Bandarban, Ruma, Boga Lake: Chittagong Hill Tracts

Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts, the southern end of the Himalayas, seem to stand out from the Bengali plains in every imaginable way. Unlike the Bangla speaking, majority Islamic flat-lands, the Hill Tracts shoot out from the plains of Chittagong, as if some geographic statement of difference. It’s people, the ‘Jhumma’ tribes of the Hill Tracts (CHT), named after hillside ‘slash and burn’ farming methods utilized in the hill tracts, but not at all  specific, nor universal, to the tribes of the CHT, mirror such a difference.Most being Buddhist, Christian or animist based belief systems, Asiatic faces, bodies clad in a diverse array of traditional and contemporary dress, often puffing away at hand-rolled tobacco leaf. The towns and streets resemble some rustic, forgotten backwater. The mix of pan stained teeth, roaming chickens and dogs, Bangla banter, Chakma chatter and Baom-Chi Babble constantly remind one that Dhaka is a long, long way away, and we’ve entered some some pseudo Burmese township.

The situation in the Hill Tracts today; a militarized peace, regular vehicle checks, constant warnings to foreigners like myself of the risks venturing out at night, or outside the major metropolitan zones, available police escorts, is suggestive of a deeper problem than local criminal elements. Fifteen years after the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord (1997), the CHT remains a frontier of difference, tension and suffers regular breakdowns of civil society.

A History of the CHT Conflict

The reasons for the present insecurities in the Hill Tracts lay in the cultural and historical distance between the Tracts and greater Bengal. British administration, through the employment of the “Inner Line Regulations” prevented large scale movements into the Hill Tracts, in an attempt to protect the ‘cultural uniqueness” of the region. Following Independence and Partition, the regulations dissolved, and the tracts were open to such large and disastrous development, or exploitation, projects as the 1961 Kaptai Dam. Large scale migration of Bengalis into the tracts took place in the 1970s and 1980s, further encouraging competition and tension between the Jhumma tribes and Bangladeshi state and people over land, resources and fears of cultural destruction. By the late 1970s, a full fledged insurgent war between the Jhumma political group, PCJSS, its militant wing, the Shanti Bahini, and the Bangladeshi state was taking place. The Hill Tracts descended into two decades of intense violence, human rights abuses against both tribals and Bengalis, and increased militarization in the region, still clear throughout the Hill Tracts.

Despite the signing of a Peace Accord in 1997 between the Bangladeshi government and the Shanti Bahini, and ‘special quotas’ to include Jhumma members in politics and education programs, the cultural gap between Bangladesh and it’s tribal population remains, the Hill Tracts remain a tense and insecure frontier, and a clear development gap exists between plains dwellers, and those who call the Hill Tracts home.

Here are some photos I’ve taken at Banderban, Ruma town and Boga Lake in the Bandarban district, the most southerly, of the Hill Tracts. Sadly, my plans to visit the more northern districts of Rangamati and Khagrachari will have to wait due to security reasons.


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The Hunt for the Elusive “Armanitola”

The crowds are like an unstoppable current, faces and bodies flowing past and against each other in a fluidlike dance from A to B. The maze of small shops cutaway into ancient buildings give some escape from the push and pull of the crowds. It is in this energetic urban forest, with a little hunting, that one can find a small and distinctive community against the Bengali backdrop… Armanitola, the Armenian district of Dhaka.

The journey to Armanitola

Taking a CNG rickshaw from Uttara, the ride to Paran Dhaka takes about an hour, outside peak hour traffic… Best to pay about 400 taka. I stepped out of the CNG into a whole new Dhaka, much the same as Gulshan and Uttara districts, just compressed. Alleyways thin enough to barely fit a rickshaw witnessed a torrent of hundreds of people, negotiating through rickshaws, CNG cabs, roadwork, cows, goats and the occassional reverent row of Apistolic nuns.

Buried in this crowd, however, I was lucky enough to find some of the kindest, most generous and curious souls… Within 50 metres of my CNG I’d been asked to take half a dozen photos, asked where I had come from, how I liked Dhaka and my marital status. A particularly nice bunch even insisted on sitting me down for tea and cake at the local Chawalla, trying our best to discuss the cricket through English-Bangla buzzwords, despite my complete lack of cricket knowledge… it involves a bat and ball of some sort yah?

Leaving my newfound buds, I had intended to go to Ahsan Manzil, A.K.A The Pink Palace, an old Mughal Palace, and big deal in the history of Dhaka architecture. However, the “foreign” fee for entry, 75 taka, was far dearer than the local fee of 5 taka. In the spirit of not feeling ripped of, I moved on. With some vague idea there was rumoured to be an Armenian community in the area, I turned to the streets.

Patar Dhaka is best described as… well not described. To say it’s crowded, it’s hot, the smell is overpowering and, again, it’s crowded, can’t give the space any proper justice. It’s best experienced by oneself to really get it.

“Armanitola?!” I ask every approachable looking face I can see, and generally, get pointed in the same direction. Realizing after some time I’d been walking in circles, I wandered into one of the seemingly thousands of roadside chemist shops. “Armanitola?” again, but, Hallelujah! Perfect English! We bantered a bit… then the ma new Toey hailed me a rickshaw, and gave a bizarre incoherent series of Bangla commands… “twenty taka” was all I heard.

My driver and I flew over the crowd, something half way between hovering above and sailing through the river of people between the alleyways. Sharp turns, sudden stops, close calls, standard rickshaw experience… then… is that a cross?

The roughened up gates seemed much more ornate than the surrounding city scape. Peaking over the walls, a steeple. Am I still in Dhaka? I stood at the gates till a spindly old man in a Lungi let me in, Shanku, with his trustee canine sidekick, Bangu.

Fairwell Old Dhaka, I had entered a whole new world! Space! Trees and gardens! the clean, whitewashed church hid behind a complex of Bangla apartments, that seemed to wall it off from the outside world. Bangu and I wandered the grounds a bit, Shanku chillin by the gate. Sadly, the church wasn’t open to us, but here’s some great photos of the grounds.

Assalamu Alaikum!

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Mohammad Ismial’s Barber Shop!

For the best cut and shave in Dhaka, come to Mohammad’s!   We can offer quick, clean, sharp cuts at a low, low price, 50 taka. Try a Mohammad cut! Care for a handlebar? Goatee and Mo! Harum’s is the place to go! Uttara, Sector 6 markets, off Dhaka – Mymensingh Highway.


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What to say about Dhaka? It’s wet, it’s hot, it’s ridiculously overwhelmingly crowded, and traffics a bitch… But transcending the heat, the crowds, the streets paved with mud that pull at your feet like so many side of the road beggars, Dhaka is perhaps the most charming place I’ve been blessed to say I’ve been to. Choc full of entrepreneurs, rows of cha stands, newspaper shops, beauty parlours and every concievable specialty service, including while you wait sandal repair.

A city of stares, a city of movement, a city of smiles, allbeit often through rotten and pan stained teeth. For all those thinking of checking out Dhaka, here’s some scoop:

Can of coke: 20 taka

Rickshaw: 10 taka per kilometre

3 chickens, slayed and skinned on the spot: 750 taka

cha tea (1 cup): 5 taka

Malboro Reds (25): 110 taka

Haggle the price of a cab before getting in, and if they try to rip you off, give them what you agreed on and walk, cabbies in all cities are pretty scummy, so to quote my new friend Grant, “don’t take their shit”.

Spitting and staring seem to be common practice, and yes, it’s OK to stare back… People will ask where you’re from, “wad you are doing herrrre”, and if you need a guide, and NO, you don’t need a guide, dondubar…

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