Category: Wetlands of Bangladesh

Murali Bhanjyang, Nepal (AFP)

March 13, 2016

Nepali villager Sunita Magar thought she was heading to a safe factory job in Kuwait, but only when she landed in Damascus did she realize “something had gone very wrong”.

Frequently beaten with a baton and given only one meal a day, Magar says she spent 13 months working as a maid for a Syrian household and pleading to be allowed to go home.

“I was just in shock, I couldn’t stop crying,” the single mother-of-two told AFP.

Magar is among scores of poor Nepali and Bangladeshi women who traveled to the Middle East on the promise of a good job, only to be trafficked into Syria, wracked by five years of civil war.

Nepal’s top diplomat in the region said nationals from the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries, which, like Nepal and Bangladesh, have large migrant labor populations, stopped working in Syria because of the dangers involved.

“Since then traffickers have been targeting Nepalis,” said Kaushal Kishor Ray, head of Nepal’s diplomatic mission based in Cairo.

“The numbers have gone up hugely in recent years, we estimate there must be around 500 Nepali women in Syria,” Ray told AFP.

In nearby Bangladesh, Shahinoor Begum lies in a Dhaka hospital bed recovering from her seven-month ordeal after being trafficked into Syria as a sex slave.

“I was sold to a Syrian man who tortured and raped me every day, sometimes along with his friends,” Begum, also a single mother-of-two, said.

“I begged for mercy, but they didn’t have any. Instead they used to beat me so badly that I broke my arms,” she told AFP.

Accompanied by labor agents, the 28-year-old and several other women left Bangladesh on the promise of working as maids in Jordan.

But they too were taken to Syria, where fighting between the regime and rebel forces has left more than 260,000 dead and displaced more than half the population.

Begum eventually developed kidney disease, prompting traffickers to contact her ageing mother to demand money for her safe return home.

Lieutenant Colonel Golam Sarwar said his team from Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion are investigating her case and two others — although families of 43 other women have lodged similar complaints.

“Bangladesh is apparently a soft target for the traffickers,” Sarwar told AFP.

– ‘Always afraid’ –

Criminal networks target nationals from Nepal and Bangladesh in part because their governments have little diplomatic influence in the region and no embassy in Syria.

A Nepal government ban on migrant workers travelling to Syria has failed to stop the traffickers, an International Labor Organization (ILO) official said.

“Nepal’s government thinks a ban is the easiest solution, it basically allows them to wipe their hands of the issue,” said Bharati Pokharel, ILO national project coordinator in Kathmandu.

“India has much more diplomatic clout than Nepal or Bangladesh and traffickers are aware of this. They know Nepal is weak and that they will face no legal action for their activities,” Pokharel told AFP.

Illiterate, trusting and desperate to dig herself out of poverty, Magar didn’t hesitate when a labor broker approached her with a promise of a well-paid job in Kuwait. The 23-year-old says she didn’t realize she had been duped until the plane landed in Damascus.

“I was always exhausted, always hungry, always afraid,” Magar said of working 20 hours a day for no pay and sleeping on her employer’s penthouse balcony.

At night, she listened to Nepali songs to try to drown out occasional sounds of gunfire and bombs and chase away thoughts of suicide.

– Corrupt officials –

When a massive earthquake hit Nepal last April, Magar stepped up pleas to her employers, who had confiscated her passport, to return home.

They contacted the broker who then demanded payment from Magar’s family to ensure her release. Her mother then highlighted the case to local newspapers, kicking off a social media campaign. Expat Nepalis as far afield as Finland and Hong Kong raised $3,800 to pay off her employers.

Magar, who finally arrived in Kathmandu in August, counts herself among the lucky few to have escaped.

Rohit Kumar Neupane’s aunt was trafficked to Damascus last spring. She alerted her family via Facebook a few months later, prompting Neupane to repeatedly seek help from government officials without success.

A foreign ministry official said Neupane’s request had been forwarded to its overworked embassy in Cairo, which covers nine countries including Syria.

“Frankly, we are not in a position to manage these cases from Cairo…what we need is precautionary action to prevent them from coming to Syria in the first place,” said diplomat Ray.

But an apparent nexus between local labor brokers involved in trafficking and corrupt Nepali officials means they operate freely, according to experts.

“Even in the rare instance that a case is filed, it will just drag on with no possibility of resolution or a guilty verdict,” said Krishna Gurung, project coordinator at Kathmandu’s Pourakhi emergency shelter house for female migrant workers.

