Thursday, March 15, 2012

Traumatized Rohingya flee squalid life in Bangladesh

By Mark McDonald,Published: Sunday, February 15, 2009

COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh — It's there in their faces, in the dark night of their eyes and in the sag and slump of their shoulders. It's unmistakable, the despair of the Rohingya, the fear for departed husbands and fathers, the daily abrasions of poverty, sadness and the world's indifference.

More than a quarter-million Rohingya - an ethnic Muslim minority from western Myanmar - have come here to southern Bangladesh to escape the hunger, humiliation and official brutalities in their homeland. Many have landed in a place called the Kutupalong Makeshift Camp.

It is an obscenity, this camp, a festering hell of lost hope and inhuman squalor. No water, power, schools or medicine. Occasional stoop-labor jobs carrying bricks or making salt. Huts made of leaves and branches. There is no music.

"The worst conditions you could imagine anywhere on earth," says a well-traveled international aid worker. "Total despair," says another.

These are the luxuries in the camp: a packet of cookies, a crayon, a new battery for an old radio, a small breeze on a sweltering night.

Difficult enough are their journeys from Myanmar to the camp. Even more dangerous are the attempts by thousands of Rohingya men and boys to emigrate each year, starting with perilous sea voyages to Thailand. After that comes an overland trek to Malaysia, a country that has become a kind of Muslim El Dorado for the Rohingya. There might be friends or family connections there, and perhaps jobs that allow for money to be sent to families back in the camps.

These trips often begin in leaky boats that are underpowered and overloaded. Hundreds of Rohingya die at sea each year, and hundreds more are rescued, adrift at sea, by navies in the region. And thousands are detained each year by the Thai authorities. Human rights groups were outraged recently when it became known that the Thai military had roughly detained several dozen Rohingya men on a remote island, then packed them into a boat with few provisions and towed them back out to sea.

"Pushbacks" is what aid workers are calling this tactic.

How to measure or comprehend the terror - or perhaps it's the love - that propels a man to leave his family, quite possibly forever, and climb penniless into a boat to find uncertain work a thousand miles away in a place where he knows he'll be both unwelcome and liable to arrest? For that matter, what hellish existence could send a family fleeing to a refugee camp where conditions resemble, charitably, the 12th century?

The Rohingya number about 750,000 in Myanmar. But the military junta does not recognize them as one of the 135 "national races" in the mostly Buddhist nation. And so, in the face of forced labor, arbitrary arrest, stolen land and even starvation, they flee to the makeshift camp. (An adjoining settlement of 20,000 residents has water, electricity and other basic services. Run by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, it is known as the official Kutupalong camp. Some Rohingya have lived there for more than a decade.)

Every day more Rohingya arrive at the Bangladeshi camps, stateless, sun-blasted refugees carrying their meager bundles. The newcomers, largely from Rakhine State in Myanmar, are often so traumatized that they're unable to tell aid workers what they have fled.

Another one million Rohingya are scattered about the world - there has been a major diaspora from South Asia in recent decades - and they have flung themselves from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan to Thailand to Indonesia. The men lay asphalt and pour cement in Riyadh. They haul fishing nets in the Andaman Sea. They pull rickshaws in Jakarta. The children, with their small hands, peel shrimp and weave carpets in Karachi.

But no country claims the Rohingya. No country welcomes them. For many, Islam is the only sanctuary left. "They still have faith," says an aid worker, "that Allah will protect them."

This article was reported by a reporter for the International Herald Tribune in Cox's Bazar and by Mark McDonald in Hong Kong. It was written by McDonald.

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