Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, August 13, 2009

The lost generation

Sumaiya Tabassum Ahmed
Photo: Syed Iftekhar Amin

The morning sun shot in rays through the numerous small holes of a rusted tin room, illuminating it with an amber glow. In a corner of the room, sat a woman of around seventy years of age, reciting the Quran. The most interesting part of her was her face, carved and chiselled with wrinkles; one would just have to take a single look to realise how much experience and stories she had. The room that she sat in was little over fifteen square feet in area, which had two bunk beds attached on the wall, a cabinet, crockery's, pots and pans, strewn books and copies which had been scribbled on the only year her grandchildren permitted to go to school. This is where Nazma stays with her two sons and a daughter, their spouses and grandchildren.

Like Nazma, countless families live in similar rooms lined methodically besides twisting and narrow alleyways in Geneva Camp. Many of the readers have some knowledge about Geneva Camp, and for those who don't, here is a brief history.

During the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan which divided the subcontinent into Muslim and Hindu territories, countless of Muslim Indians migrated from India to the Muslim state of Pakistan. Through excruciating weather and horrible living conditions, they travelled in groups to then East Pakistan. By 1971, most of them were settled in their new land. However, when war broke out between East and West Pakistan, the Biharis, who were supporting Pakistani's, technically became refugees in Bangladesh. After the war ended and the country of Bangladesh was formed, countless of Biharis were evicted from their homes, and most of them were left home less. During this period, the Swiss funded for two temporary refugee camps for the Biharis, which was named Geneva camp. Throughout the years, there had been countless times that the Biharis wanted to return to Pakistan or India, but neither country agreed to take them back, and even though they applied for citizenship in Bangladesh, it would be years, 2008 to be exact, that some of them would finally receive it.

For over thirty years, the Biharis continue to stay in the camp. Nazma's daughter Gulnahar was born when Nazma was only fifteen years of age, then her two sons Rafiq and Tariq was born during the next five years. Even though she dreamed of sending her children to school, it was next to impossible to send a Bihari to a local school. None of the schools in the area would want to take them in, claiming most of them were not eligible since they were refugees. On top of that, the living conditions were deteriorating steadily, and the population in the camp continued to rise at an alarming rate. By early 2000s, the population had nearly doubled, but there was no increase in the size of the camp. Therefore, families of six, seven and sometimes even eight had to share one small room, which housed all their belongings and their kitchen. Outside this small room, was their lone stove which they had to use to cook all of their daily meals. One can only understand how much the Biharis have to struggle if they take a walk through the alleyways of Geneva Camp. Children crying unattended in a corner, waterlogged rooms and unhygienic living conditions are all but normal over here.

When Nazma's daughter was married off at the age of fourteen, she had to sell the measly amount of gold that she owned to pay for the dowry. Within a year, Gulnahar gave birth to a baby boy. However, when asked for a birth certificate, they didn't give her any. As neither Gulnahar nor her husband, were legal citizens of Bangladesh, her child did not have the “privilege” to own a birth certificate. As the years went by, like Gulnahar, her son was not able to get admitted to a proper school, and the dream that Gulnahar wanted to make reality through her child was over even before it started. Presently, her son works as an embroidery tailor in the Geneva Camp.

For most of the people residing in Geneva Camp, the common thing that they share is their loss of identity. Their ancestors are from India, but who are they? Not Indian, but at the same time, not even Pakistani's. Rejected from India and abandoned by the Pakistani's, they have no place to call home. Generations after generation are born within the quarters, and each generation is being lost. This loss of identity followed by a sense of confusion had lead to many of the youths turning to violence as a medium to let out their anguish on the society. If, for once, one tried to imagine what these people could have contributed to our society if they had gotten proper education, they wouldn't have been left uncared for all these years. Even though they already received their citizenship, people's perception towards them has not changed. They are still looked down on and ill treated. What is worse, many of the residents of the Camp are afraid to receive their citizenship for the fear that they will be evicted from their present housing, since the camp was built for refugees. As they do not have any assurance of a place to live once they are evicted, most of them chose to live as refugees.

At the end of the day, all of us live under the same sky, breathe in the same air and walk on the same grounds. We all rejoice when we hear good news, and mourn at the news of loss and failure. We are all but human beings, with similar emotions and judgment. Why then, do we allow them to fall back when we move forward? Why do some of us still treat them differently from any one of us? And most importantly, what right do we have not to provide our fellow countrymen their right to a free and equal life while we rejoice in ours? We still have the time to turn the tide, all we need is a little more humanity and compassion to guide us to a better and united Bangladesh, where people are not judged by their caste, and every person is inspired to dream big and overcome whatever comes their way.



home | The Daily Star Home

2009 The Daily Star