Update: Kulsum Bibi passed away a few days ago.
The checkpoint looms. There are armed guards on both sides of the road. Our taxi – a cross between a tuk tuk and a pickup truck – lurches. The driver gasps, hesitates. He is nervy and jumpy and clearly afraid. And yet, five minutes earlier, this same young man had boldly offered to take us to our destination, for a hefty fee. He knew we had no choice. Had just seen another driver turn us down with a grimace and a slicing motion to his throat. It was apparently dangerous where we wanted to go.
“Bengali,” the first driver had said, shaking his head. “Bengali! No, no, no.”
Bengali. That word again. We’ve come to Sittwe, capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, in search of a Muslim minority group known to the rest of the world as the Rohingya. And yet, everyone we’ve met so far – from waiters at a café to local NGO workers to Buddhist monks – has insisted the word is made-up nonsense.
“Bengali!” They would say instead.
This shift appears to be a recent phenomenon. At a monastery, the young monk who served as translator during our interview with his superior, slipped up several times.
“Rohingya,” he would begin.
“Bengali!” His head monk countered repeatedly.
It might sound slightly bizarre, this flap over what to call a group of people, but it is a symptom of a larger, more sinister problem sweeping Rakhine state. The area is home to a sizeable Rohingya population, a people the United Nations describes as “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world”. They’re not recognised as citizens of Myanmar and have suffered official discrimination for decades. But now, the Rohingya could be facing their worst crisis yet – a growing push among the Rakhine people, for their total expulsion from the country.
For months, we’d followed the story from a distance. What triggered the anger, we read, was the brutal rape and murder in May, of a young Rakhine woman called Thida Htwe. The culprits were allegedly three Rohingya men, who were swiftly arrested. But this was not enough to calm a rising tide of anger. Days later, a mob set on a bus, killing at least nine Muslims. The victims were not Rohingya, not even from Rakhine. But their religion appeared to be reason enough to justify the attack.
Angry Rohingya decided to hit back, and a demonstration in the town of Maungdaw turned ugly. A wave of retaliation followed. The violence spread and for tens of thousands of people, the nightmare began. Online, there’s also been a war of words as Rakhine supporters and Rohingya activists hurl accusations at each other. Amid the vitriol, the truth can sometimes be hard to discern. We’ve come to find out what’s going on.
We saw what looked like a snoozy little town when we first arrived in Sittwe. There were more than a few military personnel on the streets and a curfew remained in force, but there was virtually no sign of the violence that had engulfed the place just months earlier.
There were also no Rohingya on the streets. We could tell because physically, they are markedly different from the Rakhine – darker, with features more akin to those of the people in neighbouring Bangladesh. There were no Rohingya people in the shops, or at the market, none on their way to work, or to school. The group used to make up at least half of Sittwe’s population. Now though, the entire community seemed to have vanished.
“No more Muslim,” a waiter at a café told us, beaming. “Now, safe. No problem!”
Asked where the Muslims had gone, he would only gesture in a random direction, “Gone!”
Aung Mingalar quarter sits near the old campus of the Sittwe University. The area is not very remarkable, the houses, not particularly nice – many of them, nothing more than rundown wooden structures. But in downtown Sittwe, Aung Mingalar stands out for one reason: it’s the sole Rohingya enclave that’s managed to survive the madness of June, when mobs torched entire villages, forcing thousands to flee.
It drizzled the morning of our visit. We walked quickly past a few armed men in uniform, nervous that they would stop us. But none did. Foreigners were apparently not a concern for them. The guards’ main responsibility was to prevent Rohingya people from leaving the area.
Our contact was standing where he said he would, dressed as he said he would. Our eyes met briefly and he ducked inside a building. We quickened our pace, followed him.
W grasped our hands when we entered. We’d spent hours on the phone trying to arrange this meet-up. It was good to finally put a face to the voice. He spoke fluent English and as soon as we asked about the situation, the words tumbled out.
“We are suffering, you know? How long have we suffered in this country? We cannot keep our patience, you know?”
He told us about the mass of Rakhine people who’d surrounded his street on the morning of 10 June. The motive was apparently revenge, for the Rohingya-led destruction of a village in Maungdaw just two days before. Men, women and children were told to step out of their homes. Thousands filled the street, uncertain what would happen next.
And then, pandemonium.
“Two of my brother-in-laws were killed.” W’s voice cracked, his eyes watered. “How could they… How can I keep my patience? Is that right?”
The men were beaten and hacked to death in front of him. The police station was nearby and the family called for help as the assault was taking place. But police only arrived when everything was over, when it was way too late.
By the time the madness ended, thousand of houses had been razed to the ground. Footage smuggled out of Rakhine state shows desperate villagers battling to stop massive fires from engulfing their homes. In one clip, a group of Rohingya can be seen standing waist deep in what looked like a pond, crying out in prayer, shouting in desperation, as a fire devoured the buildings behind them.
