Lost History of Kaptai Dam

Memories of Susama Chakma

Samari Chakma | Published: 00:00, Sep 26,2019 | Updated: 16:32, Sep 27,2019


IN 1962, as part of the Karnaphuli Hydroelectric Power Station, the government of Pakistan constructed a dam on the River Karnaphuli at Kaptai that eventually flooded 655 square kilometers of area evicting approximately 100,000 people from their ancestral land, a large majority of whom were from Chakma community. Beyond the economistic calculation of what is lost and what is gained from the construction of this dam, there are enduring affects and social sufferings that lasted across generations. Sisters were separated from brothers; mothers were separated from children as part of the family left for India’s Arunachal province.

In collective memories, this experience of loss and separation is commonly referred as ‘Bor-porong (the great departure)’. Those who saw the on-rush of water were already at the dusk of their lives, many died. My parent’s generation was directly affected by the dam. I grew listening to stories of lost land in Kaptai lake. My mother’s village was flooded. It is not just my family, but many in my community carry the burden of unwritten history. In this context, since 2012, I have started collecting oral testimonies of women, the 'other' witness of Kaptai dam. Those testimonies were later collated in my book, Kaptai Badh: Bor Porong, Duburider Attokothon (2018. In this piece present, I present the translated version of the conversation with my maternal grandmother, Susama Chakma.

‘Grandma, how old are you?’

‘I don’t know. In our time, our parents didn’t keep the records of our birth date. But I think I am eighty years old now, maybe more.’

Hakkonchandra was a village in Longodu near the Rangamati district of Chittagong Hill Tracts before the Kaptai Dam was established. Dholachan Chakma was a resident in Hakkonchandra village and he had two sons. His eldest son’s name was Harishchandra Chakma or Chela master and his youngest son’s name was Kalpotoru Chakma. There are many different gozas (subdivisions of a clan) of Chakma people and ‘Bor hambei’ is one of them. His family belonged to ‘Bor hambei’ goza. Harishchandra Chakma or Chela master was a school teacher and Kalpotoru Chakma was an ivory craftsman/artisan. Later, Kalpotoru Chakma was acknowledged and honoured as the first artisan among the Jummas.

Susama Chakma was the daughter of the eldest son, Harishchandra Chakma. It is difficult to say in which year, which month or which date Susama Chakma was born, but she thinks she is more than eighty years old now. She had three brothers and two sisters. Her family was well off. Her father was a teacher, so everyone showed respect to them. She was raised in an affluent family, so in the early stage of her life, she was unaware of anything in relation to poverty, inadequacy or misery.

My grandmother’s full name is Susama Bala Chakma, but she always introduced herself as Susama Chakma. We, her granddaughters, always used to tease her by saying, ‘no no grandma, your name is Susama Bala Chakma’. Grandma didn’t like the word Bala. So, she deleted ‘Bala’ from the name. She only used ‘Susama Chakma’.

She was a witness to the most talked about period of history of CHT, when millions of acres of farming lands were flooded owing to the construction of the Kaptai Dam. Hundreds of thousands of Chakmas, a few Hajong, Marma and some Bengalis lost everything. Even the wealthiest families became homeless. They were displaced to other places for ever. Not only that, more than fifty thousand Chakma, Hajong and some Tripura people had to flee their own country, only to become refugees in India.

Susama Chakma not only witnessed the construction of Kaptai Dam, but also faced the consequences of it with others in her community. She lost her home because of Kaptai Dam, she became a homeless refugee, she lost her happy prosperous life. She was separated from many of her relatives and friends — never to see them again. Her husband lost his government job and suddenly they had to struggle with poverty. What they were left with was thousands of memories and the strong will to keep living.

After losing their home, from fear of tigers and snakes they had to stay up all night, even in the midst of all that, she still raised her five sons and two daughters, taught them well and educated them. She was middle-aged by the time she won her battle against poverty, but she couldn’t be happy as another battle had started. One of her sons joined the indigenous rights movement, later was killed by the military. All her life she dealt with the loss of her son, alone. She couldn’t share her grief with others. For a long time, she couldn’t share the news of her son’s death with her family, because security of her family was at stake. Now she is almost at the end of her life with all those untold painful memories.

