ROHINGYA EXODUS

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The sun finally got down and darkness settled on the coast. All the hustle of the day has died down. It’s quiet. Only the waves slowly rock the crescent shapes of the boats whose masters already left to rest for tomorrow’s work. It’s too dark to sail now. Yet after a while, one can hear a barely discernible murmur of an engine. Some boat is still searching for a way to the shore, yet it goes without the light to guide it, or announce it’s presence.

And then it suddenly materializes from the night. It’s full of people, who quickly start to gather their belongings. There is an urgent necessity in their movements. Men jump out and help down their wives. One old lady can’t walk, so her son takes her in arms and carries her towards the shore. Another old man seems alone, only with his grandson. He steps out of the boat and looks for the way. An umbrella in his hand could be mistaken for a sword and him for an ancient warrior coming from the long forgotten times. But he is not a warrior and this is not a dream from the past. He is a refugee and the present he is living in is all too real.

In August 2017 the outburst of violence in the Rakhine state of Myanmar sparked the most rapid human expulsion of our time, the Rohingya Exodus. Over a few weeks, more than 500 000 people crossed the border to neighboring Bangladesh carrying with themselves reports of burnings, killings, and rapes. The relatively unknown Rohingya suddenly became “The worlds most persecuted minority”.

In Myanmar, where Rohingya live, is officially registered 135 ethnical minorities, many of which are subject to some kind of persecution. Rohingyas are not even counted amongst them. Although they used to hold legal status in the country and even had their representatives in the government, nowadays they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. This renders them virtually stateless. They are facing so-called strategy of Four cuts from the Myanmar government: They cannot freely travel, their access to education and health care is restricted and they are facing obstructions when they want to get married.

Throughout the last decades, they have faced military crackdowns whose intensity is gradually increasing (1978, 1991-1992, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017). The last one was sparked 25th August 2017 when ARSA – Arakan Salvation Army (an insurgent group operating in Rakhine state) attacked several outposts of Myanmar army killing 12 of its members. This has led to an incomparably stronger retaliation attack by Myanmar army which has left half million people on the flight.

The counterattack that followed was led with immeasurable force and brutality and left behind dozens of razed villages and more than a half milion people on the flight.Myanmar claims that it is only dealing with insurgents, but the claims of refugees are diametrally different.

“They took us to a house.” Continues Sobika monotonously with her story, which left her broken and bandaged on the floor of a rugged hut in Kutupalong refugee camp. “They separated women from the men and took us to a house.” Her voice starts shaking. “There, they ordered me to take off my hijab.” (Which implies they raped her.) No longer monotonous her testimony becomes a wailing litany, as the horrors she recalls come back to haunt her. “When they were done, they hit me over the head with a stick. They thought I was dead and left me be. Somehow I saw my sister. She was shaking with fear.” Mimicking the gesture before she breaks down crying, unable to continue.

After she lost her consciousness, she came to herself inside the burning house and managed to run away. If her words alone weren’t enough, the burns on her hands and legs speak for themselves. But they were not the highest price that the Massacre in Tula Toli claimed from her, both her mother and her 10 years old sister stayed in the house forever. “I just could not stand the fire, I had to leave them there.” Cries Sobika.

Her story speaks of violence, rape, and slaughter, yet the only thing so rare about it is the openness and emotions with which Sobika speaks.

Her village, Tula Toli, was surrounded by Myanmar army and the villagers were herded to the shore of the river. There the massacre unleashed. Most of the men were just shot or burned in their houses. After that followed the women, only that the prettier of them were taken to the houses and raped. Their small children were just pragmatically thrown into the river.

 

“When they were done, they hit me over the head with a stick. They thought I was dead and left me be. Somehow I saw my sister. She was shaking with fear.”

Many have gone through similar things, they have lost their parents, their siblings, their children, yet they recount their stories in a strangely calm manner. As if they were so used to suffering that they see it as something normal.

Mohammed also comes from Tula Toli, his body shows fresh scars. One on his chest, one on the back and another one going in and out through his arm. He has been shot three times and survived. Rest of his family wasn’t so lucky. They have all been killed. At 15 years he is alone in the camp. The family holds utmost importance in his culture and still, he speaks about its demise in disquietingly calm voice.

Maybe it is this lack of theatricality that makes them so easily overlooked. In the first rush of news, Rohingyas have been described as the world’s most persecuted minority, they have been talked about as the most friendless ethnicity… In just one month, more refugees were expelled from Myanmar than that came to Europe over the Mediterranean in a whole year, but although the world briefly looked in their direction, soon after it got distracted by other things and moved on.

