Villages on the banks of the Titas in Brahmanbaria district, about 83km from Dhaka, look as placid as the river. Most of the villagers are farmers or small business owners.
But life in this apparently innocent pastoral landscape could turn very violent over seemingly trivial matters. It happens often and grudges last long.
Clashes among families, groups, clans and communities in Brahmanbaria have long troubled the villages in the district. The reasons behind these deadly skirmishes are mainly money and maintaining primacy in the area much like in the feudal times. And some of these feuds have lasted for generations.
According to the Brahmanbaria police, there have been 1,437 clashes in the last two years in different areas of the district including Sarail, Nabinagar and Nasirnagar. In those incidents, 151 people died and 7,185 were injured.
Not only Brahmanbaria, Narsingdi district adjacent to Dhaka is also infamous for local clashes. In the last three years, 95 people have been killed in the district in such clashes. Most of the clashes centre on control over newly emerged lands in the river.
An investigation by The Business Standard reveals how these motives keep the flames of feuds burning for decades.
For instance, a conflict between Aruail and Pakshimul unions under Sarail Police Station has been ongoing for about 30 years. There have been at least six clashes between the two unions over the control of a local market during this period.
In 2012, Pakshimul Union College student Dulal Mia was killed in such a clash between the two unions. A police case over the murder was settled for Tk27 lakh out of which Dulal's family got Tk21 lakh. The leaders of the clashing groups pocketed the remaining amount to "manage" the police and to "pay" for court expenses.
Dulal's father Abu Jaher Mia said he filed the case accusing 78 people after consulting two local leaders. After investigation, police submitted the charge sheet against 18 people and dropped others on recommendations of the same local leaders.
These leaders told the father that he should settle the case for money as he was not going to get his son back alive no matter what. "So I agreed to settle for the money," Abu Jaher said.
TBS investigations into at least seven other murders resulting from such clashes find that the police cases were settled locally in exchange for money or after plaintiffs were threatened with harm.
Residents and accused in police cases revealed that a nexus consisting of some policemen, plaintiffs and influential people usually decide the persons to be included in the charge sheets.
"I was not even here on the day when Dulal died in the clash," said Abdul Jalil, a doctor in the local Aruail market and an accused in the murder case. He claimed his name was included in the charge sheet at the suggestion of group leaders.
Jalil said the leaders have a "brisk trade" just after the clashes. Influential people collect money from both the accused and plaintiffs to take care of the cases. "They spend a small portion and pocket the rest," said Jalil.
Supreme Court lawyer Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua said though there are some sections in the criminal law which allow arbitrations with court permission, but there is no scope for arbitration in murder cases.
"Murder cases are not negotiable, and there is no instance where the court has granted such permission," he noted.
Brahmanbaria Additional Superintendent of Police Alamgir Hossain has been working on local group clashes for three years.
He said there are mostly two reasons that feed the fights – financial gains for these groups and their attempts to establish supremacy.
An earring theft which led to five murders
In 2011, clashes erupted between Gazi and Bari groups at Dhamaura village of Aruail union of Brahmanbaria over the alleged theft of a pair of earrings of only around 15 carat.
Five people from both groups were killed and 50 were injured in the conflict which lasted for nearly a decade. At one stage, the clashes forced hundreds of the Bari family members to leave the area.
The bloody feud started in 2011 when Bari group's Md Nurullah was accused of stealing the earrings of one Josna Begum of the Gazi group. The matter was settled by the families later but tensions simmered.
After a while, apparently instigated by a Bari group leader, Nurullah stabbed Josna's father, starting new clashes.
Borhan Uddin of Gazi group was the first to be killed in the clashes over the earrings. Monir Hossain, son of the deceased, said he had to spend 399 days behind bars after being accused of multiple murders in the aftermath of the slaying of Borhan Uddin.
Gazi group's Nabi Hossain, Soyad Mia and Bari group's Joj Mia and Sakhina Akhter died in the clashes over the earrings.
Trials of the murder cases were kept hanging as the group leaders had already settled the killings for money.
Monir said he filed a case with the Sarail Police Station accusing 16 people after the killing of his father. Police subsequently arrested Mokarram Hossain -- one of the prime accused – who walked out of jail just seven days after the arrest.
