Sunday, February 25, 2024

One death, many questions

A guarded regret from India followed the brutal killing of Bangladeshi girl Felani on January 7 by its border force. A “promise” of no more deaths on the border came from Delhi in March. A meeting of the two border forces also agreed on use of non-lethal weapons. But the Indian force remains trigger-happy and border killings go on.
During a visit to Nageshwari in Kurigram, Special Correspondent Morshed Ali Khan looks at life on the border after the killing of Felani.
Six days after 13-year-old Felani was killed with a single shot on the Bangladesh-India border on January 7, her mother Jahanara, living and working in Bongaigaon in Assam, received the news over phone from her husband Nurul Islam.
Felani was killed by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) as the father and daughter tried to sneak into Bangladesh over the barbed-wire fence in the early hours of January 7.
Mother of six children, Jahanara was horrified to hear the news. Only a week ago Felani, her eldest child, had left Bongaigaon with her father for their native village of South Ramkhana in Kurigram across the border.
The heartbreaking news destroyed Jahanara’s dream. Felani’s marriage was scheduled for the following day of her arrival in the native village with Jahanara’s sister’s son, who works in a garment factory in Dhaka. Jahanara and Nurul were living in India for over 25 years without any valid documents whatsoever. It was going to be Felani’s first visit to her parental land.
“With our savings I made two gold bangles, a pair of gold earrings and a gold nose pin for her marriage. When they [BSF] returned the body of my little girl, I was told the ornaments were not on her,” said Jahanara.
“My husband made the second call a few days later and told me to sell everything we possessed and return home,” Jahanara said sitting inside her tin-shed rickety house at South Ramkhana where a stack of hay was spread on the floor making room for the family sleeping area. There was no furniture in the room.
On February 14, Jahanara along with her five children arrived on the Chadrirhat border in India, boldly walked into the BSF office and told them firmly she wanted to return home.
“They never uttered a word and asked me to wait till they opened the barbed-wire gate. I soon crossed into my country and rushed towards the grave of my Felani,” Jahanara said.
The story of the ill-fated Bangladeshi family goes back 25 years when the India-Bangladesh border hardly bore any visible demarcation line.
For the people living along this 4,023-kilometre-long border of these two countries there was no barrier. Their cattle grazed on each other’s fields, their children married to families across the border, they traded and shopped at each other’s haats (weekly bazaar) and found employment at each other’s fields.
Informal trade between these two neighbouring countries, according to an estimate, ran into billions.
Yet the border between these two countries remains extremely hostile. Ain o Salish Kendra’s documentation unit reveals that as per newspaper reports between 2008 and 2010 Indian BSF shot dead 188 Bangladeshis. During the same period 64 Bangladeshis were tortured to death by BSF, 166 were injured while 116 were abducted along the border.
The age-old traditional approach of the people living along the border came to an abrupt end with India building a 4,000-kilometre-long, ten-foot-high barbed-wired and concrete fence at a cost of $1.2 billion to stop what they said mass-scale migration, smuggling and infiltration.
Felani’s father Nurul and his brother, both under twelve, walked into India 25 years ago after both their parents died within a month. The bothers started working at farmers’ houses looking after cattle before settling down in Bongaigaon owning a roadside tea stall.
Jahanara’s story is also similarly striking. Impoverished and helpless, after her father from the same village of South Ramkhana died, her mother walked into India in search of a job. At the age of eight Jahanara was married to Nurul Islam, hardly 13 years of age at that time. The couple had their first child, Felani, five years later.
A day before the fateful January 7, Nurul Islam and Felani arrived at Khitaber Kuthi under Dinhata police station of West Bengal. It was not the first time Nurul returned to his village. Six months ago he had made the same journey to rebuild his house on the occasion of Felani’s upcoming wedding.
“Felani was very excited all the way,” said Nurul recollecting the day. “She was wearing the gold ornaments and looked so beautiful,” He said. “She told me how she looked forward to meeting her grandparents in Bangladesh for the first time.”
“As usual, on arrival at Chadrirhat border point I contacted the dalals [brokers] and paid them Tk 3,000 for a passage across the fence,” said Nurul.
He recalled the horror that followed. The dalals tried to smuggle the father and daughter throughout the night but border patrol by the BSF was so intense that day that they had to retreat. Just after the muezzin called for the early morning prayers, the dalals carrying three bamboo-made ladders led the two towards the fence.
“Daylight had broken by then and I was very scared. I told them we would prefer to wait till night but they were insistent,” Nurul said.
He held Felani tightly as they climbed the rungs of the first ladder. The second ladder was placed horizontally to connect the two fences and the third one was placed on the Bangladesh side for descending.
“I held Felani with my right hand and climbed the first flights,” he said. As the two tried to cross the second ladder, Nurul heard a single gunshot.
“The bullet hit Felani from the right side and she immediately fell silent and heavy after a brisk cry. I let her go and I myself fell on the Bangladesh side sustaining injuries all over my body. I looked back to see ten to eleven BSF members twenty feet away,” Nurul continued.
He tried to climb back to rescue Felani but the guards shouted and aimed their rifles at him. From 6:10am till 11:30am that day, the body of Felani lay there hanging by the ten-foot-high fence before the BSF took her away.
In front of thousands of villagers and officials of the Border Guard Bangladesh, the BSF handed over her body the next day after a post-mortem. In turn, Bangladesh police conducted another post-mortem at the Kurigram General Hospital.
Felani was buried the following day.
The story of Felani touched the hearts of millions both in Bangladesh and India. For the family of Nurul and Jahanara, the 25-year-long Indian chapter has been closed, probably forever. With Tk 3 lakh that the family received from the Bangladeshi authorities they now dream of a new future by the grave of their beloved daughter, Felani.


Courtesy of The Daily Star

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