Dublar Char, Raju, & The Dark Tower (Sundarbans, Bangladesh) Part II
ON THE NIGHT OF DEC 27TH, we arrived at the fishing village on Dublar Char (Island) at the mouth of the Kunga River. The next morning we went ashore to see what we could see and talk to locals about life there. The settlement on the island is seasonal, only occupied from November to mid-February. Thousands come to harvest schooling shrimp and catch fish. Life is hard and getting harder. Smaller catches. Smaller fish. Over-fishing is a huge problem, and it’s getting worse. As one walks among the flimsy wood huts and drying fish, creeping desperation is almost palpable.
Through our guide, Rashid, we inquired about the pirate underworld, but most were reluctant to broach the subject. After a few inquiries, we were directed to someone of importance with supposed first-hand knowledge. We had heard only rumors and were eager to find out more. Unfortunately, the gentleman feared retribution. Prying eyes and ears were everywhere.
He did talk about his operation and general outlook on the future. He was concerned about the dwindling catch due, in no small part, to the incursion of modern Indian fishing trawlers into Bangladesh’s territorial waters. His antiquated wooden boats cannot compete, and there’s little he or anyone else can do as a matter of recourse. The government does nothing, leaving the fisherman of Dublar with a profound sense of helplessness.
We thanked him for his time and moved on. A few minutes later, we encountered a Mr. Forid who was willing to talk pirates. He’d been coming to Dublar every season for the past twenty-nine years. According to Mr. Forid, the Raju Group (named for its leader) was the most potent with at least forty-five members. Below is my paraphrase of his description:
Often the pirates will stop a boat and either commandeer the vessel or kidnap a fisherman or two. Word is sent back to their employer that a ransom must be paid for the safe return of man or vessel. It’s also customary to rob vessels just after they’ve sold their catch. Violence is not unheard of but killings are rare. Sinbad and company often dwell within narrow mangrove channels disguised as fishermen or woodcutters.
The Bangladesh Forest Department has neither the will nor the ability to thwart pirate operations. As they are understaffed, underpaid, and ill-equipped, they often find themselves at the mercy of Raju and his misfits. It’s common for pirates to seek refuge at any one of the sixty or so ranger stations throughout the park. Inaction is rooted in bribery.
There’s an unwritten code among pirates. Keep it reasonable, don’t get greedy, and avoid outlandish behavior. Follow the rules and no harm will befall you. More importantly, you’ll be allowed to conduct operations with impunity. Robbing tourists would probably force the government’s hand. Clamping down is not out of the question as a band of pirates discovered in 1985. Government troops wiped out an entire group. There’s a line, but where it lies is subject to interpretation.
I should emphasize all of what I’ve written here is hearsay and not to be construed as cold hard fact. Although I am fairly confident in the broad strokes, without a serious investigation it’s impossible to be certain.
Mr. Forid offered tea and even sat for a quick photo. We thanked him profusely and walked on. Next, we went for a stroll in the forest east of the settlement along the shore. It is a picturesque arena with a combination of sandy beach and the signature above-ground root system (known as Halophytes) typical of the mangrove forest. We also spotted the recent tracks of a large tiger. Oh, what I would have given to see that monster patrolling that surreal landscape. Rashid did not share our enthusiasm with such a prospect. We went closer to the water where we met local fishermen/woodcutters chopping down dead trees. On the way back to our boat, we came across fishermen performing regular boat maintenance. Fire is used to seal the hull using tar-like material and to remove worms and salt build up.
By mid-morning, we were back aboard the Emma with a course set for the forest station at Katka. We’d be spending the night in an observation tower overlooking open grassland. As tigers are most active at night, we hoped Mr. Khan would drop by.
Depth finders are invaluable, especially when cruising the edge of a vast silt-depositing delta like the Sundarbans. Our small boat had one but it was “unavailable.” The captain only deployed it when researchers and journalists were aboard, i.e. people of consequence. We didn’t qualify.
Our punishment for obscurity and insignificance? Periodic sandbar timeouts. The first set us back two hours. Alex, my trusty companion, decided it was an opportune time for a spin on the wooden country boat we towed behind us for incursions into the mangrove’s narrower channels. So he, my guide, and the country boat owner abandoned the Emma to the whim of the tides. I considered joining the escape but stomach concerns dictated I stay close to our thunderbox (i.e. toilet). Eventually, we broke free and reached Katka.
To the watchtower! With sleeping bags, cushions, flashlights, and plenty of tea and coffee (nothing like roughing it), we ascended for our midnight vigil. The tower is in earshot of the forest station and all the larger boats that regularly dock there for the night. We were lulled by the constant hum of diesel engines and muffled cries of blithesome tourists…all night. Not exactly the picture of secluded jungle I had in mind. Nonetheless, it was worth the trouble. We sat up scanning the area with concentrated stares while occasionally utilizing our headlamps (Alex had one that could illuminate Mars) for nearly four hours. Thankfully, we were assisted by a waxing moon. Rashid made us promise not to leave the tower for a moonlight stroll. He also suggested we urinate from the platform rather than risk Khan’s fury. And if numero dos presented itself? You gotta do what you gotta do. He advised us to use our lights and make lots of noise if forced to set foot below.
We were not alone. Another group (a couple and their guide) came later on and nestled on the platform below ours. We were amused by the fact they came, laid out their sleeping bags, and passed out moments later. What the hell is the point? We only made it to 1:15 am but at least we gave it a shot. We would’ve held out longer, but we wanted to be somewhat rested for the morrow’s activities. Did our vigil prove fruitful? Well, we did see a few deer roaming about and there was unidentified rustling in the brush, but Khan didn’t show his face, not while we were on duty.