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Stranded in Geneva Camp

By Gabriele Cecconi

27 June 2019

Life in the largest refugee camp for Bangladesh’s Urdu-speaking community.
Geneva Camp is the biggest settlement for Biharis in Bangladesh, housing over 40,000 people.

Geneva Camp is the biggest settlement for ‘Biharis’ in Bangladesh, housing over 40,000 people. All photos by the author.

During the swearing-in of North Dhaka’s new mayor and councillors in March 2019, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina mentioned that her government was “looking for land to build flats for the trapped Biharis so they too can live decently.” Hasina was referring to the country’s Urdu-speaking community of approximately 300,000 people. This community is largely made up of peopled descended from refugees who sought sanctuary in Muslim-majority East Bengal during Partition, coming mostly from Bihar, West Bengal as well as other parts of the subcontinent. Today, most of Bangladesh’s ‘Biharis’ are living in over 60 refugee camps scattered across the country.

During the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, a section of the Urdu-speaking population supported the West Pakistan army. As a result, the community was left stranded and stateless in the newly independent state of Bangladesh, and face discrimination for their perceived allegiance to Pakistan, although many of them today were born and raised in Bangladesh. Organisations representing ‘Biharis’ in Bangladesh have at various times demanded their repatriation to Pakistan. Between 1974 and 1992, around 175,000 ‘Biharis’ were relocated to Pakistan. In 2008, a Supreme Court decision, granted the right to Bangladeshi citizenship to ‘Biharis’ who were either minors during the Liberation War or born afterwards, then slightly less than half the population. The other half of the community continue to remain stateless.

The largest among the refugee camps for ‘Biharis’ in Bangaldesh is Geneva Camp in Dhaka. Rights organisations have reported on the difficult living conditions in the camp. It was in this context that the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made the announcement of plans for rehabilitation. Meanwhile, for over 40,000 people packed in an area slightly larger than acre, Geneva Camp continues to be their home. The following photographs, taken in February 2018, document everyday life in the neighbourhood.

When the camp was settled in 1971, the houses had only one floor. A lack of land has forced residents to build vertically to accommodate growing population density.

When the camp was settled in 1971, the houses had only one floor. A lack of land has forced residents to build vertically to accommodate growing population density.

 

A woman and child inside their one-bedroom house in Geneva Camp. Over 40 years after the Liberation War, many families are still living inside 8 x 8 single room houses.

A woman and child inside their one-bedroom house in Geneva Camp. Over 40 years after the Liberation War, many families are still living inside 8 x 8 single room houses.

 

Friends and family gather for a musical recital inside a small bedroom in the camp.

Friends and family gather for a musical recital inside a bedroom in the camp.

 

A man watches a cricket match from his bed at home.

A man watches a cricket match from his bed at home.

 

A student during a lesson in the school’s camp. There is only one school in Geneva Camp, which is too small to accommodate all of the camp’s children.

A student during a lesson in school. The camp has only one school which is too small to accommodate all of the camp’s children.

 

A boy plays an arcade game in the camp’s gaming room. Despite a 2008 Supreme Court ruling, many younger generation Biharis do not have Bangladeshi citizenship.

A boy plays an arcade game in the camp’s gaming room. Despite a 2008 Supreme Court ruling, many younger generation ‘Biharis’ do not have Bangladeshi citizenship.

 

A shop inside Geneva camp that sells electronic goods such as TVs, fans and mobile phones.

A shop inside Geneva camp that sells electronic goods such as TVs, fans and mobile phones.

 

Men socialising over dinner at a restaurant in the camp.

Men socialising over dinner at a restaurant in the camp.

 

A cook prepares food inside the kitchen of a restaurant.

A cook prepares food inside the kitchen of a restaurant.

 

A boy working for a street-food vendor packs food into a paper bag.

A boy working for a street-food vendor packs food into a paper bag.

 

A man dries himself after taking a shower at night. Most houses in the camp do not have bathrooms, with one latrine being shared by many families.

A man dries himself after taking a shower at night. Most houses in the camp do not have bathrooms, with one latrine being shared by many families.

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~Gabriele Cecconi is a documentary photographer interested in social, political and environmental issues. His work has been presented in exhibitions and published in L’Espresso, Internazionale, D La Repubblica and The Caravan. ​Cecconi was named Photographer of the Year at the 2019 Prix de la Photographie, Paris (Px3) awards.

2 Responses to “Stranded in Geneva Camp”

  1. Janaki kumari Chhantyal says:

    I hope this will be helpful to the people to get some aids and opportunities. Good luck.
    Appreciate the photographer for his work.

  2. Alal O Dulal says:

    For more background, see Dina Siddqi’s essay.

    From the 2014 editorial statement: AlalODulal Editorial Board condemns in the strongest terms the violence that left at least 11 Urdu Speaking people (“Biharis”) dead. Anthropologist Dina Siddiqi’s research on the conditions of “stranded Pakistanis” (inaccurately called “Biharis,” but more accurately “Urdu speakers”) after 1971 is newly relevant. In the current discourse around the 1971 war, the fate of the Urdu speakers at war’s end is elided. It is one of the zones of silence because it does not fit with the Bangladeshi discourse around the war. Nor does it fit Pakistan’s convenient discourse, especially after a 2008 high court decision granted them Bangladeshi citizenship. We at AlalODulal feel it is crucial to highlight those left behind in multiple nation projects.

    “The nation left them, even though they were still on the same soil. They could not follow. This paradoxical condition was rooted in the shifting relationships between national and territorial identities generated by partition. Ambivalence and tensions around partition were not only productive of identities; on occasion they erased claims to belonging altogether. For those in danger of permanent civil death, recourse to the idiom of sacrifice no longer sufficed. Both refugee and citizen at the moment of partition, Urdu speakers in East Pakistan were rendered non-citizens and non-refugees in independent Bangladesh.”

    https://alalodulal.org/2014/03/02/stranded-pakistanis/

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