Rohingyas from the Rakhine state of Myanmar have for decades been stateless people. The estimated Rohingya population in Myanmar is pegged at 13L and the diaspora spread across South and South-East Asia is about 15L.
Begum Bahar walked barefoot for three days through the forest, with her eight-month-old baby tied to her back with a cloth, that, in her better days, used to be her hijab. When she cringed with hunger pangs, she pulled out plants from the soil and looked for worms in the ground. When she was thirsty, she drank straight from the brackish stream that gave her company for much of her journey.
Finally, when Bahar finally reached the Naf river and spotted the boats that would carry her and her child to safety, she slumped to the ground and wept. But once on the boat, the survival instinct that numbed her senses, ebbed. She began to feel the pain rise from the tattered bloodied feet.
Crossing the river on the crescent-shaped boat — the kind that has ferried thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing certain death in Myanmar to safety in Bangladesh — Bahar cast a glance back at the shrinking bank that used to be her home. She felt relieved, yet sad and devastated. The land where she was born had condemned her to a stateless and homeless existence.
Welcome to Begum Bahar’s — and the 3,00,000-plus Rohingyas’ — world, which has shrunk drastically over the last few weeks. “The place one is born is always the motherland. No matter what, unless pushed to the extreme, one doesn’t give up on one’s mother. But we had no option but to do that. The military entered our village and started killing indiscriminately,” Bahar, seated inside a tent that her husband had managed to arrange for use as shelter, recounted on Tuesday.
Rohingyas from the Rakhine state of Myanmar have for decades been stateless people. The estimated Rohingya population in Myanmar is pegged at 13 lakh and the diaspora spread across South and South-East Asia is believed to be 15 lakh-strong; together, they make up what the United Nations in 2013 called one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
It is the struggle for existence and legitimacy that seems to have pushed the Rohingyas beyond the brink. The Myanmar army recently began a brutal crackdown, burning scores of villages and forcing lakhs to flee, after charging the insurgent group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army with instigating the conflict.
Hamida Khatun, another of the hundreds of thousands who have managed to flee and who now lives in a shelter in Kutupalang Camp, Cox’s Bazar, recounts the nights of unending horror that the past three months had been. “At night, the army men would bang on the doors. They would barge in to look for a pretty girl. If they found one, she would be dragged to the jungle and raped. The fortunate ones would be dropped back on the village road, half-dead. Others would end up with their throats slashed,” she said, shuddering at the very recollection of those nights of terror. “We may have to stay hungry now. But we can at least sleep in peace,” she said.
Her husband, Aminulla, had escaped by the skin of his teeth. He was on his way back from work one day when he heard the rat-a-tat of bullets. He felt a searing pain in his left hand even before he could duck. He somehow managed to drag himself home. The couple set off for Bangladesh that very night; and, on the way, Aminulla got the bullet removed by a quack before entering the jungle.
Once inside the forest, they encountered thousands of fellow Rohingyas walking towards the Naf river. No one knew the way. All they knew was that they had to avoid the main roads. For three days and nights, they survived on leaves, worms and salty stream water. Then, they reached the Naf.
The boatmen charged 10,000 Bangladeshi takas from each for the choppy river crossing and then over the choppier waters of the Bay of Bengal. But, with no Bangladeshi currency on them, the refugees have been handing over whatever valuables they have to the boatmen for the ride to Teknaf in Bangladesh.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates about 3 lakh refugees have crossed the border in past two weeks to enter Bangladesh. But, even before the recent exodus, Rohingya Muslims facing persecution have been slipping across the border into Bangladesh in small groups.
Hafez Khairul Amin managed to escape last November and has been staying at the Kutupalang camp since. “I have seen my friends being shot and hacked to death by the armed forces. I managed to survive by hiding inside a drum when they attacked our village. I was plain lucky that one day but, my entire life, I feel cursed to have been born a Rohingya,” he said.