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Why has the world turned a blind eye to the Rohingyas?

Nabin Shona at Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh (Photo: Munem Wasif)

By AA Gill
August 2, 2014

NABIN Shona comes into the small room carrying an air of worn ­disappointment.

She offers me her hand. It is limp and light and dry, like briefly holding an autumn leaf. She’s been waiting for over an hour, but in a refugee camp every wait is merely the twig on a tree of waiting. She sits opposite me on a plastic chair and arranges her headscarf. She is dressed with a sober, threadbare modesty and tells me her name and her age: 42. She looks older, her eyes are dark rings; in her nose, the tiniest gold stud. The room is shabby, a clerk’s office made of plaited bamboo and corrugated iron. The air holds its breath and hangs like a hot handtowel waiting for the imminent monsoon. A fan creaks in the ceiling, when the emphysemic generator has the energy.

I say what I’ve said many times today: “All I want to know is what you want to tell me, your story, what happened.” She speaks in a reedy whisper, the translator leans forward: “They came in the night, the army. They wanted to steal my goat. I was beaten.” I think “beaten” may cover a more intimately shaming truth. A lot of the women say the word as if it tasted of bitter medicine. “I was taken to the army camp and my legs were trapped between bits of wood. I was seven months pregnant. I had to leave three small children at home by themselves. My husband had already fled to avoid being used as forced labour by the soldiers.” Her legs still hurt. She shows me the scar. When a bribe was paid she came here to the refugee camp. She was 18.

Nabin starts to cry, rubbing away the tears, collecting them between her finger and thumb because she doesn’t want to leave them to fall alone in this place. She has been here, waiting, for 24 years. They took her 12-year-old daughter to prison for avoiding repatriation. She’s had four more children in the camp. She fades to a halt, sagging under the humiliation of her ­emotion. I ask if there’s anything else she’d like to say. She takes a breath and looks up, fierce in her despair, her voice suddenly clear and brittle: “Why don’t they poison all of us? Or drag us into the sea?”

Nabin’s story isn’t exceptional. I’ve chosen it because it is so typical, so ordinary, so banal. Kutupalong is a refugee camp in Bangladesh on the Bay of Bengal, a couple of kilometres from the porous and fractious Burmese border. It has been here for more than 20 years; so have many of its inhabitants. The camp hides off the main road in a landscape of neat paddy fields, salt pans and fish ponds. Officially there are 12,000 refugees here, and a further 18,000 at another camp, Nayapara, about 30km away. Unofficially there are an additional 200,000 unregistered refugees, many living in makeshift shelters that have mushroomed around the two camps.

These refugees are the Rohingyas, a poor rural minority from Burma. According to the UN, they are the most persecuted people in the world. Think of that: how pitiful your lot must be to contend for that fathomlessly miserable accolade. They have been systematically preyed upon by the majority Burmese: beaten, raped, murdered, abducted for slavery, their goods looted, their crops and land stolen; they have been hunted by mobs, excluded from all social and political life in a systematic and prolonged campaign of intimidation and vilification that is not simply ignored by their government but actually sanctioned, encouraged and inflamed. The most widespread and heinous abuses are perpetrated by the military and the judiciary. It is, though, pretty much ignored by the rest of us. Not only is this the worst, it is the least known and reported pogrom in the world today.

Compared to all the other murderous bullying on Earth, this has one startling and contrary ingredient: the Rohingyas are Muslim, the Burmese are Buddhist. The gravest, cruellest, state-sponsored persecution of any people anywhere is being practised by pacifist Buddhists on Jihadi-mad, Sharia-loving Muslims. It doesn’t really fit in with the received wisdom of how the world works. The Burmese say the Rohingyas are dogs, filth, less than human, that they are too ugly to be Burmese, that they are a stain, a racial insult and that, anyway, they are Bengali – illegally imported coolie immigrants, colonial flotsam from East Bengal, or Bangladesh as it’s now known. In the last census, they were not allowed to call themselves Rohingyas; only if they admitted to being Bangladeshi could they register as existing. Burma does recognise more than 100 other cultural, racial and religious minorities, just not the Rohingyas.

The truth is they have lived peaceably and happily alongside Buddhist peasants for hundreds of years. It is said they derive from early Arab traders who converted the locals to Islam before the Mughals ever got to India. They are very similar to the Bangladeshis along the ­border because, under the British, the border between India and Burma didn’t exist. The current military government, as if wiping dog shit off the sole of its shoe, decreed the Rohingyas were no longer Burmese and they were made stateless. Consider that: what that means. You have no rights; no access to law, to education; no healthcare; no protection from the police, the army, the courts; no passport.

