Friday, July 11, 2008

Bangladesh's unwanted people

By Mark Dummett
BBC News, Dhaka

Pakistani school girls singing Pakistan's national anthem in Dhaka
Loyalties are divided in the camp

At first glance, Geneva Camp could be any of Dhaka's overcrowded and filthy slums.

But above it flies Pakistan's green flag, with a red strip sewn on the side to represent, I was told, the suffering of the people there.

In the camp's school, the children first sing the Bangladesh national anthem at assembly, and then, after prayers, they belt out Pakistan's. Loyalties are divided.

"When I grow up I want to stay in this country and become a teacher," one girl tells me. But her classmate wants to go to Pakistan. " My grandmother lives in Karachi so I really want to go there," she says.

When I ask a group of youths which cricket team they supported when Pakistan recently played Bangladesh they all replied, "Pakistan".

But did they want to live there? "No, it is far too dangerous. Bangladesh is a peaceful country. We don't have any Taleban here," they said.

'Huge mistake'

Their lessons are in the local language Bengali, but their mother tongue is Urdu, the language of north Indian Islam, which their great-grandparents brought to Bangladesh in 1947 when it was then the eastern wing of Pakistan.

During the partition of India along religious lines, several hundred thousand Muslims, mostly from the Indian state of Bihar, came with them.

They were given houses and jobs by the government, but because they could not speak Bengali, they spent most of their lives apart from their countrymen.

The camp where Pakistanis live in Bangladesh
The refugee camp is filthy and overcrowded

The school's headmaster, Shawkat Ali, has a framed portrait of Pakistan's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah above his desk.

He says that his grandfather's decision to listen to Jinnah and leave India in 1947 was a huge mistake.

"Our family lost everything when we moved to Pakistan. We lost in India, then we lost in Pakistan, and now we are in Bangladesh," he said.

"We are the beggars on the footpath. Our people are leading a horrible life."

East Pakistan came to a bloody end in 1971 when the Bengali majority demanded greater autonomy for their province and then won a national election.

Pakistan responded by sending in its army. Nine months and a reported three million deaths later it pulled out and Bangladesh became an independent country.

Most Urdu-speakers had supported Pakistan, and some joined the militia responsible for atrocities. Thousands of Urdu-speaking civilians were also killed.

After the war, they were forced to abandon their homes and businesses, and herded into 70 Red Cross camps, awaiting repatriation to Pakistan.

But it only took in about half of them, and today there are 250,000 to 400,000 people still living in these same camps.

Several generations, and often several families, now share the small rooms each was originally given.

Bangladeshis in all but name

Shawkat Ali, the headmaster, is also one of the leaders of the Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee which calls for Pakistan to take in everyone who wants to go there.

"Our fathers and forefathers gave their blood for the creation of Pakistan. We have opted to go to Pakistan, and we should go there at the earliest," he said.

But many of the younger generation believe that Bangladesh will not help them if they continue to insist they are Pakistanis, and that the calls for repatriation have only made their lives harder.

Community leader Sadakat Khan
Mr Khan says there is no question of returning to Pakistan

Pakistan meanwhile says that it has taken in everyone it had agreed to following the war. It might accept more, but only on "humanitarian grounds".

In any case, many of the younger Urdu-speakers say they are Bangladeshis in all but name.

"There is no question of returning us to Pakistan. We haven't seen that country, we don't know that country, we were born and brought up here and we want to die here in dignity," Sadakat Khan, a community leader said.

He now hopes things will pick up for the Urdu-speakers after winning a historic victory in Bangladesh's Supreme Court last month.

The court ruled that anyone born in the country who did not refer to himself or herself as a "Stranded Pakistani", could vote in this year's upcoming elections.

And if they have the right to vote, Mr Khan says, the Urdu-speakers will then have the right to citizenship, government jobs, medical care, education, land ownership and foreign travel.

"We were deprived of the rights of a state for 36 years, but now we are getting them," he said. "With this ruling, the future of our children has been saved."

He hopes that nearly four decades of life as a stateless, unwanted people has finally come to an end.

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