The Chittagong Hill Tracts is a region in the south-east of Bangladesh, on the borders with India and Myanmar. It is an inaccessible mountain area that the local government has kept isolated from the rest of the country. A group of nuns lives there sharing faith and simple life with the local people.
It takes several hours to reach this mountain region from the chaotic city of Chittagong. One has to follow the coast line, up to south-eastern Bangladesh. For decades the region has suffered from internal turmoil and it is still strictly controlled by the government in Dhaka.
After travelling through narrow and winding roads, one reaches an area covered by a dense forest, where elephants can be seen at sunset and where night bus service is controlled by police. The air is fresh and lighter than that in the rest of the country, which, in some places lies below sea level. Along the paths beside the road, you can meet children walking out of the school and women carrying bundles of firewood on their heads. Here and there you can see rice or wheat fields and farmers hoeing the ground.
‘Chittagong Hills Tracts’ is a region extending over 13,295 sq. km. It is inhabited by the Jumma Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Tanchangya, Chak, Pankho, Mru, Murung, Bawm, Lushai, and Khyang Khumi. These are ethnic groups that have little in common with the Bengali living in the plains. For centuries they have kept their culture, their language, and their typical customs and dances alive. After the independence from Bangladesh in 1971, the new government refused to protect this population from immigration and did not recognize the tribal chiefs’ leadership. The inhabitants of these mountain regions protested and demonstrated against the government. A massive military presence and the introduction of restrictive measures halted turmoil.
Reaching the ‘Hill Tracts’ is like entering another country. Access roads are bordered by cut trees and the police check everyone entering or leaving the territory. Foreigners may enter only with a special permit and, however, in limited number. The Lama village is one of the largest of this isolated region: only few houses and some dozens of bamboo huts. A community of nuns of the ‘Little Handmaids of the Church’ local congregation lives here. The nuns wear a white sari and share the local people’s simple life. “People see that we do almost the same things that they do,” says Sister Hashi, 44 years old. This religious takes care of the children from the mountain villages, who live in a house made available by the nuns. The children are about thirty, boys and girls, and now they are getting ready for a special event: the Chittagong Bishop, Moses Costa, is arriving. They pick flowers, prepare garlands and practice dance steps. The notes of the harmonium , the national instrument of Bangladesh, accompanies them while they dance the ‘Gøril’, a typical dance of the Tripura people. This community has the highest number of Christians, just 0.3% of the country’s population, where Muslims are the majority. The Chittagong Diocese is home to 34 million people, Catholics are just 39,000 . ”Universality is our starting point”, says Monsignor Costa, who is 64 years old. “Everybody – he underlines – is very welcome here. Farmers from remote mountain villages often come here and beg us to let their children stay in our houses. We welcome especially the poorest”.
These houses, called ‘hostels’, represent the only chance for many kids to attend school. Parents know that their children will be well and safe under the priests’ protection. Bishop Costa says the hostels are “a good way to evangelize”, which is not easy at all here in the Hill Tracts . “We are strictly controlled by police”, says Vicar Kachol Gomes, who is often questioned by soldiers about the number of people who have converted to Christian religion. Police, sometimes, try to make his visits to other villages of the parish difficult, by denying permissions.
But Father Kachol is determined and keeps on going to villages, always accompanied by a catechist, a health worker and two nuns. “Who would take care of these people if we didn’t?”, wonders the priest. A hostel for children is just in front of his church. In these hostels there are generally just two dark dormitories. Children hang their personal belongings on the walls and sleep on low mattresses which are kept rolled up during the day. Yet, despite the hardship, they appreciate being there.
When Bishop Costa arrives in Lama, he takes off his sandals, as a sign of respect, before entering the head villager’s house. Then he sits down with the other men of the place to talk. Having conversation is not easy at all, because few people know the official language and the mountain people’s dialects are difficult to understand.
The bishop stays with them a while and then, before evening, reaches the church to celebrate the mass. Many people arrive, from distant villages, to attend the mass in this poor church in Lama with a metal sheet roof. When the bishop extends his arms in front of the altar, one can notice he is barefoot, just like all the others who have come here to pray with him.