Tears of a Thousand People

Exploring the violence of displacement in the Chittagong Hill Tracts

PHOTOGRAPHS BY Samsul Alam Helal TEXT BY Surabhi Kanga
01 August, 2019

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?”

Helal designed a red chair to represent the Chakma throne, which he then placed in the natural landscapes of the CHT that he photographed. “I am attempting to indicate to prior communities, prior societies, prior cultures—not only Chakma culture but also that of the many other indigenous communities of the Chittagong Hill Tracts—that are now lost,” he said. “I show a chair that appears to be travelling to different places, apparently in search of the displaced, dispersed people for whom it had originally been made.”

His photographs also reference other incidents of violence that the ethnic communities have faced. In the early 1970s, as Bangladesh took its first steps as an independent nation, leaders from the indigenous communities campaigned for the CHT to have administrative autonomy, but the military-ruled government rejected their demand. The result was an insurgency that continued until the late 1990s, leading to a militarised civil war between the indigenous communities and Bangladeshi armed forces. Reports of killings and rapes abounded, as did those of crackdown on indigenous activists. A photograph in Helal’s project speaks to a particularly grim incident—he depicts drowning arms holding up a portrait of the activist Kalpana Chakma. In the dead of night in June 1996, just hours before general elections began in Bangladesh, army personnel abducted Chakma from her home. She was never found or heard from again.

As the conflict was ongoing, the government reportedly forcefully settled Bengali people in the CHT, triggering demographic change in the region. In the years that followed, these changes wrought another evil: gentrification, and the slow death of the hill way of life. Helal repeatedly alludes to this gradual erosion. In one image, plastic flowers intrude upon the local flora; in others, a deer’s antlers and a bird, both wooden, appear. In yet another photograph, a caged bird references the talking mynah—a species indigenous to the CHT, which are taken out of their habitats and sold for large sums of money in urban centres. The animal forms, Helal explained, “refer both to the destruction of nature and wildlife through the encroachment of human settlements and economic activity into natural areas and … to [the] erosion of a way of life that was deeply connected to and defined by a cultural and proximal connection to the hills.”

But even as the impact of historical events continues, newer forms of violence affect the indigenous groups of the CHT. A 2017 report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council described the CHT as the most militarised region in Bangladesh. The same report noted that between 2014 and mid 2017, nearly three hundred incidents of violence against indigenous women were reported, including physical attacks, sexual assault, rape and gang rape. The uprooting of the indigenous hill people continues even “when we claim that democracy has been instilled in Bangladesh,” Rani Yan Yan, the present Chakma queen and an indigenous-rights activist, said at the opening of Helal’s show in March.

The 2017 paper further noted, “There is a culture of impunity for perpetrators, particularly because most perpetrators are non-Indigenous and are often Bengali settlers”—an observation that is echoed in Helal’s deliberate use of an unnatural material such as foil, to cover the faces of the women he photographed. He references the ongoing violence in other images as well. In one, a red cloth, signifying the Buddhist faith practised by many indigenous groups, is on fire—an allusion to incidents where entire villages have been burnt. In June 2017, for instance, in a pre-planned attack, Bengali settlers vandalised four indigenous localities, burning over three hundred houses and killing several people.

Helal’s images subvert the dominant visual representation of indigenous communities. Unlike mainstream aesthetics that often employ vibrant colour, costuming and performance in treating this kind of subject matter, Helal uses a muted palette and composes scenes devoid of dramatic incident. He chooses to depict the violence of gentrification and displacement in landscapes that bear no signs of these severe changes. His metaphors, too, are not easy to decode, often relying on localised cultural symbols. An image of a man and woman tied together by a gamcha—cloth towel—for instance, alludes to families that were separated by displacement. To make sense of the historical and political references embedded in his work, the viewer must strive to familiarise herself with the manner in which such events convulsed life in the CHT. As Priyabola—who also suffered separation from her siblings in the aftermath of the dam’s construction—put it, “This Kaptai dam, this Kaptai lake is the tears of thousands of people.”