On one monsoon day, Susama Chakma got married with Troilokyo Chandra Chakma from the Boradam village near the old Rangamati town, It was long before the Kaptai Dam was built. Her husband’s family was the descendants of ‘Dhamei goza moitto gutthi (clan)’ people. Troilokkyo Chandra Chakma was a government police officer. At that time, there were very few government job holders. She was very proud of her husband. My grandmother reminisced,

‘Because of your grandfather’s job we visited and lived in many places. First, we lived in Mohalchori, then Ramgorh and Panchori. At that time, the commute was not easy, we had to travel from one place to another either by walking or by boat and it took a long time to move from one place to another. We would stop in different places before we arrived at our destination. But there were no robbers or bandits then, no threat from the Bengalis, even though it was a remote area, it was safe.’

‘Grandma, how was your in-laws house? How was the lifestyle at that time?’

‘The houses were very beautiful, not a big house but it was a pretty house made of mud. They had a big kitchen and a long big staircase. My in-laws family was not very rich, but they were well off.

‘Your grandfather had two brothers and two sisters. Life was easy and joyful. There was no theft or robbery. Despite the houses in the village were a bit far from each other, we were happy. There was nothing to fear, even though most of the time we lived outside the village due to your grandpa’s job.

But Susama Chakma did not have that happy life for long. A few years after her wedding, the construction of the Kaptai Dam on Karnaphuli River started for power generation.

‘It was a huge project. I still can remember everything’.

‘Did you go to see the construction of the Kaptai Dam?’

‘Yes. I went there twice. First, during the construction, later once after the completion of construction. I was really surprised when I went there for the first time. What a huge hole! Had I not seen it for myself, I wouldn’t have believed it! Also the machines were very big and so many people were working on it. You could only hear the sound of machines and you could hear those sounds from far away.

‘Sometimes I wish I could see the Kaptai Dam one more time, but I guess I won’t be able to see it again. (Sigh)’

‘Did you realise that everything would go under water once the dam was built?’

‘We knew that, everybody knew. Announcements were made in every village that everything will go under water and the villagers were told to write down the names of the places they wanted to move to, we chose Marissa, Kachalong area and we ended up in the Kachalong area’.

Before the Boradam village went under water, Susama Chakma went to Hakkonchandra village to her father’s house with her husband and their two children. They lived in that village until it was flooded. After the village was flooded, she went to a new place called Durchori with her father and brothers. She stayed there with her children for a period of time while her husband went to another place to get hold of some land.’

‘So, Grandpa didn’t go back to his old job? Did he have to leave his job because of the Kaptai Dam?’

‘Yes, your Grandpa couldn’t go back to his old job. Everything was flooded so we had to move to a new place and get hold of some land, try and make the land livable. Besides, the government was allocating land based on number of people. The amount of compensation was a fraction of what we previously owned. Suddenly we had lost all of our land and properties.

‘Your Grandpa had to give up his job so we could get more lands allocated for us. But you know what? We still only got a very small portion of land, because there was so little livable land available for the thousands of people evicted. So many people moved to different places to try and get more land.

‘At first we lived in a small four walled house near Kachalong River. Many families had to live together in those small houses. We used to ‘jhum’ (shifting cultivation) on this land that we were allocated, but that place we were living used to be flooded during the monsoon, so we moved here in this land.

‘I still remember the big boats organised by the Pakistani government for the people to move to these new places. Three to four families in each boat. The memories of leaving the village by those boats are still fresh. On the boat, your mother and uncle were with me. We only had a few things from our old house with us on that boat. There were two more families were with us on the boat. Slowly the water on the river was rising and we were going upstream. Due to the dam, the water level kept rising and our boat was moving above the water, there were a lot of boats together going to a new place to find a better life. It was an unbelievable sight. At night, you could see the lights were moving in a line, we couldn’t see the boats, only the lights.

She continued her journey through memory lane, ‘There were impenetrable deep forests on both sides of the river. Sometimes we could see some houses near the river with flickering lights. Those houses were for the people to take rest there. How can I ever forget those memories? When we arrived in Marissa, all we could see was jungle everywhere. Snakes and tigers were everywhere. I still could hear the roar of the tigers. It felt like the tigers were just there on your yard! I could not sleep at night because the roaring animals.

‘When we first arrived, we had to go through a lot of hardship and suffering. The place was undomesticated jungle. There weren’t any livable or cultivable lands. We had to cut down the trees to make houses and grow crops. During that time, preparing the land for housing and growing crops was not easy like today. It was not easy for us to live, fighting with all kinds of dangerous animals and diseases. So many people died from cholera, typhoid etc. especially the children and the elderly. Nobody kept any records’.

