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Rohingya exodus: Tales of suffering and misery

By Bastian Hartig
May 28, 2015

Scores of Rohingya Muslims are fleeing violence and discrimination in Myanmar. Unscrupulous traffickers are cashing in on their misery. Two Rohingya refugees living in Thailand tell their heart-wrenching stories to DW.

Salim carefully kneads dough in a big white plastic tub in front of him. The 20-year-old squats on the floor wearing a T-shirt with "Save Rohingya Muslims" written on it. His tiny apartment, somewhere in northern Bangkok, has almost no furniture. But Salim has no complains about it, as in Thailand he doesn't have to fear for his life.

"At home (in Myanmar), I was unable to sleep," Salim told DW. "Because I feared they would come to set our houses on fire."

Salim actually goes by a different name, but he doesn't want to be identified, fearing repercussions as he came to Thailand illegally. Salim is a Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar's western Rakhine state close to Bangladesh. A year and a half ago, Salim fled his country because he could no longer deal with the discrimination and persecution, not only by local gangs, but also by government officials. "When I would go to the fields to work, they would beat me with fists and sticks. At school they would tell us, 'You don't belong here, this is not your country, and you are foreigners here,'" said Salim.

Rohingyas have been a vulnerable ethnic minority in Myanmar for decades. The country stripped them of citizenship rights in 1982. But the situation exacerbated in 2012 when some 200 people were killed and more than 100,000 were displaced in sectarian riots. According to the United Nations, some 120,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar since then.

Running away

In October 2013, Salim, who was still a teenager, decided to run away with money that he stole from his house. Not far from his hometown, in the coastal city of Maungdaw, Salim was put on a small boat with some 50 other fugitives and was taken to the deep sea where they were transferred to a bigger vessel. The ship was used to smuggle timber but was now crammed with hundreds of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

"The guards gave us only small portions of dried rice and salty water to drink," Salim recalled, "and they beat us all the time. They wanted us to be weak, so we could not rebel," he added.

"At night, they separated the women and put them in another room. Then we would hear their screams."

In Bangkok, Salim lives next to his older brother Rafik's home. Rafik and his wife, Hamida, are also Rohingya refugees. Nineteen-year-old Hamida has a two-month-old daughter. She too left Myanmar on boat, using her most valuable possession - a golden necklace - to pay for the trip, unaware that the price would be much higher.

Once off the boat, she was sold to an elderly Malaysian man, who was probably in his 60s. He locked her inside in a small room. It was only with the help of the relatives that she could eventually be freed.

Hamida doesn't want to speak about what happened to her in those two months. When asked if her captor hurt her, she simply nods.

'Death' camps

For Salim, things took a different turn. The traffickers took him to a camp located somewhere in southern Thailand. "We were forced to sit on wet ground," Salim said. "It rained incessantly, and if we moved, the traffickers would beat us."

Many of the refugees did not survive this harsh treatment. "I saw one or two people die every day," Salim recalled. The stronger ones would bury the dead bodies.

Salim doesn't know if the camp where he was kept was one of those discovered by Thai authorities a month ago, but he says his didn't look much different.

The traffickers kept Salim and others in the camp to extort ransom from their families. "They said if they didn't get the money, they would let me die," Salim said.

Salim's parents eventually paid 60,000 Thai Baht, roughly $1,745, to traffickers. But they had to sell everything they owned - a small piece of land and two cows - to save their son's life. "I cannot describe my guilt. My family lost everything because of me. Now my younger brothers have to work as laborers so that my family can get at least some food."

Life in Thailand

In the afternoon, Salim will go out with his push cart and sell the bread he made from dough. The deep-fried bread with banana and sweet condensed milk on it is a popular snack in Thailand and is the only source of income for most Rohingya refugees in the country. With the money Salim makes from selling these 'rotis,' he can barely make ends meet. At the end of the month, he is left with no money which could send to his family in Myanmar.

Salim is pretty clear about who is to blame for the Rohingya plight: "It is the fault of the government. It should give us back our rights, our citizenship, and stop discriminating against us," he said.

But the reality is very different from Salim's demands. Just last week, Myanmar's government passed a law that allows the authorities to enforce family planning measures and make it mandatory for women to wait for 36 months before bearing another child. Critics fear this law could be used to target the Rohingya minority, thus aggravating their predicament.

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Rohingya Exodus