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Winning the peace

by Bijoy Patro
A Bangladesh Red Crescent development programme is helping to address deep-seated mistrust between communities divided by two decades of conflict.

"The local indigenous community would set the dogs on me," explains Nasmia Akhtar, a 22-year-old Bengali volunteer with the Bangladesh Red Crescent, working in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), in south-eastern Bangladesh. The antagonism towards Nasima, and the migrant Bengali community in general in this region, is a result of decades of hostility between them and the local Chakmas and the Marma tribes.

Trouble arose when Bangladesh first became independent in 1971. Tribal leaders say they were reconciled to living as part of the new nation, but claim their community and way of life was threatened by a drive to outnumber them with the arrival of migrants, in particular Bengalis. As a result, tribal rebels fought against the Bangladeshi government for autonomy. More than 8,000 people died in the conflict.

In 1997, a historic peace treaty was signed between the government and the rebels. Some 50,000 people returned to reclaim homes, leaving many in the Bengali community uncertain about the future.

Bridging the divide

In 2000, the Bangladesh Red Crescent, with the support of the International Federation, launched the CHT Development Programme. The programme is part of the International Federation's Local Capacities for Peace Project.

At the outset, the longstanding hostilities in the region proved a challenge to programme organizers. Programme Director, Mihar Kumar Das, recalls the bitterness between the communities when he helped distribute relief following a massive flood in 1983.

Das believes that while the peace accord started the dialogue between the communities, the CHT Development Programme helped accelerate the process. This is evident, explains Das, when one compares the friendly relations between residents taking part in the Red Crescent project with other areas.

The programme also highlights the significant contribution the Movement can make towards uniting formally divided communities. As Das says, "Although many local and international development agencies were willing to work in the area, few actually did anything. Yet, the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society with its humanitarian mandate formulated a plan and got to work."


International Federation
Bangladesh Red Crescent volunteers work together in the Chittagong Hills region to assist the vulnerable and build bridges between divided communities.

Addressing livelihoods works

The CHT Development Programme was designed to deliver services that improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the region. This ranges from access to safe water to income generation schemes.

It soon became apparent that the programme was a bridge for the communities in the project villages to have a dialogue, to share the same meeting room or the same water point. As Nasima and her colleague, Masanu — a member of the Rakhain tribe — point out, the communities have come a long way. "Now, people even express sympathy when someone dies in another community," Masanu says.

Red Crescent volunteers overcame accusations of favouritism by stressing the Movement's Fundamental Principles, particularly those of impartiality and neutrality.

Aong Prue, a Marma volunteer and supervisor with the CHT programme in Rangamati says, "We could have been accused of favouring one community over the other when it came to disbursing aid. It paid to make the people aware of the Fundamental Principles." He adds, "However, it was one thing to inform people about the principles, but we also had to demonstrate we were not showing any partiality in choosing the beneficiaries. We chose those most in need of aid."

The result is that over the last three years each one of the 45 families, who received loans under the income generation programme, has repaid.

In the beginning, there were many disputes between participants in the income generation programme. Arguments erupted over simple things and reconciling differences meant working overtime. Says Maklasur Rahman, Red Crescent volunteer in the Goaliakhola Para village in the Bandarban district of CHT, "The loan fund was small, so only three or four people were eligible at one time. This meant that many had to wait. If someone from another community failed to repay, even for understandable reasons, everyone had to wait longer and relations between communities would become tense."

This is no longer the case. Far from accusing people of cheating or lying, all programme participants take the necessary time to listen and understand one another. "Now, beneficiaries visit the homes of other people receiving assistance and enquire about the welfare of the family before discussing business," Malkasur says. "It has brought about a change in attitudes. Earlier, there were heated arguments. They tried to create pressure. Today, they realize it is better to talk than make wild accusations and fight," he explains.

Examples of the increasing community spirit between former enemies can be found throughout the programme. Abdul Rahman, a Bengali living in Bhua Chari in the Khagrachari district, became a first generation farmer with a small loan to grow ginger. He approached Marasan, a Marma, to learn how he managed to earn a good living from growing ginger. Similarly, in Goaliakhola Para, three Bengali settlers approached several Marmas to learn how to grow cucumbers.

Today, the Red Crescent income generation programme has replaced the village moneylender, who charged a heavy interest. Beneficiaries now pay a five per cent service charge but no interest. The project is so popular that the beneficiaries approach Red Crescent staff and volunteers asking them to raise the amount of money available so more people can benefit.

And all along, the community bonds are growing stronger. Door-to-door visits by the volunteers have also contributed to strengthening these community links. The Red Crescent volunteers have become very popular. So popular that six of them were nominated by their communities to represent them in the local councils. "I use the Red Cross Red Crescent principles in everything I do," says Pak Dir Bom of Lima Para in Bandarban, now a member of the local council.

Alex Wynter /
International Federation

A child from the Bom tribe preparing blankets for victims of a cold wave in northern Bangladesh. Before the CHT Development Programme, this type of support would never have been possible between these formerly hostile communities.


Changing attitudes

The humanitarian impact the programme has had on the lives of the people it addresses was exemplified earlier this year when millions of Bangladeshis in the north were in the grip of a severe cold wave.

The Boms, a tribe known for their expertise in weaving blankets, provided blankets to the Bangladesh Red Crescent for those communities affected by the cold. Obaidur Rahman, secretary general of the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society notes that in the past this would never have happened, as relations between them were very hostile.

"We must leave the past behind us and look towards the future. The Red Crescent has proved it can positively contribute to restoring harmony," says Ushattom Talukdar, vice chairman of the local Red Crescent branch.

Maklasur Rahman feels the programme has made the communities more tolerant towards one another. "The past three years have seen a significant change in how people behave. How they react. Tolerance is on the rise," he says.

Bijoy Patro
Bijoy Patro is International Federation regional information officer in New Delhi.

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