Months after fleeing homes in Myanmar, Rohingya refugees reckon with new lives
This story was originally published in May, 2018.
Shameema Begum’s day begins just after 4 a.m., when she rises from the thin mat where she sleeps on a dirt floor with her three children. The sun won’t emerge for another hour, but the call to prayer that echoes across Chakmarkul camp rouses many of its 12,360 inhabitants, a small fraction of the Muslim Rohingya refugees who have fled the violence that descended upon their homes in Myanmar last year.
Together, they make what aid workers here call the most concentrated group of refugees on the planet. In the largest camp, 53,300 crowd into each square kilometre – a population density 13 times greater than downtown Toronto.
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On this day Shameema, a 25-year-old mother with a round face and sad eyes, will cook half-rotten fish for her father. Her six-year-old daughter will lead a small class of refugees singing, in English, “head, shoulders, knees and toes.” Her nine-year-old daughter will bring sugared water to their grandmother, who is half-paralyzed from the beating she endured before escaping alongside 693,000 others from Myanmar.
It will be a day filled with uncertainty, but leavened with freedoms that were denied to the Rohingya in their former homes. It will, in other words, be a day much like those that have filled the last eight months, as hundreds of thousands of people attempt to navigate new lives as refugees from what the United Nations human rights chief has called “crimes against humanity,” even as they are stalked by shadows of the violence that brought them here.
After Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army base last August, the Myanmar military launched a ferocious campaign of reprisals. Human-rights groups say large numbers of Rohingya were killed and raped, while hundreds of villages were razed. A group of Nobel Peace laureates has called what happened “genocide.”
Now, the Rohingya live without homes and no country to call their own.
No one knows how long they will live this way. The last time Shameema’s father was a refugee in Bangladesh – Rohingya have fled here en masse three times since 1978 – he stayed six years. This time, the Bangladesh government has sought to encourage a quick repatriation, dissuading efforts to build permanent structures for Rohingya while barring the new arrivals from working or receiving a full education. Aid agencies, however, warn that the Rohingya have little hope for a quick return to their destroyed homes, and could be here for years of drudgery and forced dependance.
After morning prayers, Shameema begins making suji, a porridge-like dish. She lights a fire with wood, boils water and stirs semolina flour to a thick paste. Normally, suji would be seasoned with ghee and cardamon. In the camp, Shameema has only sugar. She relies entirely upon food supplied by international agencies.
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She wakes the children to eat, her daughters spooning food for themselves and their brother, Mohammad Shoyeb, 4. Their shelter is made of bamboo poles and plastic sheeting. A solar cell charges a battery, which is connected to a small fan and an LED light, which they use so sparingly that it remains dark inside long after the sun rises.
At 7 a.m., the girls walk themselves to the madrasa, an unmarked building clad in green sheeting where students receive religious instruction and a basic education.
The girls sit on carpets, opening books filled with Arabic letters. Mohammad Ayaz, 22, one of the mullahs, pinches a stub of chalk between two fingers and writes on a blackboard in neat script: “There is no god but God, and Mohammad is his messenger.” The students erupt into a noisy recitation of the Arabic alphabet, swaying as they chant.
Learning, both religious and secular, has long been a fraught pursuit for Rohingya, and even in Bangladesh it remains tinged by ugly echoes of the past.
Some of the students here attended madrasas in Myanmar, one of their primary avenues for gaining literacy. But soldiers there destroyed many of these religious schools in past years, part of accelerating constrictions that leaders in Myanmar called an effort to combat extremism.
In this madrasa in Bangladesh, however, they have greater freedom, including to discuss why they are here. “They talk about how their parents got killed, their siblings got killed, how they were chased away from their houses,” says Ayaz. “I try to distract them by telling some funny stories, so they can forget what happened in Burma. I try to keep them happy,” he adds, using the old name for Myanmar.
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But the past has been hard to leave behind, particularly when it lives in a grandmother’s crippled body. At 9 a.m., the mullahs dismiss class and the girls return home, whipping off their shawls and entering the darkness. Their grandmother, Toyaba Khatun, is inside, leaning against a support pole. Her eyes are closed and her hair is matted. When she wants to adjust her position, she reaches with her right hand to pick up her left hand. She does the same with her left leg. That side of her body is paralyzed.
It wasn’t always like this. A year ago, she could walk.
Then, around the time the Myanmar military began setting fire to villages last August, soldiers found her husband, who had spent more than 40 years as an imam. They began to beat him. Toyaba protested: “Why are you doing this? He is too old! He will die!”
A soldier then wrenched her arm, pulling her to the ground. He kicked her in the head, rendering her unconscious. When she came to, “it was severe pain,” she says. She began to lose sensation in the left side of her body.
