“There used to be a big celebration in the camp every year on August 14…we celebrated the birth of Pakistan with great zest for so many years,” a young man told me as we toured the small school inside Geneva Camp in Dhaka, one of the largest settlements hosting the country’s Urdu-speaking community that became stateless after the 1971 war, when East Pakistan broke away from its western part to form Bangladesh. But now, he added, “we celebrate Bangladesh’s Independence Day”.

I could see drawings of the Bangladesh flag outside classrooms. Inside, six- to seven-year-old children were studying. I tried to speak to them in Urdu, but not many seemed to understand. The few who did said they learnt the language from their family members. Most of them were more fluent in Bengali.

I asked them what they knew about Pakistan. Most of them were silent. Some of them did not know what Pakistan was, despite the fact that outside the camp, in the cities and villages of Bangladesh, that is one of their primary identities – they are commonly referred to as Biharis or Pakistanis, though not all of them trace their ancestry to either region.

Two students told me that their relatives live in Pakistan. They said they’ve heard there is a lot of violence and terrorism in that country and that they’re afraid their relatives will be killed. “We want to bring them back to Bangladesh so they’re safe,” they said.

In another class of slightly older students, a 10-year-old girl stood up when she heard I’m from Pakistan. “I don’t want to go to Pakistan,” she said nervously. “I’m Bangladeshi, I love Bangladesh. My friends are here. I don’t want to go.” She understood what Pakistan symbolises – a country her community is supposed to belong to. My presence perhaps signalled to her that I’m here to take her away, finally fulfilling the promise made repeatedly by different Pakistani governments to her community, a promise even more unlikely to be fulfilled today than it was in the 1970s.

A family collects water from a pump at the Geneva Refugee Camp in Dhaka. Photo: Lalage Snow/AFP

On the sidelines

In 1971, the Bengali-Muslim dominated East Pakistan gained independence from West Pakistan after a bloody conflict, and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh was born. The majority of Bangladesh’s Urdu-speaking population – many of them who had migrated in 1947 from parts of India, including Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and others from Pakistan – sought to move to West Pakistan after independence. Their houses and properties were confiscated and makeshift camps were established by the International Committee of the Red Cross to accommodate them until Pakistan arranged for their transfer.

Over the years, various Pakistani heads of state and government officials visited this camp, promising to address their plight, but never came through. In the 1980s, Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq assured that the “stranded Pakistanis”, as they are called would be repatriated as soon as funds for their rehabilitation and transportation were made available. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made similar promises during his 1990-’93 tenure.

In the early 1990s, the Pakistani government even purchased land in Mian Channu in Punjab province for their rehabilitation and 325 people were repatriated from Bangladesh.

However, the government of the Sindh province was worried that the refugees from Bangladesh would sell the land in Punjab and move to Karachi, the province’s capital, adding to the burgeoning population of the city and escalating the conflict between the mohajirs (Urdu-speaking Muslims from India who moved to Pakistan after Partition) and the Sindhi population of Karachi.

In fact, on her visit to Bangladesh, Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was from Sindh, was one of the few Pakistani leaders who refused to even entertain the possibility of repatriation – in her mind and in her province, there was no space for them. Today it is estimated that more than 300,000 Urdu-speaking people remain in Bangladesh, many of them living in these camps.

Photo: Lalage Snow/AFP

Prejudice runs deep

Ignored by Pakistan, the Urdu-speaking community was also shunned in Bangladesh.

In 2008, after 37 years of being stateless, the community of so-called stranded Pakistanis was recognised by the government after a 2008 Bangladesh Supreme Court ruling. The government then started issuing ID cards to those who approached it.

But in the popular imagination, there is little space for people associated with the brutality of the Liberation War of 1971 and many of those who have been given ID cards stay on in the squalor of the camps, with economic opportunities and acceptance hard to come by in the world outside their settlements.

According to official estimates, three million people were massacred as the Pakistani military and other Islamist groups tried to crack down on the self determination movement in Bangladesh during the liberation war of 1971. It is believed that groups like Al Badr, Al Shams and Razakar collaborated with the Pakistan Army in hunting down Bengalis fighting for a separate homeland. It is alleged that many Biharis had also become collaborators in 1971 and were responsible for the torture and killing of fellow East Pakistanis.

The stigma of these allegations has been tough to fight and has led to a sense of ill-will against the community at large. Two young girls I met at a seminar in Dhaka became teary-eyed while telling me about the discrimination they regularly face. “We are constantly referred to as Pakistanis,” one of them said. “That hurts...We were born and bred here, we speak Bengali, our home, our life is here not in Pakistan,” one of them told me. The other said: “We weren’t even born in 1971 yet we have to constantly hear that we are to blame for 1971.”

Another young man confessed that despite completing his education, he is repeatedly denied employment because of the “Bihari” label attached to him.