In her village of Murali Bhanjyang in central Nepal, Magar has little hope of seeing the traffickers brought to justice.

“I still have nightmares about that time…I start crying in my sleep,” she said.

“Sometimes it feels like none of this is real, like I am back on that balcony in Syria, dreaming of Nepal.”

Source: Space War.


August 01, 2015

NEW DELHI (AP) — Tens of thousands of stateless people who were stranded for decades along the poorly defined border between India and Bangladesh can finally choose their citizenship, as the two countries swapped more than 150 pockets of land at the stroke of midnight Friday to settle the demarcation line dividing them.

Television images showed people bursting firecrackers and raising an Indian flag in the Masaldanga enclave, which became part of India. On the other side of the new border, thousands of people who have been living in the enclaves in Bangladesh cheered, danced and chanted “Bangladesh, Bangladesh.”

They lit 68 candles and released 68 balloons, then marched through the village of Dashiarchhara, highlighting that it took 68 years to settle the border dispute. The village in Kurigram district is 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

India’s External Affairs Ministry described July 31 as a historic day for both India and Bangladesh as “it marks the resolution of a complex issue that has lingered since independence” from British colonialists in 1947.

“We are very happy, our children will no more need to hide their identity to go to schools,” said Bashir Mia, 46. Many people posed as Bangladeshis to get their children admitted to schools in Bangladesh.

“We are free now, we are Bangladeshis,” he said. Nearly 37,000 people lived in 111 Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh, while 14,000 lived in 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India. They now get citizenship of their choice as a result of the agreement between the two countries.

Relations between India and its smaller neighbor have significantly improved since Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised that her administration would not allow India’s separatist insurgents to use the porous 4,000-kilometer (2,500-mile) border to carry out raids in India.

Aided by India, Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan following a bloody nine-month war in 1971. The boundary dispute has been lingering since British colonialists carved Pakistan out of India in 1947, and granted independence to the two countries.

None from Bangladeshi enclaves within India opted for Bangladesh, while 979 people from Indian enclaves living inside Bangladesh applied for Indian citizenship, said Akhteruzzman Azad, the chief government administrator for Bangladesh’s Kurigram district.

The shifting of the people to the Indian side will be completed by November this year. Several television news channels in both countries broadcast the celebrations live. “This will end nearly seven decades of deprivation the people living in the enclaves have had to suffer being virtually owned by no one,” said the Bangladeshi English language Daily Star newspaper.

The two countries are implementing the Land Boundary Agreement in line with a deal signed in 1974, and approved by India’s Parliament recently.

Associated Press writer Julhas Alam in Dhaka, Bangladesh, contributed to this report.

May 12, 2015

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Hundreds of migrants abandoned at sea by smugglers in Southeast Asia have reached land and relative safety in the past two days. But an estimated 6,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar remain trapped in crowded, wooden boats, migrant officials and activists said. With food and clean water running low, some could be in grave danger.

One vessel that reached Indonesian waters early Monday, was stopped by the Navy and given food, water and directions to Malaysia. Worried that boats will start washing to shore with dead bodies, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the United States and several other foreign governments and international organizations have held emergency meetings, but participants say there are no immediate plans to search for vessels in the busy Malacca Strait.

One of the concerns is what to do with the Rohingya if a rescue is launched. The minority group is denied citizenship in Myanmar, and other countries have long worried that opening their doors to a few would result in an unstemmable flow of poor, uneducated migrants.

“These are people in desperate straits,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, calling on governments to band together to help those still stranded at sea, some for two months or longer. “Time is not on their side.”

The Rohingya, who are Muslim, have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which considers them illegal settlers from Bangladesh even though their families have lived there for generations.

Attacks on members of the religious minority, numbering at around 1.3 million, have in the past three years left up to 280 people dead and forced 140,000 others from their homes. They now live under apartheid-like conditions in crowded camps just outside the Rakhine state capital, Sittwe, where they have little access to school or adequate health care.

The conditions at home — and lack of job opportunities — have sparked one of the biggest exoduses of boat people since the Vietnam War. Chris Lewa, director of the non-profit Arakan Project, which has been monitoring boat departures and arrivals for more than a decade, estimates more than 100,000 men, women and children have boarded ships since mid-2012.

Most are trying to reach Malaysia, but recent regional crackdowns on human trafficking networks have sent brokers and agents into hiding, making it impossible for migrants to disembark — in some cases even after family members have paid $2,000 or more for their release, she said.

