Winning the peace
by Bijoy Patro
Bangladesh Red Crescent development programme is helping to
address deep-seated mistrust between communities divided by
two decades of conflict.
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
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."
BIJOY PATRO /
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
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.
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.
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.
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 is International Federation regional information
officer in New Delhi.
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