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Bangladesh-India border: "Wall of Death"

Life at the India-Bangladesh border is hostile and strange, and often deadly.

come about in more creative ways. Shootings are rarer, but Bangladeshi border guards report recent incidents of fatal beatings, strangling, stoning, and poisonous injections.

Human rights group Odhikar accuses the BSF of killing over 1,000 Bangladeshis in the past decade. The BSF themselves admit responsibility for the deaths of 364 Bangladeshis and 164 Indians since 2006.

That was when their government began constructing the fence, inspired by Israel’s West Bank barrier.

But neither the barbed wire nor the extrajudicial murders have been successful in stopping a lucrative, illicit trade in cattle.

Cows in Bangladesh sell for three to four times what they fetch in India, and resourceful traffickers have devised new, brutal ways to get around the obstacle.

Rahim, the Indian farmer who witnesses this happen almost nightly, describes the procedure: “They use ramps to get the cows up to the middle part of the wire fence. The wires here are a little bit further apart than the rest of the fence. They loosen the wires a little bit more, then they bind the legs and the mouth of the cow, haul it up the ramp and pass it through to the other side.”

“It takes 10 minutes to get 50 cows through,” says Rahim, “But it’s not easy to get 10 minutes. The smugglers always follow the BSF, keeping an eye on them, waiting for an opportunity.”

The BSF guards aren’t cartoon villains, and Rahim is aware that they are doing a dangerous job.

“The smugglers are reckless people,” he says, “they don’t hesitate to attack the BSF. They are armed with sickles, knives, and they threaten the BSF. They say ‘leave us alone if you fear for your life, we’re here to die anyway’.”

Though the anti-smuggling and anti-immigration efficacy of South Asia’s Berlin Wall is debatable, its impact on those living nearby is not.

Bangladeshis have predictably bristled at the prospect of being corralled in by their giant neighbor, which surrounds them on the west, north, and east, and which they have always been a little bit paranoid about.

With a growing population of 150 million packed into an area smaller than Iowa, the fence is also making many Bangladeshis claustrophobic.

“A barbed wire fence is a psychological expression of hegemony. They have surrounded the people of Bangladesh on three sides with barbed wire,” said Adilur Rahman, the general secretary of Dhaka based rights group Odhikar, “High powered floodlights, barb wire… it looks like a World War II concentration camp.”

The floodlights beam directly into the home of 9-year-old Anis Ahmed, who complains that they are so bright he has trouble sleeping at night.

Hostilities run deep

Anis works on his family’s farm every day on the Bangladesh side of the border near the northern village of Amgaon. Their land goes right up to the border, where lush green rows of rice plants imperceptibly switch from Bangladeshi to Indian.

According to international regulations, the fence cannot be closer than 150 meters to the actual border, so the actual fence falls behind rows of Indian crops.

There are no clearly visible signs demarcating the exact point where Bangladeshi soil becomes Indian. Locals are simply expected to know where the line is.

Most of them do, and they stay away. But the precocious Anis and his 11-year-old cousin Shohir Jamal often walk across it to examine what lies beyond the fence.

“We go up to see the barbed wire fence,” says Anis, “When we go up to it they [the BSF guards] mock us, scold us. They say ‘Ei Bengali admi, bhago giya, bhago giya [hey Bengali, go away].’ They swear a lot at us, but things we don’t understand really.”

The children here are growing up surrounded by an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion. Everyone in their village is viewed as a potential smuggler or an accomplice of smugglers.

Many are. People here are very poor, and supplementary income is precious.

Manik, the local schoolteacher, was recently arrested and given three years detention by the BSF during his first foray into cattle smuggling. Akbar Ali, an elected member of the local government here, has just returned having completed his own three-year term for trafficking cows.

Suspicions run deep. During the day Anis and Shohir work side by side with the Indian farmers like Rahim, whose crops fall between the border with Bangladesh and the barbed wire fence. The proximity, however, does not imply interaction.

“They don’t talk to us. The BSF don’t want them to have a good relationship with Bangladeshis,” says Anis, “They [the BSF] worry that they’ll end up helping people cross the border.”

Rahim regrets this new distance with once close neighbors.

“When we were children we used to play together every day,” he recalls. “We used to eat at each others’ houses. I went to school in Bangladesh.”

Because the fence had to be built 150 meters within Indian territory, Rahim and more than 100,000 other Indians have found themselves on the wrong side of the barbed wire.

Rahim is cut off from the rest of his country, trapped within a slice of land about as wide as an airport runway.

The gates at the fence open only for three hours: 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., noon to 1:00 p.m., and 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. These are the only times when Rahim and his family can move back and forth to visit relatives, go shopping, or send their kids to school.

Children frequently miss school because they arrive after the gate has been closed. Rahim’s daughter lives with a relative 40 kilometers behind the wire. He estimates that he sees her only once in five months or so.

“If we go to shop at 4:00 p.m., we have to make sure we’re back by 5:00 p.m., otherwise we’re locked out for the night,” he complains.

As he speaks, a woman comes wading through a stream on the Bangladeshi side of the border. She is carrying multiple cell phones in her hands.

“There’s no electricity in our houses,” explains Rahim, “We’re cut off from the electrical grid. So we have to sneak over to Bangladesh when the guards aren’t looking to charge our phones.”

“The wire fence makes us feel like prisoners,” he said.

One day, when he has saved enough, Rahim says he plans to move to the other side of the fence. His expectations aren’t high for what may be in store there, but at least he will have ended his status as collateral damage of a stalemate between nation-states.