Lewa believes up to 6,000 Rohingya and Bangaldeshis are still on small and large boats in the Malacca Strait and nearby international waters. Tightly confined, and with limited access to food and clean water, their health is deteriorating, she said, adding that dozens of deaths have been reported.

“I’m very concerned about smugglers abandoning boatloads at sea,” said Lewa. In the last two days, 1,600 Rohingya have washed to shore in two Southeast Asian countries. After four boats carrying nearly 600 people successfully landed in western Indonesia, with some migrants jumping into the water and swimming, a fifth carrying hundreds more was turned away early Monday.

Indonesia’s Navy spokesman, First Adm. Manahan Simorangkir , said they were trying to go to Malaysia but got thrown off course. “We didn’t intend to prevent them from entering our territory, but because their destination country was not Indonesia, we asked them to continue to the country where they actually want to go,” he said.

Those who made it to shore aboard the other boats on Sunday were taken to a sports stadium in Lhoksukon, the capital of North Aceh District, to be cared for and questioned, said Lt. Col. Achmadi, chief of police in the area, who uses only one name.

Some were getting medical attention. “We had nothing to eat,” said Rashid Ahmed, a 43-year-old Rohingya man who was on one of the boats. He said he left Myanmar’s troubled state of Rakhine with his eldest son three months ago.

A Bangladeshi man, Mohamed Malik, said he felt uncertain about being stranded in Aceh, but also relieved. “Relieved to be here because we receive food, medicine. It’s altogether a relief,” the man said.

Police also found a big wooden ship late Sunday night trapped in the sand in shallow waters at a beach of Langkawi, an island off Malaysia, and have since located 865 men, 101 women and 52 children, said Jamil Ahmed, the area’s deputy police chief. He added many appeared weak and thin and that at least two other boats have not been found.

“We believe there may be more boats coming,” Jamil said. Thailand has long been considered a regional hub for human traffickers. The tactics of brokers and agents started changing in November as authorities began tightening security on land — a move apparently aimed at appeasing the U.S. government as it prepares to release its annual Trafficking in Persons report next month. Last year, Thailand was downgraded to the lowest level, putting it on par with North Korea and Syria.

Rohingya packing into ships in the Bay of Bengal have been joined in growing numbers by Bangladeshis fleeing poverty and hoping to find a better life elsewhere. Up until recently, their first stop was Thailand, where they were held in open pens in jungle camps as brokers collected “ransoms” from relatives. Those who could pay continued onward, usually to Malaysia or other countries. Those who couldn’t were sometimes beaten, killed or left to die.

Since May 1, police have unearthed two dozen bodies from shallow graves in the mountains of southern Thailand, the apparent victims of smuggling rings, they say. Thai authorities have since arrested dozens of people, including a powerful mayor and a man named Soe Naing, otherwise known as Anwar, who was accused of being one of the trafficking kingpins in southern Thailand. More than 50 police officers are also under investigation.

Spooked by the arrests, smugglers are abandoning ships, sometimes disappearing in speedboats, with rudimentary instructions to passengers as to which way to go. Vivian Tan, the U.N. refugee agency’s regional press officer in Bangkok, Thailand said there is real sense of urgency from the international community.

“At this point, I’m not sure what the concrete next steps are or should be,” she said of a string of meetings with diplomats and international organizations. “But there doesn’t seem to be a clear mechanism in this region for responding to something like this.”

McDowell reported from Yangon, Myanmar; Associated Press writers Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Ali Kotarumalos and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

July 10, 2015

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — A stampede in central Bangladesh left 22 women and a child dead early Friday when hundreds of people stormed the home of a businessman for a charity handout during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, police said.

Another 30 were injured and rushed to a hospital in Mymensingh, a town 115 kilometers (70 miles) north of the capital, Dhaka, said police officer Kamrul Islam. The crowd gathered outside the tobacco businessman’s home around 4 a.m. and stormed in when the gates were opened to collect free clothing, Islam said. Twenty-two women and one child were killed, he said. Survivors said there were about 1,000 people, mostly elderly women, in front of the house.

Ambia Begum, 45, went with seven female relatives at dawn. One of them died in the stampede. “Oh Allah, why did I come here? Why?” she wailed as the body of her 60-year-old relative was retrieved. The businessman distributes clothes every year ahead of Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan.

Authorities detained six people, including the businessman, who did not request police presence at his house for the distribution. Stampedes are common at religious places and during charity handouts in South Asian countries.

April 12, 2015

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Bangladesh braced for protests and fresh violence Sunday after a senior official of the largest Islamist party was executed on charges of crimes against humanity during the country’s 1971 independence war, the second man to be hanged since the government revived war crime trials that have sharpened political divisions in the South Asian nation.

