Sketches of Exodus: Interviews With Rohingya Refugees
By Richard Potter
June 22, 2015
It was in 2012 the world first became aware of a small minority called the Rohingya who live in Myanmar's western Rakhine State. The Rohingya are ethnically darker and Muslim, where the state's majority, Rakhine, are typically lighter in complexion and Buddhist. Riots beginning in the summer of 2012, targeting the Rohingya, effectively displaced 140,000 of them by the fall of the same year, forcing them into squalid camps where access to food and medicine has been precarious at best. Meanwhile more than 700,000 Rohingya remain in Myanmar under tension and threat of further attacks by the Rakhine majority, or threats of violence and extortion by police and military.
This is occurring while laws against the Rohingya—who have been considered non-citizens in the country since they were stripped of citizenship in 1982—restrict their movement, ability to work and provide for their families, obtain access to medical treatment, and limit the kind of work they are allowed to perform. This, coupled with calls from the government to expel the Rohingya from the country as non-citizens, has led many to believe that the Rohingya are at very least under threat of ethnic cleansing, and is the reason why so many have fled the country by the thousands every year by whatever means possible.
Most often Rohingya attempt to immigrate to Malaysia or Indonesia on small, crammed trafficking boats. The journey often lacks adequate supplies, carries great risk of death in sinking, and almost always leads to further extortion by traffickers, or for those unable to pay extortion fees it may result into modern slavery or imprisonment in trafficking camps. It is estimated that 100,000 Rohingya, ten percent of the total population, have tried to make this journey in the past three years. There is no data on how many have been lost at sea, nor are comprehensive numbers on those imprisoned in trafficking camps.
The following is a collection of first-hand accounts from Rohingya in four different countries who have managed to flee from Myanmar. Their stories recount why they left, and how they escaped. All names included have been changed and some details and locations have been omitted to protect those interviewed.
Thailand: Nasir Salam
Nasir Salam was born in Bangladesh in 1994, the second son in a Rohingya family that had fled from Myanmar two years earlier. “My family is from Maungdaw, but they left after the police beat my grandfather. They arrested him and kept him for ten days, beating him. They told my father if he didn't leave Myanmar they would kill him.” Nasir's family left during one of the larger, though often overlooked, exoduses of Rohingya from Myanmar.
Inside the camp, life was restricted for Nasir. He was unable to attend school outside of the camp, and his family had a very difficult time earning money. Like many, he and his older brother fled as a means to support their family, to ensure their survival, and with hope they could even be prosperous if he was able to earn enough to support them.
In the spring of 2012, Nasir paid human traffickers 25,000 Bangladesh taka ($322) to travel to Thailand, where he hoped to be transferred by a smuggling network to neighboring Malaysia. He spent the next 10 days at sea on a small boat crammed with 150 other people so tight they were all forced to huddle into balls; holding their knees to their chest. “After five days we ran out of water. The captain of the ship, he beat many people. Some of the people jumped off the boat to commit suicide, they thought it is better to die like this. We went without water for four days and we had no food. On the ninth day it rained. People filled their water bottles with the rain. The rain water, everyone said God sent the rain, Al-ḥamdu lillāh [Thank God],” Nasir recalls. The following day their ship arrived at shore in southern Thailand.
The relief was short-lived, as Nasir and the others were transferred to a jungle trafficking camp. There the traffickers attempted to extort more money from him and his brother. “They tried to take another 175,000 taka [roughly $2,300], and said if we gave it to them then we could go to Malaysia. We didn't have any money so they beat my big brother. They put me and my brother together and beat my brother, they called my family to demand the money, but they didn't have it so they kept beating my brother every time they demanded. They didn't beat me, just my brother, because at that time I was too young, and he was older than me. They beat many people in the camps, one of them died from it. This is when we decided to escape.”
In the middle of the night Nasir, his brother, and nine others escape the trafficking camp. “We ran anywhere we could. We didn't know where, we just ran. Finally, we came to a Muslim area and we went inside the Masjid. There we met some Muslim people who let us stay there, they gave us food and rice. They let us stay for one day, but the following morning the Thai police came to take us. I don't know who told them we were there.”
