People without a Country
|A Rohingya child at Kiryana Talaab camp in Jammu waiting for his father and mother to return home.|
Wasif AliAuthint Mail
December 24, 2013
The long journey to Jammu city began in 2003 for Haroon Rashid when he had just married a neighborhood girl in his Alegan village of Burma. For the persecuted Rohingya Muslims living in the largely military controlled State, it is mandatory to keep the authorities informed about every development in their life, even if a pregnant cow delivers.
Haroon, a medium-built man with a round face and dark complexion, was busy in making pre-marital arrangements and somehow forgot to inform the authorities or police about his marriage
“It was a big mistake,” he says.
On the eight day of marriage, a contingent of armed police personnel looking for Haroon surrounded Alegan village. When he came out of his house, two police personnel dragged him to a nearby police vehicle and put him in a jail.
“I spent six months in jail where I was subjected to all kinds of humiliation and torture. I had to pay Rs 1 lakh so that they could set me free,” Haroon says in a muffled voice.
After purchasing his freedom, Haroon chalked out a strategy to escape the persecution by Army in their own country. On the second day of his release, around 60 other Rohingya Muslims from twelve families - all victim of state excesses - met at a house in Alegan and decided to leave their country.
“We knew of villages along Burma-Bangladesh border where our fellow Muslims lived. The darkness of the night helped us to cross the border without detection. Once we reached there, we set up our own camps and started living there,” Haroon says
Against the wishes of Haroon and his fellow villagers, their stay in Bangladesh didn’t last for long. Tension swelled inBangladesh over the ‘illegal immigration’ from Burma which forced the government to crackdown on the immigrants. After staying in Bangladesh for four years, he crossed Indo-Bangladesh border and travelled to a Rohingya settlement in Trikuta Nagar locality of Jammu along with his wife and four children.
In his arduous journey which began in 2003, his wife gave birth to one child in Bangladesh and another in Jammu recently. To support his family, he sells vegetables on a wooden cart in dusty lanes of Jammu city. Whatever he earns in the day, he spends it on his family in the evening.
“A Rohingya living in Burma can only have two children. After marriage, you are allowed to have one child. If you want another, then you have to seek permission from the government and inform the local police. After some months, if the government signs the papers, then only you will be allowed to have another child,” Haroon says
Before the birth of his second child in Burma, he had to pay Rs 10,000 as a tax to the government. In case of death, whether natural or accidental, a Rohingya has to deposit Rs 5000 with the government as a fee.
“The life of a Rohingya in Burma has become a virtual hell. Even if our livestock reproduces, or dies, a tax of Rs 10,000 has to be paid to the government. In order to get married, a couple has to pay a total of Rs 3 lakh to the Burmese government which is managed equally by the families of bride and groom. However, the tax is applicable only for Muslims. If you fail to pay the tax, you will land up in jail,” he says.
Rohingya is the ‘most persecuted ethnic group’ in Asia who live in the borderlands between Burma and Bangladesh. Their origins are disputed. While some historians believe they belong to Rakhine state on Burma’s west coast, others have traced their origins to Bengal (modern Bangladesh). Officially, they are a stateless people whose exact roots are a matter of debate. Rohingya are excluded from 135 ethnic groups Burma recognizes as citizens. Many Burmese ask the Rohingya to ‘go back’ to Bangladesh.
Thousands of Rohingyas have been killed and over two million people have become refugees in the political turmoil in Burma, according to a UNHCR survey. The struggle for survival has resulted in ‘apartheid policies’ against them. Rohingya Muslims need special permission to travel and marry. They face severe discrimination in cases of employment, education, and medical care. Last year, more than 150 people were killed and over 100,000 were forced to leave their homes with a majority of the victims being Rohingyas.
The religious violence in Burma between the Buddhist majority and other ethnic groups has existed for decades, if not centuries. However, a wave of clashes which the human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch described as ‘ethnic cleansing’, has been sweeping across various townships in the Rakhine state over the last one year.