Mohammad Qamaruzzaman was put to death Saturday night in the central jail in the capital, Dhaka, a senior prison official, Forman Ali, told reporters outside the premises. Prosecutors said that Qamaruzzaman, an assistant secretary general of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, headed a militia group that collaborated with the Pakistani army in central Bangladesh in 1971 and was behind the killings of at least 120 unarmed farmers.

Bangladesh blames Pakistani soldiers and local collaborators for the deaths of 3 million people during the nine-month war of independence from Pakistan. An estimated 200,000 women were raped and about 10 million people fled to refugee camps in neighboring India.

Jamaat-e-Islami denounced the execution and called for a nationwide general strike Monday. At the same time, hundreds of people who supported the trial and execution rallied in Dhaka. Similar demonstrations were held in other cities and towns.

“We are happy that justice has been delivered finally,” said Mohammad Al Masum, a student at Dhaka University, who joined a procession in Shabagh Square. “I did not see the war but I am sure the families that lost their dear ones will be happy today.”

The trials have further polarized Bangladesh, already gripped by long-running political divisions that often spill into violence. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani, earlier this week urged Bangladesh not to carry out the execution, saying that Qamaruzzman’s trial did not meet international standards.

The United States was more guarded in its assessment of the trial, but still urged the government not to proceed with the execution. “We have seen progress, but still believe that further improvements … could ensure these proceedings meet domestic and international obligations,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement shortly before the execution. “Until these obligations can be consistently met, it is best not to proceed with executions given the irreversibility of a sentence of death.”

The Bangladeshi government said the trial met the proper standards with the defendant receiving the opportunity to challenge the prosecution’s case in open court and appeal the verdict all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina set up the tribunals in 2010, more than a dozen people have been convicted, mostly senior leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami. The party, which is allied with Hasina’s main opposition rival, says the trials are politically motivated.

The initial trials that followed Bangladesh’s independence four decades ago were halted after the assassination of then-president and independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — Hasina’s father — and most of his family members in a 1975 military coup. Hasina revived the process, making good on a pledge she made before 2008 elections.

Bangladesh executed another Jamaat-e-Islami assistant secretary, Abdul Quader Mollah, in December 2013 for similar crimes, triggering violent protests. Qamaruzzaman refused to seek presidential clemency. Somoy TV station reported that he was hanged after performing all legal and religious procedures. His body will be taken for burial to his ancestral home in the Sherpur district in central Bangladesh.

By Naimul Haq

JAMALPUR, Bangladesh, Feb 4 2015 (IPS) – Shanta is only four years old, but already she loves school. Every morning, her mother walks her to the small pre-primary facility in Mohonpur village, about 140 km away from Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, and leaves her in the care of a young female teacher, who oversees the day’s activities: storytelling, drama, reciting poetry.

The little girl’s mother, Mosammet Laily Begum, is a housewife of humble means. She and her husband, a rickshaw puller who earns about 100 dollars each month carting passengers back and forth, live in a thatched-roof home. They grow vegetables in the garden to supplement their income, and between them only just manage to scrape together the funds to feed and clothe their three kids.

Education is a luxury, one that – in a different time and place – they would have had to forego in favor of life’s necessities.

But the preschool located close to their home is free. Before Shanta, Laily’s two older children also passed through these classrooms, where they learned the alphabet in both English and Bangla. They have gone on to do very well in elementary school. She credits their love of lessons to the foundation they received here in Mohonpur.

“My daughter now plays with nothing but her school books at home,” Laily tells IPS. “She would rather do that than play with other children in the neighborhood.”

This family is lucky; unlike scores of others across rural Bangladesh who have no access to preschool facilities, they live within walking distance of one of the several thousand schools run by BRAC, one of the world’s largest development organisations that focuses on early education for kids between the ages of three and five.

Laily knows that her children could easily have fallen into the same category as the 3.3 million ‘out-of-school’ youth in Bangladesh. Until 2012, the government offered no options for families like hers, that couldn’t afford private preschooling.

This meant that the roughly 45 million Bangladeshis who subsist on less than 1.25 dollars a day had little chance of preparing their offspring for mainstream education.

This fueled a vicious cycle: poorer children who couldn’t get a head start lagged behind their more privileged peers, with inequities continuing on into the secondary and tertiary levels.

Many of these disadvantaged youth make up the bulk of Bangladesh’s unemployed, who constitute some 4.5 percent of the population of 156 million people.