Nasir and his brother spent the following year detained in an immigration center on the Thai Malaysian border. They were released after a year, at which point they both promptly tried to cross again into Malaysia. Nasir's brother made it, guided by Thai Muslims, but Nasir was caught by the police again, and transferred to the Thailand Immigration Detention Center (IDC) in Bangkok.
Nasir was assigned to a cell in the Detention Center he shared with nearly a hundred other people, sleeping and using all the same facilities. “It was a bad place. There was a time the leader from the cell, the police, and 20 men beat a man from Vietnam to death. People there were from many places. Somalia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Pakistan, some people from Laos. They came from many places.” Nasir befriended people in the IDC from varying religious and national backgrounds. He befriended Somalis fleeing war, Pakistani Christians and Ahmadi Muslims fleeing persecution, Tamil asylum seekers; they shared the experience of escaping similar threats, only to end up confined without knowledge of when they would be released, or to where they would be released.
After a year Nasir was released on bail. “My family paid the bail. My mother she didn't have enough money when I came to IDC to pay my bail, but she saved for me over a year's time, and she was able to get me out.” She had to pay 50,000 taka ($650).
Nasir was free, and given stipend by the UNHCR for living expenses as his resettlement was processed. He has been approved for relocation to the United States, but at the time of this writing he doesn't know which city he will be settled in. “Maybe in one or two months they will resettle me. I have a health examination coming up. When I get to the U.S.A. I hope first I can pay my mother back. Then I hope also to get education, I don't know how to read or write well. I want to get a job so I can send money back to my family. I want to make sure my younger brother can go to school. If he has money he can go to school even outside the camp if he pays to be allowed.”
Nasir still considers himself lucky, and emphasizes the condition of those back in Bangladesh and Myanmar that is the cause for so many going to sea with human traffickers as he had. In a strange twist Nasir read of one of them in news recently, “It was last week maybe, the Bangladeshi soldiers attacked many traffickers, one of the men they killed, I knew him. He was my agent [trafficker]. He was from Myanmar, a Rohingya. The traffickers are mostly Bangladeshi, Thai, but also some Rohingya.”
|This is a Rohingya boy and girl in front of a fishing boat at the Rohingya IDP camp in Rural Sittwe. Credit: Richard Potter|
Bangladesh: Omar, Yusuf and Hasan
Omar, Yusuf, and Hasan are three young men living in the Nayapara refugee camp in southern Bangladesh. Their families have each lived there since the camp was formed in 1993, responding to a massive influx of Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar. There are two massive registered refugee camps for Rohingya in Bangladesh, housing nearly 30,000 Rohingya, and an astounding 200,000 unregistered who have accumulated over the years in severely impoverished camps where conditions are much worse.
Omar, the eldest of the three men at 28, was born across the river from the Nayapara, in Maungdaw. He left his home in 1992 with his family, at only five years old, and was relocated to Nayapara by the UNHCR the following year. Yusuf, 21, and Hasan, 24, were both born inside of Bangladesh after their parents fled from Myanmar. Yusuf was born inside the camp, while Hasan was born in a nearby village called Dhamdumia. All of their families left Myanmar more than two decades before the 2012 riots that would come to make the plight of Myanmar's Rohingya known globally, after suffering from restricted movement, religious oppression, forced labor, and indiscriminate killings by the police and military. Hasan recalls the stories from his parents, how his grandfather was shot and killed by the Burmese military, when he was in forced labor for them and unable to carry the loads they demanded of him. Each of the young men are largely self-educated, and work in secret as teachers inside of Nayapara, attempting to offer ease of access to the education that they had to strive to access growing up.
“Many students tried to study from class one to class five [year one to year five], including of Burmese language, then it was informed and known to the government and they tortured the students. We didn't even have simple education in the camp, so very secretly some students studied in a house made of leaves and sacks, when it was known to the Myanmar government they deployed the police and intruded on the camp. Those students were arrested and tortured. They tortured them by breaking their fingers. They would ask which hand they used to write, and then they would break the fingers on that hand. They would pull the nails out of their fingers,” Omar remembers, stating that it wasn't until 1997—four years after the camp had been established—that any education system would be offered to the refugees.
