Violence erupts after eerie calm

12 houses burnt at night; curfew remains in force in Khagrachhari

Indigenous people return home after receiving aid from Gangaram Mukh area in Rangamati yesterday. Photo: Star

Ethnic violence in Khagrachhari resumed late last night after a day long eerie calm in the district town, six days into the start of gory clashes between Bangalee settlers and the adivasi communities in Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Around 10 at night seven houses in adivasi neighbourhood of Golabari, and five houses of Bangalee settlers in Mollah Para and Ganj Para were set on fire.
The flames were licking the night sky while electricity supply in the town was cut off. Screams, yells, wailings, and sirens of rushing fire trucks were filling the air amid a curfew that went into effect at 10:00pm, scheduled to be lifted at 7:00am today.
Although section 144 remains in effect banning any demonstration during the curfew-free hours today as well, Parbatya Bangalee Chhatra Parishad, a student organisation of Bangalee settlers, announced a daylong transport strike in all three hill districts for the day.
All through yesterday government joint forces comprising the army, Rapid Action Battalion, Bangladesh Rifles, and police were patrolling the streets of Khagrachhari town with heavy firearms amid the ban on public gatherings.
High tension between the settlers and adivasi communities however was still quite apparent during the day, as the settlers were seen guarding most of the important markets and other public places in and around the town while the law enforcers were looking for hiding adivasis, especially in remote parts.
The ongoing SSC exams however took place without any disruption there, while adivasi examinees went to exam halls in groups in fear of attacks on the way.
Transport movement and all business activities remained suspended in the town all day.
Tuesday night's curfew was also lifted at 7:00am yesterday.
The law enforcers arrested 70 people comprising 42 adivasis and 28 settlers in simultaneous drives in Narikel Bagan, Muslim Para, Ganj Para, College Gate and different other parts of the Khagrachhari town from Tuesday 9:00pm till yesterday morning.
But the drives ended up flaring the ethnic tension, as many adivasis complained that many of the arrestees are innocent.
The arrestees including Khagrachhari Municipality Councillor Abdur Rab Raza were in the town police station till last evening.
The six days of violence claimed three lives and injured 70 while more than 500 houses were set on fire, over 400 of which belonged to adivasis. The violence made 3,000 adivasis and 500 Bangalee settlers homeless.
State Minister for Home Shamsul Hoque Tuku visited Khagrachhari and Rangamati yesterday, where he said BNP and Jamaat-e- Islami are hatching conspiracies to create unrest in the country.
State Minister for CHT Affairs Dipankar Talukder, and CHT Refugee Affairs Taskforce Chairman Jatindra Lal Tripura also visited the two hill districts.
But their visits seemed to do little to ease the tension as most of the adivasi people could not come out of their homes or hiding places to meet the dignitaries in fear of possible attacks or arrest.
Many adivasis who fled their homes remained out in the open in deep forests and could not go back home yesterday, as Bangalee settlers were guarding most of the public places exhibiting their readiness for more clashes.
"We Paharis and Bangalees are the citizens of Bangladesh, and we will resist any conspiracy against the country," Tuku said yesterday.
He said a vested quarter wants to distablise CHT as they want to deprive the residents of the hills of the development projects the government has planned for them. But the government is alert and the law enforcement agencies are fully prepared to protect the development initiatives, he added.
Tuku visited the neighbourhoods where arson took place, and assured the victims of government assistance for rehabilitation as soon as possible.
Warning law enforcement agencies, he said no negligence in their public protection duties will be tolerated, and punitive actions will be taken if any one is found guilty of such negligence.
But he did not make it clear how much time the government will need to rehabilitate the 92 fimilies who were identified by the Khagrachhari district administration as victims of arson. Most of the identified victim families are indigenous.
At a public meeting at Sajek Union Parishad Building in Rangamati he urged all people of the hills to resist any conspiracy to destabilise the hill districts, and asked law enforcement agencies to listen to the peoples' grievances and demands, and to accept cases if any one wants to file one.
He announced government assistance of Tk 20 lakh for reconstruction of burned houses, Tk 10 lakh for market repairing, 500 bundles of corrugated iron sheets, and 300 metric tons of rice for the victim families in Baghaichhari of Rangamati, where the clashes first erupted, and later spread to Khagrachhari.
For Khagrachhari he declared Tk 7 lakh and 200 metric tons of rice as emergency government assistance for arson victims, and told reporters that more assistnce will follow.
Khagrachhari Deputy Commissioner Mohammad Abdullah told The Daily Star, "The crisis in the hills will not go away unless the CHT Land Commission and CHT Refugee Affairs Taskforce become functional." The government however is committed to resolve the crisis as soon as possible, he added.
During visits to different places in Khagrachhari, and to Baghaichhari and Gangaram Mukh of Rangamati all through the day yesterday, The Daily Star correspondents were always being followed by at least one motorbike carrying different pairs of Bagalee riders.
Settlers turned the correspondents back from the way to Baghaichhari when the latter tried to use the main road to get there. They had to use alternate ways through the hills to get to the destination.
Bangalee settlers stopped the correspondents at Dighinala of Khagrachhari and threateningly advised them to leave the district immediately.
The Rangamati district administration and local Awami League jointly distributed relief for the first time yesterday among the victim families in Baghaichhari.
Most of the adivasi victims however could not get the relief as they were afraid to come out of their hideouts. But a few, who braved the threats of attacks, managed to receive the relief.
"We don't have any security. Bangalees attack us while the law enforcers look for us to arrest. We are afraid of both Bangalees and law enforcers," said a Chakma resident , who came out from his hideout to get the relief.
"The minister did not say when we will be able to return home. We don't want relief. We don't need that. We want to go back home," he added.
Khagrachhari Additional Superintendent of Police Mohammad Amir Jafar said the number of arrestees might come down as some innocent adivasis were also arrested during the drives.
"My son was pulling a rickshaw when he was arrested," said Rebeka Chakma, a resident of Mohajon Para whose son Rupayon Chakma was arrested by police.