I was in a refugee camp in Arakan state. I did not know that people could survive on so little. Today I was walking through an area covered with small tents and people in all ages. The camp was one registered by the government.The people living here received a small ration of food once a month and a simple tent that would serve as their house. They were also given some toilets to share with hundreds of others.
In order to receive these ‘privileges’ which only about 1/3 of the 100,000 people who are currently homeless in Arakan state receive, the people in this camp had also signed a form that stated they were Bengali Muslims. By doing so, they had given the government the right to call them immigrant, or Kala, which means foreigner or immigrant in Burmese. You see, the people living in the camp are Muslims, but they belong to a people group the government claims doesn’t exist. The Rohingya. In 1982 the government simply stated that the Rohingya has no place in Burma. And they took their citizenship away. They are now a stateless people, and UN says, some of the the world’s most persecuted. When signing the form saying they are Bengali Muslims, they are giving the government the right to say: We told you so. But what wouldn’t you do for a little bit of food?
After a while we came to a tent that we were invited into. It took a while for the eyes to adjust to the light. While we took our shoes off and looked for a space to sit down the owners of the tent hurried to roll out a mat for us to sit on. Hospitality is a virtue even if you are a refugee. I have seen that more times than I can count.
The people inside the tent were eager to talk. Outside even more people congregated; they too wanted to share their stories. They listened intently as I interviewed several of the people we were introduced to.
The five siblings never smiled. Their big dark eyes spoke only of sorrow, fear and uncertainty. I looked in my bag for something I could give them that would cheer them up, but I all I found was my notebook and camera. I took some photos of them and let them have a look at themselves. But not even that could bring out a small smile.
I understood why when I heard their story.
They had lived in their village by the sea. Their dad, like most men in the village was a fisher man. Their village had 170 families. Being Rohingya and from the poorest part of Burma, the villagers already suffered. The children did not go to school (of the six siblings, only the oldest brother who is 12 had gone to school), and healthcare was barely available. Still, this was home, and the safest place they knew.
Until June 12th. The village was surrounded by rebels intent on killing them. They recognized some of their Buddhist neighbors among the attackers. The people that had been living right next to them all their lives. Not until now had they known their neighbors’s true feelings. Among the attackers were also police and soldiers from the army. These were the people who had told them they would protect them if something happened. When the villagers had sensed that something was going to happen, they had asked for protection from the police and army officials. “Just stay calm,” they were told. “If something happens, we will come and protect you.” Now they saw how wrong they had been when they trusted government officials. Their plan seemed to have been to kill them all along.
The village was completely destroyed. Many of the villagers were brutally killed, with swords, guns and spears. As if this was not enough, they were not allowed to leave the compound of their village. They were surrounded 24 hours a day. Nobody got to leave. Nobody got to enter.
Soon the villagers ran out of food. Other Muslims in the area wanted to help them, but were not allowed to enter the compound of the village. To survive, the villagers, the five children in front of me included, ate grass. When the situation got desperate, and he knew his family would starve to death if he did not get them anything to eat, the children’s father, together with five other men, decided to put their lives on the line. In the middle of the night they snuck out of the village, and got into their simple fishing boats. Unfortunately, the Buddhist village administrator had seen them leave, and alerted the rebels. Very soon after, the six men were all dead, hacked to death by the same angry mob who had already destroyed their homes. To make sure nobody else committed the same crime (trying to get food for your family who is starving and eating grass to survive), the rebels also destroyed all the fishing boats.
After finding out what had happened to her husband, the children’s mother could not bare to live any more. “She died from depression,” the grandmother sighed, tears rolling down her cheek.
For two months they stayed in the destroyed village. Finally they knew that if they did not get away, they would all die. Some of the villagers still had their rowing boats, and with no other system than piling as many as they could onto the boats, they left their destroyed homes—the village that had been theirs, but that apparently no longer belonged to them.
They arrived in the area before there was a camp. By then, one of the brothers, little Naru who was 8, could no longer live. The months of starvation, and the loss of both his parents and his home was too much for him. He died.
For the first while they all congregated at a cemetery. During the day they walked around begging for food. In the night they tried to sleep.
Finally the camp was registered and they stared getting some rations of rice, peas, salt and oil. They got a simple tent that they could live in. They have tried to make it nice.
But as I looked at the people around me I saw nothing but hopelessness. While talking, the grandmother let her tears flow freely. Her home is gone. Her son and daughter in law are gone. Several of her grandchildren are gone. Her future is now in a tent in a camp with thousands of others who have similar stories.
Sitting next to me, listening to the story, was the children’s aunt. She hadn’t said much. Suddenly she asks: “Would you please write down my son’s name? He also died. We were all on a small boat escaping from the village when it capsized and he drowned.” She has no photos of her five-year old boy. I think she asked me to write down his name just so that he won’t be forgotten. At least his name will exist somewhere.
The smallest children are still asking for their parents, and they are always out looking for them, says the grandmother. She tries her best to give them the comfort she knows they need. But how can she?
Partners is helping families like this one. It may not be much, but what we have we give. Talking to so many of the Rohingya, I felt that just by being there, by their side, and saying that we care brought healing. They have never heard anything but that they are unwanted and hated. I really would like you to help us help these people. I promise that all the money given will be put to the very best use—to help where help is needed. It takes so little for us, but means so much to them. So, here it is—again, the link to our webpage
The photos are all taken by my friend, Kim Sorensen from Norway.