In that same span of violence, Shameema’s husband disappeared. Hearing a commotion, he had left the home to see what was happening. He never returned. The family fled without him, using its remaining money to hire people to carry Toyaba for eight days.
Shameema gets up to fix her parents a meal. Zubaida, her nine-year-old, carries in two pink mugs of sugared water, then sets down bowls with rice and curried fish.
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Refugee relief supplies provide the family with rice, lentils, sugar, cooking oil, chickpeas and sugar. To buy fish, vegetables and green chili peppers, Shameema sells oil for $2 a bottle, and lentils for 50 cents a kilogram – the latter enough to buy a small quantity of poor-quality fish. “The fish is not good. It’s half rotten,” she says.
It’s 10 a.m., and the home is suddenly filled with the sound of nearby children. Noor Kazal, her six-year-old, has wandered out on her own, and climbed up to another bamboo-and-plastic building that is being used as a centre for non-religious learning.
Twenty-seven students crowd into the small space. A teacher calls Noor Kazal to the front. “Head and shool-dahs,” she begins to sing, in English, and the rest of the children follow along.
It is education of a sort she might not receive in Myanmar. Yet here, too, there are restrictions. The Bangladesh government has banned instruction in Bengali as a way of signalling that the Rohingya are not here to stay. They can study, instead, in Burmese and English.
As Noor Kazal sings, the sound of a very different kind of music filters into the classroom, a pulsing bass beat radiating out from a refugee home nearby. Children and teenagers crowd around the door, which opens to a dark and sweltering interior. But the heat is not oppressive. It is celebratory.
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The children of Chakmarkul are having a dance party, the tunes – Eurodance tracks followed by Bollywood numbers – belting out of two speakers connected by jumper wires to a car battery.
On a dirt floor, two young girls dance with abandon, twisting and shimmying and spinning. In two days, this floor will be the new marital home for a young couple, and the music is part of a days-long advance celebration.
“If you have nothing, you have to do something to bring joy,” says Abdul Kader, 50. The groom is his eldest son, and the music is the first he has brought into his home since arriving here. “We wouldn’t be able to have fun like this in Burma.” At home, too, a marriage could only proceed when approved by Myanmar authorities, who assessed a hefty fee in hopes of limiting Rohingya reproduction.
The bride, Bibi Ayesha, is a 16-year-old orphan who lives with the in-laws of her older brother, and her impending union is technically illegal in a country that requires court approval for girls younger than 18 to marry. Ayesha herself says little, sitting silent in the few remaining hours before she becomes a young wife.
For Kader, too, this moment of celebration is tempered by surrounding circumstances. “What kind of life is this?” he asks. “There was no peace over there,” he says, referring to Myanmar. “And there is no peace here.”
It is now 11 a.m., and outside the bride’s home another man has arrived.
“Please, come to my hut,” Siraj Uddin, 48, says in confident English. He is dressed in gleaming white clothes. He walks past the bathrooms – outhouses with walls of steel sheeting surrounding cement holes whose contents must be emptied by hand, using baskets – and opens the door to his home.
Siraj’s shelter is different from the others. It has decorations, including a clock that hangs motionless on the wall. And it has a small library’s worth of books, a startling discovery in a place where many Rohingya arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs. Not Siraj, who hired porters to carry 18 sacks of books out of Myanmar.
He begins to bring out his precious volumes, one after another: diaries written in English with a neat hand; dictionaries; books on the history of the world, European and Muslim rule in India; political readers. Then Six Tales from Shakespeare emerges, its cover tattered and its pages stained, but still graced with King Lear, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice and others.
Portions of the text are underlined. Some, in isolation, carry unexpected resonance in a refugee camp: Macbeth saying “cursed be he who first cries ‘Hold, enough!’”; Lady Macbeth saying “Screw up your courage to the highest point;” the people saying “We will be revenged!” The corner of one page of Julius Caesar has been neatly folded, with a handwritten inscription in pencil: “will have to answer for your wrongdoing one day (suffer). Has a lot to answer for.”
The writing is not, it turns out, Siraj’s. It is his father’s, Mohamed Syedul Basher, whose life was very different from that of his son. The gap between the generations neatly tracks the descent of the Rohingya’s political and economic standing.
Born in 1930, Basher grew up in an era of British control, at a time when Myanmar and Bangladesh had yet to achieve independence. It is this era of freer movement, before fixed borders, that many Burmese nationalists point to as the starting point for what they call an invasion of Bangladeshis into territory that is now Myanmar.
But it was also an era that allowed Basher to travel to India for school when he was 13. He studied in London before graduating from college in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He joined the Burma Education Department when he was 26, becoming vice-chancellor of a university whose student body included Rohingya and local Rakhine Buddhists.
“In that time there was no problem. Everyone was together,” Siraj says.
But in 1978, he fled to Bangladesh with more than 200,000 Rohingya who said they were evicted from their homes by the military as Myanmar sought to separate out those it deemed foreigners.
