We started our journey towards Bhasan Char from the Nalchira docks in Hatiya around 6:30am on October 4. Bhasan Char is an isolated island in the Bay of Bengal, located more than 20km away from Hatiya.
The journey itself is nothing short of an adventure, as we had to wait seven days for favourable weather conditions to make the trip. We could not find any boatmen willing to take us to the island even when the sky was only a little cloudy.
The Bangladesh Navy has been tasked with making Bhashan Char habitable for the Rohingya people who have fled Myanmar due to the recent spate of violence in their homeland in northern Rakhine State.
Several government high-ups, including officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs, have visited the island on several occasions. Despite their assessments, confusion regarding the habitability of Bhashan Char still remains among the local administration and people.
We arrived at the docks named Chairman Ghat on October 3, but none of the trawlers agreed to make the journey, citing inclement weather as the reason.
After some persuasion, we were able to hire a fishing boat to take us to Bhashan Char the following morning. A number of boat crew members accompanied us in the trip.
After two-and-a-half hours at sea, we reached Bhashan Char. A large vessel of the Bangladesh Navy was moored near the island.
We inspected the island from the boat, and found that it was much wider in the northeastern area. Bhashan Char is criss-crossed by several small canals, and a forest can be seen in the distance.
We witnessed the construction of several small tin-shed buildings near the dock. A number of navy officials were seen resting in another tin-shed building. There is a helipad and a road nearby.
A navy official was found on duty there, but he refused to make any comments without the approval of the concerned authorities.
The network signal for mobile phones is weak throughout the island.
We managed to get in touch with an on-duty official after several attempts. The official stated that any disclosure of information, reports or photographs concerning the project area of Bhashan Char has been restricted by the highest level of the government.
“Entry to the project area is also restricted, and no information can be disclosed,” the official added.
After walking around the island for some time, we noticed that parts of Bhashan Char were becoming submerged during high tide. However, we noticed some comparatively high areas where water did not reach.
A little further, we found trees that are covered in moss for up to seven feet.
According to our boatman, high tides flood the area during the full moon.
The question started gnawing in our minds: is the island really habitable for people?
We decided to venture deep into the forest at the centre of the island. We found two shepherds and their buffaloes relaxing at a clearing.
Talking to the Bangla Tribune, the shepherds said they have been raising buffaloes on this island for the last three years, but they do not live here permanently.
The duo confirmed that during the normal high tide, three to four feet of water floods the island, while during the full moon and the new moon, water can rise up to four or eight feet, depending on the area.
In the official documents of the Forest Department and local administration, Bhashan Char is mentioned as “Jaliyar Char” and is separated by two areas: one is called Jaliayar Char, and the other is New Jaliayar Char.
Another small island called Thengar Char is located 5km from Jaliyar Char.
The Bangla Tribune has learned that, initially, the Rohingya refugees were to be rehabilitated in the Thengar Char. However, district administration officials on a visit to the project area mistakenly landed in Jaliyar Char instead of Thengar Char. The rehabilitation project started soon after the inspection.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina later directed that the name Thengar Char be changed into Bhashan Char, as the latter sounds better.
Bhashan Char is riddled with at least 50 small and medium canals that run through the island.
Riaz Uddin, a fisherman from Nalchira area, was found near one of these canals.
Talking to the Bangla Tribune, he confirmed that the island is called Jaliyar Char and not Thengar Char by the Forest Department officials.
“Thengar Char is located a bit south from here,” he added.
However, despite the reported misunderstanding, the rehabilitation project for the Rohingya continues here.
According to the fisherman, it would take another 8-10 years to make the island habitable for people. He said the island is not high enough to escape water from the high tide and still suffers from erosion.
He posed an important question: “If the island is uninhabitable for the fishermen and the shepherds, how will other people settle here?”
Md Nahid Hasan, the beat officer for Nalchira Range in Hatiya, recently filed a report on the current condition of Bhashan Char.
The report states that Bhashan Char is 35km from Boyar Char Chairman Ghat and 25km from the Nalchira Ghat.
An official of the Bangladesh Navy, stationed on Bhashan Char, told the Bangla Tribune on condition of anonymity that relocating the Rohingya here would be an inhuman move.
“The island is remote, and lacks a good transportation system,” he said. “During the monsoon, the communication with the mainland completely snaps. If enough food is not stored in the island, the Rohingya refugees would starve for days.”
Describing the intense flooding caused by the Bhola Cyclone on November 12, 1970, the navy official said: “There were no survivors in Nijhum Dwip. The sea took everyone who lived there. Bhashan Char is even lower than Nijhum Dwip.”
Noakhali Division Forest Department official Md Tohidul Islam was unresponsive when asked to comment by the Bangla Tribune.
“I cannot comment on the matter. The government had asked for our opinion, and we provided it,” he said.
Speaking on the matter, Noakhali Deputy Commissioner Mahbub Alam Talukder said: “We witnessed the same situation there [Bhashan Char].
“We will carry out the government’s directives. If the government wants us to rehabilitate the Rohingya there, we will follow the order. It is their decision, not ours.”
This article was first published on Bangla Tribune.