As a result, till today, mistrust and bitterness mar the relationship between the Bengali and Urdu-speaking community in Bangladesh. An intelligence official stayed with us throughout our visit to the camp, vigilant of what its residents said, trying to assess which country they hold allegiance to and ensuring they were not working in the interests of Pakistan. An elderly man silently whispered in my ear that they were under constant surveillance. “Our e-mails and phone calls are tapped…and even if we cross the Pakistan High Commission, they come to arrest us. There are many people who are picked up from the camps,” he said, adding that not all of them return. “They become ‘missing persons’”

Another man told me that the community is often attacked by local Bengali-speaking Bangladeshis and forced evictions have become increasingly common. The spirit of revenge for 1971 is alive in the society, with the Urdu-speaking community, seen as representatives of Pakistan, its primary victims.

Photo: Lalage Snow/AFP

‘Paris of refugee camps’

As we left the school, we were greeted by monsoon showers. Outside, men and women were busy selling vegetables and knick-knacks on each side of a narrow lane. I was told that most camp residents do odd jobs to make a living. Most of them are barbers, butchers, or owners of small shops.

The principal of the school offered me a student’s umbrella and walked with me towards the entrance of the camp, where our car is parked. On the way, he pointed to a row of small cubicles that serve as washrooms. Most of them had no running water. A huge pile of rubbish was collected outside. “We have 275 toilets and 50 common baths for 40,000 residents,” he said. “About 50% of these are out of order. Can you imagine what happens in the morning when nature calls? Can you imagine what our women go through?”

There is no privacy here, he added. “My mother and my wife live in the same room with me. Let me show you how we live before you go.”

His pace increased – there was an urgency in him to make me understand how bad their conditions are. I sensed he still held some hope that Pakistan would claim him. In his mid 60s, he’s part of the generation that strongly believed in the idea of Pakistan, who opted to move there in 1971. It isn’t as easy for him to give up on this dream as it is for the younger generations who have never seen Pakistan, who were born and brought up in Bangladesh, for whom this is the only life they know. He hoped that by showing me the camp, he will push Pakistanis like me to remember his community, to think about them, to acknowledge them.

He knows that despite the ID cards and passports, the majority of the Bangladeshi population will never accept them. They will continue to be branded as traitors. “We will take Pakistan’s name till our dying breath because we have no choice,” he said. “These ID cards give us no actual rights. We’ll never have a true home in Bangladesh…the younger generations feel differently because they have been born here, but we still hold our parents’ and grandparents’ dream of what Pakistan was meant to be alive in our hearts.”

As we crossed the small rooms that constitute the camp residents’ homes, he urged me to look inside. Hesitatingly, I peeked in to see an 8x8 room crammed with beds stacked one on top of the other, each housing seven to eight people on average. A wooden slab was hammered to the wall above the beds. Utensils, clothes and other household items were piled on top of it. There was hardly any space to move inside the room.

In the corner, a woman was washing dishes. This is also where she cooks her meals. As though reading my thoughts, the principal said, “If you think this is bad, you should visit the other camps. We say this is the Paris of camps…we had a fire in 1986 and so parts of it had to be renovated…the other camps are in far worse conditions.” In all, there are about 116 camps all over Bangladesh.

A crowd gathered around us when we stepped outside the room. Some people had traveled for more than 400 km to come to the camp when they heard that a few Pakistanis were visiting. A woman grabbed my arm. “Look at us…look at us. Look at what conditions you’ve left us in,” she shouted. She knelt down and held her head, silently weeping.

Another man said, “If Pakistan doesn’t want to claim us...say it and let us make a life here. Take us out of this misery…we’ve waited for 46 years, we don’t want to wait any longer.”

He added: “We’ll beg the Bangladeshis to accept us, to make us part of their society. We’ll do whatever we have to do to make a home here.” Others grunted in agreement. “Did you stop the refugees coming in from India at Partition or from Afghanistan because there were no preparations for their arrival?” he continued. “Then why do you keep telling us to wait until arrangements are made? Pakistan had no trouble transporting the 90,000 prisoners of war after 1971…they were taken out from jails and flown away but we were left to suffer here…and what was our crime? The fact that we always supported Pakistan? That we believed in Pakistan? That our elders fought for Pakistan in 1947? Is that why we are still being punished?”

As we drove away, the camp receded into a blur but the disillusionment and resentment with Pakistan remained palpable.

As Pakistan celebrates its 70th independence day on Monday, thousands of kilometres away, hundreds of people who think of the country as their home will mark the occasion in these cramped rooms, all silent spectators of another year gone by, another year of empty promises, uncertainty and isolation. But for many in the younger generations, Pakistan or its independence will hold little meaning. Just as it forgot to claim them, they too long to forget their association with Pakistan, a prerequisite for a patriotic Bangladeshi.

Photo: Lalage Snow/AFP

Anam Zakaria is the author of The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians.