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The Last of the Chaks

[30 Jan 2011]
The Chaks of Baishari are a tiny community, the existence of which is being threatened by encroachment of their land to grow rubber and tobacco, in the name of development.

Philip Gain

Chak womanAs we walk out of the Chak paras (villages) in Baishari, the weather is calm and everything glistens under the golden sunlight of autumn. What fascinates the most as we walk through the Chak villages are the smiles of the Chaks and the look of the elderly women distinguished by their large earrings that stretch and distort their earlobes. Such large earrings and the wide earlobes are not to be found among women in any other ethnic community in Bangladesh. Another interesting scene is of the elderly women with tobacco pipes in their mouth blowing white smoke with an air of freedom.It's an exciting three-hour journey on foot from Baishari Chak Headmanpara to a real jungle village named Badurjhiri of 16 Chak families. On November 18, 2010, five of us–three Chaks and two of us from Dhaka–walk through the hills and streams, beauty and devastation with both joy and trepidation in our hearts.

One may wonder where these two strange places–Baishari and Badurjhiri–are. Both are located in Baishari Union in Naikhongchhari Upazila in Bandarban Hill District. Quite unknown even to regular trekkers to the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), Baishari is one of four unions in Naikhongchhari Upazila with Chak habitation. There are around 3,000 Chaks in Bangladesh and another four to five thousand in Myanmar. There is no confirmed record of these beautiful people anywhere else on the globe. Imagine just seven thousand people in the whole world who have a distinct language and lifestyle! They proudly speak their language among themselves and find no difficulty speaking when communicating with their Bengali neighbours. They also speak Marma; but the Marmas, their close neighbours cannot speak the language of the Chak.

Leaving the Baishari Chak villages behind we get into the coolness of nature. Our feet dip into the cool stream water flowing over narrow, sandy, and shallow yellowish bed. Where does the water come from? “The water flows from the roots of trees that still survive and hold water from the rains,” is my naïve response to the query of my companion from Dhaka as regards to the source of the crystal clear cooling waters.

Dhung Cha Aung Chak (47), our host and guide, tells us it will take roughly three hours to walk to Badurjhiri and cautions us that we will pass through risky elephant habitat. He advises us to stay watchful. We are tense....

---- Read the rest of the article published in the Daily Star.

Philip Gain is director of Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD) and freelance journalist.