Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Forgotten Rohingya Refugees

This Blog is long, depressing and several photos herein may not be palatable to some, so if you are not up to it, please press the delete button now. Otherwise, I hope you find it interesting and insightful about the Rohingya refugees of Burma, how they have been persecuted, tormented and abused, both by the Burmese and Bengali governments. And how the world has simply forgotten them. Because they are resourceless. And Muslims.

Reports of unbelievable misery and destitutions among the Burmese Rohingya refugees have been coming in all year long. I (CAI) want to go and help through Myanmar (Burma) but severe restrictions by Burmese authorities on visiting the refugees make the prospect daunting, at least. My travel schedule for the next 6 months is packed, so when the possibility to bring (some) relief through Bangladesh comes through, and what better month than Ramadhan, I find myself in Dhaka after an exhausting 33 hours voyage from Orlando – Newark – Brussels – Mumbai – Dhaka.

While it is pouring buckets at Mumbai airport on takeoff, Dhaka is dry, steamy and oppressive; the heat blasts me on exiting the terminal. The first sight I face outside the airport is not very encouraging. I see a raggedy middle-aged woman casually walking among the hordes of people at a traffic light we are stopped at, except she is buck-naked. Yup. Not a stitch on her. I start violently and glare at the taxi driver, accusingly, as if he is somehow responsible. But he is lost in his own world and seems, like the crowds outside, indifferent. Oh Allah! I have been to the poorest countries in this world, including Dhaka before, many times, with corporate America, but have never encountered such a distressing sight. Surely someone should cover her, even if she is obviously demented? This entire trip is mired in queasy thoughts of this woman.

I spend a day recuperating from severe jetlag and meeting with the Bangladesh Ladies Welfare Association through who CAI funds the education of poor students, assist destitute widows and feed the hungry, auditing use of funds and making sure the accounting and record keeping is all acceptable. I head for Chittagong on day 4. I can easily observe the divide between the have and have-nots in this country at the airport. An elderly woman, draped in a fine white saari, a glittering diamond brooch in her hair with a matching nose pin, snout up in the air at least 2 centimeters above any worthy queen, with a pucca upper lip, barges through the line waiting to board and everybody, without a peep, gives way.

Chittagong is another sauna, with sweat popping all over my body even sitting still in the shade. The ride to my hotel is snail-speed, with numerous traffic snarls; the 18-mile ride takes 2 hours. We reach the hotel at magreeb so I accompany my hosts to the local imambargha for salaat attended by a ragtag group of poor people. A very simple iftaar of fried fritters and plain daal follows, evidence of the economic state of this community. The daal is scooped out of a bowl with fingers; I pass. I retire early as I have an early start to the refugee camp at 5AM tomorrow morning.

The ride towards Cox Bazaar some 100 miles away is through lush forest and spotty farmland. My hosts nap all the way but I can’t sleep, so I spend my time admiring the scene outside, marred by horrid tuk-tuk and bus drivers who think they own the narrow roads. I need to pee real bad so we take a pit stop. The urinal is an open toilet where you expose your butt to the world, squat and pee. Nobody really cares or looks but still. My butt is for me and mine to admire; I finish my business in record time.  

The mood in the vehicle turns tense as soon as we near the Kutupalong refugee camp a few miles from Cox Bazaar. Bangladesh, strangely, has severe restrictions in place, both in meeting and aiding these people. Not even a Bengali is allowed into the actual camp. We meet Aalam, a local grocery store owner and social worker with a soft spot for the refugees, certified honest by my hosts. He looks at me dubiously, shakes his head and is honestly brutal. Too flashy, says he, this man sticks out like a sore thumb. He looks like a villain from Bollywood with that shaved head. Please ask him to keep his cap on. Now, only if had worn a sarong... I bristle at the translation.

Aalam takes us to his humble home, serves us strong tea and we brainstorm how to enter the camp and help without ending up arrested. He makes me very nervous, whispering and jittery, getting up every now and then to make sure his neighbors are not listening in; I feel I am partaking in some criminal activity. Chicken and ducks come in and out of his living room from the front yard at liberty, nobody makes any attempts to shoo them away. Aalam and my hosts decide it is too risky to take food inside the refugee camp. One, it is illegal. Two, we’d have a riot in our hands. So we decide to print numbered vouchers that a team of volunteers will distribute to the most needy in the camp. The refugees will then exchange the vouchers for 10kg of rice, 3 liters of cooking oil, 2 kg of sugar, 2 kg of different lentils and some powdered milk. Makes sense to me, so I quickly agree to the plan.