Organisations like BRAC have attempted to level this uneven playing field.

With 12,450 pre-primary schools across the country, which provide schooling for nearly 360,000 students each year, the BRAC (Pre-Primary) Education Program (BEP) is the largest free preschool program in the country.

Altogether, over 5.2 million kids have benefited from these facilities since BRAC first rolled out the initiative in 1997.

Easing the transition into mainstream schooling

Standing inside the small tin shed that serves as her classroom, 27-year-old Rowshanara Begum is in her element. She handles a group of 30 kids, 18 of them girls – a 50-percent female enrollment rate being a top priority for BRAC – and she knows she is making a difference.

For two-and-a-half hours a day, six days a week, she painstakingly takes her charges through the alphabet, peppering the tedious process with drawings, nursery rhyme recitals and games. The flexible, informal structure keeps families coming back for more.

“There is tremendous pressure from parents to open another such free school for the children here in Mohonpur village,” she tells IPS.

Teachers are trained to nurture a child’s creativity, which in turn encourages better communication, language and social skills. Equal emphasis is placed on improving motor ability, using exercises such as free-hand drawing and painting.

In short, the whole curriculum is geared towards easing the transition into the public education system.

This is no small undertaking in a country where the average child takes 8.6 years to complete the five-year primary school cycle. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) chalks this up to low standards in public institutions, and the fact that 24 percent of all teachers in government-run or registered non-government schools are untrained.

The NGO has a lot to show for its efforts. A senior BRAC official who did not wish to be named stated that they have achieved a “remarkable” transfer rate of students from preschool into primary school, touching 99.14 percent.

Still, this is only half the battle won.

Bangladesh has made huge strides in improving education in the last two decades. It currently has one of the largest primary schooling systems in the world, with an estimated 20 million pupils between the ages of six and 10 years old, along with some 365,000 teachers working in over 82,000 schools.

Since 1990, it has raised its enrollment rate from 72 to 97 percent and its completion rate from 40 to 79 percent. The number of primary schools receiving free textbooks has increased from 32 percent in 2010 to over 90 percent in 2014.

According to Rasheda K Choudhury, executive director of the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE) – a network comprised of over 1,000 NGOs working on education issues – Bangladesh has also lowered the dropout rate from 33 percent just a few years ago to 20 percent in 2014.

“Improved teacher trainings, a narrower gap in the student-teacher ratio [which now averages 49:1, compared to 67:1 in 2005], and provisions for stipends for students are among the reasons for its success,” she told IPS.

But there are gaping holes that need to be filled. Policy makers insist that the current allocation of 2.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) on the education sector must be upped to at least four percent in order to truly provide high-quality education for all.

Much work also needs to be done to improve access for the 71 percent of the population living in rural areas, as well as for indigenous communities who dwell in the country’s remote hill districts and residents of ‘chars’ – little islands formed from sedimentation that dot the country’s largest rivers.

According to Johannes Zutt, the World Bank’s country director for Bangladesh, the government is reaching out to those left behind by educational reform, “including slum dwellers, working children, indigenous children and children with disabilities.”

But unless programs’s like BRAC’s BEP are rolled out on a massive scale all around the country, Bangladesh will continue to nurse a patchy educational track record, and the goal of universal primary education will remain out of reach.

Source: Inter-Press Service (IPS).


By Kamrul Khan (AFP)

October 29, 2014

A Bangladesh court on Wednesday sentenced to death the leader of the country’s largest Islamist party for war crimes, a long-awaited verdict that triggered violent protests by his supporters.

The war crimes tribunal found Motiur Rahman Nizami, head of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, guilty of mass murder, rape and looting during Bangladesh’s war of independence against Pakistan in 1971.

Head judge Enayetur Rahim sentenced Nizami to “hang by the neck until his death” for orchestrating the killing of doctors, intellectuals and others during the conflict as head of a ruthless militia.

“It’s a historic verdict,” chief prosecutor Haider Ali told reporters outside the packed and heavily guarded court in Dhaka.

Ali said Nizami, Jamaat’s leader since 2000 and a minister in a former Jamaat-allied government, led the notorious Al-Badr militia “which took part in many heinous crimes”.

Security was tightened across Bangladesh before the ruling after similar judgments against several of Nizami’s senior lieutenants plunged the country into one of its worst crises last year.

Jamaat supporters took to the streets in cities and towns to protest against the latest sentence, clashing with police and border guards, but it was quiet in the capital.

