Aliens of the land!

Shaikha Shuhada Panzeree spends a day in the Bihari camp of Mohammadpur

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It’s a whole different world, in colours and in music. The air and the echoes tell a different story, of guilt and struggles, of denial and obstacles.

The Geneva Camp was established after 71’s war to accommodate the Biharis or the Urdu speaking people, who were stranded in Bangladesh as a result of the war. These people moved to Bengal from Bihar after the partition of India and Pakistan because of geographical proximity. Termed as the stranded Pakistanis, in 20 years from 1973-1993, almost 2.7 lakhs of these people were repatriated to Pakistan. But their hopes were broken after Pakistan stopped the process of repatriation in 1993. Since then, this camp has become the only sense of belonging for them.

As someone steps a foot into the camp, the music, old Urdu and Hindi songs playing in cassette players float into the airs, and it immediately takes one back to a distant time. The air smells of antiquities, people who have been here for almost long 40 years, talking in Urdu, a deviated form of Urdu; along with them, young people who were not offered the opportunities of venturing out in the outer world than this congested camp.

Small colourful shops–of glittering beaded clothes, yellow, red and orange speak out, plastic kitchen utensils, grocery shops–smelling of rice and wheat and at times spices. There are one or two samosa and poori shops emitting smoke and heat, sweaty shopkeepers in stained undershirts and scattered vegetable markets.

No one seems to be in a rush. Children, students and youngsters are laughing and gossiping out loud, walking by or sitting on some roughly structured building. These are the welcoming sights for any outsider, even a Bengali person, all of them within 30 yards into the camp. One gets noticed, be it for the slightly careful dress-up or just the unknown face itself. Everyone seems to know everyone here.

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Nearly 40,000 people inhabit this Bihari Palli. There are approximately 5000 families, each of them living in eight by eight or eight by ten feet rooms. Farther into the alleys, I find women leaning against walls, in salwar kameezes, their head casually half covered with duputtas onto which their young children or grandchildren hold tightly.

In these drab rooms, live a father and a mother, their sons, sons’ wives and children, unmarried daughter, altogether, three generations. Privacy is a luxury they cannot afford. A girl has to change when everyone is out, or maybe looking otherwise. No privacy for the married couples; this probably explains the frequency of people out on the road.

Narrow shadowy passages show to these dark rooms. Some of these rooms have tubewell or a tap at a corner while others are devoid of any source of water from inside the building, a burner, a plastic dish rack, a quilt or a bed at best, and some other scattered stuff, all inside a 8’x8’ room.

There is almost no ventilation.

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A day of rain is a nightmare in this place. Stagnant water, dirt and mud coating away the feet, big and little ones altogether. This mud is enriched with the disposed garbage in the middle of the roads, here and there.

In some places, the garbage is piled up. The city corporation people do not enter this area because the roads are not good as the authorities say, share an inhabitant of the camp. ‘We have to take out the trash and dump this into the nearest garbage disposal outside the camp,’ he says.

Nazo, a 55-year-old, with her 10 years old granddaughter, are seen washing clothes on a pavement near which a well stands. There are four wells like this in the entire camp. People bath here, wash clothes and dishes and do other tasks. Four wells for 40,000 people!

There are 160 common toilets, most of them out of order, stinking up the rooms right in front, exactly one and a half yards away, with the doors facing each other. Even to wash hands after going to the bathroom, they will have to walk back to the wells or go to their rooms if they have a water tap line in there. As Nazo speaks from her experience, people come to visit, witness their life and leave, nothing changes. All the while, the little one with her stays silent, doing her own work with full attention.

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A guy in his thirties, Md Doma, in his lap his few months old daughter, poses for the camera of a random visitor who came to see life inside the camp. He, lovingly asks his daughter to look at the camera. Doma, a proud father of two, wants a better life for them. A life out of this dingy hovel and in a standard apartment, which of course does not have to be spacious, just a little free room for the children to play around, is all he wishes for.

Doma is a barber by profession. He works at a good salon in the city, earns somewhat enough to rent a small apartment in Dhanmondi. He had recently found a vacant apartment in a nearby area up for rent. After contacting the landlord, when he was asked about his current residence, he told them the truth. He was denied the flat then. ‘They told me “We cannot let a Bihari rent an apartment as it would result in social condemnation for us”,’ says Doma.  Others who tried to venture out of the camp in the past faced similar discrimination.

Their career options stay limited within daily labourers to small vendors or businessmen, shop salesmen, barber, tailor- occupations that entail little earning. Education matters in this area and they do not receive much.

The only school, which opened class nine till this year, was established with the help of an NGO. It gives education to 1200 students in three shifts throughout the day. The school has a staff of 13 teachers who look after everything besides teaching.

The school authorities share that most of the students drop out after their PSC or JSC and give a hand with their fathers or mothers in earning for the family or in homemaking. ‘Very few goes out of the camp to pursue further studies,’ says a teacher of the school.

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Some aspiring to go abroad in search for employment or some wishing to visit their near ones in India and Pakistan, are not given the opportunity to do so. People of the Geneva camp, though given right to vote, are still not entitled to a passport. The passport office denies issuing them passports without any accountability.

Moni, an HSC passed mother of one child, says that when they provide their own address in the application form, almost certainly they will not get the passport approved. Md. Doma says that earlier some of them did use fake addresses to get passports. But recently, as their updated NID cards have Geneva camp mentioned in it, they can no longer deceive the passport office.

Both Doma and Moni raise a question. ‘We have been born and brought up in this country. We are as much Bangladeshi as the common men here. Why then are we facing such discrimination?’ asks Doma. ‘We did not have anything to do with the past,’ adds Moni.

Poverty is not the only tying knot among these people. It is a gifted existential crisis that put them here, of abandonment. There are 70 camps like this throughout the country, some estimates indicate a number of 500,000 stranded Pakistanis living in Bangladesh today.  The later generation of whom is denied of any relation by Pakistan, thus denying any responsibility towards them too, and neglected by the country they are born in. Some of these camps are in a better condition, some in worse, but suffering is a must.

Shoukat Ali, the headmaster of the only school here, and the general secretary of the SPGRC, says, ‘This is no way of life. We have lived here for ages, since the British period. Since then the Bengalis have been our brothers and well-wishers, shared good and bad times. Why can the government not put a little more attention toward us?’ He adds that the situation is now somewhat better than before.

What does then, the future holds for them?

Stepping out of this place pulls one back to real life, the usual noise of rickshaws and cars honking, people talking in Bengali, leaving a story behind, like a scene from a realist novel or a movie.