Exile tribes make fearful trek home: Back in Bangladesh after years in Indian camps, the Jumma hill people are suspicious of their official welcome. Tim McGirk reports from the Chittagong Hills

AFTER spending the last eight years in an Indian jungle refugee camp, forgotten by all but the mosquitoes, Sunil Kanti Chakma and his family were coming home to Bangladesh. It was dusk when they waded across the last river, smooth and grey in the mist, and reached their tribal village in the Chittagong Hills.

'I didn't know what to expect. We fled because the Bangladeshi soldiers came one night and burnt down our house,' said Sunil, a thin, feverish man whose Buddhist ancestors had wandered into the teak forests of the Chittagong Hills from Burma centuries ago and remained. 'I was afraid that settlers from the plains had stolen my land.'

Entering the village, Sunil and his family were seen by women in tribal indigo and red striped sarongs who rose from their cooking-fires with shouts of greeting. Sunil was relieved to hear that no plainsmen had grabbed his garden-sized plot. He walked up the path to where his house had stood, in the shade of a tall jackfruit tree. Nothing grew where soldiers had set fire to his home. His house, woven out of bamboo and palm, had burnt swiftly. Even after the many monsoon rains, the earth was still seared ash-black.

'It was bad in the Indian camps. Many children died of disease, 20 or 30 a day. Towards the end, the Indians stopped giving us food, only rice and a little salt,' said Sunil, whose pale skin and Oriental features set him apart from other, darker-skinned Bangladeshis.

Sunil and around 1,700 other people from the 13 Chittagong tribes, known collectively as the Jummas, left the refugee camps not only because their rations were cut, but because the Indians promised to give them pounds 65. They didn't. The Jummas, herded across the jungle border on a wobbly bamboo bridge, got only pounds 20; Indian officials took the rest.

The tribesmen were wary of the reception awaiting them on the Bangladeshi side. In the camps they had heard tales of Jumma massacres carried out by the Bangladeshi army in league with armed gangs of settlers, more than 400,000 of whom over the years have swarmed up to the hills from the flood-prone lowlands.

The most recent atrocity occurred at Naniachar on 17 November beside a lake. Tribal eyewitnesses said that the army fired into a crowd of Jumma students. Then when the tribal youths tried to escape by diving into the lake, they were pursued into the water and hacked to death by settlers with machetes, eyewitnesses said. The army denies the shooting and dismisses the incident as a clash between tribals and settlers, even though only one of the 35 victims was a settler.

In light of such gruesome incidents, human rights groups warned the tribals not to return to Bangladesh. The respected South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, which visited the refugee camps in the Indian state of Tripura earlier this month, said the Jummas were being sent back 'under duress' and that, more worryingly, Bangladesh failed to provide guarantees of safety for them. But none of the arriving hill people I spoke to said they had been forced out of the camps.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts had long been off-limits to foreign journalists. Strangely, it was because of the Harrods pre-Christmas sale that I was probably let in. On 21 December, the film star, Richard Gere, took the opportunity to lecture thousands of shoppers, impatiently waiting at Harrods' entrance, that 'massacres of Buddhist tribal peoples' were taking place in the Chittagong Hills.

It struck a nerve with the Bangladeshi government, which viewed his remarks as part of an unfair campaign by human rights organisations that, ultimately, might lead to a cut-off in foreign aid. Bangladesh is a pauper nation, which desperately needs outside help. 'It seems crazy that aid donors would want to endanger the survival of millions of the Bangladeshis just for the sake of the hill tribes - who are 0.5 per cent of our population,' an exasperated official said.

Once across the frontier the bewildered tribespeople were treated to coloured flags and music blasting so loudly it scattered the jungle birds. The Bangladeshi officials also gave the returnees a hot meal, the full, promised sum of pounds 175 and several kilos of rice. They were also given assurances that squatters had been shooed away and their land would be returned to rightful tribal owners. The Bangladeshis are hoping that such enticements will lure across the 50,000 tribesmen still in the Indian camps and end the tribal insurgency, which has tied down the Bangladeshi army since 1973 and drained the country's funds.

After years of the army killing tribals and burning down their villages, many Jumma militants were suspicious of the latest Bangladeshi offer. One Jumma student leader in Dhaka said: 'Once they lure us all across the border, then the army and the settlers will attack and finish us off.' The Jummas are rapidly becoming a minority in the hills. During the 1970s and 1980s, Bangladesh's former military rulers tried to crush the independent- minded tribesmen by transporting in thousands of desperately poor settlers, who are now as numerous as the Jumma tribes. The fate of the settlers is still unresolved: it seems unlikely they will allow themselves to be pushed back to the plains without a fight.

Under Bangladesh's democratically-elected Prime Minister, Begum Khaled Zia, a temporary ceasefire with the rebels has been extended until April. India, which Bangladesh accuses of giving arms and training to the insurgents, has lately scaled back support. New Delhi now is wrestling with a dozen tribal uprising of its own in the north-east states.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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