Satkhira district is located in the south-west of Bangladesh along the border with the Indian state of West Bengal in the west. To its north lies the district of Jessore, to its east Khulna and to its south the Sundarbans forest and beyond that the Bay of Bengal. Satkhira is criss-crossed by many rivers, the most important of which are the Morichap, Kolpotua, Betna, Raimongo, Horinbhanga, Kalindi and the Icchamati. This last river separates Satkhira from the West Bengali districts of the North and South 24 Parganas.
The district's population is about 1.8 million with nearly as many women as men. Muslims make up just over 78% of the population with Hindus making up more than 21%.
Satkhira is one of the poorest regions of Bangladesh. People live by growing rice, fishing in the Sundarbans forest or in rivers along their villages and by working in tiger-prawn fisheries. It is a region of islands so people travel in boats or cross rivers using bridges made of bamboo. The islands are basin-like and at high tide, they often lie below river level; this is why the islands of the region are surrounded by mud-walls called 'bunds'. Most roads are mud tracks and most people travel by foot or by boat. A few have cycles and motorcycles which they load onto the boats when they cross islands.
In the mid-1950s and again in 1964 there were riots in West Bengal and many West Bengali Muslims had to leave their lands and homes and cross the rivers towards East Pakistan. Many lived in refugee camps. Some of these camps are in Bangladesh's Satkhira district such as those established in Koikhali, Kalinchi, and Bhetkhali. Some of the refugees have organised themselves into the 'Refugees' Society' as they used to be shunned by the local population. Some others are migrants who came in search of a better future. They exchanged their houses and land in India with the land and houses of Hindus – usually rich zamindars (landlords) – who lived in East Pakistan. Some of the old abandoned houses belonging to zamindars still stand. On both sides of the border there are many nostalgic people. Some in Bangladesh put up pictures of the Taj Mahal in their tea-shops, others in India put up pictures of Bangladesh’s Jamuna Bridge in their tea-shops. Each year, during the festivals of Eid and Durga Puja, people from both sides of the border throng to the banks of the Ichhamati river and sometimes cross to attend fairs and to visit family on the 'other side' for a few hours. The region is badly affected by storms and cyclones and recently the Aila cyclone devastated large areas of Satkhira.
Satkhira: the land of the Sundarbans
The region is famous for the Sundarbans (Bengali: Shundorbôn) which is the largest single block of tidal mangrove forest in the world. The name Sundorbon can be translated as 'beautiful forest' in the Bengali language (sundor, 'beautiful' and bon, 'forest' or 'jungle'). The name may have come from the sundari trees that used to be plentiful in the Sundarbans. Some scholars think it might come from Samudraban (or 'sea forest').
The forest lies between the vast Bay of Bengal ocean and the deltaic rivers of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra spread across Bangladesh and West Bengal in India. The waters of these rivers mix with the ocean water and so in this part of their flow the rivers are brackish or saline. The forest-islands are covered by water twice a day during high tide.
The Sundarbans forest is considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The forest is famous for its incredible plants and wildlife. Trees there have roots that can breathe directly from the air. It has numerous species of birds, deer, crocodiles, snakes and most famously the Royal Bengal tiger. The forest protects all the people living to the north from cyclones and tsunami waves. Previously, the islanders were allowed to go into the forest to collect firewood, honey, crab and fish but now these activities have been banned by the governments of both Bangladesh and West Bengal. This has made it difficult for people to eke out a living and they are forced to pay bribes to the forest officials in order to poach or else to migrate towards cities to work as domestic workers, labourers or rag-pickers. 85% of those who live in islands near the Sundarbans forest live below poverty level.
Safed Ali Gazi – cultivator migrant who has turned to fishing in the forest
Safed is about 45 years old. His father Salman Gazi was born in Parghumte, in West Bengal. They had 18 bighas of paddy land but everything was burned down by the East Bengali refugees.
We came overnight and settled initially in Dhumghat colony but now we live in Golakhali where we are nearer the forest and so can fish. Fishing has saved us.
Many people are killed by tigers, crocodiles, snakes and sharks in the Sundarbans each year.
Siddique Ali Gazi – victim of tiger attack
Siddique from Gabura (in the Shamnagar area of Satkhira) got lucky. He used to be a fisherman. In 2000 he went to the forest with his younger brother to catch fish at 6.00am. They were setting up the net along the banks of a small canal when suddenly a tiger jumped at Siddique from behind and caught him in the face. It then started to pull him towards the forest. Siddique's brother picked up some wet earth and flung it into the tiger's eyes. As the earth in the Sundarbans is salty it stung and the tiger slipped along the bank and fell into the river and released Siddique. Siddique managed to roll back into the boat, but he was bleeding profusely as the tiger had bitten off a piece of his left ear and jaw.
