Utpal Nokrek tells his story from the wheelchair
It was January 3, 2004. I was only 18. I joined a rally to protest the construction of the so-called eco-park within the Modhupur National Park—built on what we considered our ancestral land.
We assembled at Jalabadha-Rajghat in the south of our village, Beduria. This is where the Forest Department was constructing walls that would block our free movement. From there, we were supposed to march to Gaira in the Modhupur National Park, another Garo village in the south. But before we could go any further, our rally was blocked by Forest Department officials, forest guards, and armed police.
The law enforcers fired rubber bullets, at first. Then, as we were running away, they fired real bullets at us from behind. Piren Snal, 28-year-old Garo youth from Joynagachha village next to Beduria, was shot dead on the spot.
I fell to the ground. For a brief moment, I saw others running. Then I blacked out. When I regained consciousness, I found myself in a van—whether it belonged to the police or the forest guards, I do not know. I was soaked in blood. I could not move my body. Piren Snal, dead and covered in blood, was lying on my side, a bullet lodged in his chest.
“One has died and one is alive,” I heard the forest guards saying.
I lay there for hours—it was as if I was left to die. It was late afternoon when they finally removed Piren’s dead body from the van. With me lying face down on the floor, and a forest guard and policeman sitting on a bench, the van began to move towards Tangail or Dhaka.
It was such a painful journey on the bumpy road that I thought I would die. I wished I would die. I felt an excruciating pain in my back and chest. It was January, the coldest time of the year. I was shaking uncontrollably. It was somewhere near Modhupur that they gathered some straw from the ground and threw it over me.
Finally, we reached the Tangail Sadar Hospital. There, doctors located the bullet inside me but could not take it out. They concealed the bullet hole with a bandage and sent me to Dhaka.
I was lucky to be taken in an ambulance from Tangail to Dhaka. I was still in much pain. I was taken to National Institute of Diseases of the Chest and Hospital in Dhaka. Our ambulance arrived at the hospital in the dead of night. There was no surgeon at that time, so we were told to wait till morning.
I was screaming in pain. In the meantime, Dr Abdur Razzaque, the MP from our constituency, arrived. It was under his influence that the surgeon and his team assembled and the hospital got ready for an operation. The bullet was taken out at around 3am. It was not easy. The bullet had gotten stuck in my flesh and bones. The surgeon crudely cut the hole, without anaesthesia.
The next morning, the then forests and environment minister, Shajahan Siraj, came to see me. “You have nothing to worry about. You will get your treatment,” the minister tried to console me.
I did not have any feeling in the lower part of my body. A nurse brought a pin; she poked my leg. I felt nothing.
After a second surgery, this time with anesthesia, the doctors concluded that my spinal cord was permanently damaged. I was paralysed for life.
My life on wheelchair
From Dhaka Medical College I was taken to the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) in Savar. My life on a wheelchair began.
While at Dhaka Medical and CRP, I was always guarded by the police or forest guards until I took bail in a forest case, which was filed against me after I was shot. Apparently, I was accused of causing hindrance to the FD’s work!
People at the Forest Department started pressuring me and my family to take bail. While I was still at CRP, they took me to Tangail Forest court in a microbus and asked me to sign some papers that would ensure my bail. I refused because there was no one from my side—neither my parents nor a lawyer. My refusal angered the people at the Forest Department. They sent me to Tangail jail for a night and day. You can imagine what an experience it was—in jail, in a wheelchair that I was only just beginning to learn to manoeuvre.
My parents came to court the next day, secured my bail, and took me back to CRP.
All these years later, the forest case is still active. The police visited a few times to remind me that I am not appearing before the Forest Court in Tangail. Every time they came, they made me pay for the octane of their motor cycles.
Thirteen years have passed since I was shot, but I have not been able to file a case yet. No one from the Forest Department has ever come to see me and I have received no support from the government. All the assistance I received—a one-room building to set up a grocery shop and some cash—came from NGOs. My parents now run the shop.
Every day, I follow the same routine. I get up at 6am in the morning. I need about three hours to complete my morning rituals—go to the toilet, brush my teeth and bathe. I cannot do things like other people. I use a catheter every time I urinate. I have to guess when I have to urinate because my bladder no longer functions properly. I eat twice a day—breakfast at 10am and dinner at 7pm. I normally do not eat anything in between.
Once I realised I am permanently settled on a wheel chair, I lost interest in continuing my studies. I am unable to work. My parents and siblings take good care of me. We do not have much land, but we manage.
What has been done to me cannot be undone. All I want now is peace in our ancestral land.
As told to Philip Gain, researcher and director of Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD)