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We dit not land amidst flooding Rohingyas — not on the day. Neither at the harbour point that the army set up at the Hariyakhali primary school at Teknaf. Nor on our way as we — a group of journalists mostly from New Age — walked down to the landing station off Teknaf to catch a boat to Shah Pari Dwip, which they call Shinmabyu kyun in Myanmar. Nor even on the island, which has provided for a major route for the Rohingyas to cross the border to safety into Bangladesh.
The influx then thinned out as days have rolled since August 25, when thousand of Rohingyas, across the border in Rakhine State in Myanmar, fled violence by security forces there after being persecuted for more than three decades. After the initial flood of Rohingyas, who stepped up to the plate in their efforts to escape to Bangladesh, as their persecution in Myanmar stepped up, the influx waned yet it has continued with no end in sight.
By the turn of September, more than 5,07,000 Arakan Rohingyas, who could have about a thousand Hindus among them, as a relief supply coordinator on Shah Pari Dwip said, fled into Bangladesh, first with the government remaining undecided about what to do, then having resolved to push them back and, finally, deciding to let them in. At least 87,000 more had entered Bangladesh between October 9, 2016, when the previous round of repression began, and this July. The latest influx, beginning in October 2016 till date, has taken the total number of Rohingyas, who started arriving in Bangladesh since the early 1980s, to 9,25,000; and 33,000 of them, having the refugee status, have been living in two official camps at Kutupalong and Nayapara in Cox’s Bazar set up in 1992.
In the morning of October 1 when we reached the Hariyakhali primary school, where the army was keeping the Rohingays, giving them food, water, and clothes, before sending them in hordes to the camps set up at Balukhali, there were about three to four hundred of them there. Standing in long queues, waiting for the relief supplies, especially women, elderly and the young, and their children, were waiting their turn. There were almost no grown-up men among them. A relief coordinator, from the Tabligh Jamaat, which is working in sync with the army at the point, said that all able-bodied, grown-up men were killed by the Myanmar army.
A middle-aged woman, Shamsunnahar, holding a child in one of the queues, came up in support of the claim and said that her husband, Hashem Mollah, who was a small-time trader, was killed a week ago. In a corner under an awning put up on the school ground, a few physicians were listening to complaints from people who were ill and handing them basic medicines. Young mothers, visibly hassled because of a journey that demanded of them to walk for about a week to be able to cross the mountains, get into boats, piloted by Bengali boatmen, walked by Tabligh volunteers down to the harbour point, were holding one child while other children were ambling about. Some of them were washing their face, hands and legs with the water they pressed out of a tube-well installed in one side.
While the army personnel were distributing supplies, Tabligh volunteers, in their usual attire, sporting identity cards, were taking care of the new arrivals, taking chairs to the elderly asking them to sit, even at the end of the queue, and handing bottles of milk to women holding children who were crying. A bearded Tabligh volunteer walked to the end of a queue, asking, in Urdu, ‘apke beech mein koi bimar hai?’ (If any of you have health complaints?). An elderly woman, well into her sixties, raised her hand. The volunteer, again in Urdu, asked her to jump the queue. She was walked to where the medical team was giving medicines. The Rohingyas speak a dialect similar to what Bangladeshis on Shah Pari Dwip do, a bit different from what is spoken in Cox’s Bazar and not easy to understand for people living in other parts. We could get by repeating twice or three times the same sentence, sometimes with people knowing the dialect coming to our rescue.
I inquired with volunteer about the reason for his speaking Urdu with them. As access to national education is restricted to the Rohingyas, many of them could have education for only four years in madrassahs. Some of them could understand Urdu. A few young children, as we found out later on the island, commute between Myanmar and Shah Pari Dwip for education in the madrassah, near a government primary school on the island, every day as the border remains porous. Marriage between Bangladeshis and Arakan Rohingyas is also not rare to come by, as we found out. Sometimes Rohingya males marry women from Shah Pari Dwip and it is, sometimes, the other way round.
The Hariyakhali harbour point was the last stop for cars headed for the island. It was also the last stop for the Rohingyas, headed for camps inside Teknaf, to walk down to. This is where relief operation personnel were noting down the name and packing them into trucks and sending them to the camps farther inside.
About a kilometre off the place, a narrow road jutted out towards the island. The point was heavily guarded and under close watch. As we started walking down from the crossing, Rohingyas, women in burka and many holding child, in small groups were coming into Teknaf through the narrow raised strip that once formed a road connecting the island about 13 kilometres off. A large stretch in the middle of the road has now been washed away. This requires anyone travelling to the island to use either mechanised or speed boats, for a short span when the tide is on the ebb and a long span when it is on the flow.
While some women and children in groups were walking towards the mainland, some others were sitting on the slope of the road stretch, trying to shield themselves from the sun with umbrellas or just being burnt without them. Some, both women and children, desperate to have some relief from the hot weather, were eating ice cream. Yet some other said that they were waiting for others in the group, as they started out of Myanmar, to arrive, not knowing for certain if they would arrive at all.
A group of people, mostly young either from the mainland or from the island, were holding out boiled eggs on a platter, sitting by the road stretch, chanting whenever someone passes by, ‘Buy the Rohingyas some eggs.’ With the Rohingyas walking for days and then reaching the island for a rest of few hours and then again hitting the road towards the mainland, the trade in boiled eggs seemed to be going well. The Tabligh volunteers and some others visiting the place to see the Rohingya influx were buying eggs and handing them to the Rohingyas coming in.
