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    Volume 9 Issue 14| April 2, 2010|

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Lives Devastated

Audity Falguni

Shahid Minar for the deceased hill people.

"Mother has passed away. We could not get her body. Because, we had to flee from our native village Guchchagram to Gangarammukh valley when a bullet all on a sudden struck her in chest. Thank God, we have found our father here who got out for work at dawn on the fateful day. Some of our relatives in the forsaken Guchchagram have cremated her," said Sumita (age: 17), Jewell (age: 16) and Rupna (age: 12), three children of Budhdhapudi Chakma (age: 36), the Jumma woman who was shot dead at an ethnic clash that took place on February 19.

"Now, we light up thousands of candles in her memory each evening in accordance with our Budhdhist rituals," they added as standing besides a little shahid minar (dome for the martyrs) which the hill people of Baghaihat, Sajek Union of Rangamati have erected to commemorate the death of Laxmibijoy and Budhdhapudi, two simple Jumma people who were killed during the recent ethnic clashes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. One would see the flowers at the foot of the minar and a little bamboo-made makeshift shrine where thousands of candles are lit up each evening in honour of the dead souls.

The ashes of the shanties gutted down by senseless arson formed the background of the shrine. It was around 11:30 AM when our team reached the valley of Gangarammukh village in Baghaihat of Sajek, Rangamati. It was the `Humanitarian Citizens' Committee (Manobatabadi Nagarik Samaj)' comprised of veteran political leaders, university teachers and senior authors of the country such as Pankaj Bhattacharya, Professor Syed Anwar Hossain, Selina Hossain or Anwara Syed Haque and a handful of young activists from different professions like us. The evening before we had recorded around eight interviews of indigenous victims from the Khagrachari town on our arrival there from Dhaka. The situiation in Khagrachari, too, appeared terrible. But Gangarammukh was simply beyond imagination!

The midday sun sent its scorching rays on the backs of hundreds of hill men and women who were seen sitting silently under the open sky. It was March 10 and relief interventions from either government or non-government sides seemed too meagre. Only Gono Swasthya Kendra was seen to distribute relief and open a medical camp in the fire-ravaged valley. Medical Sans Frontiers, in addition, opened another medical camp in the area.

Prakash Jyoti Chakma.

A 61-year-old Prakash Jyoti Chakma said, "Basically, I am not an inhabitant of this Gangarammukh village. I used to live in the Guchchagram village where ethnic people and Bengalis were living so far side-by-side. I had a grocery shop in the Guchchagram bazaar. Tension broke out at dusk on February 19. Suddenly we saw a spread of fire in the shops owned by indigenous people of the bazaar."

"The next day, i.e., on Sunday morning, the authorities came again from Bhaibbachara by around 11:00 AM. Meanwhile settlers set fire to one of our Buddhist pagoda or Kiyang in the locality. The settlers, arsoned our villages from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM and looted our houses and shops. My financial damage amounts to more than one lakh taka. Here, near about 400 indigenous families of us from Guchchagram, Gangarammukh, Retkaba, Dane Bhaibyachara and Bame Bhaibyachara are living under open sky for last 20 days," the old man sighed.

Chaya Rani Chakma (age: 59), mother of missing Rupan Chakma since February 19, told us, "I suppose my son is no longer alive. It is Abul, leader of the local Bengali settlers, who has master-minded the entire drama to evict us from our land."

Like Chaya Rani Chakma, Baitti Chakma and Madina Chakma ewre also distressed. 'My younger brother and Madina's husband Binoy Kanti has been grievously hurt at blows of machete by settlers upon his hands, head and legs. He can no longer walk,' Baitti told us.

Pratimioy Chakma (age: 37) said, "I am a man from the Retkaba village. All of our 28 ethnic families from that village have fled and taken shelter here. Apart from Retkaba village, there are 36 families from Guchchagram, 40 families from Gangarammukha and around 400 hill families here from the nearby villages. We are simply waiting by the road for relief assistance and humanitarian intervention."

"Each family has so far received one bundle of corrugated tin, 20 kgs rice and Tk. 4,200 as cash money. But, we are yet to erect any new home. We are constantly scared: what if settlers come again to arson us?' Pratimoy asked.

Jiten Chakma, a 36-year- old man, informed us that the authorities beat up indigenous children at Baghaihat Primary School on February 24 and they were no longer attending the school. "Those in authority have plotted the entire design to evict us from the reserved rubber forest here," he observed.

"Owing to lack of water and the extreme heat, people are suffering from acute diarrohea. We are distributing oral saline, paracetamol and some other basic medicine to them," said a woman doctor at the medical camp of Medical Sans Frontiers.

No sooner had we made our journey to return back to Khagrachari and arrive near the Bengali-dominated Guchchagram, some settlers blocked our cars. Senior members of our team including Selina Hossain and Pankaj Bhattachariya talked to them. Mohammad Abdul Hye Al Masum, a young local leader of the Bengali settlers, said: "The government has brought us, a good number of 568 Bengali families in 2004. We were brought here after the 1996 government decision to declare the entire Baghaichari region as reserve forest."

The husband and three children of the woman who was shot dead during the violence.

Although Al Masum claimed that a number of Bengali houses had also been gutted down, no apparent mark of arson attack could be noted in the vicinity. Houses and trees were intact. A number of brand new and white tents were seen but nobody was inside the tent in the Bengali Guchchagram.

The devastation in Khagrachari was painful to witness. Be it the proprietor of 'Jumma Line Handicrafts' Riton Chakma whose shop was vandalised causing financial damage amounting to five lakh taka, be it the owner of a residential hotel `Jirani' Nidan Chakma whose hotel had been destroyed, looted and arsoned causing damage worth about 50-60 lakh taka or a small Chakma food shop owner at Mahajanpara Nihar Kanti Chakma, the tales of loss and destruction were endless.

"My son is only 18- years' old and an H.S.C. examinee for April. Why did these miscreants wound him with a machete?" asked Sonali Chakma, mother of Sohel Chakma.

"For the last 20 days we hid in the forests during the night. On February 19 our entire para was burnt down. We are Marma and we number around 125 in this neighbourhood," said La Croy Ma (age: 37), a Marma woman from Satbhaipara, Khagrachari.

Humanitarian Citizens' Committee, in addition, visited two Bengali localities in Khagrachari namely Shalban Mohammadpur and Shantiniketan. "I have come here in 1982. A total number of 5,000 Bengali families came at that time together. The Government has allotted four acres of land to each of our families and we have land records. Because of the recent ethnic clash of February 23 in Khagrachari, four houses in our locality have been arsoned by indigenous people," said a 72-years' old Iman Ali.

"Khagrachari has always been an insurgency-prone area. Still, the district administration is endeavoring its best to enlist all the victim families on either side or distributing door-to-door relief to them. We are also taking preparation for cadastral survey so that the 'record of land rights' can be properly maintained," said the District Commissioner of Khagrachari District to the visiting members of the Humanitarian Citizens Committee.

The writer was part of the Humanitarian Citizen's Committee that went to CHT to get a first hand account of the terrible arson attacks.



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