File Photo: Kashmir Ink
Persecuted and driven out of their homes in Myanmar, thousands of Rohingyas have found refuge in Jammu. But it's still a life of misery and despair
Persecuted in their country, Rohingya Muslims have been, for years, leaving Myanmar in their thousands to seek refuge elsewhere. But it is only now that the world is waking up to their plight. A report released recently by the United Nations Human Rights Commission documented, in chilling detail, the systematic campaign of mass killings, rape, torture and ethnic cleansing waged against the minority community by Myanmar's military.
It's not that the Rohingya risking their lives to flee Myanmar are finding it easy outside. Often, they land on shores where they are mostly unwelcome (Australia, Indonesia), or are looked at with suspicion (Bangladesh, India). Although there have been calls, mostly from the Sangh Parivar, to keep out the Rohingya refugees from India and drive out those already in the country, the community hasn't faced much hostility.
India hosts 19,727 refugees from Myanmar, according to the UNHCR, but not all of them are Rohingya. And the single largest group -- of about 5,100 people is in Jammu. Sixty five families among them are settled in a refugee camp in Narwal. Their makeshift homes are scattered on what was once a piece of cropland and now is a story about endless stories of pain, sorrow,suffering and grief. Not surprisingly, they see any outsider venturing into their camp with apprehension, even suspicion.
The families pay rent to the land owners, the rate ranging from Rs 500 to Rs 1,000, depending on the size of the house. Inside the camp is a small mosque and and a maktab, where children learn Quran. The only identity papers they have is a refugee identity card provided by the UNHCR.
Some have been here for over 10 years, from before the persecution turned into a genocide. It began as genocides often do, with the denial of essential basic rights – to citizenship, marriage,education, even worship. Many admit to still having nightmares about their escape – hiding in fields and forests, eating leaves and grass, walking on empty stomach for days on end to get to Bangladesh, and later India. For years, they have been narrating their tales to whoever would listen, including journalists, but it hasn't helped in any way.
"We have shared our stories with so many media persons?” they ask when I introduce myself as a journalist. “What difference would it make if we share it with you now? Will it help us go home?Will we be reunited with the dear ones we left behind? What good will it do us?”
Still, they talked. “I live with my wife Zainab and four children. I came here in 2009. I have been here a long time now but this place still doesn’t feel like home,” said Ansar, who runs a shop inside the camp. Asad fled because he had no money to pay for registering his marriage. He married illegally and left for India lest his family was hurt. It took him 15 days to reach Jammu, via Bangladesh.
But how did he cross the well-guarded border into India from Bangladesh without immigration papers? Asad smiled. There are ways to beat the system, he explained, “you can hire the services of a broker or bribe the BSF directly to let you in”.
Ansar pointed to a young man standing near him. “This is Aslam,” he said, “his story is more painful than mine. His sister was detained at the border.”
Aslam had fled Myanmar with his mother, wife, two children and younger sister Ansar, 24. But while crossing into India from Bangladesh, Ansar was detained, along with eight other refugees. That was about eight months ago. “I have hired a lawyer to get her released. I am paying a huge sum to him in fees,” Aslam said. “I have spent all my money to get her released. I have left no stone unturned to bring her back, but I am losing hope by the day.”
Not just the Indian authorities, even aid organisations seem to have forgotten the Rohingyas staying in Jammu. Residents of the Narwal camp claimed that international organisation hardly ever come to their aid. Recently, a fire broke out in the camp that gutted several houses but only the Jamat-e-Islami came to their rescue, helping rebuild houses and providing other basic necessities.
Mohammad Naveen came to India with his wife and three children in 2013. He explained why they had to flee their home. “Torture, rape, assault and humiliation is not acceptable to us. To save ours families we are fleeing to other countries.”
Why did he, and other Rohingya refugees, chose to settle in Jammu? For one, the labour wages are better, Naveen said. “We earn enough money to sustain our families, and we earn honestly.”
The last part of his statement is telling. Sadly, in India, the Rohingya immigrants have been stereotyped as thieves. “But we'll never do that because our religion forbids us,” Naveen added.