As someone who often struggles with the question: ‘Who am I?’ meeting Rohingya refugees at the camp that currently serves as their shelter, hit me hard.
I couldn’t find an Uber to Balapur, in the Old City, in Hyderabad, where the camp is located. Not easily. An Uber Pool (something I often opt for) didn’t even show up as an option. After two cancellations (by the drivers) and a good 30minute search, I found an autorickshaw. It took me more than an hour and a half to reach Diamond Restaurant, a landmark given to me to reach the camp. The camp is housed just opposite the Diamond Restaurant. The area is called the Royal Colony. The irony!
I meet Mohammad Anwar, a young man; and Abu Hussain, a senior person — two generations who identify with the same struggle — who guided the photographer Siva and I to the camp. The moment I entered the main gate, it struck me that ‘to struggle’ perhaps is their only real identity.
Sixty-five small houses — can’t even be called a house, but since the people I met there used the word ghar, I am not going to take it away from them — on a relatively small piece of land categorised as Camp 1. It is here that Abu lives with his family. There are many more similar camps around the area. Anwar later took us to his place. These houses, mind you, are built by the refugees themselves, the material too bought on their own, and a rent of `700 paid from their pockets.
Passing by those tiny houses, I couldn’t help but feel guilty of the innumerable petty things that we keep complaining about, as little children greeted us with their laughter and were so happy to pose for pictures, even when some of them didn’t have any clothes to put on, or toys to play with.
There’s sludge everywhere and Abu almost apologises… “baarish ke kaaran paani hai yahan par (it’s because it rained here),” and stops, as if embarrassed for me. I could only smile and say, “koi baat nai (no problem),” and he was happy. He invited us inside his house. We sat there — the three of us — Anwar, Abu and I — to hear their story of homelessness, helplessness, hopelessness, and a fight for an identity.
Twenty-five-year-old Anwar grew up in Buthidaung, Myanmar, where it was commonplace to see policemen knocking on doors at odd hours and ordering people to work the night as guards. “They wouldn’t let us sleep at night. My father had no option than to give money to these policemen every time they came, and pleading with them to spare us. We had to pay even to sleep,” says Anwar, his eyes reflecting those haunting memories.
I am already stunned on hearing this. So is the photographer as he captures Anwar’s emotions.
Anwar continues: “They were always ready with ways to hassle or torture us. For instance, if we had someone visiting us, even if close relatives, we had to inform the police that so-and-so is visiting and will stay for x-number of days, and seek their permission for the same. In return, they would ask for money. And if we tried to avoid all these hassle and not inform the police, they pressed whatever charges they feel like, on us.”
Rohingya Muslims were also forced into labour, without proper food or any payment, Abu and Anwar tell us. On the border of Burma, west to Bangladesh are military bases, where some work is always underway. “Officials from these bases took away our people and forced them to do the work that they were actually supposed to do. The workers weren’t given proper food or payment, saying ‘you are working for the government’. Isn’t this slavery? And if people didn’t work well, they were told they are useless and shot dead,” says Anwar, his eyes numb.
A pensive Abu, who has been sitting quiet for long, adds, “even those who survive the torture and return home, die soon after because of malnutrition, and diseases that they contract while working in those conditions.”
Would you also believe that Rohingya people have to seek the government’s permission to marry? “Yes, we have to. We had to inform them and seek permission, and all they would tell us is, ‘we will look into it.’ They would keep delaying it for years and take lots of money in the process. Money. Money. And more money! Where would we bring so much money from when they were taking away all our rights to livelihood?” asks Anwar, whose elder brother was harassed and arrested a couple of times over false charges. Unable to bear it anymore, he sold his cloth store and left home.
The way ahead wasn’t easy. Anwar’s brother had to escape to Bangladesh, manage a Bangladeshi citizenship so as to get a passport and then travel to Saudi Arabia. In the process, he not only lost his home, but also his identity. “He had to become a ‘Bengali’ — something that the Buddhist government keeps calling us in their claim that we don’t belong to the land and therefore legally oust us. But how are we Bengalis? The government says, after Burma got its independence from the British rule (two years after India), Bengalis came into the country from Bangladesh. But that’s not true. We are Rohingya Muslims. We have history on that land right from when the Mughals ruled. It is the Burmese government that destroyed everything in order to leave no trace of us. Earlier, news used to be broadcast in our Rohingya language, there were Rohingya radio channels, we had our history written in books, we had stories to tell of us… but after 1982, when our citizenship was snatched away (under the 1982 Myanmar Nationality Law), everything was wiped off — our language, radio channels, our stories, our places of worship, our freedom to movement or education, and our homes. We don’t exist for them. We are what happens when you are a minority. Our voices have been shunned, our people killed, and we were forced to flee. Those who didn’t or couldn’t have been either forced to convert, or thrown into detention camps within
Isn’t it strange that the term Rohingya may come from rakhanga or roshanga, the words for the State of Arakan? It thus means ‘inhabitant of rohang,’ which is the early Muslim name for Arakan. It is also argued that Rohingya comes from the Arabic word raham (God’s blessing) and speculates that early Muslims in Arakan referred to themselves as: God’s blessed people. The same are now tagged ‘internally displaced people’ within their own country.
