06/06/2006, 00.00
BANGLADESH
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The wounds of "non-existent" tribals

by Nozrul Islam

AsiaNews visited the village of Saupru Karbari, in the Chittagong hills, the target of a ferocious attack by Bengalese settlers two months ago. The settlers want to seize the lands of the aborigines, who have been left with destroyed homes, broken arms and legs, and hopeless fear.

Chittagong (AsiaNews) – Scars, broken limbs, families forced to escape and unable to return home. This is the plight facing Saupru Karbari in Bangladesh, two months after a ferocious attack by a group of "Bengalese brigands" against the aboriginal Marma community. AsiaNews visited this village in Maischari commune, in Khagrachari district in the Chittagong hills, where residents live in fear and have no hope at all of ever seeing justice done, because they are completely ignored by the authorities.

Reprisals against the Marma followed a dispute over a piece of land that dozens of Bengalese, who came from outside to build houses, claimed from a local indigenous man. When the locals resisted, the aggressors returned on 3 April, looted their homes and attacked them: at the end of the day, one man had been killed, four girls raped and 45 people wounded, including a respected bonze. Homes were looted and a youth hostel destroyed. So far, there is no news of progress in investigations about what happened in Saupru Karbari; the Bengalese brigands arrested have been released one after the other. The government has not announced any kind of compensation for the victims.

The eastern region of Bangladesh has often been the theatre of clashes between tribals and soldiers from Dakha. Bengalese settlers occupied land in this area in recent decades and the tribal people, deprived of their only source of income – land – rebelled against the authorities. But the government appears intent on pressing ahead with its "Bengalization" policy.

In the village, people were cordial. There were many women and children, lively but malnourished. They told stories ignored by the media; they showed the consequences of the attack: scars on men, women and children – including a man with a broken arm held in place by bamboo sticks – and on their homes. Not that it is very difficult to damage homes made of walls and doors only two millimeters thick, and without keys. Many families have returned, but not those of the girls who were raped, nor those who live too close to the Bengalese. They say they are "very afraid" and "discouraged".

One elderly man showed us his residence, 50m away from a Bengalese house: "Look, there was little but now nothing is left, only four torn clothes I did not have the heart to remove". The military authorities, to "keep the peace", said no one should touch anything not to provoke the adversaries. The Marma cannot pick the fruit off their trees and this is the season of the qatal (jackfruit), which is particularly nutritious.

Those who have not gone back to their homes are living with other families, or they have settled in the undamaged quarters of the Buddhist hostel, where only 30 out of 70 residents have returned. They talk of countless, useless bids to defend themselves using both physical and legal means. "They provoke us, they throw bricks, they take away our things, they come in groups at night. When we gather together armed with some sticks and sickles, they immediately disperse and the army appears, finds us with "arms", accuses us of aggression and throws us into prison. If one of us is more learned than the rest, and goes to court to insist on making a case, he is identified, arrested and denounced as a terrorist".

The new settlers most likely come from Comilla and Rangpur. Often it is the army who invitew them and shows them "free" areas to occupy. So it's taken for granted that the military is ready to take their part when the tribals protest, because they have expropriated land that is theirs by law: "We have all the papers in order and we have shown them to everyone countless times. They simply ignore us."

Officially, everything that happened never happened. As we were leaving Saupru Karbari, two Bengalese settlers yelled out to us: "What did you come here for? There's nothing to see, nothing happened here! If they have something to complain about, why don't they go to the authorities?"

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