Leftover from History

This is not just a story of poverty and despair. Poverty is not all that holds them back. Every day, they are willfully denied an education, opportunities, a future, and an identity. This is the story of a people whose lot it is to only exist as numbers in ration cards, relief programmes and slum-arson stories. This is the story of the Biharis of Geneva Camp. A community of over 160,000 people who have lived like animals for the last 40 years and will likely live and die as animals in congested ghettoes at makeshift camps and shanties all over Bangladesh. This is the narrative of the Biharis of Geneva Camp.”

– Gmb Akash

A Documentary by Gmb Akash

© GMB Akash/ www.akashimages.com

‘Geneva Camp’ is just one of the 70 camps all over Bangladesh set up immediately after the Liberation War of 1971. In 1971, the Biharis were a torn community. The tragedy of the Bihari community unfolds as far back as 1946 — the year communal riots in Bihar tore irreparable divisions through India — with thousands of Muslims massacred in an organised pogrom that added momentum to the movement for the partition of India. This resulted in a separate homeland for the region’s beleaguered Muslims. Between 1947 and 1952, families by the thousands left their ancestral lands to take refuge in the erstwhile East Pakistan.

© GMB Akash/ www.gmb-akash.com

© GMB Akash/ www.gmb-akash.com

During the Liberation war in Bangladesh in 1971, the Pakistan army, sensing this divide, recruited some Biharis to fight the rebellious Bengalis. Whether they supported the Pakistan army or not, many Biharis remained neutral in 1971, shy of taking sides with their local brethren. Thus the division widened in those tumultuous years leading to the sub-human “ghettoisation” of the wretched children of a lesser God. After the war in 1971, the International Community for the Red Cross intervened and found out that most Biharis wanted to migrate to the truncated Pakistan. Over half a million registered “Urdu-speaking” Pakistanis found a voice at the high level Simla pact of July 1972 and later an agreement was reached in 1973 between Pakistan, India and Bangladesh on this issue. As per the agreement, the Bengali prisoners were released and sent to Bangladesh. However, not all Urdu-speaking Pakistanis were repatriated to Pakistan. Even today, hundreds of thousands live in Bangladesh in camps as non-citizens.

© GMB Akash/ www.gmb-akash.com

© GMB Akash/ www.gmb-akash.com

People are calling them in so many names. Bihari’, ‘Maura’, ‘Muhajir’, ‘Non-Bangalee’, ‘Marwari’, ‘Urdu-speaker’, ‘Refugee’, and ‘Stranded Pakistani’. But they only want one identity that is: human.

© GMB Akash/ www.gmb-akash.com

© GMB Akash/ www.gmb-akash.com

Here, the rituals of life, death, triumph, hope and misery of each family, packed into 8 x 8 little boxes. There are only 270 toilets for a population of 25,000 and the numbers increase daily. The living environment of the camp is very deplorable. It is unhealthy, dirty, damp and unhygienic. This condition exists in other camps throughout the country. The municipalities/city cleaners never enter the camps to clear the garbage. The Bihari camps have almost no educational facilities. Throughout the country, only 275 of the 19,000 children in camps go to school. Only six of the 77 camps have a school. Most of the people make handicrafts or repair cars to make a living. Into the filthy rooms – homes and workshops rolled into one – women and men were busy working on brightly coloured saris. From about 1,600,000, only 60,000 are thought to register in the voting system in 2008, but in reality, those in the camp are denied the right of applying for a national ID card. Without citizenship, they cannot even obtain legal housing, so most live in 66 camps packed with people and livestock scattered across the country, including Geneva Camp.

© GMB Akash/ www.gmb-akash.com© GMB Akash/ www.gmb-akash.com

© GMB Akash/ www.gmb-akash.com

Geneva Camp was built in 1974 by the Red Cross to help assist the new generation of stateless people.  The older generation complains more than the younger ones, who are better integrated and bilingual. Free of the baggage, the younger generations are far more ready to become Bangladeshis: 70% of the people want to stay in Bangladesh, 17% want to go back to Pakistan. Despite recent progress in voter and ID registration, however, 37 years of being unrecognized have left the Biharis living in abject poverty and vulnerable to discrimination.


© GMB Akash/ www.gmb-akash.com

© GMB Akash/ www.gmb-akash.com

“Geneva Camp turned out to be a bordered little inferno located next to fairly well-to-do neighborhoods and commercial areas. Human spirit, however, knows how to counter the forces of nature and history. Inside the camp, little Bihars had been recreated with the memories and longings that the migrants are well known for.  Still the government does not know how to handle it. No one does. The government has not picked it up. Civil society has not picked it up. These people have been left to fend for themselves.”

– Gmb Akash

© GMB Akash/ www.gmb-akash.com

© GMB Akash/ www.gmb-akash.com


33 thoughts on “Leftover from History

  1. I’m in love with your images, Akash !! I have a little query. If you don’t mind my asking, do you do any digital after-treatment to your pictures ? Most of the colours look weird and surreal


    • Mukul,

      So nice to hear that.

      answering your query, I like to keep the picture natural. I do 1% post processing for my photos. I never do serious after-treatment and just go for basic editing. Hope you will visit here again.


  2. its a very moving documentary…and I hope this helps its bit in creating more awareness to the problem.

    This community is indeed struck so to speak between a rock and a hard place and in some ways it shows again that the partition of subcontinent in ’47 (to begin with) left more problems unsolved than it solved..


  3. Great work. I would be wary of making it too beautiful as you may lose some viewers in the aesthetics. Powerful and compelling is the constant goal. Beautiful should be the occasional goal too, but not too much.


  4. Akash Via I appreciate your work on the Urdu speaking community. Please accepts my greeting on behalf of the community.

    Just add few more things for your narrations:

    The term Biharis is not appropriate for the community as the whole community members didn’t come from Bihar alone. Secondly Bihar is a state of India and over 80% of the total community members are born and brought up in this land “Bangladesh”. So the community should be called as Urdu speaking Bangladeshi (A linguistic minority community).

    According to a recent survey conducted by UNHCR in 2007, there are 116 settlements all over the country for this community.

    Geneva Camp was built in 1972 just after the war of Liberation and this was the first one among 116 settlements.

    Hope you will re correct the narration which will help the coming researchers and media people to know correct information about the community.

    Thanks for your understanding.



      • My soul weeps.

        My goal this year has been to learn more about the history of pakistan, its people and its culture. You have been a true resource to me.

        If you have any books or websites to recommend I would appreciate your feedback.

        Some really great photos. You are a talent.



  5. I cannot wait for the day when you become a magnum photographer. your documentary skills and photography skills are amongst the best in the world. I am sure that you will be recognized as one of the most recognizable names in photography with time. you have been an inspiration to millions of budding photographers and most importantly your stories have inspired widespread awareness of the issues. the fact that you can take these intimate images and get these stories show how much commitment you have to your job and how much involved you have to be. rare talent indeed. best of luck


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