Even as the Indian government is mulling over the issue of deporting more than 40,000 Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, it’s a hopeless battle between survival and statelessness for many of them camped in the dilapidated relief camps across India.
A cheerful scene of young Rohingyas playing carom greets me when I visit them at the refugee relief centre in Chennai’s Kelambakkam. For the past few years, they have a called a battered two storied building their ‘home’.
Home has had no permanent meaning for many refugees like Mohammad Salim, who fled the 2011 violence in Myanmar, where the native government is accused of 'textbook ethnic cleansing' (as the United Nations terms it) of Rohingya Muslims.
The Rohingyas, an ethnic population of over one million Sunni Muslims living in Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine state, were termed as the world’s most persecuted community by the United Nations in 2013. In the last decade, scores of Rohingya families have fled from repeated sectarian violence at the hands of the Burmese government which denied them citizenship under the 1982 Burmese Citizenship Law.
Twenty-six-year old Salim, recalls being captured and abused in a Burmese prison for merely using a mobile phone. It was after he managed to bribe some officials to release him that he decided to flee from his village in Myanmar’s Maungdaw district.
“Despite having decent education, Rohingya people do not get basic jobs that help them in sustenance. Moreover, all our Madrasas (religious learning centres) are burnt down by the local government and police,” shares Salim, who now works as a rag picker to fend for his family.
Around 20 Rohingya families were accommodated at the ram shackled Tsunami relief centre in Chennai’s suburbs, after the UN High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) intervened and sought permission from the Tamil Nadu government. Now, equipped with refugee cards and Adhaar documents, they work odd jobs in butcher shops, restaurants and sell recyclable wastes for a living.
Monitored movements, restraints on practicing Islam, and abuse from majority Rakhine Buddhists were all a way of life for many Rohingya refugees before they arrived in India.
“Many Rohingyas are being killed merely because they are Muslim”, shares Hafiz Mohammad Usman, talking fiercely in decent Hindi.
Hailing from a village in Myanmar’s Buthidaung Township, twenty-five year old Usman has been living on Indian soil ever since he crossed the borders in 2011. He taught children at a local Madrasa in Jammu before moving to the Chennai camp two years ago, to reunite with his sister.
Many more families and distressed people escaped the latest round of violence and persecution that began in Rakhine on August 25th 2017. A counter-offensive operation by the Burmese military in retaliation to a small rebellion by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) left thousands of Burmese Rohingyas hungry, homeless and wretched.
“ARSA is group of people armed with knives fighting for Rohingya rights. They are not trained fighters like those in the military. The military burnt down all our Madrasas, raped our women and continue to torch our villages. The Myanmar army has no ounce of humanity,” says Usman.
The massive scale and brutality of the recent military operation forced many Rohingyas to take refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh, which has provided shelter to many of them. Salim’s mother and brother are among the lakhs of people who have hiked dangerous forest paths to reach Bangladesh, where they are currently huddled up. “I got in touch with them over the phone yesterday and they were explaining how the roads there are flooded with Rohingya refugees. Some died during the perilous journeys due to incessant rains. Fortunately my family made it safely. But they are starving now,” he describes.
Usman and others, still playing the carom board, inform me that about 1.5 lakh Rohingyas have taken refuge in Bangladesh over the last fortnight. However, the actual numbers are more than double. Images obtained by Human Rights Watch show massive fire destruction of several Rohingya villages in Northern Rakhine. The Burmese government is also accused of planting landmines along the border routes to harm those fleeing extra-judicial killings.
“They are setting villages on fire and showering bullets from helicopters on those fleeing their torched houses. The army hates us (Rohingyas) so much that they are waiting near foothills to murder those who have escaped and hidden in the nearby mountains. They think we are culprits, but what is the fault of innocent toddlers who are being massacred mercilessly by being thrown into burning fires?”, Usman questions angrily, while showing me Whatsapp images of horrendous carnages that he received from his friends from back home.
Usman is thankful to the Indian government for accommodating Rohingyas across various camps in the country. “You are fortunate that your Army is there to protect you and not to harm you,” he tells me. Dil Mohammad also joins him in talking about the better and safe conditions that makes him like ‘Hindustan’.
“We are grateful to this country for not killing us,” Usman continues. I askif the refugees in the Chennai camp were aware about Indian government’s plan to deport them back to Myanmar. “We keep hearing news about the Indian government suspecting us to side with terrorist organizations. However we have no motive to stay here and we do not intend to harm anyone. We are not even seeking any rights. Why deport us to Burma, where we are certain to get killed, bomb us here instead,” he says in a numbing tone.
Fifty-year-old Siraj Begum is one of the oldest women in the Kelambbakam camp. Reluctantly, she starts speaking about her brothers who are still languishing in Burmese jails for crimes they did not commit. “They were framed by Buddhist monks who enjoy the open support of the local police”, she says. Ask her if she ever wishes to go back andshe has a standard response like most Rohingyas- “Yes, but only when peace returns to Arkaan (present Rakhine state).
Young Tausaleema’s tale is no less miserable, as she begins talking about the circumstances that forced her to flee. She paid a huge sum of ‘Myanmar kyat’ (currency) to the local authorities when she was about to get married (compensating for acquiring valid papers is customary for Rohingyas in Myanmar). “However our documents were never released and they started demanding more money. That’s when we decided to leave for good,” the mother of two shares casually.
As I finish up my interviews, a huge chunk of cemented portion from a neglected building has fallen off and injures a young Rohingya girl, Zubaida who was sitting below it. While a few of them rush her to the Primary Health Centre (PHC) across the road, others show me around the camp to reiterate the pathetic state of the age old relief centre.
A sepia building, which may crumble anytime, a minimal firewood community kitchen, and a single toilet are all that is characteristic of the Rohingya camp in suburban Chennai. For many of them, life mostly revolves around rag picking, playing carom and being optimistic.
I am curious to know what they teach their children who were born in India. Do they know of their Rohingya identity? Do they know about Myanmar? “They know that they are Rohingya, but we seldom talk about the problems we face because we are Rohingya Muslims,” says Usman. I observe how the sides of the carom board are now occupied by little Rohingya kids who know nothing about the perpetual sense of statelessness that bothers their parents.
“Myanmar says we are Bangladeshi, Bangladesh says we are Burmese Rohingya. Neither Pakistan wants us nor does Malaysia. We weren’t born out of thin air right? So to all those people who still have some humanity left to empathize, I urge them to find us a home,” Usman closes with a resonating plea.
As I walk away, I wonder if anyone deserves to live like that- uprooted from home, bereaved, wounded and cursing one’s fate.
The lack of apathy surrounding the entire Rohingya crisis has yet again questioned various nations’ larger concerns over safety and security, while turning away distraught refugees fleeing genocide. Though it’s evident that even the celebrated democratic leader of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi is not protecting the innocent Rohingya Muslims, the New Delhi government has been shying away from taking a firm stand.
Bangladesh which has far larger concerns than India has condemned the ethnic cleansing by the Burmese State while the Indian government is yet to even acknowledge it. A press statement released in the wake of PM Modi’s recent visit to Myanmar limited itself in expressing concern over the ‘extreme violence’ in Rakhine state.
In a latest, the Indian Envoy has also lashed out at United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s comments deploring India’s plans to deport Rohingyas. Defending the incumbent government’s concerns in this matter, Rajeev Chander, India’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva said ‘enforcing laws should not be mistaken for lack of compassion’.
However, does being law-abiding necessarily mean banishing people to die at the hands of their own state?
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