Human Rights Watch profiled one such particularly brutal episode of October 2012 in which 70 Rohingyas, including 28 children, became ‘easy prey’ for a Buddhist mob after local riot police disarmed them of rudimentary weapons that they were carrying to defend themselves. Burmese rights groups have criticized Human Rights Watch’s assessment as one-sided, and instead described the violence as “communal.”
Rohingyas are also forcibly made to work without wages. The refugees in the Kiryana Talaab camp unanimously declare that every Muslim village has to send 100 youngsters to work for a month as porters without any wages.
“Begaar (forced labor) is a big menace in our country. Every month, 100 young boys are picked by the Army from our villages. They are forced to carry luggage and other items to faraway mountainous areas where vehicular transport has no access,” says Aziz.
Twelve years ago, Abdul Aziz, 27, was picked up from his village by the Army and asked to carry coal sacks to camps on the top of mountains. On the 23rd day of work, Aziz gave them a slip and sneaked into Bangladesh, leaving behind his parents and a sister.
“One of my friends was also taken by Army. He was not that healthy and couldn’t carry much weight. When the Army saw him stumbling while carrying the coal sacks, he was kicked from a mountain. No one knows what happened to him. He must not have survived,” Aziz who now works as a vegetable hawker, says.
Ameer Husain, 80, left Burma in 1998 when riots erupted in his village. Husain had a small piece of land which used to feed his family but he left farming soon after Burmese government imposed heavy taxes on Muslim farmers.
“We were forced to share half of what we made on farms with the government. That’s why I and thousands others like me left farming and sold our land to Buddhists,” Husain told me.
While the international powers have praised President Thein Sein for his steps towards improving democracy in Burma, they have turned a blind eye to the growing violence, persecution and discrimination against the Rohingyas.
“The body of my friend’s wife was found floating in a river. She was abducted along with her two children. Her captors had said that her breasts gave milk to Muslim babies and her womb gave birth to future generations of Muslims,” recalls Mohammed Rafiq, who came to Jammu recently and now lives in one of the cramped shanties in Kiryana Talab camp.
“His wife’s breasts were chopped off and her genitalia mutilated with a bamboo. Her teenage son was tethered to a motorbike and dragged across a rocky road,” Rafiq says.
On a pleasant autumn evening last month, a group of Rohingya Muslims met inside a makeshift tent which is one of the many shanties in a low-lying slum at Kiryani Talaab locality, around six km from the main Jammu city. As orange-colored beams of sun fell on this dusty patch of land, around 40 Rohingya men assembled inside the tent. A tall, dark man with a long beard closed the ‘door’. The meeting was clearly not open to all, not in the least to me. I grabbed a stool and sat close to the tent.
Different, undecipherable whispers turning into shouts followed by silence and more whispers emanated from inside the tent. It was difficult to hear the discussion conclusively. After frenzied deliberations which lasted for over an hour, a healthy man with a neatly-kempt beard came out. He apologized for refusing me entry.
The man is Shams-ul-Alam, a 38-year-old private teacher who has been fighting for the rights of Rohingyas in Jammu for over a decade.
It was the first meeting of its kind in Jammu in which the heads of all the refugee camps in Jammu had assembled under one banner.
“It was a very heated discussion. Sometimes, it is difficult to convince the newcomers about the hardships that we face,” he says.
The participants of the meeting had unanimously agreed to come under a single banner and form a joint committee of Rohingya Muslims but it has not been named yet.
“I am the chairman of the unnamed committee,” Alam quips, “it is a milestone in our history and we will definitely raise our voice in coming days.”
The committee faces a daunting task of obtaining the status of refugees to Rohingyas Muslims in Jammu which will bring them daily amenities like water and electricity. The problems of Rohingyas have mounted in the last two years as more Rohingyas fled Burma and swarmed into Jammu.
Surrounded by open sewers and mounds of boulders, the camp in Kiryaani Talaab is a virtual slum. Propped up by bamboo sticks around which are wrapped tarpaulin sheets to make a small shanty whose polythene roof is held down by big boulders.
“These are our bungalows now,” Alam says in a sarcastic tone.
