Having been born in remote Shahanabad, a village in northwestern Bangladesh close to the India border, Tabzul Islam considers himself “cursed.”
“If they see us, they can detain or shoot, making a great deal of trouble,” says 46-year-old Islam, a laborer.
“They” refers to the BSF, Indian Border Security Forces, who protect what is the world's fifth longest border at more than 4,000 kms.
Standing on the Bangladesh side of the Nagar River in nearby Thakurgaon district, Islam points to the spot where 22 years ago he was fishing when BSF guards shot him without warning or reason.
“I didn’t trespass into Indian territory but they shot me several times and one bullet badly damaged my left hand which had to be amputated,” he says. “Without a hand my life remains miserable because I earn too little to feed the six members of my family.”
On the other side of the river, inside Indian territory, stands the world’s longest barbed-wire fence which the BSF started erecting in 2006 to separate off India’s tiny neighbor amid the stated threat of smuggling, insurgents and illegal immigration.
According to international regulations, the fence cannot be closer than 150 meters to the actual border, meaning there is a thin strip of land that runs around the whole of the west, north and east of Bangladesh where Indians are trapped.
According to law, they cannot easily cross into Bangladesh just a few hundred meters away and according to the laws of physics they can’t easily go through or over the barrier. Only when it opens for three hours per day – from 8 AM to 9 AM, midday to 1 PM and 4 PM to 5 PM – can they access the rest of their country.
Having previously moved back and forth with little consideration for abstractions like international borders, many communities on both sides have been divided by the fence.
Prokash Induar, 29, who declined to give his real name, says he used to play soccer with children from Indian villages when he was a child. This is impossible today, he adds.
“There was no fence and we had no idea about the border. We used to play football mostly and often won against Indian children,” recalled Induar.
Shafikul Islam, a farmer from Sonadanga village in Naogaon district, also in the northeast, admits that he would cross the border regularly to see relatives, evading detection by border guards, before the fence was installed.
After numerous delays, the barrier is due to be completed soon and in many places is being raised from 1.8 ms to 3 ms high, according to a Bangladesh border guard who declined to be named.
“I’ve got many relatives on the other side of the fence but I’m afraid to go close to it now,” says Islam.
Residents and human rights groups say that the fence has heightened a climate of fear and created a zone of violence on both sides around which BSF guards are accused of maiming, torturing and killing Bangladeshis and Indians at will.
Dhaka-based rights group Odhikar claims at least 1,000 people have been killed by the BSF in the past decade, while the BSF itself admits responsibility for the deaths of 364 Bangladeshis and 164 Indians.
“Nowhere in the world will you see so many people killed with impunity on a border,” says Sultana Kamal, a prominent human rights activist. “It is a sheer violation of human rights and is possible because Indian authorities take for granted that Bangladesh can do nothing against them.”
At the end of 2010, Human Rights Watch published a detailed report of people from both countries being killed, describing the barrier as “the bloodiest border fence,” citing unnamed BSF officials claiming they had been instructed to shoot smugglers on site.
Amid the ever louder uproar, BSF Director-General U.K. Bansal said during a border meeting in Dhaka in September that a switch to non-lethal weapons would mean “zero casualties.”
But reports are mixed as to whether this promise has been strictly enforced on the ground.
Rayes Ahmed, a member of the Union Council, a local government unit in the area, said that just a month ago the BSF shot a fisherman in the waist and now he is bedridden.
Sadekur Rahman, 25, from the same village, says he smuggles clothes, cattle and even drugs across the border which all make a lot more money in Bangladesh. He owns the only brick house in the village, a sign of the money that can be made from illegal activity along the border, despite the barrier.
“I cross the fence and come back with goods, paying money to Indian agents,” he says.
Two months ago, around the time the BSF promised to reduce violence on the border, he was shot with rubber rather than real bullets in his back.
“I have spent thousands [of taka] for treatment and still can’t work well,” he says.
He adds that he is one of the lucky ones. Naimul Hossain from the same village described how his nephew, Kamal, also a smuggler, was killed a few years ago.
“He was caught while smuggling and the BSF shot him in the head,” he says. “He died leaving his wife and three children in misery."