Hasan recollects an event from his childhood, where a young boy was playing a game with a stone and accidentally hit the Refugee Camp's Camp In Charge (CIC) in the head with a stone, “The CIC got hurt and was bleeding from his head. He called the police and told them to shoot the refugees. Following his command they shot the refugees. Men and women. My uncle was shot and killed in this violence.”
In 1997, the Bangladeshi government attempted to forcibly repatriate the Rohingya in the camps back to Myanmar, but collectively they refused to return home where they thought they would still face persecution. Omar reminisces: “The refugees were reluctant to go back, so Bangladesh tried to force them. We refused many times, and then one day the refugees had a meeting and decided to refuse all humanitarian assistance from UNHCR and WFP [World Food Program]. They stopped taking food rations. It lasted 52 days.”
During the boycott of UNHCR and WFP, families had to find new ways to sustain themselves. Omar remembers the villagers leaving to go to nearby hillsides to collect whatever food they could find for their families, risking arrest or attacks from Bangladeshi citizens who didn't want them there. “We used to cook banana leaf in water for food, sometimes the whole tree, we would cook it just to have food. Some people were dying from hunger at this time, and then one day the police arrived at the end of the camp so no one could exit and they could forcibly repatriate them. There were many battalions with many kinds of guns. They started beating and shooting directly at the people. One person died. I was nine years old at that time, and I saw it. From that time to 2005 they continued with repatriation, until finally in 2006 they began to resettlement to third countries.”
Omar, like many other Rohingya, was selected for resettlement to a third country but was stalled and blocked by the Bangladeshi government until the program was completely discontinued in 2010, leaving thousands with no hope of a life of basic human rights, or a chance to support their families. Effectively, the Rohingya in Bangladesh had been condemned to an indefinite stay in an open air prison after having waited there for two decades already. In this light, it becomes far easier to understand why so many flee by boat every year.
Yusuf elaborates on this point: “Actually we have been here for many decades, many of the young people think they are hopeless and they leave for Malaysia by boat. They think they can generate income there to support their families. Many times they send their oldest son. There are many problems, sickness in families, or their daughter cannot marry because the family has no money. Some families cannot afford to eat, so the oldest son or the head of the family will leave for this reason. The trafficker boat comes near our camp, a small trawler, and they take them from there to a larger trafficking boat. Maybe 15 to 20 people leave our camp every month this way. When they get near Malaysia, the traffickers will call the family members and ask for another 180,000 taka to go to Malaysia. If they can pay the money they are released from the clutches of the trafficker, but if they cannot pay they keep them like this.”
All three of the young men admit they have thought of leaving on the boats, but ultimately the risks outweighed the potential. While they wish ultimately they could return to Myanmar, they know it is unlikely the government there will ever accept them as citizens. For now they keep their hope that third countries like the U.S. or UK will accept them, and that after 23 years confined to a refugee camp they might finally be allowed to start their lives.
|A Rohingya father and son in Coconut Garden, Sittwe. Credit: Richard Potter|
China: Nurul Mohammed
Nurul Mohammed grew up in the Aung Mingalar quarter of Sittwe, in Myanmar's Rakhine State. He is 24 years old. He remembers growing up with relative freedom and security, which would come to define his last years there by their absence. “Before the riots it was free in Aung Mingalar,” he says.
But when the 2012 riots happened it changed everything in the quarter, both physically and in the collective psyche of its inhabitants. “I still can't forget that day. How could they get so many kinds of weapons for attacking Rohingya so suddenly if they didn't prepare? They had to be preparing because they had so many weapons.”
Nurul remembers sleeping in the afternoon when his mother woke him up to the riots outside and told him the whole quarter was surrounded by armed Rakhine mobs. “I quickly got up and looked from the window, then I saw how the sky changed from blue to a red color from the fire.” They were burning down homes and shops of the Rohingya Muslims in the village. Nurul recalls going outside: “Some parts of Aung Mingalar were torched and the village was noisy with the loud sound of women, girls and babies crying.”
