Surviving A Genocide

The perilous journey of Rohingya Muslims from hostile Burma to Kashmir is literally drenched in blood. Two Kashmiri journalists offer an idea of how difficult it is to escape ethnic cleansing and then survive in a state of statelessness. Dar Yasin, currently stationed in Cox’s Bazar, on Bangladesh border, detailed the crisis that he has been covering for last fortnight. In Srinagar Umar Mukhtar met a few shelter-seekers to offer a peephole view of the situation from which they have miraculously survived

Image: Dar Yasin- AP

Almost five years after he fled Burma, Hafizur Rehman is somehow at peace with himself. Living on the breathtaking Khimber hillock, not far away from Srinagar, he is feeling the significance of fresh air, literally and metaphorically. Not a criminal but a Muslim, he has literally been wandering for all these years.

Now one of the 17 Rohingyas in a multi-story building in Khimber, Hafiz, 30, is living with Ayesha, his wife, and two kids, Habib 4, and Sadiya. They were sheltered by managers of Darul Aloom Bilaliya, where Hafiz used to teach.

Every family has two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. “We are lucky that we have such facilities,” said Hafiz. “Our relatives in Bangladesh are living with empty stomachs.”

Residents of Arakan, the only state with 42 percent of Muslim population, Hafiz and Ayesha are cousins. This region has been an independent state that Burma took over in 1785. Later, it was part of British India that ruled the belt as a province of India till it was split in 1937. Though Muslim have lived in Arakan for centuries, the British India era immigrations to the area are basic to the ethnic cleansing which is under way. After Burma became independent, Arakan remained as its part since 1948. Arakan became Rakhine in 1974.

Burmese Buddhists have been treating the Muslims minority as its liability. They are denied even the basics and are seriously discriminated against to the extent they are not being seen as state subjects. This has triggered some violence in response to which genocide is going on for the last more than five years.

It was one such crisis that led Hafiz and Ayesha to flee home. It has tragic detail.

One day Hafiz said he had gone to see a relative, living five kilometers away from his home. He walked the distance because he said there were no roads and no transport facility in rural Rakhine as the Burmese government is not laying roads in Muslim belts as a matter of policy. Rakhine is predominantly Rohingya Muslim area.  People have to walk by foot there. Myanmar government does not permit Rohingyas to build concrete houses; they have to essentially live in mud homes. During crackdown, Hafiz said, Myanmar security forces usually attack the educated and those appearing religious. “The government there does not own its citizens and treat them as the immigrants,” Hafiz said.

Hafiz could not return home and the area was cordoned off by the Myanmar security agencies. It scared Hafiz because he owned a Nokia cell phone. Frightened, he hid the mobile. “Rohingiya Muslim having a mobile phone is like owning an unlicensed AK-47 rifle,” Hafiz said.

The searches started with the checking of identities. On the pretext of searching militants, they scanned the entire house and ransacked everything. During this scan, they recovered the mobile phone. Hell broke loose.

The house at Khimber where Rohingya families are staying in Kashmir.

Entire family was assembled and beaten. Nobody claimed the mobile. But a severe beating made Hafiz to admit his ownership. That marked the start of a crisis.

Immediately, Hafiz said he was tied with his hands behind, bundled in a police vehicle and whisked away. He was driven to Thana Chowk No 6, a place where the verdict is passed on arrested persons. “I was beaten there and death sentence was awarded for me,” said Hafiz.

‘Convicted’, Hafiz said he was shifted to Ballu Kalli   prison, five kilometers away, which is the place where the death sentence is executed. It is the most dreaded place for the Rohingiya Muslims. “These days most of the trending videos which you see on social networking sites  have been shot here,” almost a crying Hafiz said. “There, people are butchered with long knives.”

Hafiz recalls  they were five people in a small and dark cell. “We  were kept standing on our toes for hours together and  nails were kept under the rest of our feet so that we cannot rest our feet,” Hafiz said, talking about the horrible and painful days while showing his disfigured feet.

One night, Hafiz remembers, two of his mates were tied by their legs and dragged away. For some time, they were crying and then silence took-over. “They do not shot or hang people but kill them mercilessly by  chopping body parts with axes and swords,” Hafiz said. “That death is very painful.” They dump bodies in the river.

Well before, other would face the execution, a storm struck a ‘miracle’. It lasted for several hours forcing the police to delay the execution. Interestingly,

Hafiz promised 40,000 Burmese Kyat to the guard of his cell in freedom. “If you let me go I will give you all of them,” Hafiz remembers telling the guard. “The guard gave me his address for handing over the money and I fled from the prison.”