Most Rohingya returned the following year, but by then life had changed for Basher. “He couldn’t get his job back,” Siraj says. (In 2012, following an outbreak of violence, Rohingya were banned from setting foot on Sittwe University grounds.) Basher became headmaster of a large high school.
Siraj became an educator, too, teaching English, Arabic and Urdu. He can converse, he says, in seven languages.
But in 2009, his school was shut down. That year the U.S. State Department reported that Rohingya “did not have access to state-operated schools beyond primary education.” Siraj worked the family shrimp farms. Yet life slowly constricted as military control tightened. He began hiding his Koran in a dirt hole in 2012, when soldiers began burning the texts.
“This punishment has been going on for a long time. It didn’t start from August” of 2017, he says. He talks for more than an hour, paging through the relics of his past life. He approached a journalist, he said, on the recommendation of his daughter, who wanted to interrupt the ennui of camp life. “We are suffocating here,” Siraj says. “But if I talk with people like you, then I feel better.”
“I really need a job,” he adds.
That’s not likely to be forthcoming. Aside from cash-for-work projects run by foreign aid agencies – which, together, give work to just 6,000 people a day – the ability for Rohingya to earn any income is “very limited,” says Mohammad Abul Kalam, Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
Kalam has encouraged a broader study of potential ways to bring to the region new industry, and with it new job opportunities. But Rohingya are not allowed to leave the camps to work, he says. “What would we offer them?” he says. The local economy is already insufficient for the existing population, much less a city’s worth of new refugees.
Instead, the World Food Programme (WFP) is feeding 800,000 people at a cost of US$24-million per month. Rohingya in the camps are almost wholly dependent on aid agencies, and consequently on the foreign countries who back them. “The bill is high and donors will need to come forward massively,” warns Christa Rader, Bangladesh country director with the WFP. The United Nations has requested US$951-million in international funding this year for the Rohingya. So far it has received just 16 per cent.
Still, Rader worries about the sustainability of a situation where Rohingya cannot care for themselves.
“Number one, the international community has many other crises to take care of. And number two, it’s not desirable to make people sit around in such conditions without having anything to do. It’s not desirable from a human rights perspective. It’s not desirable from a security perspective.”
If Rohingya continue “without any work, without any livelihood opportunity for years spent together,” Kalam adds, the camps “may turn into a harbour of radicalization and other things.”
Already, Rohingya women are being trafficked abroad and brought into local brothels, human rights workers say. Muhammad Ali, with the World Commission of Human Rights, spoke with one Rohingya woman who offered sex for $7.50. “Listen, I need to buy fish, I need to buy meat and I need to buy clothes,” she told him.
But the local Bangladeshi community is beginning to sour on the Rohingya, warns Kalam. The best solution lies in finding a way for them to return to their old homes quickly, he says. The Myanmar government has said it is committed to repatriation. But progress has been slow. A single family returned to Myanmar in mid-April, authorities there said – but Bangladesh officials called it a farce, since that family had not formally left Myanmar territory.
All of which means Shameema and her family stand little current chance of leaving soon.
As afternoon approaches, Shameema removes her mother’s clothes, and washes her body and hair inside the shelter, whose door does not properly close. When the frail woman naps, Shameema leaves to buy medicine for her mother.
By late afternoon, Toyaba is awake again. Her partial paralysis means she has not left this space in six months, she says. She weeps, for the second time today.
But there is some solace here. “Whatever I need, my daughter does for me,” she says. “She cooks for me. She washes me. She cleans my hair. She massages my body. She goes for my medicine.”
Zubaida brings back the pink coffee mugs with sugared water and a few small pieces of bread, setting them on the ground. Her grandparents dip the bread into the water and eat it.
They miss “fish, meat – everything,” says her grandfather, Hason Ali, who says he is not quite 80.
“They took everything from us,” Hason says. It is his second time as a refugee. He came to Bangladesh in 1991, during another Rohingya crisis.
He looks at his grandchildren. “They will study here,” he says. “But later, what will they do?”
Zubaida’s only toy is a plastic container, like from a Kinder Surprise toy, which she fills with green grasshoppers. She has friends with whom she plays. But she also has duties. She cooks rice and gathers firewood, which requires an hour-long walk several times a week.
Later in the day, she will eat the evening meal with the family, then fall asleep before another day begins.
It is still late afternoon, however, when Sirajul Islam, 70, walks in. He is Toyaba’s cousin. He struggles to see in the darkness, his eyesight dimmed, he says, after he was kicked in the face by the Myanmar military. Even so, he comes by once or twice a week to visit. It takes him half an hour to walk here, but he has time. He knows this may be his life for a long while to come.
“What is there to do?” he says. “There’s nothing to do.”
With reporting by Amirul Rajiv