The men in village quickly mobilized to put out the fires, and without weapons tried to chase away the mobs where it was possible. “I was also with them throwing the water, because some parts of Aung Mingalar were torched by Rakhine, I saw them face to face, but they were some distance away. They shot steel balls at us from something like a fake gun, I don't know its name. They threw fireballs made from rope at the houses. When our people responded the Rakhine ran away, but then they came back with Hlun Taine (police) and attacked again.” Nurul describes an attack coordinated between mobs and police that was later corroborated by Human Rights Watch. “The Rohingyas had to run back, in the mercy of Allah—at that time.”
Nurul, like many, was injured in the violence, “I was hurt in the leg, but not badly. I was shot with a steel ball by the Rakhine. There were no doctors so no one could treat it, but it wasn't too bad.” As the mob and police continued their attack Nurul witnessed an unlikely savior arriving to the quarter, the Burmese Army. “When the military arrived the police ran away, they gave protection.” The charred remains of homes and shops still ablaze while the injured sought aid, and searches were carried out for the dead. “The entire village was immersed in tears that day. Almost all of the people were crying.”
When the violence subsided the army that protected the quarter, and the police who attacked it, became the wardens. The quarter was cordoned off, surrounded by check points, barbed wire, and heavily armed soldiers patrolling. Aung Minglar had survived the riots better than any other Muslim quarter, and the residents there were the only Muslims in the city not moved to the rural IDP camps a few miles away. Instead their quarter was ghettoized, isolated, and repeatedly cut off from aid over the next few years. Finally, in the summer of 2014 all aid agencies were forced to leave the state after several international nongovernment agency offices were attacked by a mob. Aung Minglar was completely isolated and starving. Food storage was running low, and covert plans had to be created to bring medicine into the quarter. The Burmese government reassured the international community they would provide medical relief regularly to those in the care of the NGOs, but this was done with a weekly visit from a medical team of fewer than five people treating the entire quarter of nearly 3,000 residents for only a few hours each visit. Typically only the worst cases were treated, and poorly.
Life had long been unbearable in the quarter, and was plainly getting worse. Nurul had planned for some time to leave the quarter, but finally the indications were clear it was past due. He sold his favorite motorcycle to a wealthy local man, and then used the money to arrange his escape, “In Burma, government servants get very little pay, when they see money they make it very easy for us to leave from there,” Nurul says. “I had a white card [temporary residency government ID issued by the federal government to most Rohingya] so I applied for a 45-day pass to Yangon. It cost me 26 lakhs [about $2,400]. They took responsibility for me in Sittwe and for my arrival in Yangon. When I arrived I didn't show up at the immigration office in Yangon. They didn't know I was there.” When Nurul landed in Yangon he walked past the immigration office he was supposed to report to, and as simple as that he was free.
Nurul found life in Yangon much better than the one he left behind, but still deprived of opportunity, “The only problem was that I didn't have a job. There was no discrimination like in Rakhine, but there were no jobs.” Life for Nurul had become bearable, but sustaining it proved difficult, “If I had money I could go anywhere from Yangon, I wanted to settle in U.S.A. or Australia. That was why I went to Yangon, to make money, but luck didn't bring me any company.”
Nurul decided to leave Myanmar entirely, and having exhausted usual channels for repatriation or asylum he decided to leave by unconventional methods, networking underground to do so. (Certain details have been omitted from print to protect Nurul and the route used to escape.) Nurul was able to create a new identity in Yangon, formally on paper, and through brokers obtained both a citizen ID and passport to leave the country. He left on a well-traveled tourist route into China, and made regular border runs back to Myanmar as the visa required renewing.
In China Nurul began another attempt at a new life, hoping to take advantage of the large jade trade on the Myanmar-China border, along with the other Rohingya who had traveled with him, and some who were already there. The border, for many, had become a place of new hope. “When I was in China I could go everywhere, if I have some money I can work to buy and sell real and fake jade. But it is hard to find the money for the investment.”
