by Hana Shams Ahmed
[Daily Star, May 16, 2008]
A burnt down home of a Pahari victim in Sajek union
On April 20 an act of extreme violence took place across seven villages in Chittagong Hill Tracts — Nursery Para, Baibachara, Purba Para, Nangal Mura, Retkaba, Simana para and Gangaram Mukh — of Sajek union under Baghaichari upazila (sub-district) in Rangamati district. Houses of villagers were burnt to the ground in the darkness of the night. The houses belonged to both Paharis and Bangali settlers, although Pahari victims say the majority were Pahari houses. Bangali settlers say the opposite.
Binoy Chakma, Gyanendu Chakma, Clinton Khisha, Shanti Bikash Chakma and Dino Mohan Chakma, at a press conference held on April 27 alleged that 77 houses of Paharis were set on fire and three people were injured during the attacks — Newton Chakma, Bijoy Singh Chakma, and Ratan Bikash Chakma. 15 khupri houses of the settlers were also destroyed.
Clinton Khisa, one of the Pahari victims, has been living in Sajek for almost 15 years now. According to Clinton it was a pre-planned attack. Some conscientious Bangalis of Baghaihat warned the Paharis about the attacks from beforehand. “When night came we got vigilant in all the villages to protect ourselves and our families,” says Clinton.
At around quarter to 10 at night 200 settlers began to advance towards the Baibachra village. “When they saw that we were all gathered together in groups they quickly went back,” continues Clinton, “then they came back again a little while later with arms.”
The unknown assailants started burning houses indiscriminately. They first set fire to the house of Nirmol Kanti Chakma. Then went to the house of Nihar Kanti Chakma. Then eventually they set fire to houses in Purbo Para, Retkaba Para and Gangaram. Apart from the houses of the Paharis, they also set fire to the khupri houses of the Bangali settlers that were just alongside the Paharis. Whether this was because they could not distinguish between the houses of the Paharis and Bengalis, or some other motive, is not clear.
“They also burned a local church and two UNICEF schools,” says Clinton, “the main intention of this attack was to kick us out of our villages so that Bangali settlers could move in.”
Two independent, citizens’ fact-finding committees were formed to investigate what happened that night. The first 14-member team led by Moshrefa Mishu, convenor of Biplobi Oikko Front and Dr. Manosh Chowdhury, professor of the Department of Anthropology at Jahangirnagar left for Sajek on the morning of April 27. The fact-finding committee reported seeing burnt houses on both sides of the road in Baghaihat Market area. The village of Gangarammuk Dor was deserted. Buddhi Ranjan Chakma, a Pahari spoke to Ms. Mishu and alleged that Bangali settlers were responsible for the arson attack of April 20. Many of the affected Paharis, who were terrified, had taken refuge in the local Buddhist Bihar (five hundred feet from the Gangarammuk Dor army camp). Some Paharis had taken refuge in the forest and in the homes of relatives.
Khupri houses of Bangali settlers in Sajek.
Both Paharis and Bangalis living there confirmed that Bangali settlers were still building houses on the occupied pieces of land.
In Baghaichori Marishya, Dui Tila, Kobakhali in Dighinala, Sadhana Tila, Chongrachori and other areas that the fact-finding committee visited, they saw more evidence of land-grabbing, Bangali occupation of Pahari land by force, and the setting up of new settlements.
The second 12-member fact-finding committee led by Supreme Court advocate Sara Hossain, writer Syed Abul Maqsud, Gono Forum leader Pankaj Bhattacharya and others,carried out an on-site inquiry on April 28 and 29 in Sajek Union. This fact-finding committee reported that in eight villages within the reserved forest area in Sajek Union — Nursery Para, Daney Bhaibachora, Bamey Bhaibachora, Purbopara, Balughatpara, Retkaba, MSF Para and Gongaram Mukh — the mostly Pahari houses which had been burnt down to the ground remained just as they were. They saw charred remains of burnt houses across a four-kilometre long area. According to the fact-finding committee many people are still in hiding, others do not have proper shelter and some remain under open skies.
A 50-year-old Chakma inhabitant of Balurghat Para village complained to the team that his stock of food, clothes, utensils, school books, birth registration certificates and SSC certificates had all been completely burnt. About 30/35 families came to take shelter at the Baghaihat Moitripur Jogi Bono Bihara [Buddhist temple].
According to accounts taken from both Bangalis and Paharis there had been rising tension in the area for about two months. The main reason for this tension was that the Bangalis had been erecting houses near or adjacent to the Pahari’s houses. The settlers told the fact-finding committee that these huts have been put up over the last two months. There had already been conflict and confrontation over this issue and tensions continued to rise. The team also concluded that the fire had not spread from house to house, as was reported by some media, given the sparse density of their location. Each had been separately set alight.
The vast Sajek Union is located at one end of Rangamati District, and mainly comprises of reserved forests. Many Paharis have lived in this area for generations in accordance with their customary norms and without any official title deeds.
Unless the Chittagong Hill Tracts area is opened up to the national media, land grabbing and oppression of the Paharis will continue in violation of the CHT Accord signed in 1997. The Land Commission should review and settle all land disputes to prevent further incidents like the one that took place on April 20. Abiding by the Accord the civil administration should be made functional, including effective functioning of the CHT Regional Council.
The indigenous people of the hill tracts have been preserving the land and maintaining the ecological balance of the hills for hundreds of years. Their rich culture is a treasure trove worth safeguarding for a country like Bangladesh. Unfortunately there is complete disregard for minority communities in general and the indigenous community in particular. The diverse cultures present in our country are very much a part of our nationality, and to uphold the spirit of the liberation the indigenous people must be allowed to practice their culture and religion in the way that has worked for them for so many years.
Pahari victims of the arson attack on April 20 talk to members
of the fact-finding committee.
The CHT Peace Accord of 1997 was a very significant first step towards recognising and respecting communal harmony. It showed respect for nationalities other than Bangalis to coexist in the same country. Unfortunately over the years none of the political parties followed their own pledges for ensuring communal harmony in the country. With a member of minority representing the body of advisers in the present caretaker government there are high hopes that this recent violent incident will be a watershed event and change the direction of our policy in CHT. It is time to settle the issue of land rights in an equitable manner that respects indigenous people’s claims to land they have lived in for centuries.
Photos: Udisa Islam