His brother and other co-workers quickly rowed to Munshiganj. As there is no hospital in Munshiganj they had to go to Shamnagar. From Shamnagar his brother had to bargain for a pick-up 'trekker' and from there they drove to Khulna. Siddique had to stay in hospital for nearly a month and had a huge bill for his treatment. However, he still suffers from the attack – he can't hear out of one ear, he can't see properly as the optical nerve was affected and he can’t open his mouth wide. He has had to do different work and survives by raising chickens. Siddique has released some chicks in the forest to honour Bonbibi who he believes saved his life.
Islanders around the forest of the Sundarbans have a special devotion for Bonbibi. On winter nights they sometimes sing songs in her honour and tell stories about her. Her father Ibrahim abandoned her pregnant mother Gulalbibi in the forest. Infant twins, Bonbibi and her brother Shah Jongoli were born. Due to meagre resources, Gulalbibi decided to care for Shah Jongoli and abandon Bonbibi. A deer found Bonbibi and raised her as her daughter.
When she grew up, Bonbibi heard Allah calling her to free the 'land of the eighteen tides' (another name for the Sundarbans forest) from the exploitation of the ever greedy, man-eating Brahmin Dokkhin Rai, who had taken the form of a tiger. At the same time Ibrahim came to get back Gulalbibi and their children but Bonbibi called out to her brother and told him to go with her to Medina to receive the blessings of Fatima and to go to Mecca to bring back some holy earth to take to the Sundarbans.
When they arrived, they called out Allah’s name and mixed the earth of Mecca with the earth of the Sundarbans forest. Dokkhin Rai resented their intrusion and their calling upon Allah and decided to drive them away. Rai's mother Narayani then insisted that it was better for a woman to be fought by another woman and took on Bonbibi. As she started to lose the conflict, Narayani called Bonbibi her friend (soi). Bonbibi, happy, accepted Narayani's friendship and they stopped warring.
The second part of her legend is about Dukhe, a young boy, who lives with his widowed mother. His uncle Dhona wants to get honey from the forest even though Dhona's brother Mona thinks they have enough. Dhona decides to put a team of workers together and takes Dukhe along. Dokkhin Rai appears to Dhona and blackmails him into leaving Dukhe on Kendokhali island.
But just as Dokkhin Rai is about to devour Dukhe, he is rescued by Bonbibi. Shah Jongoli decides to give Dokkhin Rai a thrashing but the Gazi, Dokkhin Rai's friend, intervenes and asks Bonbibi to accept Dokkhin Rai as her son. As she has already accepted Dukhe as her son, she decides that both Dokkhin Rai and Dukhe should become brothers and forces Dokkhin Rai to part with some of his wood and honey and makes Dukhe promise that humans will only ever enter the forest with 'pure hearts' and 'empty hands'. If they don't, Dokkhin Rai is liable to kill them.
Bonbibi’s story is not very old. The 'Bonbibi Johuranamah', the booklet that narrates her story – was written by little-known Abdur Rahim towards the end of the 1800s. It is written, although in Bangla, from back to front like Arabic script. An earlier story, part of an epic poem called 'Ray-Mangal' (composed by Krishnaram Das in 1686), narrating the tensions and then friendship between the Ghazi and Dokkhin Rai is mentioned in the Bonbibi story. Today, Bonbibi, Dokkhin Rai and the Ghazi are always represented together in the little shrines that dot the islands of the Sundarbans. To commemorate her, people often make pithas (small cakes) and they organise fairs where everyone can come and buy sweets and clothes, where cock-fights are held and meetings to safeguard the environment organised.
Modina Begum – mother who misses her daughter married in Bangladesh
While I was walking through Gobindokati, I got talking to some women whose relatives had settled in Bangladesh. A woman came up to me and said, 'Please, take a photo of me. If on one of your travels you come across my daughter, show her my photo and tell her that her mother thinks of her...' and then she stood in front of me and smiled. I clicked and she made sure I wrote down the name of her daughter and the household into which she had been married along with the name of the village and how I could get there. Her name was Modina Begum; she and her daughter Fazila lived in Satkhira’s Taltala’s Boddhipur Colony. As I left she said, 'I’ve entrusted her in Allah’s care and I hope Ma Bonbibi keeps her safe.'