Around 1,000 Jamaat activists hurled small bombs at officers who fired rubber bullets and tear gas in response in the northwestern town of Shibganj, police inspector Abdus Sabur Khan told AFP, adding that about a dozen people were injured.

Police also fired rubber bullets and tear gas in the northeastern city of Sylhet to disperse demonstrators, while smaller clashes and protests were reported in more than a dozen other towns and cities.

Jamaat, more than a dozen of whose leaders are being tried for war crimes, called a three-day nationwide strike starting Thursday, saying it was “stunned” by the verdict.

Junior home minister Asaduzzaman Khan said “all sorts of security measures” had been taken across Bangladesh including the deployment of extra police, amid fears the sentence could unleash a new round of bloodletting.

Tens of thousands of Jamaat supporters fought with police and more than 500 people died in the earlier unrest and in subsequent political violence ahead of disputed polls in January.

– Death hit list –

Nizami at the time of the war was leader of the Islami Chhatra Sangha, what was then the student wing of Jamaat. Prosecutors say he turned it into the Al-Badr pro-Pakistani militia which killed professors, writers, doctors and journalists.

The aim was to make the fledgling nation an “intellectual cripple”, prosecutor Mohammad Ali said before the verdict.

“When it was clear Pakistan was losing the war, as the chief commander of Al-Badr he ordered a ‘hit list’ based on which top intellectuals were abducted and killed,” he said.

Nizami is already on death row after being sentenced to hang in January for trafficking weapons and trying to ship them to a rebel group in northeast India.

Nizami’s defense lawyer vowed to appeal the sentence in the Supreme Court, saying his client was being pursued as part of a government witch-hunt against its opponents.

“It’s an unacceptable judgment. The court ruled beyond its jurisdiction. There was no evidence that anyone saw him killing,” lawyer Tajul Islam said.

Law minister Syed Anisul Haque said “the government is satisfied” with the sentence, and he would push to have Nizami’s likely appeal hearing heard quickly.

Since it was established by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government in 2010, the International Crimes Tribunal has sentenced around a dozen opposition leaders for war crimes.

Rights groups have criticized the trials, saying they fall short of international standards and lack any international oversight.

The secular government maintains the trials are needed to heal the wounds of the conflict, which it says left three million people dead.

Independent researchers estimate that between 300,000 and 500,000 people died in the 1971 war.

By Naimul Haq

KURIGRAM, Bangladesh, Oct 29 2014 (IPS) – Jahanara Begum, a 35-year-old housewife, is surrounded by thatched-roof homes, all of which are partially submerged by floodwater.

Heavy rains throughout the monsoon months, beginning in August, left thousands of people in northern Bangladesh homeless or in dire straits as the mighty Brahmaputra, Dharla and Teesta rivers burst their banks, spilling out over the countryside.

Some of the worst hit were the roughly 50,000-70,000 ‘char dwellers’, residents who have been forced to make their homes on little river islands or shoals, the result of years of intense sedimentation along some of Bangladesh’s largest rivers.

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Bangladesh experiences a net accretion of some 20 square km of land per year – “newly formed land of about 52 square km minus eroded land of around 32 square km” – as the coastline shifts, river beds dry up and floods and siltation leave little mounds of earth behind.

“With an assumed density of 800 people per square km,” IFAD estimates, “this means that each year approximately 26,000 people lose their land in Bangladesh.”

Many of those left landless opt to start life afresh on the chars, which lack almost all basic services: a water supply, sanitation facilities, hospitals, schools, electricity, transport, police stations, markets.

“We survive on God’s blessings,” an old man named Nurul Islam, a char resident, told IPS, “and indigenous agricultural practices.”

Sometimes, however, even divine intervention and ancient wisdom is not sufficient to guards against the hazards of such a precarious life. Jahanara recalls the worst days of the flood, when rapid waters swept away most of her neighbors’ household items while she herself was protected only by the slight elevation of her home on the Astamer Char in Kurigram district, about 290 km north of the capital Dhaka.

In the Bhangapara District, some 210 km from Dhaka, the floodwaters were knee-deep, according to Mossammet Laily, a mother of four in her mid-30s whose entire home went underwater this past August. “Everything inside was destroyed in no time,” a visibly moved Laily told IPS.

Her disheartened neighbor, who gave his name only as Rabeya, added, “I had pumpkin, potato, cucumbers and snake-, ribbed- and bottle-gourd in my small garden. All of them vanished in a matter of a few hours.”

As Naser Ali, a local businessmen, explained to IPS, “We never had floods of this magnitude in our childhood. In previous years floodwaters stayed for a couple of days but this time the water stayed for almost a month.”