Out of prison, Hafiz straightaway ran to see his mother. Quickly, he decided to migrate to Bangladesh. Next day, he took Ayesha along and they started for Bangladesh, where they eventually married.

Hafiz said, Myanmar has a law for the Rohingiya Muslims that they have to deposit two lakh Kyats if they want to marry. They are also supposed to submit a sort of an affidavit that they will not raise more than two children. “So my parents and my uncle did  not want us to get married there but gave us the consent to go and save our lives,” Hafiz recalls.

The two spent 50,000 Kyats to hire a guide and for a day and a night, they trekked through thick, frightening forests to reach Bangladesh border. “Ayesha was weeping all the way and we were very tired and hungry.”

After crossing the border, they were on their way to a relatives’ home when the Bangladeshi police arrested them for illegal crossing. Hafiz said they give cops Ayesha’s golden ring as bribe and were let go.

Living in a slum’s scrap-home, they married and stayed in Bangladesh for a year.  Overpopulated, Hafiz said survival was hard. Somehow, they infiltrated into India.

Initially, they lived in Rajasthan and then moved to Jammu.

Somebody, suggested Hafiz to explore Kashmir. He came to Shopian where he started teaching at a seminary. Soon, he lost his job of Quran teacher.

Training in teaching of Quran, Hafiz landed a job in 2014 at Darul Aloom Bilaliya. As he narrated the ordeal, the seminary management asked him to bring some other families for shelter.  Now seventeen families are living here peacefully. Some of them earn as well.

Recently, he sent Rs 20,000 to his mother, two brothers and a sister, who are now living as refugees in Bangladesh.  “After the mass migration to Bangladesh, I have to spend Rs 1400 a month for staying in touch with my relatives,” Hafiz said.

In 2002, Salamatullah, then 16, fled from Arkhan’s Rohang city, where he lived in constant fear. He was enrolled at a local Madrassa, around 10 kms away from his home.

 “Whenever we would come back from Madrassa we had to deposit five hundred Kyats on the check posts,” Salamatllah said. “Mere presence of army would force us hide behind bushes.”

Even Buddhist doctors discriminate against them. “A pregnant Rohingya lady is not allowed inside a government run hospital,” said Salamat. “I have not seen any women delivering a baby at the hospital. All deliveries take place at home using local remedies made of herbs. “It is a miracle that no lady faced any complications.”

Rohingiyas are not entitled to any government jobs as they have been ‘stripped’ of nationality by the Myanmar government.

But here in Srinagar Salamat is now living a peaceful life and is earning a decent living by working hard as a labourer. But the pending decision in Supreme Court which is to be heard on October 3, takes him down the memory lanes of ‘fear and oppression’ in Myanmar.

Of the 40,000 Rohingyas’, quite a few are sheltered in J&K, mostly in Jammu, where they survived a massive conflagration of their shanties earlier this year. In their individual interactions, these refugees, mostly listed by UNHCR, are thankful to Delhi for letting them live and survive. But a counter narrative that they are a security threat and they have links with ISIS and ISI and they must be deported is a real worry for these stateless refugees. In wake of frequent statements by the government functionaries, the refugees had petitioned the Supreme Court. In response to this, the Ministry of Home Affairs submitted a detailed affidavit listing the reasons for why they are not welcome in India. This has triggered a new insecurity for the refugees who are living in the worst situation, in abject poverty, and in a state of statelessness.

The affidavit came within days after the Prime Minister Narindra Modi visited Myanmar and condemned the terrorist attacks. “Myanmar condemned the recent barbaric terror attacks during the Amarnath Yatra in India as also various acts of terror perpetrated by terrorists from across the borders,” the joint statement issued on September 6, 2017, reads. “India condemned the recent terrorist attacks in northern Rakhine State, wherein several members of the Myanmar security forces lost their lives. Both sides agreed that terrorism violates human rights and there should, therefore, be no glorification of terrorists as martyrs.”

“We are facing the same problem as India is facing in Kashmir,” Myanmar State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was quoted saying. “Because (there is) a large Muslim community in India and in places like Kashmir, you had this trouble of sorting out the terrorists from the innocent citizens and all those who are not involved in the terrorist movement at all. So we have the same problem.”

Finally, when MHA made the position on the issue clear in the Supreme Court, it has already triggered a debate. Now the questions being asked are: Can Delhi tell the Dalai Lama to leave? And in Kashmir the question is: What about West Pakistan refugees?


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