IN ONE PHOTOGRAPH in Samsul Alam Helal’s project “Disappearing Roots,” two women stand against a hilly green expanse, their faces covered by shiny aluminum foil. Helal, a Dhaka-based photographer, made this image in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeastern Bangladesh. When asked about his decision to hide the women’s faces, Helal said it gestured towards the “silencing and obscuring of the indigenous experience as well as the denial of normal, national protections to vulnerable communities and victims of violence … As members of minority communities in Bangladesh, they are already living behind an invisible curtain.”
Helal’s photographic series focusses on the ethnic communities indigenous to the CHT—the Chakmas, the Marmas, the Tripuras and the Mrongs, among other smaller non-Bengali ethnic groups. It attempts to spark a dialogue about their disappearing way of life in the face of continued displacement and gentrification. The project symbolically gestures to a long history of violence faced by these minority ethnic communities, which includes state-sponsored repression and militarised occupation. One of the incidents that informed this work, Helal said, is of two young women from the Marma community, who were assaulted and raped by Bangladeshi security personnel last January.
The project, which is still ongoing, takes off from a major flashpoint in the CHT’s history. In 1962, the East Pakistan government constructed the Kaptai dam on the river Kanafuli, in the CHT’s Rangamati district. The construction proved to be calamitous for the region’s indigenous residents, displacing eighteen thousand families and a hundred thousand people overall. In Kaptai Badh: Bor-Porong Duborider Attokothon, a book with interviews of those displaced by the dam, a retired teacher, Priyobala Chakma, is quoted saying, “We were drowned in the water of the dam and swam towards different countries.”
Several thousands moved to the surrounding areas, including parts of India and Myanmar. Waters from the river submerged 40 percent of the CHT’s fertile land, as well as the town of Rangamati and the palace of the local Chakma king. The displacement also upended the livelihood of indigenous farming communities, though few received appropriate compensation. The Chakma people, who formed about seventy percent of those displaced, termed the event the Bara Parang—the great exodus.
The aftermath of the dam’s construction and continuing displacement it set off is essential to Helal’s work. For his exhibition at the Shilpakala Academy in Dhaka in March 2019, he built a three-dimensional structure modelled on the palace that was submerged. In a video installation at the exhibition, he showed this model being submerged by water, reigniting public memory of the incident. Speaking at the opening, Sayeed Ferdous, a researcher and professor, commented on the significance of Helal’s choice. “On one hand it is the symbol of power that belonged to the local people, the symbol of their prosperity,” Ferdous said. “On the other hand, if a king’s palace can drown in this way, then what will happen to the local people?”