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TUESDAY, December 06, 2022
‘Nowhere people’ long to go home to Myanmar

‘Nowhere people’ long to go home to Myanmar

MONDAY, June 04, 2018

A million people in makeshift border camps are unwanted in the only country they know

On Saturday, Norul Amin, a 35-year-old Rohingya Muslim refugee, carried on his shoulder a sack of food relief aid that would feed his family of eight for two weeks in Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
This is what he received from Mercy Malaysia: 30kg of rice, 5kg of lentils, five litres of vegetable oil, 5kg of beans, 10kg of potatoes, 5kg of onions, 2kg of micronutrient-fortified biscuits and 1kg each of spices, sugar and salt.
“This Ramadan aid is part of our humanitarian assistance for the needy. The period of Ramadan is when they become conscious of the fact that they are hungry and nobody is feeding them. Their life here is very difficult. We try to ease their suffering,” said Mercy Malaysia executive director Amran Mahzan.
Since fleeing his village in Rakhine in Myanmar nine months ago, Norul’s family has lived a hand-to-mouth existence. About twice or thrice a month, he lines up – when selected – with hundreds of other refugees to receive food relief aid from other NGOs.
Life was not like that when he was back home in Myanmar.
Norul was a teacher in a madrasah. He lived in a six-room wooden house, owned three cows and had land the size of a football field planted with paddy and vegetables.
It was an idyllic life. But it was shattered when the Myanmar army attacked his village and burnt it to the ground.
“I felt sad and was fearful when the army came. They were firing at us and my family had to flee. There was no time to take our possessions,” he said.
Two of his relatives were killed during the attack in which, Norul claimed, about 2,500 villagers were murdered. With his wife and six children, aged between one and 12, they walked for seven days to travel 20km west over the Bangladesh border to seek refuge.
“We wandered and slept at different places as we did not know where to go,” he said. “The army was attacking us and the Indian border was closed. The Bangladesh border was open. So we sought sanctuary here.”
Now he lives in a makeshift shelter built from bamboo sticks and tarpaulin in Kutupalong camp.
Norul is among about 800,000 Rohingya who have crossed into Bangladesh to flee violence in Myanmar since August last year. They joined about 200,000 Rohingya refugees who had fled previous outbreaks of violence in their home country.
That’s about one million Rohingya living in Cox’s Bazar, which is famous for the longest unbroken beach in the world. The 120km shoreline is along the Bay of Bengal.
The Rohingya are known as Asia’s “nowhere people”. United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in September 2017 that the Rohingya situation was a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. “Are you a Myanmar citizen?” I asked Norul. “I am,” he said, in a chat that was translated from Rohingya to Bengali to English.
“Why did your government kick you out of Myanmar?” I asked. I was curious to know his answer even though I have read widely on the Rohingya humanitarian crisis.
“They think that the Rohingya people are Bengali. They think that the Bengalis are Muslim. They are Buddhist,” he said.
There is a Buddhist village with about 100 families about a 10-minute walk from Norul’s Muslim village. “Our relationship with the Mog [“Buddhist people”] is good. When we see them in the market, we greet each other,” Norul said. “I don’t know why the army suddenly attacked us.”
The 2017 attack was the second Norul experienced. In 1991, when he was a child, the army attacked. But at that time, his family did not flee.
In Kutupalong camp, Norul is not allowed to get a job. He relies on handouts from NGOs. His family gets 10 litres of water a day. Once a week they eat chicken, for which he barters.
His older children attend a school run by Unicef, where they learn in Burmese and English. The Bangladesh government does not allow Rohingya to work or learn in Bengali as it does not want the refugees to think that they will be living permanently there.
Norul misses his home, but he doesn’t know the situation in his village. “I don’t know what has happened to my other relatives. Maybe they are still in Myanmar or other refugee camps in Bangladesh. I don’t know what has happened to my cows,” he said.
“Do you want to return to your country?” I asked.
“Not yet. I will return if the Myanmar government lets me return safely. I also need to get back my land,” he said.
Bangladesh is a temporary sanctuary. One day, Norul hopes to return to something permanent – to a country that doesn’t want him.