But I still want to see the camp and meet the refugees, learn their plight first hand, let them know we care. My insistence makes Aalam even more restless. He shuts the door to the house, which becomes instantly hotter and we all sweat some more. Shombov na, not possible! He hisses, over and over again, baring beetle nut stained teeth at me. Too risky! I’ll tell you what, I can call my contact and see if a few of them can come up here and you meet them behind the house, in the cowshed, the neighbors must not see you meeting them. They will cause trouble for me after you are gone. I readily agree.

So I meet some of the refugees furtively, elderly widows mostly, say a few words of comfort and give them enough money to buy and cook a few days worth of decent food. Then, under the cowshed, with the smell of cow dung clogging my nose, I talk to a few refugees who have been tortured. The following words are Mohammed Abdullah’s, a fifty something, half blind emaciated man.

My name is Mohammed Abdullah. I used to live in Arakan (Muslim lands in Burma) with my wife and 5 children in the Buchidong Ikab village. I inherited some land from my father, which I tilled. We had 2 cows, some goats and chicken. The authorities began our torment by requiring us to register our animals with them. Then we had to inform them whenever there was an animal birth and the number of eggs our chicken hatched per day. The army come over one night and told me I had to move, the land was not mine. When I tried to prove my case, one soldier poked my right eye with his rifle; I have completely lost the use of my right eye; it’s useless. But I still did not leave, although my wife pleaded that we do. This was my land, we lived off it. Where would we go? What would we eat? A few nights later, some Mog (Buddhist) people came to my house. They took me outside, laid me on my back and prepared to slaughter me. They had a knife on my neck when my children threw themselves on me and pleaded with the Mog to spare me, promising we’d leave. The Mog gave us five minutes to leave; we left, taking nothing with us. We walked to the river and crossed over to Bangladesh and to this camp. We have been here 2 years with nothing to do or eat. I try and offer my sweat and get a few Takkas some days. Other days, when I do not work or beg, I bring home wild grass growing by the sewer stream and my wife cooks that with some salt and pepper. We eat that. But my children complain of tummy aches from eating that.

I am so shocked and stunned by this narration; I am speechless for a while. There is nothing I can say or do, so I give him some money. That’s the easiest thing to do, no? The guy starts weeping and falls on the ground, then attempts to touch my feet in gratitude. Repulsed, my heartbeat on overdrive, I jump back and yell at him to stop. Had not my heart and stomach hardened to such cruelty from human on human I have seen for so long, I would have wept uncontrollably.

Emotionally spent, I want to return to Chittagong as fast as the car can drive me. But there is more. Aalam hustles us out of his house and we prepare to leave. Driving outside the camp towards Chittagong, I rue not seeing the inside. My host suggests bribing a group leader he knows in the camp who would be willing to look the other way while we quickly toured one side of the camp and took hurried photos; I refuse. It is against my principle and CAI policy to offer any bribes. Period. I am not sure what happens next, but the group leader materializes like magic and my host talks to him. There is quick and sometimes heated debate between them. I am sure there is a monetary deal, but this information is not shared with me.  Finally, it is decided the group leader will accompany me inside. I am his uncle from Pakistan on a visit and I should talk in Urdu only. There is a risk, but I do tawakkal and agree.

I have been to refugee camps before, so steel myself for the inescapable distress. But it is always difficult and painful to see what I witness. Thousands of people, mostly women and children, with the vacant look of despair, languish all around squalid conditions in a sprawling barren land. The houses are all wood and stick, protected by black polythene sheets. There are no toilets so stark naked children defecate everywhere. Half of the children are buck-naked; their uncircumcised penises swing wildly as they play in the filth. These children are Muslims, I ask curiously, why are they uncircumcised? My host snorts contemptuously, rubbing his thumb against two forefingers. No food, where will they find funds for a kathna? The stench revolts me as the sun beats down on the treeless landscape, soaking me to my undies.    

The drive back to Chittagong is long and depressing, as it inevitably is after such programs. I wreak my brains trying to find a way to help the children. Giving food long term, especially with severe restrictions in place, is not viable, of course. So I ask my hosts if a small school, maybe from grades 1 through 5 is possible. There is instant excitement as we discuss such a possibility. The refugees are not restricted in movement from and to the camp as long as the night is spent inside the camp, so yes, it is possible. Aalam agrees to donate land at the back of his house. My spirits lift, somewhat. Perhaps there is a flake of hope? Allah knows best; we can only try. Insha’Allah.

My return trip home via Dhaka, Mumbai, Brussels and Newark is uneventfully, except I get to bring home some fresh malpuas from my 10-hour layover in Mumbai.

View photos here.

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