Monday, August 13, 2007

Forgotten Refugees Dreaming of Pakistan

Forgotten refugees languish in Bangladesh dreaming of Pakistan
AP: International Herald Tribune: August 13, 2007

DHAKA, Bangladesh: They call themselves the forgotten refugees, dreaming of a land many have never seen — Pakistan.

Crowded into impoverished shanty camps in the Bangladeshi capital, they are the last refugee remnants of the massive upheaval that accompanied the partition of the Indian subcontinent along religious lines in 1947.

"I've been dreaming of going to Pakistan for years," said Mosammat Rahima, standing outside the tiny hut she shares with seven other family members. "There they speak my language, Urdu," the 50-year-old says.

As India and Pakistan celebrate 60 years of independence from Britain this week, Pakistan on Tuesday and India on Wednesday, many forget the third country involved in partition — Bangladesh.

United by their religious belief — Islam — Bangladesh was lumped together with Pakistan despite being more than 2,500 kilometers (1,600 miles) apart and having a separate and distinct language, culture and history.

Many Urdu-speaking Muslims living in areas designated to become mainly Hindu India fled to Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan.

But when Bangladesh revolted and won its independence with the help of India in 1971, these Muslims found themselves at odds with the Bangla-speaking majority after siding with Pakistan during the brutal nine-month conflict.

At the time, there were some 500,000 who called themselves "Stranded Pakistanis" and opted not to join Bangladesh and return to Pakistan.

But in 1993 Pakistan halted the repatriation process, saying it did not have the money or land to rehouse them.

That left some 250,000 of the refugees and their descendants remaining in Bangladesh, living as stateless citizens in camps set up by the Bangladeshi government. They are not allowed to apply for government jobs as they are not citizens. They can't vote either.

Their conditions are harsh. Many live without electricity, water or adequate health care. Illiteracy, unemployment and malnutrition are rampant.

"Can you imagine, we have only 150 toilets for 25,000 people in the camp?" says Abdul Jabbar Khan, who leads the campaign for their repatriation to Pakistan.

"Do you think we're human beings?" cries Rahima. "Even dogs at many homes in this city live in better places."

Bangladesh and Pakistan say they are looking for a solution, though it appears remote.

"Both governments believe that we need to resolve this issue," said Iftekhar A. Chowdhury, foreign affairs adviser to Bangladesh's interim government. "On a recent visit to Pakistan, I raised the issue with my Pakistan counterpart, and he was of the same opinion."

"But Pakistan is facing many internal problems right now, that's why we need time to discuss this seriously," he added.

But while the older generation continues to dream of Pakistan, a change is taking place among the youth of the camps.

"Why shall we call ourselves Pakistanis? This is absurd," says Sahid Ali Babul, 25, who was born in independent Bangladesh in a refugee camp.

"We should be given Bangladeshi nationality, since we were born and brought up here," he said.

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