Nowhere People

Published: November 22, 2013 - 13:08 Updated: February 3, 2014 - 02:03

Surviving in sub-human conditions, the suffering of Burmese Rohingyas seems infinite

Saiyed Danish Delhi 

The Muslim-Buddhist clashes followed by the state-sanctioned pogrom against Muslim minorities in Rakhine state of Burma was revived in 2012 after the murder of a local Muslim woman on May 28, 2012, forcing thousands of Rohingyas to leave their homes for safe havens. The same year, many of them fled to India, either by land or sea, depending on their preferred route. Many refugees reached Delhi where Rohingyas already affected by past violence in Myanmar had been living in shanties made of bamboo shacks and plywood in sub-human conditions in an utterly unhygienic and disease-prone area near Madanpur Khadar village at the Delhi-Noida border.

For Omar Hamza (28), a kurta-pyjama clad Urdu teacher, it all started way before 2012, the year that witnessed the displacement of 90,000 Rohingya Muslims from Burma who took refuge in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. It was in 2009 that he first reached Delhi after seeking shelter at other places in India.

Omar’s farming family owned 25 hectares of land in Akyab (Sittwe) in Burma. “I used to teach in a madrassa. One day the police came and accused me of studying in Bangladesh and crossing the border illegally,” he recalls. The government took his land “by force” on the pretext of making public schools. They were forcibly sent to a camp to live with other displaced families. At other times, the army would walk in the dead of night and capture their cropland. Even a modest form of protest would prompt the army to shoot and kill.

“They (Buddhist extremists) attacked us one day, blaming us for demanding a separate Arakan state. Ordinary folks like us had nothing to do with it. It was a government conspiracy to get rid of us,” says Omar. “Everyone in this camp has somebody still living there. Due to hellish circumstances, only my wife and I could flee. My parents and relatives are still there. God knows what will become of them. Many tried to cross into Bangladesh or escape by boats the day they attacked our village. They burnt many villages. Many of us escaped but others got killed while trying to cross Naf river where mass murders happened.”

“I ran northwards from Sittwe and climbed the Tanki Pahar (mountain) which I crossed after a six-hour arduous walk to enter the coastal district of Maung-Daw. The district has a harbour which I used to cross into Bangladesh. I stayed in Bangladesh for four months in a madrassa. After the authorities refused to accept us as refugees, we came to India through Kolkata.” In July 2012, he arrived in Delhi.

“Of all the horrific accounts,” Omar says, “the brutally-enforced marriage law for Muslims shows the deepest pit of this inconceivable ordeal.” According to him, the Burmese military junta has different units to harass Muslims of which Nasaka is the most notorious. Apart from manning the border, one of their main responsibilities is to preside over Muslim marriages. “In case a Muslim couple wants to marry and settle down, they have to file a plea in the court one year before the date. If the plea is accepted, they are ordered by the court to submit a non-refundable, unaffordable sum of money in order to seal the marriage,” he says. “It doesn’t stop here, once the amount is paid, the couple may have to pass through other tests to be declared man and wife.”

Failure to pass any of these ‘purity’ tests or inability to pay the deemed sum can be terrible. “On rejection of the marriage plea, if any couple is caught getting married without the orders of the government, they may be shot dead or sentenced to seven years in prison,” he says.

He opens his notebook for the first time. A closer view betrays his tiny handwriting in Urdu. “I’m writing about everything we saw and faced in Burma. I will let you read it once I’m done,” he says and shuts
the notebook.  

The indifference and ill-treatment of Rohingya Muslims has only swelled in Delhi. Hopes have diminished while disappointments continue to soar. “We got our initial help from the Zakat Foundation of India (ZFI). They gave us the land to live,” he says.

He opens his notebook for the first time. A closer view betrays his tiny handwriting in Urdu. “I’m writing about everything we saw and faced in Burma. I will let you read it once I’m done,” he says, and shuts the notebook 

ZFI is a non-governmental charitable organization. In July 2012, which also coincided with the month of Ramadan, ZFI provided land to Rohingyas for settlement and raised huge sums by motivating the local people “spiritually”. They also put a signboard on the road, calling their makeshift settlement ‘Dar-Al-Hijra’ (Land of Migration). ‘Hijra’, an Arabic term, denotes the first ever migration by Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in AD 622.

Since they came to India, the Rohingya Muslims have been fighting to get the “refugee status card” from the United Nations (UN). Omar shows his ‘asylum seeker card’ which has been issued by the UNHCR to everyone in his community. “We hope that soon everybody will get their asylum seeker cards replaced with the one officially acknowledging us as refugees without which we cannot avail of basic help from the UN,” he says.

However, rights are not won in a day. In April 2012, Rohingya Muslims settled in different parts of India gathered and protested against the unequal treatment meted out to them as compared to non-Muslim Burmese settlers in India before the UNHCR office at Vasant Vihar in South Delhi. His eyes gleam and a smile blooms on his otherwise sad face when Omar mentions the word ‘protest’, a right which is not compatible with the Burmese military junta’s style of democracy. “We protested and demanded to be recognized as official refugees. Our endurance paid off and they agreed,” he says.

 “We are not allowed to keep mobile phones in our village in Burma. If they catch anybody they fine us half-a-million Burmese kyats or throw us in jail for indefinite periods.” The police and Military Intelligence (MI) keep looking for people who try to connect with the ones who have made it out of Rakhine. The last time Omar had spoken to his family was six months ago.

In their refugee camp, in the rainy season, the earth becomes marshy and water-logging is rampant. Water enters their fragile shelters. Children suffer frequent fevers. In the wild bushes around, there are poisonous snakes; one child has died of snakebite.

Jasmine Akhtar is 18; her two-month-old son succumbed to snake bite four months ago. And yet, she feels relief being in India. She describes the difficult times Rohingya women experienced in Burma. “In Taminchang, our village, we don’t come out of our home after maghreb (sunset). We can’t meet our relatives in another village without the permission of authorities; if we resist we are jailed.”

There have been ‘disappearances’ of women in her village.  “How do I tell you where they take away women? They don’t need any pretext to abduct us,” she says. “We will definitely be killed if we ever try to go back to our land. It’s better to die here; but don’t ask us to return.”

Many refugees have taken to daily wage jobs as workers in the nearby construction projects. Mohammad Farooq works as a labourer but is yet to receive his salary of Rs 2,000. “I was supposed to get my pay after my temporary job as a labourer on a construction plot based in Sukhdev Vihar. I have not received a dime,” says Foyyaz ul Qalaam, another refugee-labourer.

Surviving in sub-human conditions, the suffering of Burmese Rohingyas seems infinite
Saiyed Danish Delhi 

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This story is from print issue of HardNews