“I don’t think I will return to Rakhine (state). Because there, no one wants to (return). No home. No garden. No nothing. Everything was already burned.”
The above was the painful lament of Mohammad Islam, a 60-year Rohingya who fled the violence in his hometown Maungdor in the Rakhine state of Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh.
With just the clothes covering up his body while the rest of his property went up in flames, Muhammad and his family spent five days trekking in the forest in Rakhine state before arriving at the border of Bangladesh – the new land for him and his family to survive.
He managed to find a cement tube which is less than one metre wide outside the Balugali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar township and turned it into a temporary shelter for his family. As a newcomer, he has no access to materials to build a shelter.
Although life outside the refugee camp is not pleasant, he feels safe. “I am no longer worried that someone will come to kill me. What I am concerned now is whether there is enough food for my family or not,” said Muhammad.
In just about a month, about 500,000 Rohingya have poured into Cox’s Bazar township from Myanmar’s Rakhine state overflowing the existing refugee camps and resulting in acute shortage of food.
Recalling the violence in his hometown, Mohammad told Thai PBS in Cox’s Bazar that at dawn on August 25, tough-looking men in army fatigue came to his house to ask him about the insurgents. He told the Myanmar troops that he had never seen the insurgents, but they didn’t believe him and then they set fire to his house despite the fact that his family members were still in the house and they all ran out in panic.
He said though all his family members escaped unscathed, many of his neighbours were not as lucky as they were killed on that day.
Mohammad said if he was to return to Myanmar, the government of Myanmar must compensate him for his lost property and burned house because he is a citizen of Myanmar with an ID card issued by the government.
Mohammad was born and grew up in Muang Dor and lived his whole life as a farmer. He said that, five years ago, violence broke out, leading to a riot between Muslims and Buddhists. About 90 people died in the riot and as many as 100,000 people had fled from Rakhine state.
Although the violence then took place in the northern part of Rakhine state, Muslim people in Maung Dor township were affected.
Mohammad’s plight is shared by hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who are now awaiting relief aids from the international community and the Bangladeshi government.
Hajee Ismail, managing director of Rohingya Peace Network in Thailand, recalled the peaceful co-existence between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state in the past until five years ago when there were tensions in the state after the government of Myanmar imposed new measures on the Rohingya which they found to be unfair and racially discriminatory.
“I never imagined before that we, the Rohingya, would face this plight. My mother died and our family broke up while I was abroad and could not do anything to help them,” he said.
Yante Ismail, an associate external relation officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said that the international community and local governments in Bangladesh had been doing their best to help the refugees by providing them with food, shelter and utilities.
“We only hope that the government of Myanmar can resolve this problem peacefully so that the Rohingya can return home,” she said with optimism.
Violence in Rakhine has been simmering continuously since 1970 when the Myanmar government stopped issuing ID cards to the Rohingya. Eight years afterwards, the military regime imposed a census system, prompting about 200,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
Ishak Sohel, Regional Coordinator of Asian Resource Foundation which has been helping the Rohingya for more than a decade, said that most Rohingya are stateless and not recognized by any country.
But he noted that the recent violence in Rakhine state amounted to ethnic cleansing. He said the Rohingya are the most persecuted people in the world.
But despite the food and help from the international community and local governments in Bangladesh, the only one thing that most Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are yearning for – that is to return to their hometown and to live peacefully – which looks increasingly more like a distant dream.
By Hathairat Phaholtap, ThaiPBS Reporter