Once the new village was established in the jungle, it was named ‘Boradam’ after the name of the old village, although not many residents from the old village settled in that new village. Most of them had left the village to look for a better place, better land. Many relatives and neighbours were separated. Many of them ended up in Nefa in India. To the Chakma people, this displacement was known as ‘Bor-Powrong’ or ‘The Great Exodus’.

‘What happened to your father? Your brothers?’

‘My father died a long time ago. Our village also got flooded by the dam. The rest of my family moved to Durchori and settled there.’

Susama Chakma started a new life in that new village with her children. After a while, everything started to settle down. Her husband, Trolikkyo Chandra Chakma was elected as a local member for a few times. The former Chakma King, Tridib Roy visited their house once before the independence of Bangladesh. After the Chakma King’s visit, their house got burnt down, but they don’t know how the fire started. However, Susama Chakma thinks that their house was burnt because of the King’s visit. There is a myth among Chakma people that, if the Chakma King, or any royal family members step in someone’s house, all the family members and the house need to be ‘cleansed’. But they didn’t do the cleaning, that’s why, they believe their house got burnt because of the King’s visit.

After a lot of hardships Susama Chakma and her family managed to settle down at Boradam village in Kachalong. Glimpses of happiness knocked on their window. All of her seven children went to school and they were trying to be established on their own way.

But around that time, the movement for ‘autonomy’ in CHT started to gain momentum and political situation turned really volatile. The Bangladesh Army started terrorising the CHT. The military was raiding villages everyday and detaining anyone they thought was related to ‘Shanti Bahini’ (Shanti Bahini was the armed wing of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti). They mainly targeted young boys and students, even government officers were not spared. In their eyes, all Jumma are Shanti Bahini. There can be no exception, they trusted nobody. If they began suspecting someone, all hell would break loose on that person. Once detained by the army, you are incapacitated for life.

So, people would not go out or leave the village unless it was necessary. The leaders of Shanti Bahini were encouraging the young boys and students to join the movement for autonomy and be soldiers. At that time, one of Susama Chakma’s five sons, his name was Bithi Chakma, joined the Shanti Bahini. Grandmother continued,

‘It’s more than 20 years now since Bithi died. I heard about his news long after his death. I heard that the army took his dead body to Rangamati, but we didn’t receive his dead body, we didn’t even see his dead body, we still don’t know whether they burnt or buried his dead body.

‘When Bithi died I was in Rangamati at my son’s house. One day, someone came and told us that one of the leaders of Shanti Bahini had died after an army attack in Rangamati with other members. We heard from other people that he was from Marissa. But we didn’t realise that it was my son, Bithi. At that time, many people from Marissa had joined Shanti Bahini. That’s why we never thought that it was my son. I thought, maybe, he was someone else’s son.

‘Few days after that incident I went back to Marissa and I still didn’t know that Bithi was no more in this world. I received a letter as soon as I got back home and it was from Bithi. He wrote this letter before he died and sent it to me, but I didn’t receive the letter because I was in Rangamati. It was the last letter I received from him. I waited for him and his letters. She sighed, and then started to talk again, perhaps from her conviction to ensure that her story/our stories are not forgotten, 

‘Time passed but we didn’t receive any news from him, then one day your younger uncle came to our house from Khagrachori. That was the first time we heard about Bithi’s news from him. Bithi is dead. He died in an army attack. The army attacked the house where he was residing with his comrades. The house owner was a widow. She too had died in the attack. The attack happened in a village called Saapchori area near Rangamati. My son was resting in that house because he was sick, then he was killed. With that news my wait for him came to an end.

I still feel the pain when I think about it. I received his letter after his death but I was still waiting for his news. I waited for people he would send to take me to him so I could go and see him’.

‘Grandma, what was in the last letter from Uncle Bithi?’

‘He wrote a lot but I remember few lines very clearly. He wrote: ‘Ma, don’t come now. I couldn’t settle down yet. If I can settle down in a place, I will inform you. Then you can come. I will send people to bring you’. Then your uncle Bithi was lost to us. I couldn’t tell anybody about him. People also never talked about him in front of me. As if he never existed. Maybe the rest of my life will pass playing hide and seek about him’.

Susama Chakma, my grandmother died on October 24, 2017.

Samari Chakma is an advocate and human rights activists. This piece is an excerpt from Samari Chakma’s book, Kaptai Bandh: Bor-Porong: Duburider Atmakathan (Kaptai Dam: the great exodus: narratives of the divers), translated by Nidhi Chakma.

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