All over Bangladesh, the impacts of a wetter and warmer climate are making themselves felt among the poorest and most marginalized segments of society. In a country of 156 million people, 70 percent of whom live in rural areas, natural disasters are magnified.

Some 50-80 million people live in flood-prone or drought-prone areas around the country. While statistics about their average income vary, rural families seldom earn more than 50-80 dollars per month.

Natural disasters in Bangladesh have resulted in damages to the tune of billions of dollars, with cyclones Sidr and Aila (in 2007 and 2009 respectively) causing damages estimated at 1.7 billion and 550 million dollars each.

And for the char dwellers, the prospect of more frequent weather-related hazards is a grim prospect.

The Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP), adopted prior to the Copenhagen Summit in 2009, identified inland monsoon flooding and tropical cyclones accompanied with storm surges as two of the three major climate hazards facing the country.

In a bid to protect some of its most vulnerable communities, the government has embarked on the Community Climate Change Project (CCCP) at a total cost of 12.5 million dollars, managed by the Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund (BCCRF), a multi-donor climate change adaptation trust fund supported by the World Bank, among others.

Referring to the project, Johannes Zutt, the World Bank’s country director for Bangladesh, told IPS. “It is increasingly evident that climate change will have enormous impacts on a low-lying delta country like Bangladesh. The CCCP is helping communities living on the frontline to increase their ability to cope with climate-related adversities.”

He also said, “Often, these people have few resources and no real ability to relocate, but they can nonetheless take collective action to increase their resilience to climate change.”

Tens of thousands of char dwellers will be the primary beneficiaries of these ambitious projects.

K M Marufuzzaman, program officer of Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF), a government lending agency working to implement the CCCP at the grassroots level in the Kurigram district in northern Bangladesh, told IPS that the “main mission” is to “minimize environmental risks” and safeguard at-risk communities.

One initiative has involved raising homes five to eight feet above ground level to protect families from being inundated. On the plinth, as it is commonly known, survivors and their poultry and other livestock are sheltered from the many storms and floods that plague the northern regions of the country.

Pointing at a tiny bamboo cottage, Mohammad Mukul Miah, a beneficiary of this project, told IPS, “We have built animal homes for goats to avoid the possible spread of diseases. We have also planted bottle- and snake-gourd to eat during times of food scarcity.”

Those like 65-year-old Badiuzzaman, who lives in a tin shed-like structure in Char Bazra on the banks of the Brahmaputra river, 200 km north of the capital, have “planted rice seedlings on the plinth so that when water recedes I can take advantage of the fertile soil to quickly grow paddy.”

Nearby, on one of the many plinths that now dot the 50-by-20-meter Char Bazra, 34-year-old Rehana Begum has planted rice seedlings beside her bamboo-and-jute-woven home. “My husband had planted rice and potato on about half an acre of lowland, but the flood destroyed all our dreams.

“We intend to recover from this by growing seedlings in advance,” she told IPS.

About 20 minutes away, in Char Korai Barisal, many homes still bear the scars of the recent disaster. Standing on the edge of the shoal with her two children, Anisa Begum remembers how and she and her family spent day after fearful day in their submerged home, “sometimes with nothing to eat, holding each other’s hands to avoid drowning in the dark.”

Other families spent entire days on large boats to survive the sudden catastrophe.

It was only those who had their homes on plinths who were spared. If the government’s community resilience scheme unfolds according to plan, 50,000 people on shoals will be living on plinths in the greater Brahmaputra region by next year.

In total, the project aims to cover 12,000 families living on the shoals in northern regions.

Source: Inter-Press Service (IPS).


Sun Jan 12, 2014

The Bangladeshi government has allowed the country’s main opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia to leave her home after about two weeks.

The chief of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was put under house arrest last month after the ruling Awami League led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won a violence-plagued parliamentary election.

On Saturday, Khaleda, who is also the head of the BNP-led 18-party opposition alliance, left her home for a meeting with Chinese Ambassador Lee Jung at her office in Dhaka.

The government deployed security forces around the two-time prime minister’s residence on December 25.

Activists and opposition members in Bangladesh have gone into hiding amid a sweeping wave of arrests by security forces following the January 5 election that was boycotted by the BNP. The election was marred by violence and led to more than a dozen deaths.

The ruling party ended up as the winner of the vote that followed months of political unrest and protests against the government of Hasina.

Hundreds of members of the BNP have concealed themselves due to what they call harassment by authorities.

According to Human Rights Watch, “Many opposition leaders and activists have gone into hiding.”

