The Bawm tribe, once thriving in hillside villages with homes surrounded by blooming trees and tidy yards, has gone through a drastic change in the past two years that has threatened their very existence.
Violence and unrest caused by the Kuki-Chin National Front, KNF, an armed insurgent group with suspected ties to Islamist militants, and the actions of law enforcers against them forced over a thousand families of the ethnic minority group to flee.
Their homes are left to become overgrown with weeds and dilapidated, now inhabited by snakes.
The Jhum agricultural lands remain uncultivated and neglected.
During the Pakistan period and even after Bangladesh's independence in 1971, the Bawm community, like other ethnic groups, faced political challenges related to their rights. Throughout these times, they managed to preserve their cultural traditions and lifestyle.
However, since 2022, they have been facing new and significant difficulties. Their current struggle involves ensuring the safety of their children and maintaining tranquillity in their regions, challenges that are new to their community's history.
ORIGIN OF THE CRISIS
After Bangladesh became independent, a political crisis emerged in the Chattogram Hill Tracts, centred on the ethnic groups' rights. This situation gradually escalated into a violent conflict that lasted for about two and a half decades, causing a lot of bloodshed in the region.
In December 1997, people from 13 ethnic groups in the hills hoped for peace when the Sheikh Hasina government made a peace agreement with the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti, or the United People's Party of the Chattogram Hill Tracts, a political party formed to represent the indigenous tribes of the hill tracts.
However, peace remained elusive over the following years. The region continued to see fights among different groups, resulting in many deaths.
KNF, locally known as the Bawm Party, emerged with the goal of building an autonomous state in 2022.
The group opened a Facebook page in December 2021, and quickly ramped up its online presence by posting content almost daily.
According to KNF's Facebook page, the group wants an autonomous state within the Chattogram Hill Tracts based on the maps they have drawn. The state will remain a part of Bangladesh but will be self-governed.
The map of the proposed Kuki-Chin State encompasses Rangamati's Baghaichhari in the eastern part of the hill tracts, and Barkal, Juraichhari, Bilaichhari, Rowangchhari and Chimbuk Hills on the outskirts of Bandarban along with Ruma, Thanchi, Lama and Alikadam.
The three major tribes of the hill tracts - the Chakma, the Marma and the Tripura - will be excluded from the state, which will comprise the Bawm, Khyang, Pangkhua, Lusai, Khumi and Mro people, according to the KNF.
The group named Nathan Bawm, a former Dhaka University student, as the head of the organisation.
Poeple who have been associated with him say his full name is Nathan Loncheu Bawm. A resident of Aden Para in Bandarban's Ruma Upazila, Nathan was a student of Dhaka University's Institute of Fine Arts.
During his student life, Nathan was politically active through his involvement with the Jana Samhati Samiti or JSS-backed Hill Student's Council.
In October 2022, the Rapid Action Battalion said that the Bawm Party was providing combat training to the budding militants of the new Islamist group Jamatul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya deep in the Chattogram Hill Tracts in exchange for money.
The elite police unit launched a joint operation with the army against terrorists in Ruma and Rowangchhari Upazilas and the Barathali union of Rangamati’s Belaichari Upazila.
Following the joint forces' operation, the local administration imposed an indefinite travel ban on Ruma and Rowangchari Upazilas from Oct 18, 2022.
Later, Thanchi and Alikadam Upazilas were also brought under the travel ban.
During the operation, several army and KNF members were killed. The biggest clash was in Rowangchhari’s Khamtang Para where eight Bawm people died in a gunfight on Apr 6, as reported by the police and local officials.
NUMBER OF PEOPLE DISPLACED
Hundreds of Bawm people have moved to neighbouring India’s Mizoram since the violence began.
Some of them returned, but most are still there, according to the Bawm Social Council, a local social organisation.
About 1,200 Bawms are currently in Mizoram, said Jarlamjar Bawm, the president of the council.
This displacement was also reported by many international media outlets.
Some Bawm families have taken shelter in Myanmar's Chin State. A Bawm member in Myanmar reported on Jun 23 that about 70 Bawm families were there, hoping to return when the conditions improve.
Juamlian Amlai, a former council president, estimates around 1,500 to 2,000 Bawm people are spread across 15 villages in Mizoram, with about 700 in six or seven main villages. The count is unclear because new families keep arriving.
The elderly are eager to return if given the opportunity, as their homes and livelihoods are in Bangladesh, he said.
A member of a non-governmental development organisation in Bandarban said that not all who fled the remote hill areas went to Mizoram, some are staying with relatives near the town.
The number of people moving keeps changing, as some go back to their villages and others keep leaving.