Remembering home, Anwar tells us he does have fond memories of going to school, studying along with the Buddhists pupils, playing with them, celebrating festivals together, and of good friendships. Rohingyas are allowed State education only till class 10. And then came the year 2012 that made survival difficult for the Rohingya population. “It was only after 2012 when I completed school, that I realised what the government had been telling us all this while — that they will never call or consider us their own. The same Buddhist friends I grew up with feared coming to our houses now or speaking to us. You know what the problem is? We are Muslims. That’s exactly the problem. We are paying a price for being who we are.”
Even after 2012, the Rohingya Muslims lived with a hope for a change, because who wants to leave home! But, nothing changed. In fact, situations worsened. Anwar tells us one of his friends, a few years older to him, was falsely accused and arrested. “They told him there was an explosion near his shop, and obviously they wouldn’t let him prove them wrong. They asked him to pay 200lakh kyat. He couldn’t. So, they beat him up and put him behind bars for 10years! You know, he was such a good student and had an interest in computers. Today, he is still in prison.”
Finding no hope for a home, a lot of families thought it best to leave. Abu and Anwar’s families were among them. Abu (47) left his village Maungdaw in 2013 on learning that an order had been passed to shoot him on sight. But why? “They would target those who are a little educated, understand laws and can raise a voice. I was one of them, hence, their immediate target. I had to flee to Bangladesh, then came to India. Also, in 2012-2013, our houses were set on fire and people were killed. It was nothing short of genocide. I had the responsibility of bringing my family, my four brothers and four sisters out from there. Am glad I could, but it’s easier said than done. We had to escape like we were at fault, when we were the victims.”
As ironical as it may sound, Abu’s father worked for the Myanmar government for 37 long years. “I keep wondering why did they take his service when they consider us outsiders?” asks Abu, adding: “Among the many things they do to strip us off our identity is, they call us for checks, and tell us to submit our documents, nationality card, etc and say that they will give us new ones. But never do. Or, they burn our houses. People die in that fire, how can documents be saved?”
Anwar’s family decided to leave Burma when they learned that India was accepting refugees. However, the journey his family had to undertake was a risky one. “We just about managed to escape being killed at gun point. We had to pay the patrolling teams at the border to allow us out. In the middle of the night, we sat in a small boat and sailed towards Bangladesh. In the early hours of the morning, when there wasn’t much patrolling, we stepped into Bangladesh. Here, we sought shelter at some people’s houses. After a few days, we left for Kolkata, then headed towards Delhi to the office of UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), seeking asylum. The entire journey lasted 13days. Our condition, by now was so bad that we had to be hospitalised for 10days.”
After a couple of rounds of interviews, they were given the UNHCR refugees’ card with a validity of two years. Anwar eventually came to Hyderabad in November 2015.
He believes that had it not been for the internet, more Rohingya Muslims would have been dead. “From 1982-2012, the torture that Rohingya people have been put through has no record. The world didn’t know that we are the most prosecuted minority. But thanks to internet, the 2012 Rohingya crisis in Burma was out to the world, and then the United Nations intervened, asking countries to give us shelter.”
Both Abu and Anwar say that India lets them breathe free. “In Burma, we lived in cages. Here we can sleep in peace, without cops knocking on our doors, or the fear of being burnt alive!”
However, they confess that there is something that keeps bothering them. “India wants to deport us, and Burma does not want us. All we ask of India is to please let us live here till we are welcomed back home, in Burma, as Rohingya, as who we are. Not Bengali. Not kalla — a hurtful, racist slang that the Buddhists use for us.”
The Rohingya refugees have to get their UNHCR cards renewed every two years. That isn’t difficult. What’s difficult is the fact that they can’t get jobs here. They can only do some menial work. But Anwar has dreams. He is learning graphic designing and loves to work on computers. He also teaches children. Abu, on the other hand, takes up whatever work he can find.
As we head to Anwar’s place, I stop to speak to a child. She just looked at me surprised, as if she didn’t expect a stranger to stop by and talk to her. Those eyes, I will never forget. I ask Anwar if they speak to people in the neighbourhood. “No. We hesitate to knock on someone’s door and strike a conversation. We are refugees, and we have seen humanity die.” He is right. According to the UN, the human rights violations against the Rohingyas are ‘crimes against humanity.’
As we enter Anwar’s ghar and take a seat, he introduces us to his mother, sister and her two cute kids; then asks:
“chai piyengi aap? (will you have tea?).”
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