DHAKA, Bangladesh — Most of the world's refugees have been forced to leave their countries. The Biharis of Bangladesh say their country left them.
Stranded in this desperately poor country after the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan, 250,000 Biharis--non-Bengali Muslims, most of whom were hated West Pakistan loyalists during the war--now are regarded as the lowest of the low.
"We are the forgotten refugees," Mohammed Nasim Khan, a spokesman for the Biharis here, said the other day. "The whole world knows about the Afghans. The Afghans, Cambodians and Vietnamese are all treated as world refugees. We are not, although our position is worse."
Most of the Biharis live in 66 overcrowded camps that international refugee agencies say are among the world's worst.
One of the main camps here in Dhaka, called the Geneva camp, burned to the ground last month. At least 10 people died in the fire, and the survivors had to rebuild their huts in even worse conditions--new squalor on the charred remains of the old.
The Biharis, who fled Hindu India in 1947 only to be ostracized again a quarter of a century later, live on the dream that they will someday be "repatriated" to Pakistan, a country the majority of them have never seen.
Their unfamiliarity with Pakistan--itself one of the world's poorest countries with an estimated $300 per capita income and lacking sufficient resources for its 100 million population--does not keep the Biharis from speaking of it as the promised land, full of hope and opportunity.
"When I go to Pakistan, I will become a motor mechanic or an engineer," Mohammed Iqbal, 15, said. "If Allah wishes it, then it shall be so."
Iqbal, who was born the year Bangladesh became an independent country, lives with his parents, four brothers and three sisters in an 8-foot-by-7-foot hut in the Geneva camp. There are 18,000 men, women and children in the camp, in an area the size of about three American football fields.
Iqbal's hut is dominated by a raised wooden platform that serves as bed, kitchen and nursery. Four children sleep on the dirt below the platform. The others, along with the parents, sleep on top. A few yards away is a bank of overflowing latrines. Flies cover almost everything.
A Zionist Fervor
The Biharis talk about Pakistan with a fervor that matches that of zealous Zionists. Indeed, they are quick to make the comparison with Israel.
"In Israel," Nasim Khan, 61, said, "Jews were retrieved from Ethiopia and Sudan. Jews came from Germany and all over the world. Pakistan is also a theological homeland. We worked for Pakistan. We fought for Pakistan. We can't understand why we can't go there."
Like Israel, Pakistan was founded as a religious state. Both countries came into existence about the same time--Pakistan in 1947 as the land for independent India's Muslims, and Israel in 1948. But the Biharis' circumstances are more complicated.
When the British partitioned colonial India into Pakistan (itself divided into two parts, East Pakistan and West Pakistan, separated by 1,000 miles) and India, the Bihari Muslims were a prosperous minority in the Indian state of Bihar. Nevertheless, about a million of them chose to settle in the new state of Pakistan rather than remain in India.
The Biharis spoke Urdu, and although Urdu was soon proclaimed the official language of Pakistan, both East and West, its use was resented in East Pakistan, a region proud of a rich Bengali literary tradition that had produced writers such as Rabindranth Tagore, a Nobel laureate poet.
It was the issue of language even more than the geographical separation of the two parts of Pakistan that led to the Bangladeshi war of independence in 1971.
Got the Best Jobs
The language difference also created animosities between the Biharis and the Bengali majority. But it endeared the Biharis to the Urdu-speaking West Pakistani military officers and administrators stationed in hostile East Pakistan. As a result, the Biharis were given privileged jobs. Biharis dominated the East Pakistan railway system, among other things.
When the war broke out, the Biharis sided unhesitatingly with the West Pakistan forces. Many Biharis were formed into a militia unit that took part in some of the most savage killing of the war, in which perhaps 3 million people died in only a few months.
After the defeat of the West Pakistan forces, the victorious Bengalis turned on the Bihari collaborators. Few families in the Geneva camp escaped revenge. Mohammed Iqbal, an infant at the time, was spared, but his 14-year-old brother was killed.
In the years since, about 200,000 Biharis have left the camps and been assimilated into the Bengali community. Bangladesh has offered citizenship to any Biharis who will simply declare themselves Bangladeshis. But 250,000 of the Biharis vow that they will die before they recognize Bangladesh as their country.
"Until I am lifted up bodily and thrown into the Bay of Bengal, I will continue my struggle," Nasim Khan, the Bihari spokesman, said.