“Like thousands of other Rohingya Muslims, Abdullah has a traumatised past and bleak future. He, like many others, is bitter, angry and helpless.” Ramesh Menon walks us through the tragic back-stories of a few such Rohingya refugees.
“Genocide begins with the killing of one man-not for what he has done, but because of who he is.”
~Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary General
In a crowded stinky slum in Delhi’s Kalindi Kunj where sewage flows through and mosquitos and rats are all over the place, Abdullah, 18, sits on the floor of his dwelling made out of broken wood and battered tin sheets, hurrying through his sparse lunch of rice and dal. He works as a welder to support his family. In 2012, he had run away with his family from the Rakhine area of Myanmar, which was earlier called Arakan when the ethnic conflict between the Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims become unbearable. It ended up killing hundreds and forced lakhs to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh and India. Memories of the past haunt him. As his mother, Amina, looks from behind a battered tin door, he says: “Our houses were burnt, our citizenship was taken away. Our mothers and sisters were humiliated in the worst possible way. There was no humanness. We had to flee for our lives. Look at the conditions we live in. Is this how humans should be living? We cannot even think of going back to Myanmar though we must. How long can we live as refugees in a foreign country even though India has given us shelter?” Last month, Abdullah lost his seven year old brother, Kafitullah, who suddenly collapsed due to a serious stomach infection and clotting of blood. Abdullah thinks that if they were living in hygienic surroundings, this would not have happened. Amina stares blankly in silence when neighbours come to console her. “Will our pain ever end?” asks Abdullah.
Like thousands of other Rohingya Muslims, Abdullah has a traumatised past and bleak future. He, like many others, is bitter, angry and helpless. Many others living around in the slum say that they are grateful that India gave them refuge and say that they are willing to embrace Indian citizenship if they are accorded that. Says Minara, 30, who also came to India in 2012 fleeing the atrocities: “My relatives who could not escape are desperate. Women are so unsafe there. Unimaginable things have happened to them. I cannot even talk about it. I want to return to Myanmar but am worried about the future of my five children. My life has been destroyed. But, I have to think of them. Life is so difficult in this settlement of Rohingyas from Myanmar as it is full of mosquitoes and rats. Our children fall sick all the time. If we are granted citizenship, we will gladly stay in India. We will at least belong to a country.”
The international community is now finally accepting the fact that the Rohingya Muslims are one of the most persecuted communities in the world. But, little has been done to stop it.
The international community is now finally accepting the fact that the Rohingya Muslims are one of the most persecuted communities in the world. But, little has been done to stop it. In January this year, as many as 23 international activists which included Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai, wrote an open letter to the United Nations Security Council saying that an armed offensive against Rohingyas in Myanmar had left thousands injured and dead, women raped, houses burnt and civilians arbitrarily arrested. The letter said: “Access for humanitarian aid organisations has been almost completely denied, creating an appalling humanitarian crisis in areas already extremely poor… Some international experts have warned of the potential for genocide. It has all the hallmarks of recent past tragedies – Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, and Kosovo. If we fail to take action, people may starve to death if they are not killed with bullets.”
Every refugee has a tragic back-story. Abdullah, 25, another refugee with the same name, who now drives an auto rickshaw in Noida, escaped in 2012 from Mgtow village in the then Arakan district. The military was picking up young men, killing them and then throwing their bodies away. When they came on a raid one night, he escaped under the cover of darkness, hid in the nearby mountains and then went to a mini island near the seashore to take a boat to Bangladesh. Agents left him on the Indian border. He reached Delhi to plead with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He was then shifted to a camp at Kalindi Kunj in Delhi on the Uttar Pradesh border. While he says he is grateful to be allowed to stay in India, he says that he cannot help remembering how well off his family was as they were into the fish export business. He looks blankly at his slum dwelling and wonders why the world was not waking up to human right violations in Myanmar. One of his brothers was recently picked up by the army. His sister-in-law reportedly paid an equivalent of Rs. 25 lakh in Indian currency to get him released.
While he says he is grateful to be allowed to stay in India, he says that he cannot help remembering how well off his family was as they were into the fish export business. He looks blankly at his slum dwelling and wonders why the world was not waking up to human right violations in Myanmar.