Nurul eventually moved further into China, in an area with a higher concentration of Muslims and another thriving jade market. “It’s wonderful here, it's free. But we have to hide because of our passport problem, when the immigration officers arrive we hide.” Nurul's life continues transforming, and the danger of security forces of one kind or another has followed him wherever he has gone, an aspect ingrained in an entire life of statelessness. And yet, the threat has lessened with his determination for freedom, and each migration takes him closer to the home he's spent so long searching for. At the end of our conversation Nurul had to leave for the call of prayer, and then left to go to the jade market with a friend he had made in China.
|Rohingya children from same village (Bogadip) where they are denied aid because they are technically considered not displaced, while being trapped inside of the camp. Credit: Richard Potter|
Saudi Arabia: Abdul Hafiz
Abdul Hafiz was born in the Burmese city of Maungdaw, in North Rakhine State, separated from Bangladesh by the Naf River. “We were very close to Bangladesh, at night you could see the lights from the cars in Bangladesh glimmering like starlight from my home,” he recollects. Abdul, born in 1985, also recalls a time before tensions and violence between Buddhists and Muslims had become overflowing and permeated the majority of the society: “You know I am funny, everywhere I go I am happy with friends, so I had no problem with Buddhist friends. I had many friends—Buddhist friends, Muslim friends. Some Buddhist friends come to visit me in Maungdaw and stayed with me in my home. We had no problem with Buddhists.”
It was Abdul's home town of Maungdaw that would be one of the major sites of violence during the 2012 Rakhine State riots, where the Muslim majority, largely reacting to attacks on Muslims elsewhere in the state, took to the streets and were met with a severely violent crackdown by the police and NaSaKa border guard (a border guard specifically for Rakhine State that was accused widely of war crimes and disbanded in 2013), coupled with mob attacks, and large portions of their villages burnt to the ground. The violence surprised many because life between Muslims and Buddhists had been considerably peaceful previously. “What happened was unseen and unknown faces became seen in the riots, it had been planned,” Abdul describes stories of outsiders involved in the riots, and the surprising degree of preparation and coordination the attacks against Rohingya seemed to involve.
Even amid the relative calm between the Rakhine and Rohingya before the 2012 riots, Abdul still remembers instances of tension, and a lifetime of persecution and discriminatory policies. “There were racists gangs, like you have gangs in America, sometimes they would make a problem. There was a class for English speaking with both Buddhists and Muslims in 2003 to 2004. Some Buddhists didn't like this, and at night some Buddhists used to disturb the students every night, sometimes they even hit them,” he recalls.
The greatest difficulties for the Rohingya prior to 2012 were the severe limitations of rights they possessed since they were stripped of citizenship in 1982. In this regard they lost freedom of movement, due process, rights to education for many, and endured a significant period of forced labor, which the Junta was notorious for implementing throughout the region. For Abdul much of this hit him very personally. “It was very serious, I was studying at Sittwe University at that time and my Mother died.” Abdul was one of the few Rohingya who were allowed to attend university in the country, and it was in his first year in 2003 that he received the news of his mother's passing.
“At that time I was in Sittwe with a legal document called Legal Form Four. It was like a visa for 13 days, but it is extendible for students because studies are minimum three months. At that time the boat to Maungdaw had already left and I would have to go to by motorcycle, trying to take a short cut,” Abdul says. He was faced with the dilemma of getting permission to leave to go back to his own home town in his own country, which he would have to do since Rohingya are not allowed to travel freely. “I went to the immigration office and explained that my mother had died, that I had to go as soon as possible because in my religion dead bodies are buried as soon as we say prayers over them.” In Islam bodies are buried as soon as possible so their loved one can be at peace quickly, but it is also important that loved ones can be present to pray their loved one is accepted into heaven. This would be most important for a son.
“I should have had permission already because I was a student, but because I am Muslim I needed to get permission to travel so they are aware. I told my situation to the immigration officer but he said he had no time for me, but said I should go and he would tell the border guard by walkie-talkie. So a friend took me by car. We were stopped by an officer who had been drinking on duty; he was drunk and refused to listen to anything I said. I cried to him, I showed him my student papers. He said I was allowed only 14 days on my visa and it had already expired. He said I had to go the following morning by boat. I did nothing wrong, he just didn't want to let me go, nothing else.” Abdul was sent back to university after barely making it few miles toward his mother's funeral. Though the visa he had been issued as a student was supposed to ensure him some right to travel, his status as a Rohingya caused them to interrogate and deny him this. “It was horrible for me, I cried for the whole night, and the next morning I took the boat to see my mother, but she was already buried. I decided then as soon as I had the chance I would leave for any other country.”
