Gouri Chakma was only 15 when her family was forced to cross over to India's Tripura state in 1986.
They finally returned after the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord in 1997, but they are yet to reclaim their ancestral land and remain in the bracket of internally displaced persons (IDPs).
“My three brothers and I went to Tripura with our father as refugees,” Gouri told the Dhaka Tribune. “We were repatriated after the accord with preconditions including the return of our land, but they are yet to be fulfilled.”
She now has her own family at a rehabilitation cluster set up along the boundary of Dighinala Ban Bihar (Dighinala Buddhist monastery). There are 17 more families in the cluster, and their stories are more or less the same.
According to the Task Force on Rehabilitation of Returnee Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, some 64,609 members of 12,222 Bangladeshi families have returned from India following the 1997 peace accord.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts have been the scene of an armed conflict between ethnic rebels, led by the Shanti Bahini, and the government. After years of fighting that left many dead and thousands displaced, both sides decided to strike a deal to end the conflict.
Although the government claims most articles of the resulting 1997 peace accord have been implemented, many, including the Shanti Bahini leader Santu Larma, say otherwise.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was in office when the accord was signed, and has said her current government is “very sincere” about implementing the remaining articles.
But Santu Larma, the former rebel leader, has time and again threatened to take up arms if the accord was not fully implemented.
Sticking points include a failure to return the indigenous people to their old jobs or offer them new ones based on their eligibility, and the denial of the 20-point Facilities Package promised at the time of the accord’s signing to most of the 12,222 families.
“They are living in miserable conditions in Khagrachhari and Rangamati,” said Santoshito Chakma, secretary of Chittagong Hill Tracts Jumma Refugee Welfare Association.
“The CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission is not being able to play an effective role as the rules and regulations of the Commission are yet to be enacted.”
According to the CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission, a total of 23,860 applications for assistance have been filed since the latest amendment of the CHT Land Commission Act.
Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (MN Larma Group) President Sudha Sindhu Khisa accused the government of “making a mockery” of the implementation of the Peace Accord for over 20 years.
“Day by day, the people of the hills are losing trust in the Awami League government,” he said.
Meghna Guhathakurta, the head of think tank Research Initiatives, Bangladesh, told Reuters that there was a hope for change when the peace accord came into being. “But it got entrapped in politics,” she said.