"Then false cases were filed against my family and my group members one after another. The cases were later settled by the local leaders. We have received Tk8 lakh to withdraw the murder case," he stated.
Tajul Islam, a local elder and also a ward member of Aruail union, said the long-running conflict between the two groups had ended. He had settled everything with the local chairman.
Asked if criminal offenses could be resolved in this way, he said, "We took the initiative to resolve these issues for peace and order in the area."
The clashes involve a lot of preparation. Local residents say the group leaders sit together for war plans before a clash. They chart the course of action and the decisions then would be announced by loud-speakers from mosques.
The people go into the clashes with spears, slingshots and bamboo sticks. The women resort to chemical warfare, using chili powder. The chili carried by the wind blind the opponents and disperse them.
The clashes last for hours, and each group has a backup team to relieve the tired and the wounded.
In the meantime, some women would be engaged in large scale communal cooking for the fighters giving the clash a festive-look.
Police super Alamgir Hossain said there are geographical explanations about the fights in Habiganj, Brahmanbaria and Narsingdi districts..
He said, "The areas where fights take place are mostly remote areas with poor road communication. It takes the police a long time to reach the spots."
People are forced to fight
Delowar Hossain (not his real name), a local of Aruail union, said he spent most of life in hiding since he is an accused in 19 cases including murder.
"I am old now and do not fight any longer. But whenever there is any violence in the area, police include me as an accused," he said.
Delowar said he has to go into hiding for two or three months whenever a new case is filed to avoid arrest. "If you are on the run, you don't earn anything and the family suffers."
"I could not look after my family and children," Delowar regretted, adding, "My sons could not complete primary education, and later got involved in village conflicts."
He said all group members had to take part in fights. "So must the women. If someone is not in the clash, the leaders of the group would take note. Non-participants would be banished from the group. As a result, taking part in fights was a must."
"Besides, when I was young, I used to get in the fights on my own. I could not stand my people losing."
Delowar has been injured several times and once narrowly escaped death.
Reasons of the clashes
Apparently trivial everyday irritants can provoke widespread clashes. Triggering events common in this region may include plucking a mango without permission, disputes in football games, drying straw in somebody else's land, minor land disputes, billowing smoke from kitchens, or lingering rivalries. Even something as innocent as sitting in tea shops has started clashes. Tempers have boiled over even on Eid day over getting a place in the front row of the Eid congregation and worshippers have clashed with sharp weapons.
But all these issues are only the tip of the iceberg. The underlying reason is to reign supreme in the area.
Even when large gatherings were banned in the pandemic induced shutdown last year, people of Brahmanbaria had brought out a gruesome victory procession with the severed leg of an opponent after a clash.
Dhaka University sociology department Professor Zeenat Huda said geographical location and environmental issues have influence over such incidents.
"People who live in char areas usually struggle a lot and have many uncertainties. As a result, even trivial issues enrage them and they resort to violence to settle grudges," she added.
Dhaka University sociology department Professor Nehal Karim said, "The region has more people who are illiterate and bigoted. They are mostly driven by emotion rather than rationality and get involved in clashes over trivial matters."
"There are numerous interests of many behind those fights. The interest groups instigate the commoners. To stop the violence, rule of law must be established," he added.
Non-residents send in cash for clash
Each clash costs a lot. The weapons, food for the combatants, managing the local administration, costs of the lawsuits and paying the court fees involve a large sum of money.
Donations from the affluent people of the groups are used to fuel the fights. Besides, members of the groups who live abroad also send money ranging from Tk50,000 to 2 lakh each for the sake of maintaining their supremacy at home.
Police official Alamgir Hossain said, "When there is a fight, many from abroad encourage their families and relatives at home. They also send money to cover the costs."
Who makes the weapons, and where are those made?
According to TBS investigation, more than 100 blacksmiths in Sylhet, Brahmanbaria and Narsingdi make the weapons to be used in the clashes. The items made of steel are specially designed for the fights.
The combat slingshots and bamboo sticks come from Sylhet.
Police official Alamgir said cops in the three districts have been working together to stop production of local weapons. They have made a list of the blacksmiths and encourage them not to make the sharp objects meant for clashes.
Looters come followed by clashes
When someone dies in a clash, the males of groups flee the villages to escape the police leaving their families open to looters. These predators sneak in at night and grab anything of value from the houses.