For reasons that are still unclear, Aung Mingalar quarter survived the violence and unlike many of their friends and relatives, W’s family and their neighbours have been able to remain in their homes. Their movements are highly restricted though.
“They’ll arrest us if we go into town,” W’s daughter, S, said. “Normally, we don’t even dare go out of the house.”
Three months of enforced confinement had taken their toll. Food supplies were running low – the family relied on Rakhine middlemen to bring them daily necessities from the market. Money problems loomed. No adult had been able to go to work. No child could attend school. No one knew if things would ever return to normal.
But if the situation looked grim for W and his family, it was far worse for the thousands of Rohingya who used to live in villages that have ceased to exist. We visited a site – formerly home to a fishing community – one morning. A stray dog scavenged among miles and miles of charred wood, broken bricks and scattered household goods. A child’s shoe lay abandoned near what looked like remnants of a door.
The camps lie beyond the checkpoint. Long before setting foot in Sittwe, we’d heard about them, had spoken on the phone to Rohingya refugees living inside. They said conditions were bad, that there was not enough food, shelter or medicine, that access was difficult. That we had to try and visit. Soon.
Our taxi lurches towards the barricade. Somewhere past the guards, our contact is waiting. The driver turns to look at us.
“Passport,” he says, indicating that we should identify ourselves to the guards.
Neither of us moves. We know instinctively that it’s a bad idea.
“Passport?” The driver repeats.
“Go! Go! Go!” James whispers instead.
The driver steps on the accelerator. The taxi zooms past the guards. We keep our heads down, hold our breaths. Maybe it’s lunchtime. No one comes after us. A little past the checkpoint, we hear a shout. It’s our contact, running behind our taxi. He grins as he hops on. “You’re here.”
We smile, shake hands and take in our surroundings. For the first time in days, we see Rohingya people on the streets. Our taxi zips past a busy market, hospital tents and row upon row of temporary shelters. We ask to get off, eager to start filming. But our contact tells us we should head first to the local madrasah.
The refugees surround us as soon as we enter. There are so many of them, and they keep coming – from out of the classrooms in the madrasah, from sleeping places under staircases, from the makeshift kitchen, from afternoon prayers at the mosque in the same compound. They crowd round our cameras, everyone talking at the same time, trying to tell their stories. Their horrendous stories.
One woman shows us a gash on her forehead before pointing to her tiny daughter’s fractured arm. They were hiding on the roof of their house when a mob attacked.
“Security forces also helped,” our contact explains.
A man lifts his shirt to reveal a wound from a knife attack.
Another says police watched while a group of Rakhine people torched his house.
It’s something we hear over and over again, from refugees from different villages, in different parts of the camp – this allegation that security forces or police either participated in the violence, or stood by as it unfolded. The testimonies are chilling, the desperation and anger on the faces of the refugees, impossible to forget.
It gets a little overwhelming after a while. The stories meld into each, become a blur. But then we’re taken to a school, and we meet Kulsum Bibi (the girl in the photograph at the top of this post) and her brother, and the gravity of it all hits home.
They are all eyes and ribs. All eyes and fear. Their aunt, Nur Banu, tells us their parents died during the clashes. She’s trying her best to take care of her niece and nephew. But Nur has children of her own and food rations are minuscule. The irony though? Enterprising Rakhine and Rohingya have set up a market inside the camp. There are fruit, vegetables, meat and even a betel nut stand. But the refugees’ movements are restricted and few have been able to find work. The market serves only those with the means to pay. Starving orphans will have to look elsewhere.
A refugee steps forward with a baby. We gasp when we see him, a tiny thing with a bloated stomach, protruding ribs, and jaundiced skin. We know without a doubt that if no one helps him, if no one helps Kulsum Bibi and her brother, they will soon be dead. The refugees tell us there are many more children like them, that apart from hunger, diarrhoae, cholera, malaria and other nasty diseases are common here.
We know there is much more to see at the school, but our contact reminds us time is running out. We have to get back to our hotel before the 7 o’clock curfew and there are still other sites to visit.
A huge crowd follows us as we leave the compound. James presses a few notes into the hands of a young man, tells him they’re for the children. But we know they need much more than a good meal. They need medical treatment, a clean, dry place to sleep, drinkable water, good sanitation, post-traumatic stress counseling. And we know that unless something drastic happens, it will be highly unlike that they will have any of these, anytime soon.
Nowhere To Go, our documentary on the crisis in Rakhine state, is slated for air on Al Jazeera English’s 101 East on the 27th of September. We will post a link to the film when it is available for viewing online.
We also spent many hours meeting and interviewing Rakhine Buddhist monks, politicians, NGO volunteers and refugees. I’ll have more about them in a separate post.