that they first take money for helping them to set up a house, then for making it permanent and finally for arranging army backing in order to settle there,” says Saha.

Sultana Kamal distributes relief to affected villagers (L) while children are given reading and writing materials by students of Chittagong University (R).

The day Sultana Kamal distributed relief among both Paharis and Bangalis in Sajek, the latter, fearing they would be left out of the relief aid, formed groups and blocked roads, wanting to talk to the former adviser about their problems. They said that the Shanti Bahini (which was disbanded after the signing of the Peace Accord in 1997) causes trouble and it is because of the army that the Bangalis are secure in the hill tracts. Most of the Paharis, on the other hand, had to be sought out to be given relief and were fearful and vague about the attacks and who were responsible for them. Since the fires, they have also been fearful about going to the local market.

“The perception of the Paharis that the army is to be feared and of the Bangalis that the army is their friend is worrying,” observes Sultana Kamal. She also questions how villages surrounded by army camps can be set alight with the army knowing and doing nothing about it. “Why have these camps then?” she asks. “It's obviously not because of 'insurgencies'. Otherwise, camps would have been set up in Rajshahi when Bangla Bhai and his group were carrying out insurgencies, but they weren't.”

“Shanti shampriti, Pahari Bangalir ek niti” (The policy of both Paharis and Bangalis is one -- peace and friendship). This was the slogan on one of the placards held by members of the Pahari Bangali Oikya Parishad. If there is one thing the Paharis and Bangalis have in common, it is that they both want peace. Left to themselves, they have no reason to harm one another. It is only when one claims or is made to claim the other's land as his own that problems arise. At times, one or both groups are used to create conflict and tension in the area. This has been going on for decades and the solution seems to be as difficult as the cause is historically complex. The 1997 Peace Accord is yet to be fully implemented, with the activation of a Land Commission, withdrawal of “temporary” army, BDR and APBn (Armed Police Batallion) camps and handing over of full control of local, civil and police administration to three hill district councils.

Bangladesh has a small minority population compared to other countries with many different ethnic groups. Unfortunately, however, not only are these indigenous groups not welcomed and embraced for the diversity that they bring to the nation, but they are not given their due rights, not even to the land which they have owned for generations. Their homes set on fire and their lives threatened, this small group of people are made to feel like terrorists, troublemakers, or, at best, strangers in their own land.

.Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008