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Land left behind to save lives

Land left behind to save lives

Author: Sunando Sarkar
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: December 25, 2002
URL: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1021225/asp/frontpage/story_1513956.asp

Hounded Bangladeshis flee to 'relief camps' in Bengal

"We are going to take your head if you don't part with your land." Faced with the grim choices she had, Shefali Ray ran. She started on her journey - from Madra village of Khulna district in Bangladesh to a place near Gobrapur village of North 24-Parganas in India - before dawn the evening after she learnt what fate had in store for her.

She reached India with her family and the clothes she wore. Thedalal (a member of a "syndicate" that arranged for the cross-border journey) took everything, including the earrings she was wearing. But she was lucky.

Bijaya Baidya reached here without her husband; he was beheaded while returning from the village market.

Siddheswar Biswas reached here with his immediate family but without the niece who was "just picked up and vanished one evening".

In a throwback to the immediate aftermath of the 2001 election in Bangladesh, which saw the Bangladesh Nationalist Party come to power with the help of assorted Islamic fundamentalist organisations, more and more Bangladeshis are flowing into Bengal now.

In almost every case, the two most vulnerable entities - land and women - were made the target, uprooting a people. The number that is coming over to this side of the border would not be insignificant.

Within a 5-km radius along the road that connects Bongaon and Bagdah, three "relief camps" have sprung up, at Kundipur, Patra and Colonypara - each with at least 100 men, women and children. There are many more who have taken shelter in the homes of relatives who crossed over last year.

All the "relief camps", like the one at Kundipur, are meagre affairs with refugees huddling together under a wall-less tarpaulin shed. With nobody sure of the administration's response - that of the ruling party hasn't appeared encouraging - the men and women don't want to attract attention though it's difficult for 100 people to stay concealed for long.

So it's the shed for the children - some of them less than a year old and without any warm clothes - and the women, with the men spending the night under the cold December sky.

"I don't feel the cold," Siddheshwar, 55, said. "I can't really feel anything if I can't protect my wife and children," he said.

Siddheshwar and his immediate family fled their home (Kekania village of Gopalganj district, post: Sultanshahi) in late November after they saw what happened to his 18- year-old niece, Urmila. "They (some neighbours) just entered our courtyard, picked up Urmila and beat us up," he said.

"Her parents have stayed put, hoping to get her back. But I did not see any sense in that," he said. He has three daughters, Aparna, 16, Archana, 14, and Jaba, 10, and a 12- year-old son, Subhankar.

Bijaya Baidya's husband, Amal Krishna (of Baruibhita village, Gopalganj), was killed more than a year ago after he protested against the forcible harvesting of his crop.

"He was killed in the open market," Bijaya said. "This time, too, we were told not to reap what we sowed. There was no point in staying back." She said she could not let her four sons, between 11 and 20 years old, meet their father's fate.

More fortunate is the family of Purnima Biswas, who lived near Gopalganj (town). She had a brother living here; he had come just a year ago. "I followed my brother here," she said. Purnima could afford to lose the 4 bighas she had.

What is happening to the land they owned in Bangladesh became clearer from Shanti Biswas's (of Keshabpur village in Noral sub-division) story.

Her neighbour, Sattar Mian, arranged for the dalal, she said, and he would "take care" of their land while they were away. "But he also told us not to come back," Shanti said.

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