Abdul would stay in Myanmar for eight more years, finishing university and then working for NGOs in the country. Finally, in the fall of 2011 he decided it was time to fulfill the decision he had made after he was kept from his mother's funeral. He crossed the border into Bangladesh by boat, joining the distant lights from across the river he knew as a child where countless Rohingya had already fled and had been crammed into refugee camps. “In Bangladesh the situation is also the same. Bangladesh is not very welcoming to foreigners, especially not from another underdeveloped country.” The Bangladesh government has begrudgingly housed Rohingya in refugee camps since 1993, and attempted unsuccessfully to repatriate them into Myanmar on a number of occasions. There is common resentment among the impoverished Bangladeshi citizens near the camps, that they are losing land, resources, and aid to the Rohingya who fled Myanmar.
“I didn't live in camps, but stayed illegally with a friend who was studying there. His town wasn't busy or often visited, and because Rohingya have similar face and size to Bengladeshis no one noticed me. I tried to sell T-shirts, cotton T-shirts, but it didn't work very well.”
|Rohingya children in unregistered IDP camp in Sittwe. Credit: Richard Potter|
Shortly after he left, violence erupted in his home town. Abdul was warned that police were using the riots as an excuse to target anyone they disliked. “My father told me not to come back because some police men were not very pleased with me. In 2012, the police opened fire on our village, they were fighting, conducting raids, they burned some Rohingya boys alive. My father warned me to stay out of the country because they would remember me. Before the police used to bring the poor Muslims from the country side and take their money. I would scold them for this. Some of the villagers couldn't speak Burmese so they would target them and extort them because they only spoke Rakhine. We would say 'Why are you taking money from these people?' I was protected then because I worked for the district mayor. My father was afraid that they would remember me and attack me also, and because they attacked Rohingya who worked for Non Government Organizations, which I did.”
Abdul saved what he could over the next few years, doing what jobs were available, until finally he was able to leave for Saudi Arabia through a process he is reluctant to disclose details about. “It is systematic. I have no passport, no documents. I gave the broker money and he got me to Saudi Arabia by his system,” he explains. Like in Myanmar, Bangladesh is ripe with corruption. Documents both real and fake are reportedly easy to obtain for anyone who can pay for them and it is through this system that immigrant workers come to Saudi Arabia, often later having their passports withheld, and their lives placed at the whim of traffickers and indentured labor networks.
In Saudi Arabia, a decades-old policy was put in place which allowed residency for Rohingya. First implemented in the 1970s by its sympathetic monarch, Abdul unfortunately arrived at a time of crackdown on immigration, and this residency, called Iqama, was no longer afforded to Rohingya, even as the Saudis continue boasting about it as one of their great instances of compassion for the Ummah (Body of Believers), “It is very difficult for me compared to other Rohingya who arrived here in time for Iqama by the Saudi Government. We should be thankful they gave it at all, but at the moment they are not offering. Some say it will restart again, that they'll investigate legality to see if you are from Bangladesh or Myanmar and Rohingya. If we are lucky we will have a chance to have Iqama again.”
Abdul has to again live in secret, in hiding, and with limited movement. It is a pattern that has frequented his life as he's tried to find ways to improve it. “I sometimes work at factories, where some work is needed. I go to where the brokers say there is work, or sometimes Rohingya here have jobs they offer and they will pay us money. At the moment I won't go to the factory because it's far away from where I live and the immigration situation is very serious. I try to stay close to where I live for work because if I am caught by immigration they will try to deport me if they don't see my document. I have documents that can prove I am Rohingya and from Myanmar. If they see documents they will keep me in jail until some Iqama process is offered again.”
The difficulty of this phase of his life doesn't deter Abdul, and he continues to count himself as lucky. “I have it better than the Rohingya of my community, I want to discuss them. They've spent their lives in camps for three years, they have no rights to education or movement, no chance at life so they choose to leave on boats which are very dangerous and many die. It is by good luck that I can arrive here in Saudi Arabia, otherwise I would have had to escape on one of those boats.”