Fleeing Myanmar

Source: New Internationalist

The treatment of Myanmar’s Rohingya people has been seen as a genocide in the making. 

On her mind that day, in September 2017, was all that was immediate. And all that was immediate – the next meal, clean water, safe shelter, sleep without terror – clamoured for her attention but were things over which she had very little control. Rashida* wanted rest.

She was at an NGO-run medical facility at Balukhali refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh, trying to get her five-year-old daughter examined for several ailments: cold, cuts to the knee, stomach pain.

She also wanted to get herself checked – Rashida was several months pregnant. Expecting, grieving, in pain, she and her family walked several days from Myanmar to reach Cox’s Bazar, escaping terror, fearing for their lives. The makeshift camps at Balukhali had gone up just a few weeks prior, built by the Rohingya refugees themselves with help from locals. A new place, a new home, new beginnings, a baby on the way. But being alive felt numbing, so many uncertainties remained and chained her hopes. Rashida was tired and rest was elusive. A calm, steady register permeated her words as she stood in line – they had been standing more than an hour and she wanted to sit.

We talked about home, the one she left. In Myanmar, she knew everyone in her village, her family, the community, their farms, the familiar tenor of life and surroundings. A familiarity that also included constant fear, so who knew what home was, Rashida told me. There had been disappearances, arrests, torture and murder of Rohingyas in Myanmar for as long as she could remember – not what a home should be. She would not want to return, not under the current circumstances, not unless there are ‘guarantees’. But who can assure safety when the government in Mynamar and ‘so many people’ in that country are hostile? This, what she called a blessing, being alive, was also a curse with all the uncertainties. Rashida did not see this – the shelters which barely passed for a shelter, Bangladesh – as home either. Besides, there were more immediate needs: once standing in line for the medical checkup was over, they would stand in line for food, and then again to take a bath. Women preferred taking baths at night in the camp, she quipped with a faint smile, because darkness afforded privacy.

In the space of just a few months in late 2017, more than half a million refugees escaped Myanmar in search of a safe haven in Bangladesh. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights declared the persecution of the Rohingya people a ‘textbook case of ethnic cleansing’. With them, the Rohingyas brought accounts of death and mutilation, torture and rape, houses burned, charred lands, families scattered, a grotesque culmination of that slow-burning familiarity Rashida described. Pieced from refugee interviews and satellite images, the Associated Press has now uncovered evidence of mass graves near the village of Gu Dar Pyin where the Myanmar military perpetrated a planned attack. Similar evidence of massacres also emerged from Tula Toli. Although the Myanmar government denies many of these accounts, the scale at which a campaign of premeditated carnage was conducted is clear. And that familiarity, the everyday humiliation and violence seamlessly embedded into the country’s social-economic-legal-cultural architecture, has allowed for the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar for decades.

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