There are about 50 tents in Kiryani Talaab, one of the many localities in Jammu where Rohingya refugees have settled. While many Rohingyas live on the outskirts of Punjab, Delhi and Hyderabad, there are 16 Rohingya migrant camps Jammu city’s Kargil Colony, Narwal, Hamza Colony, Kiryani Talaab, Trikuta Nagar, Bagh-e-Bahu hostel gate, Marathi Nagar Railway station and Malik Market. According to government figures, 381 families live in these camps; some have migrated as long as 15 years back.
Naseer-ud-Din, a middle aged man, came to Jammu in 2009. Like others, he also survived a major assault on his life. Din who works as a teacher says the lack of freedom in his own country and the brutal clampdown by junta on the minority Rohingyas forced him to migrate.
“You have to pay taxes for travelling from one Muslim village to another. Is that the kind of freedom that governments provide to their citizens,” he asks.
In his initial years, Din found life difficult in Jammu. Being educated, he considered it as an insult and overbearing on his frail body to work as a daily laborer. But his relentless struggle has paid dividends and he was recently employed at a school. His case is exceptional in the entire Kiryana Talab camp where most refugees work as menial laborers, factory workers, scrap collectors and vegetable hawkers.
Clad in loosely-draped sari, Farima Begum, 30, lost her young husband in riots that broke out in her village in Burma last year. In Jammu, she makes a living these days by working at a small dry fruit unit where she earns around Rs 120 for extracting seeds from walnuts. The owner of the unit supplies the packed seeds to markets in Delhi and other Indian states. He has employed Rohingya children too in his unit.
Most of the women in the refugee camps of Jammu have engaged themselves in one or other activity to earn a livelihood. Many have become rag pickers and scrap collectors.
Out of the 5o families which have arrived in Jammu, around 40 have received temporary refugee cards from the UNHCR. The commission provides them with a subsistence allowance of Rs 1000 to each family. There are more children than elders who have fled their homes, and they are the most vulnerable section along with women. Until recently, none of the children would go to schools.
But Jammu and Kashmir Sakhawat Centre run by Abdul Rashid Nazki who is associated with the charitable Iqbal Memorial Trust has set up three ‘Pre-Primary School for Refugees of Myanmar’ in Malik Market, Kiryana Talaab and Jammu city where around 250 children are being given free education.
“Most of us were not allowed to study in my country. I do not want same thing to happen to our children. We are very grateful to Sakhawat for setting up these schools. At least our children will get proper education now,” Alam, the teacher, says.
Besides the schools where most of the subjects are taught in English, the Rohingyas have also set up a religious school. Interestingly, the number of children attending the Sakhawat schools is higher than those who study religion.
While most refugees find it hard to make both ends meet, Alam believes the main concern is that of recognition. India is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees and each Rohingya family’s case is examined individually before granting them refugee status.
“Recognition is the main thing. Nobody owns us. We don’t have a country. We don’t have any land. We have to beg before authorities to provide us water. We were living happily, working enough to support our families. But Buddhists looted everything from us,” Karimullah, a refugee who escaped from the northern Rakhine state, laments.
The Rohingyas of Jammu want the government of Kashmir to provide them basic amenities for sustenance. The problems of electricity, safe drinking water and sanitation are visible in the migrant camps. No one from the government visits these camps. While they are trying to make a living by doing odd jobs, a large chunk of their income is spent on providing monthly rent to the owner of land where the camps are erected.
“We requested the government to provide us electricity and water, but our pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Then there are radical Hindu groups in Jammu like Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal and Hindustan Shiv Sena who are opposing our stay here. It is a daily struggle for survival,” laments Alam.
“They are living a miserable life here. The government should have done something for them. If they are given the rights of the refugees, half of their problems will be solved,” says Altaf Hussain Janjua, a local journalist with Urdu dailyKashmir Uzma.
“Please write about our problems. We want to live with dignity and if we are granted a refugee status, it will solve our problems,” Alam declares.
As I folded my notebook and prepared to leave, Alam offered to accompany me to the bus stand. “We want to go back” he said, as if having a second thought, “but with full rights and dignity.”
Going by the developments in Burma, it seems the wishes of Mr Alam and hundreds of Rohingyas in Jammu will not be granted very soon!