Abu Kassim was beaten by soldiers who took his ID card, confiscated his fields and his house and gave them to a Buddhist. He went to the administrator, the magistrate, and asked for fairness. The judge took him by the neck and threw him to the ground and said: “Your home is in the clouds.” He cries at the memory.

The stateless have no voice, no civil rights. At the tap of the computer key, they were made unperson – vulnerable, despised and loathed; criminals in the only home they’d ever known. Their children are never safe, their daughters are objects of careless lust, husbands and sons are feral beasts of burden. They can’t complain to the law; only God listens. It is a humourless mockery to know that technically making people stateless is illegal.

Amir Hamja is 77, an old man with a long beard, a white skull cap, funereal eyes. He remembers colonial Burma. “Things were better with the British. There was law. When the Japanese came, we Rohingya fought with the British. The Buddhists wanted independence. They thought the Japanese would get it for them.” Amir was beaten and humiliated. Humiliation is a word that comes up repeatedly. For people who have very little, respect and dignity are precious. He too begins to cry.

Orafa Begum is 19. She was born in the camp. A hijab covers her face. More and more girls are wearing full veils and long black dresses; it isn’t their tradition, but fathers are insisting, frightened of the awful humiliation of a molested or raped child, and they are being made to stay in their tiny, dark hovels. Orafa pulls down her veil so she can speak face to face. She has a beautiful young face with dark eyes. She helps in the school here. She had a brother who died from an eye infection, another brother has an untreated urinary tract infection, her mother is deaf, her father, an imam, was beaten and is now mentally handicapped. Orafa supports them all. In her beautiful eye, she has a cataract.

The camp itself is a miserable, stinking sty. I’ve been to dozens of refugee camps all over the world and outside of a natural disaster this is the worst I’ve seen. The huts are tiny, made of mud and blistering corrugated metal with ripped plastic sheet roofs, augmented with leaves. Along each of the little alleys that separate the huts are deep gutters of sewage, in which chickens and mangy ducks dabble for sustenance. Come the monsoon it will be an impassable mire of filth that seeps into every room, clings to every foot.

There is a problem here with water; there’s nothing like enough. The water table is brackish. The women and children spend hours waiting to fill tin gallon jars around an emetic pump. I crawl in through the hobbit door of a hut whose only light comes from a tiny low window and a smouldering wood stove. There is nothing here: a roll of blankets and the dirt floor, a few rags hung from a string slung between nails. These two tiny rooms are each home to a family: one of six, the other of four. As a temporary stop it would be vilely uncomfortable, but the families have lived here for more than a decade.

Khalija Khaeun is 65, her face deeply lined under her hijab. “I have a beautiful daughter; the soldiers came to rape her. My husband died in the military camp, where he was taken to be a slave. He was beaten to death for being too weak to carry bricks. A few months ago, my nephew was hacked to death in Burma. My son was attacked in a bazaar. In my life there is nothing but sorrow and suffering. Even the birds can make a nest. We have nowhere.”

In the rudimentary medical centre I’m shown the birth room: two iron beds with thin, crumbling foam mattresses and a birthing chair with stirrups that looks like a piece of angry feminist art. A baby is born here almost every day; to those with nothing, children are the only hope, their only means of production. The Rohingyas are making children at a cataclysmic rate.

The children born in these camps don’t count as refugees; they are not registered and therefore no provision is made for them. The nurse tells me they have no anaesthetic, no oxygen, no gas. “What do you do if someone needs a caesarean?” I ask. “Well, we have to phone for an ambulance from Chittagong,” she offers hypothetically. “That would be two hours away on a good day.”

She smiles and takes me to meet the doctor, an ebullient man in a jacket and tie. The main medical concerns, he says, are infant diarrhoea, polio, meningitis and cholera, but the biggest problem is respiratory disease. “You know, smoky huts, lots of asthma, bronchitis.” He smells of cigarettes and the pack that was on the desk when I came in has been surreptitiously hidden. “You smoke over the mothers and the children,” I say. It comes out as an accusation rather than a question. He grins sheepishly. “Well, you have to have a little pleasure.”

There is precious little pleasure here for the inmates. There are no amenities for fun; it’s too hot to kick a ball or play cricket. In a dark room, women who have been raped or abused or divorced press cakes of carbolic soap. In another room young girls sit sewing sanitary pads and pants. There is no childhood to be had here.

