I don’t know if I have ever seen a grown man cry the way he did. Jakil walked into the room we were sitting looking serious and determined. His hair was combed and well-kept, he was wearing a nice shirt and the traditional Burmese loyngi.
He didn’t look like a refugee to me, but like a dignified man. It occurred to me then, like often before, that nobody is born to be a refugee. When forced to live in a camp, removed from their home, their job, their loved ones, and everything that is safe and familiar to them, people are robbed of what is most important in their lives. When they grow up constantly hearing that they are unwanted, unloved, ugly, smelly, corrupt, violent, dirty and dishonest, it does something to one’s self esteem. Many of the people I met and saw looked defeated. They looked like they had lost hope. But not Jakil. He looked like he wanted to die fighting for the rights of his people, the Rohingya.
His grandfather was a judge. And not any judge. He was one of the judges that sentenced the person responsible for the assassination of General Aung San, the father of modern Burma. Now his grandson was sitting in front of us, sobbing.
The people in his village were the main fishermen in the area. They were an old community from British colonial times. When they sensed they would be attacked by rebels, they asked the military for protection. The army and police reassured them that they would be safe. If something happened they would be there to protect them. That is what they said.
When their village got attacked, the rebels came from both ends. There was no protection for the unarmed villagers. The rebels destroyed the mosque and the Koran. (These people are Muslims. It is one of the reasons they are being targeted.) They put the houses on fire. All the old and handicapped people in the village died.Nobody was able to save them. Even the Buddhist monks had swords and attacked the villagers.
The whole village ran away to another township that night. It was across the river from their village. But soon they ran out of food. Their only option now was to get on a boat and seek refuge somewhere else. When they came to a town, they asked for permission to dock, so they could walk to a refugee camp, but they were denied permission. “You are not welcome here. We don’t want you here. We don’t care what happens to you,” was the message. It was late at night, there was a storm, and instead of getting refuge in a town that could have saved them, they were forced back on the open sea. They all knew it was a very dangerous journey, but what else could they do?
On the way to the other side of the ocean one of the boats sunk. 42 of the 56 people on the boat drowned. Among them were 11 of Jakil’s relatives. “I lost my mother, three sisters, one brother and six nephews and nieces aged 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 14 years old that night,” he cries, bent over on his chair as he is trying to retell the story. He fumbles with an old mobile phone and gives to us. On the screen we see the pictures of the dead bodies of all his relatives. They are all gone now. His home, his village, his family. He only has his memories and his pain left.
He wipes his tears and looks at us and asks:
“Why do they do this to us? The government says ‘you cannot study because you don’t have citizenship.’ But we don’t have citizenship because we are not allowed to. We are natives of this land, yet we are not allowed citizenship. Why did the government not take action? They could have stopped this.”
I look at him. Feeling awkward and sad. Anger comes later. What do you say to a man who just lost eleven relatives? How can the government officials justify their actions? How deep is the hate they harbor in their hearts for Rohingyas who just asked for a chance to dock their boat so that they could walk the many miles to a temporary refugee camp? Sometimes I wonder if animals treat their fellow beings as bad as humans do.
But looking at Jakil and so many of the other people I met, I am comforted by the fact that while there are so many evil men and women, there are more who are good, courageous, brave, generous, and full of integrity. Let’s help give them the right to live.
PS. I have deliberately left out names of places, towns and villages here. Also, Jakil is not his full name. This is all for security and protection for Jakil, the other villagers, and for Partners workers in the area. Do, however, help us by sharing this story and the other stories I share about the Rohingya. The world needs to be told. Also, please give! We need funds to keep working in the area. A little goes a long way. A lot goes even further 🙂
Photo by Kim Sorensen.