We found people of the Tabligh Jamaat, handing in money out of the wads that they were holding, a bit secretly though, to the new arrivals. They said that they had mobilised the money on their own for distribution to the persecuted fellow Muslims. Yet while they were dishing out the money, some of them were taking snaps with the mobile camera. Almost every woman, old and young, was in burka, which looked similar to ours. Pressed for an explanation, a Tabligh volunteer later at the island camp, where the new arrivals were kept for a few hours for them to get over the hassle, said that they were giving out the burkas. They were doing this out of their religious sentiment and, at times, as a protective measure, especially in the case of young women.
We heard of the boatmen coercing the Rohingyas to pay whatever they had for the travel across the River Naf. A volunteer at the Hariyakhali camp told us that a boatman even wounded a woman, who was not willing to give out all she had. The volunteers sent her to hospital at Teknaf. Volunteers at the camp on the island chimed in, alluding to influential quarters being involved in the corrupt practice. As we were walking towards the island, we found border guards taking four to five of the boatmen, tied with pieces of rope, to the police. Three fishing boats that they used to ferry the Rohingyas across the Naf were also seized. This leads people to believe that the whiff in the air about such coercion has some grounds, but a continued whiff also points to the law enforcer’s not quite an effective action against this crime. But then again, this could open up other avenues of thoughts.
We crossed the Pangar Canal in a speed boat, large enough to hold seven people, beside the helmsman and his assistant. The helmsmen usually charge Tk 20 a person for a ride, but they agreed to ferry us, seven of us, for Tk 400, but when we reached the landing station on the island end, they would not let us go for less than Tk 500.
Once in the island, we took two three-wheelers to go, on a narrow strip of cratered road which could precariously support the vehicles, to the other end of the island, called Dakshin Para, the southern tip, where a boat carrying Rohingyas capsized off the coast on October 28, after being caught in rough waters. There were journalists, local and foreign, especially press photographers, waiting eagerly to take snaps of the Rohingyas coming in. A slightest of the tip moved a horde of them from one end to another. The gathering of journalists around the jetty facing Myanmar grew large as days rolled towards the afternoon. With the arrest of three to four of the boatmen and the seizure of three boats in the morning left eeriness among the other boatmen, who used to ferry the Rohingyas in across the Naf. None of the boatmen were willing to venture out in the river for the day.
Just after the noon, we reached a school, with a madrassah close by, in the south of the island. About 300 Rohingyas were swarming the ground floor of the school building. Tabligh volunteers were distributing food and water to the Rohingyas, men and women squatting on the floor and children hurriedly taking bite of the biscuits and cakes that they were given. A few of them, tired, were fast asleep on the floor, with a sheet of cloth laid out underneath.
Almost all of them had blank looks in their eyes. There were elderly women, with gleams of the past in their eyes and uncertainty that they could be facing. There was nothing for them to fall back on and there was nothing for them to look forward to. All seemed to be, somehow, trying to get over what they had experienced in the past few days, weeks or months in Myanmar and during the journey. A man well past his forties, who was counting some money, said that his house in Myanmar was burnt down a month ago. He moved to the next neighbourhood and when that too was set ablaze, he moved to the next. Finally, he moved in the mountainous jungle. But being unable to withstand the burden of such living, he, along with his wife and children, crossed the mountain over to the shore facing Bangladesh and set out for safety. They reached Shah Pari Dwip early in the morning.
This seemed to be the place where they heaved a sigh of relief. They had passed about a month in uncertainty, amidst insecurity. In the camp set up at the school, where the new arrivals would spend a few hours before being ferried across the canal to the mainland Teknaf, they ate, drank and started waking up to reality, still with the same uncertainty but amidst safety of a sort.
Although the new arrivals were hesitant to say anything about the torture by the boatmen that had faced during the ferry, a Tabligh volunteer said that it was horrific. The boatmen took away all that they had set out with, denuding them of the last penny they could hold onto. The volunteer admitted giving burkas to the Rohingya women, young and old, out of piety and out of the intention to keep them safe. He again said that the money that they were dishing out to the Rohingyas was from what they collected on their own.
But whatever the case is, the Tabligh Jamaat’s were the best, the most needed too, that the new arrivals received for them to see a ray of hope. Tabligh volunteers were everywhere there, at Teknaf, on way from Teknaf to Shah Pari Dwip and on the island. They seem to have grown expertise of a kind in managing the affairs because of their operation in the area which definitely did not begin in August this year or October in 2016, but much before, perhaps for one or two decades, or perhaps all the while Rohingya influx continued along the route.
We started for Teknaf from Shah Pari Dwip, well after the sunset, with the sky thundering and the speed boat services having been closed for the day. We managed one, and got it across the canal, after much of altercation, for Tk 1,000. Back in the Hariyakhali camp, the last trucks, being packed with the last remaining Rohingyas for the day by the army, along with relief supplies, were ready to leave for the Balukhali camp. The night over, the next morning might bring in more Rohingyas, crowding the place, with usual relief efforts, medical treatment camp, trucks being packed and sent to the camp elsewhere, one after another. It was night. The place, barely lit, was almost deserted. As the trucks left, the night seemed to be darkening the future of the Rohingyas who have fled to safety into Bangladesh.
Akkas, Abu Jar M (2017 Oct. 13 ). Rohingyas’ journey to safety into Bangladesh. New Age. 8