Rohingyas, standing true to their description, indeed don’t have many friends. They are not wanted in Myanmar, but neither particularly welcomed in neighboring countries. Some of them found refuge in Indonesia, Thailand or Malaysia, but are often subject to trafficking and have difficulties finding work or legal status. Most of the refugees flee to Bangladesh, a poor and overpopulated country which is struggling to provide for its own people let alone the refugees.

Bangladeshi army is on the watch and doesn’t let any Rohingyas beyond Ukhia region in the South of the country. A huge camp is being formed there.

Although Bangladeshi governments with Myanmar the repatriation of those refugees who will want to go back to their homes, it apparently doesn’t have exaggerated illusions that it will indeed happen. Therefore, for it already allocated 2000 acres of land and plans to up this number by 1000 more. When the rapidly expanding camps will join together they will easily create the biggest refugee camp in the world. Official UNHCR numbers speak about 600 000 people coming since the beginning of the crisis in August, but this number is in reality much higher because not all the arrivals are included in the official count. If we also count in refugees already settled in the area, approximately 300 000 people according to UNHCR, we are easily reaching one million people in the area. That number alone vastly surpasses the biggest existing refugee camps (Kakuma, Bidi bidi, Dadaab, Zaatari – none of them bigger than 300 000 people). is the birth of something huge, something uncontrollable, of which the humanitarian organizations are justifiably worried. The combination of overpopulation and terrible sanitary conditions could lead to the outbreaks of measles or cholera epidemic, whose consequences could overshadow even the horrors, that took place in Myanmar.

In the meantime, it’s impressive how fast the refugees managed to settle down. It took little over one month and new camps already started to resemble small villages. The refugees have put up their huts and dug the wells and walking through the camp, no one would have suspected that just one month ago there would be just empty hills around him. The mentality here is very different. Whereas in Europe, most of the arrivals just thought about how fast they can reach rich northern countries, here, they know they are not going anywhere. Whereas in Europe, refugees were every day picking up their wind-torn tents from the dirt, here they already have their villages standing. All around the camp, refugees work building their huts, wells, and mosques. Maybe that’s why the atmosphere in the camps doesn’t seem anywhere as depressing as the atmosphere of camps in Europe. And maybe that’s also why it’s so easy to forget them and move on.

However, the Rohingya issue is far from being over. The expulsions from Myanmar come lately with iron regularity. A look at the situation in Myanmar can explain the reason for that and maybe even hint at the future development.
Although we mostly hear about Rohingya today, many of Myanmar’s 135 ethnical minorities face similar oppression. Myanmar has a long history of conflicts. Strange, that the country, in which the religion of peace, Buddhism, is so strongly supported, is for decades entangled in a conflict so serious it can almost be called a civil war. The conflict started after the Second World War when Burma (how Myanmar was called at the time) gained its independence. The minorities that account for 40% of the population were dissatisfied with the formation of the new government in which the Bamars (major ethnic population) took most of the power. Soon after the first insurgencies started. Even though regime changed few times over the decades, the conflict never really stopped and sometimes is considered the world’s oldest civil war. It takes place in five main fronts: Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Shan and Rakhine state.

The Rakhine state, in which the Rohingyas are the biggest minority, making one-third of the population, is the poorest region of the already very poor country. While in Myanmar 25% of the population live in poverty, in Rakhine state it is staggering 78%. However, in and of itself the region holds potential that keeps several international players interested, especially China. Around one of the biggest cities in the region, can be found large deposits of oil and natural gas and China wants to build here deepwater port and transnational pipeline and railway leading to it as a part of its “One belt, one road” project. Although there probably isn’t direct relation with ongoing crisis, the government of Myanmar has plans for rapid development in the places freed after the departure of the refugees and their return, therefore, falls more and more into the realm of wishful thinking.

Today, more Rohingya are to be found in the exile than in their original land. Even though many of them say they would come back if it was safe, the “if” in the sentence holds the crucial importance. Myanmar is now disappearing in the clouds at the other side of the river and what stands in front of them are the huge camps, whose hills that resemble bizarre pyramids cast on them a shadow as an of the future that is waiting for them. Those camps will become their new home. Home for Rohingyas and exclamation mark for the world. A symbol of the new age, in which Babylon towers are again being built and in which the exodus of the thousands is not a forgotten myth anymore.

The reportage was published in the magazine Lidé a Země.

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