The lives and livelihoods of nearly 50,000 people, living along the frontier regions of Cox’s Bazar and Bandarban districts, have been turned upside down by Myanmar army’s cross-border shelling and firing.
Local residents now spend their days in constant fear for their lives, wondering when a stray mortar shell of gunfire would claim yet another innocent victim.
On September 16, a local man named Athwaing Tangchangya, 25, was gravely injured after accidentally stepping on a landmine within 30 feet of Bangladesh in the Headman area of Ghumdhum Union, next to Pillar-35 of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
Later the same day, a Rohingya named Md Iqbal, 18, died of a mortar shell fired from Myanmar.
Most of the 284 kilometre Bangladesh-Myanmar border is a nearly inaccessible remote mountainous region. The people living in the border areas of Bandarban’s Naikhongchhari and Cox’s Bazar’s Teknaf upazila are mainly labourers and farmers. Many have lost their only source of income in the last month since the firing and shelling began on the other side of the border.
Around 4,000 Rohingyas have been living in the shelter camp built on the foothills of the Walidong Mountain since the last five years on the no man’s land between Bangladesh and Myanmar. These forcibly displaced Myanmar citizens are now becoming increasingly uneasy.
Local residents suspect there may be several landmines still active along the border. Many have deserted their farmlands and about 35 per cent of students have stopped attending their schools.
Lives, livelihoods at stake
According to locals and border security officials, the Arakan Army, a pro-independence armed group, has been fighting and exchanging gunfire with Myanmar’s security forces for weeks in the Walidong Hills of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, across the border in Naikhongchari.
The sound of erratic gunfire can be heard from as far away as the upazila’s Tumbru Bazar area.
Nurul Alam, 50, a resident of the Baishpari area of Ghumdhum Union, said, “I cultivated Aman paddy on 3 acres of land this year, but I have not been able to tend to my field in weeks due to the fear of getting hit by Myanmar’s shelling or gunfire.
“I even stopped my children from going to school. If this situation continues, my family of seven will be in dire straits.”
Residents of the Tumbru area, Abu Sayed and his son work as day labourers. Abu said they have not been able to find regular work this month. “We still go out every few days risking our lives in search of work, otherwise my whole family will starve,” he added.
According to the local people, Naikhongchhari Sadar union’s Achartoli area, Ghumdhum union’s Jalpaitoli, Tumbru, Baishpari, Mogpara, Gorjonbonia, Boroitoli, Pattarjhiri, areas are facing the brunt of the security risk.
Mohammad Shahjahan, an assistant teacher of Tumbru Government Primary School, said shootings have been going on erratically on the other side of the border.
He added, “For the past few weeks, the attendance rate of students has decreased by 30 per cent to 35 per cent in almost educational institutions of Ghumdhum Union due to tension at the border. This will severely impact the children’s education.”
Ghumdhum Union Parishad Chairman AKM Jahangir Aziz said, “Vegetable, paddy and jhum farmers are unable to tend to their farmlands due to rampant shelling and shooting near the border.
“The farmers fear for their lives. The government needs to take special initiatives to ensure the security of the people living here.”
Naikhongchhari upazila Agriculture Officer Md Inamul Haque said, “Agriculture is the main source of income for the people of the remote border areas. We are currently investigating the matter to determine how the situation might affect the upcoming crop harvest.”
Naikhongchhari Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) Salma Ferdous said, “The administration has advised the residents not to panic. We are currently looking into the matter.”
There are more than 12,000 fishermen in the border area around Cox’s Bazar’s Teknaf upazila. Among them, around 5,000 are dependent on the Naf River to earn a livelihood.
But the government had banned fishing in the river five years ago to prevent Rohingya infiltration. These fishermen have been struggling to find alternative sources of income, and facing extreme poverty ever since.
One such fisherman, Abul Kalam said, “I work as a day labourer now to feed my family. But even finding such work is a struggle because of the Rohingyas.”
Teknaf UNO (acting) Md Erfanul Haque Chowdhury said, “The local people along the border including fishermen and farmers have been affected directly because of the Rohingyas. We are trying to provide them with a livelihood through various donor organisations.”
According to local sources, shootings in Myanmar’s Rakhine state have been a common occurrence now. People have been living under a threat ever since mortar shells have been falling inside Bangladesh’s border.
Bangladesh had strongly protested the tension at the border by summoning the ambassador of Myanmar to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, following incidents of mortar shells fired from a helicopter on August 28, September 3 and 16.