Bangladesh and India will this week finally swap tiny islands of land, ending one of the world’s most difficult border disputes that has kept thousands of people in stateless limbo for almost 70 years.
At one minute past midnight on Friday (July 31), some 50,000 residents along the border will light candles and celebrate their “new-found freedom” following a historic deal sealed between the two countries’ prime ministers.
“The 68 candles mark our 68 years of endless pain since 1947 and the agonies and poverty we faced living in no-man’s land,” said Golam Mostafa, who lives in an Indian enclave in the Bangladesh district of Kurigram.
Mostafa and other residents of the 162 enclaves – small pockets of one country’s territory surrounded by the other – lack basic services such as schools, clinics, power and water because they are cut off from their national governments.
Under the agreement finalised in June and coming into effect on Friday, the “islands” will effectively cease to exist, as each country will assume sovereignty over all enclaves in its territory.
Residents can choose to live in India or Bangladesh and will be granted citizenship. They can stay put or choose to move across the 4,000-kilometre (2,500 mile) long border.
With the land swapping only hours away, excitement has gripped the enclaves, with villagers holding feasts, rehearsing their new national anthem and preparing for celebrations including traditional games.
“It’s like Eid day here. It’s like a new-found freedom,” Rabbul Alam, who lives in the Indian enclave of Dahala Khagrabari, some 400 kilometres north of Dhaka, told reporters.
One of the strangest enclaves, Dahala Khagrabari is situated in Bangladesh’s northernmost district of Panchagarh. It is surrounded by a larger Bangladeshi enclave, which is circled by an even bigger Indian one.
“For an outsider, it is difficult to know who is a Bangladeshi or who is an Indian here. Even we get confused. Only some concrete pillars mark which part is Bangladesh and which is India,” Alam said.
The enclaves date back to ownership arrangements made centuries ago between local princes. Local legends say the enclaves were the result of 18th-century chess games by two competing princes.
The parcels of land survived partition of the subcontinent in 1947 after British rule and Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence with Pakistan.
Bangladesh endorsed a deal with India in 1974 in a bid to dissolve the pockets, but a souring of ties in the next few decades meant India only signed a final agreement in June during a visit to Dhaka by premier Narendra Modi, keen to strengthen regional ties.
Modi has compared the agreement to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, while his counterpart Sheikh Hasina says a humanitarian issue has come to a peaceful end.
“For decades we lived in these enclaves without any government. There was no school, no clinic, no stipends or food aid for widows or the old,” said Naresh Chandra Barman, who has chosen to become a Bangladesh citizen.
Officials of both nations this month conducted surveys, asking residents to choose a country.
“The overwhelming majority of people living in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh opted for Bangladeshi citizenship,” Habibur Rahman, a Bangladesh government coordinator of the survey.
But nearly 1,000 people on the Bangladesh side opted to keep their Indian nationalities, meaning they will leave their homes – and for some their relatives – for India where they will be resettled by the state of West Bengal.
Mofiz Uddin is one of them.
“I have been working in brick fields [kilns] in the Indian state of Rajasthan for more than two decades. The salary is twice what I used to get in Bangladesh,” said the 45-year-old.
“I know I may not see some of my close relatives again. But what could I do? I’ve already taken my wife and three children there.”
In India, all of the Bangladeshis living in the 51 Bangladesh enclaves decided to switch nationalities.
“They are happy here. They are an integral part of Indian society,” said Diptiman Sengupta, of the India-Bangladesh enclave exchange coordination committee, a citizens group.