Some like Abdul Karim, 38, have tried to rebuild their lives in the houses that is patched up with discarded plastic sheets and whatever they can get to keep the sun and rain out. But when it rains outside, it rains inside too. He runs a small store at the edge of the slum. He finds it painful to think of how his three provision shops and a tea stall was taken over by the local Buddhists back in Myanmar. Unable to withstand the unending oppression by the army, he fled to India with his family. “Our houses were set on fire and we were treated like criminals all the time. We were not even allowed to build a compound wall around our houses as we were told it was to
ensure that we did not hide Islamic terrorists from Bangladesh. Life was miserable. It still is as we are stateless,” he says wondering how his mother, who has not been able to escape, is coping. In 1982, the military junta had revoked the citizenship of the 1.1 million Rohingas in the Rakhine State of Myanmar.
Minara was born much after this happened and one can sense how rootless and unwanted they feel. This move was applauded by the Buddhist minority there who feared that they would soon be edged out by the Muslims, who formed 90% of the population. They were suddenly stateless and unwanted. Ever since, clashes have punctuated the area between the two groups.Nearly two lakh Rohingyas have fled Myanmar and are mainly in Bangladesh and India living as refugees. Bangladesh has asked them to go back saying they cannot afford to support them. Champa Patel, Amnesty’s South Asia Director, points out that the Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar to enter Bangladesh are now being pushed back and are trapped by cruel fate as their basic needs of food; water and medical aid are not being met.
Of late, international pressure has been growing on Myanmar to stop the persecution of Rohingyas. Last year, Ban-Ki-moon, the then UN chief, had called on Myanmar to grant citizenship to the Rohingyas and also respect their right to self-identity.
The present regional government is largely represented by the Arakan National Party, an ethnic Rakhine political group that pursues a nationalist agenda. Al-Jazeera recently reported that Tin Maung Swe, executive secretary of the Rakhine State government in an interview, said: “We must protect our national interests and these Muslims are not part of that. We don’t care what foreigners think. We must protect our land and our people. Humanitarian concerns are a secondary priority.”
Records indicate that in January 2017, there were over 14,000 Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Regugees. They live at various camps in Jammu, Haryana, Telengana, Delhi and Rajasthan. Elsa Sherin Mathews, spokesperson of UNHCR in India, points out that numerous Rohingya refugees live in difficult conditions and most of them are working in the informal sector. With ID cards issued to them by the UNHCR, they can avail of healthcare and education facilities in India and apply for long-term visas. Many of them have been living in India for many years.Human right groups have charged the Burmese army of being responsible for a systematic campaign of killings, arson and rape. Myanmar’s new leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who shot to international fame fighting for human rights and being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, is now under fire for not doing enough to save the Rohingyas who have been oppressed for years by the armed regime. Observers say it is an apparent attempt to appease anti-Muslim elements.
Though over 1,40,000 Rohingyas today live as refugees, she has said that the problem has been exaggerated and the focus should be on resolving it. However, she called upon former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, to head a commission to find a resolution to the conflict between the Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims. When he visited Myanmar in September last year to do so, he was faced with protests by the Buddhists who obviously did not want him there. Karim says that those Rohingyas who complained to him, were killed after he left.
In December last year, the Barrack Obama administration lifted a ban that had previously held back American aid to Myanmar saying that it was doing it as the country had displayed “substantial improvement in improving human rights”. Obviously, it was just caving in to pressure from the American business lobby that wanted sanctions lifted as they wanted to explore opportunities that had suddenly risen in a country that had made a transition to democracy.
“The Buddhists discriminated against us. It is not like India where Hindus and Muslims live together. We want to go back but the Buddhists have to accept us as Myanmar citizens and let us live in peace. I have so many relatives there who are trying to escape, but cannot. What will be their fate?”
Tasleema lives with her three children and her husband in the Kalindi Kunj settlement. One bright spark in her life is watching her two children go to a nearby school. She hopes their future would be different from hers. Describing the ordeal in Myanmar before she came to India four years ago, she says: “The Buddhists discriminated against us. It is not like India where Hindus and Muslims live together. We want to go back but the Buddhists have to accept us as Myanmar citizens and let us live in peace. I have so many relatives there who are trying to escape, but cannot. What will be their fate?”
It is an answer that the world needs to answer.
Photographs: Javed Sultan.