Early November presented me with an amazing opportunity: to leave busy Dhaka city behind for a little while and relocate to live and work in the small remote town of Bandarban, nestling high in the jungle of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. By chance I’d visited this very region only a month previously and had fallen in love with the place the moment I arrived. So, once offered I grabbed the chance with both hands and shipped myself out to start a new adventure and my surrounding environment couldn’t have been more different to anything I had encountered in Bangladesh so far.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts, or CHT as it’s commonly known in Bangladesh is divided into three regions, Khagrachhari in the north, Rangamati, the central region and Bandarban in the southeast, which borders the Myanmar (Burma) provinces of Chin and Arakan. Bandarban (meaning the dam of monkeys) is both the remotest district in Bangladesh and the least populated. The three highest peaks in the country are located here along with the highest lake. The Sangu, also known as Sangpo or Shankha is born in these hills, and as such is the only river to originate inside Bangladesh territory.
There are thirteen tribes living in the Hill Tracts, who’s religions range across Buddhist, Hindu, Animist and Christian. The Chakmas, Marmas and Tripuras however total approximately 90% with an accumulative population of 600,000, equating to 66% of the overall CHT population. The Chakmas are the largest single tribe of approximately 400,000, accounting for over half of the tribal population. These indigenous people are typically Mongoloid and Sino-Tibetan in origin. Historically the Hill Tracts more isolated geography has played a huge part in preserving a very distinctive culture which nevertheless is sadly under threat and stressed from many modern day challenges, internal Bangladeshi politics being not the least amongst them.
Bandarban is home to the Marma tribe, and in stark contrast to Dhaka city, English is hardly spoken here. Over the coming months I must brush up and consolidate what little Bengali I have within my grasp and learn a great deal more if I’m to get the best out of this opportunity. My colleagues also speak the Marma dialect, a language notoriously difficult to pick up. Benefactors of my new NGO are spread far and wide, some almost on my doorstep, while the furthest take many hours to reach, traveling by road, small river boat and finally on foot.
My luck was in as a couple of representatives from one of our International donors were scheduled to arrive for a field visit on only my second week. By inviting me along my NGO gave me the rare opportunity to travel even deeper into the hills to a tiny place named Bolipara. Here they have a project office and operate a free clinic, the only one accessible to the local community for many kilometers. To undertake any travel, all foreigners must apply at the District Commissioner’s office requesting permission for each and every occasion, both around the Hill tracts themselves and when leaving and re-entering. This can typically take several days to move through a laborious administrative process. This paper document must then be presented at each army road block enabling them to keep track on my whereabouts as the security situation in the Hill Tracts is controversial to say the least, but more of that later.
Our jeep headed south out of Bandarban town. Ahead lay a fascinating journey of approximately three hours until we reached our final destination. Here some of my new colleagues were scheduled to meet our donor to deliver feedback and measure the effectiveness of their sponsored activity in the area. We travelled through breathtaking jungle, up into some of the highest hills in the country. Narrow winding roads twisted upwards into the mist and cloud which, when parted offered an occasional glimpse across a far reaching horizon as beautiful as any I have yet seen. The air, fresh, cool and clean, was an enormous contrast to the horrendous pollution I have been surrounded by every single day of the last nine months of life in Dhaka city. What a fantastic start to my six months living in the beautiful Chittagong Hill Tracts.