Before I was allowed to visit this camp I was summoned to Bangladesh’s foreign ministry. I sat in an office for 15 minutes and watched a civil servant in an elaborate sari and coiffured hair with a monochromatically pale face talk on the phone and tap at her computer. “Sorry,” she said with exaggerated politeness. “Let me say that you are the first journalist who has been given a visa to visit the camp. This is a test. What happens in the future depends on what you write. You understand our conditions?”

I’ve been told previously I must never refer to the Rohingyas as Bangladeshi, that I must only visit the two official camps and not mention any of the unofficial ones, that I must be accompanied at all times by two government officials. The two minders never appear, I suspect through incompetence rather than second thoughts. However, I am made aware of secret military policemen who shadow our movements and hang around in the crowd, listening.

Official Bangladeshi policy is that the Rohingyas are Burmese and Burma’s problem; that they should be encouraged to return. Often they are forced back, which international law says is illegal. The camps are kept basic so as to not attract more refugees and because they are sources of irritation for the surrounding ­Bangladeshis, who are not much better off. I have some sympathy for Bangladesh: this is one of the most crowded, beset countries in Asia, and it doesn’t need an influx of new mouths who will undercut the already barrel-scraping wages that Bangladesh pays. “It’s all Burma, Burma, Burma now,” the civil servant told me. “Everyone in the West wants to do business there. There’s so much money to be made. No one wants to confront them over the Rohingyas.”

The unofficial part of the Kutupalong camp, the one I’m not allowed to see, marches right up to the edge of the official one. It is the same but worse. There is no rudimentary medicine, no insufficient food, no carbolic soap or sanitary pads. The stink is fouler, there is less water, the huts are meaner and filthier, the alleys between them narrower. Only the people are the same: stone-faced, ragged, veiled, xylophone ribs and pot bellies, exhausted by boredom and disappointment, doubly stateless, unregistered, unrecognised, hopeless.

It is not difficult to escape the camp. There are no walls and there are Bangladeshi gang masters who, for a cut, will take them to labouring work in Chittagong where they are paid half of what the Bangladeshis get. If they’re caught by the police they’re pushed back across the border. Other gangs promise to take young men to Malaysia, a Muslim country where they can find work. It is a long journey by sea. The Thai navy used to pick up the boats, take them ashore, feed the refugees, give them water, then tow them back out to sea, saying they’d done their humanitarian duty. No one knows how many Rohingyas drowned. It is probably thousands.

What they haven’t done yet, the Rohingyas, is fight back. They pray and they hope and not one of them can tell me why the Burmese turned on them with such violence and hostility.

The Rohingyas aren’t allowed to travel outside their villages without permission, they are forbidden further education, there is a curfew and a ban on groups of more than four people, making worship in mosques impossible, there are restrictions on marriage (they must get permission, which can take years) while living together as de factos is punishable with prison, there are petty laws on things like the cutting of beards and there is a two-child policy that doesn’t apply to the Burmese.

Mustafa Shafial was a photographer for the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. Many Rohingyas supported her. Mustafa’s business was burnt by police. In ­desperation she gave her house to a Buddhist neighbour on the understanding they would give her back half of it when things got better. Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence about the plight of the Rohingyas is deafening, shaming and telling. “Aung San Suu Kyi has done nothing for us,” says Mustafa. “Rohingya died for her party, but she can’t even recognise us.”

Narul Hakim is 55. He spent 13 years in a Bangladeshi jail, unable to raise the bribe for enough space to lie down: “We slept squatting in a line.” He organised a demonstration in the camp against forced repatriation. The police falsely accused him of the murder of Rohingyas who were shot in the riot. He has yet to face more trials. “Our lives are over,” he says. “We only fight for our grandchildren, that they can belong somewhere, have a home.”

He takes a little package out of his pocket and says, through tears, “Look here,” and unfolds a handkerchief. Inside are worn and tattered cards and passes, official letters with inky stamps. They are the remnants of his identity. “This is me,” he says, offering me the little slips of card and plastic that accredited his existence: that once connected him to hope, to ambition, to a future, just to belonging. “When I die,” he says, “someone will have to write a certificate, they will have to say that I was here, that I lived.” Later, in the cool of the golden afternoon, I see him in the camp holding his grandson, a little boy born here with huge, solemn brown eyes. Narul hugs him tight and stares at him with a terrible intense love.

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Rohingya Exodus