FAMILIES RETURN HOME
As many as 71 Bawm families who had to flee have now returned.
Meanwhile, the Bawm Social Council is reaching out to those who fled to different places, encouraging them to return.
On Monday, the Army in the Bandarban Sadar Zone provided free medical services, food, and educational supplies to children from these returning families in Paingkhong Para, 12 km from Rowangchhari Upazila Sadar, encouraging the local community to live without fear.
Visiting Paingkhong Para on Monday, it was clear that people were happy to return home after being away for seven months. The area was lively with children playing, and the local school also reopened.
Baithang Bawm, the village leader, said that there were originally 93 families in the village. But after an incident in April where three people died, everyone left. They went to different places like Bandarban town, Rowangchhari Sadar, relatives' homes in Ruma, and even the forest.
Baithang and his family stayed at the Rowangchhari Bawm Hostel and have not gone back to their area yet
He said that about 25 families are still missing, and people are trying to find them.
He highlighted that while some families stayed back, they were struggling with scarcity of food. Only a few managed to farm, but because of the absence of care, the yield was not sufficient.
Some families have managed to bring back small quantities of rice and are sharing it among themselves, with additional aid coming from relatives outside.
He also mentioned that of the 12 villages in his territorial unit, four were heavily affected by bombings, especially Paingkhong Para and Khamtang Khiang Para.
Although many families have made their way back, there is still an underlying fear of what the future might hold, he added.
A 72-year-old man named Jumthang Bawm, who left Bangladesh, died of malaria in Mizoram on Jul 29, according to Bawm people near Bandarban town.
Also, a man named Sankup Bawm from Chaingkhong Para, a Christian pastor, died in January due to lack of food while fleeing.
Jingpa Bawm said her family could not leave when others did in April because she was pregnant. She had her baby in October and sometimes, relatives who were hiding in the forest came to help her.
CAN PEACE BE ACHIEVED?
On May 30, a peace committee was established with representatives drawn from different ethnicities of Bandarban district in a bid to bring stability amid the unrest gripping the region.
An outline of the committee’s structure and aim was announced in a briefing in the last week of June.
The 18-strong committee included Kya Shoi Kla Marma, convener of Bandarban district council and district Awami League president, and Laljaralm Bawm, president of the Bawm Social Council. Kanchan Joy Tanchangya was appointed as the spokesperson for the committee but no government officials were part of it.
On Nov 5, the committee held an online meeting with the Kuki-Chin National Front where representatives of the public administration ministry, home ministry and defence ministry were present for the first time.
Both sides agreed to hold another meeting in December. The peace committee also held meetings with ethnic groups to hear out what they had to say.
Lal Ngak Bawm, the president of the Bawm Students Association, in a meeting, said: “We have to find out why some youths of an ethnic group took up arms. We put our efforts into bringing them back from the wrong path before and still are. But many people are blaming the people from the Bawm ethnic group on the whole.”
“KNF group members may be formed by Bawm people, but not all Bawm people are involved with them. Besides this, everyone feels speaking about the matter is not safe. But there are other armed groups apart from Kuki-Chin. We also have to look for a solution regarding these matters.”
On Nov 5, the KNF and the peace committee signed memorandums on five separate issues. Following that, many Bawm families that fled due to the conflict began returning, said Laljarlam Bawm, member secretary of the peace committee and the president of the Bawm Social Council.
“The people of Paikhyang hills were out of contact for about eight months. Some fled to the forests while others took refuge in some other places in fear. But they are returning now. Everyone’s overjoyed. Hopefully we will be able to coexist like before.”
The committee’s spokesperson Kanchan Tanchangya said: “We are making a list of rice, lentils and other foods immediately for those who are returning. They will also receive cash. But this can’t happen suddenly.”
“The daily necessities will be handed out to them in coordination with the district council, district administration and army using the list. The cash that will be given to them is aimed at repairments of their homes. And because it is almost winter, we will also give them blankets.”
Brigadier General Golam Mohiuddin Ahmed said: “We held a meeting with the district council. The district council will supervise the ration distribution and repair works of houses.”
“It may take some time for their work method. But the Army took the initiative of providing support to them in the meantime. We’ve also distributed rice, lentils and other foods at Thanchi’s Prata Para. We will distribute the essential things the ethnic people need our way.”
Mohiuddin said: “We always want a harmonious Chattogram Hill Tracts, a peaceful environment where everyone respects one another despite race, religion and colour.”
[Writing in English by Arshi Fatiha Quazi and Syed Mahmud Onindo; editing by Osham-ul-Sufian Talukder]