The New York-based group also criticized Bangladesh for conducting arbitrary arrests of opposition members before and after the election.

“While in some cases the government has acted appropriately to stop violence by some opposition forces, this spate of arrests is part of a pattern of weakening critics, limiting dissent and consolidating [the] ruling party power,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Source: PressTV.

January 05, 2014

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Many Bangladeshis stayed away from polling stations in Sunday’s general elections, marred by an opposition boycott and relentless violence that threatens to deepen the crisis in the South Asian nation.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s refusal to heed opposition demands to step down and appoint a neutral caretaker to oversee the election led to the boycott, undermining the legitimacy of the vote. Opposition activists responded with attacks, strikes and transportation blockades in unrest that killed at least 275 people in 2013.

“We never expected such an election. For such a situation both the government and opposition are responsible. They don’t want to establish democracy,” said Aminul Islam, a Dhaka resident who refused to vote.

Police opened fire to stop protesters from seizing a polling center in northern Rangpur district, killing two people. In a similar incident in neighboring Nilphamari district, police fired into about two dozens of protesters, leaving one person dead.

Police gave no further details, but Dhaka’s Daily Star newspaper said the three men belonged to the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party. Elsewhere, police said suspected opposition activists stabbed to death a polling official, and local media reported that attackers torched more than 127 school buildings across the country in overnight attacks. The buildings were to be used as polling stations.

The voting began at 8 a.m. but local television stations showed mostly empty polling stations, still wrapped in early morning winter fog. By midmorning, polling was suspended in at least 120 centers because of attacks, burning of ballots and election materials, an election official said on condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to speak to reporters.

At a polling station in Dhaka’s Mirpur district, only 25 out of 24,000 registered voters cast their ballot in the first two hours, with polling officials saying fear of violence and absence of any strong opposition kept people away.

The chaos could exacerbate economic woes in this deeply impoverished country of 160 million and lead to radicalization in a strategic pocket of South Asia, analysts say. Hasina’s refusal to quit and name an independent caretaker administration, which resulted in the boycott by opposition parties, means the election will mainly be a contest between candidates from the ruling Awami League and its allies. Awami League candidates are running unchallenged in more than half of the country’s 300 parliamentary constituencies.

Bangladesh has a grim history of political violence, including the assassinations of two presidents and 19 failed coup attempts since its independence from Pakistan in 1971. “I am fearful that deadly violence could return, people would continue to suffer, political forces with extreme views could emerge in the face of government crackdown and repressive measures,” said Asif Nazrul, a law teacher and analyst. “This election will just pollute our very new democracy by shrinking the space for opposite views.”

The squabbling between Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia — known as the “Battling Begums” — has become a bitter sideshow as both women, who have dominated Bangladeshi politics for two decades, vie to lead the country. “Begum” is an honorific for Muslim women of rank.

Zia urged people to boycott what she called “farcical” elections. “None at home and abroad will legitimize it,” she said. The bickering between the two longtime rivals caused an uproar in October, when the women spoke for the first time in years in an acrimonious telephone call.

“I called you around noon. You didn’t pick up,” Hasina said, according to a transcript published in the Dhaka Tribune, an English-language newspaper. Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, said the prime minister was wrong.

“You have to listen to me first,” Zia snapped. Last weekend, after authorities barred Zia from leaving her home to join a rally, she told police that she would change the name of Gopalganj, Hasina’s home district, if she came to power. Her outburst was broadcast live on TV while roads around her home were heavily guarded and sand-laden trucks were parked to obstruct her movement.

A key factor in the latest dispute is the role of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic political party. The party is a key ally of Zia, and was a coalition partner in the government Zia led from 2001 to 2006.

Opponents of Jamaat-e-Islami say it is a fundamentalist group with no place in a secular country. Bangladesh is predominantly Muslim, but is governed by largely secular laws based on British common law.

The execution last month of Abdul Quader Mollah, a Jamaat-e-Islami leader and a key member of the opposition, exposed the country’s seething tensions. Mollah was the first person to be hanged for war crimes in Bangladesh under an international tribunal established in 2010 to investigate atrocities stemming from the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan.

Bangladesh says Pakistani soldiers, aided by local collaborators including Mollah, killed at least 3 million people and raped 200,000 women during the nine-month war. The case remains politically volatile because most of those being tried are connected to the opposition.

The European Union, the United States and the British Commonwealth said they would not send observers for the election. U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said that Washington was disappointed that the major political parties have not reached a consensus on a way to hold free, fair and credible elections.