Nizamuddin lost his country on June 12, 2012.
The Rohingya Muslim from the Rakhine province in Myanmar was forced to flee his home three years ago when ethnic violence broke out. Now he and his family are stateless, without papers or passports, they have become citizens of nowhere.
Recounting the harrowing journey from Myanmar to India via Bangladesh at the Women in the World Summit in New Delhi on Friday, Nizamuddin said he was desperately worried about the future of his three daughters: “Where is their place in the world? They ask, I have no answer.”
Nizamuddin says his only hope is that the newly-elected leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, will offer support and advocate for their return.
“Since 2012, there is no word from her. She should say something about the (Rohingya) crisis. At that time she said she had no power. Now she does.”
A UNHCR worker, the diminutive Rohingya was charged with looking after three hostels for girls in Rakhine: “They were multi-ethnic, Budhhist and Muslim. Right after the Friday prayer, at about 2 p.m., it (the ethnic violence) started. All the UNHCR people ran away, by speedboat, by air.”
He said villages were burnt, young boys arrested and women raped in the brutal orgy of violence and his major concern became to get his charges to safety. “It took me one week to get the Buddhist girls back to their parents. But nearly three months to get the Muslim girls to safety.”
On the run from the Myanmar police, Nizamuddin crossed into Bangladesh through a dense forest one night. He lived there for five months before crossing yet another border, this time into India. He and his family now live in a small room – smaller than the bathroom in their previous home — says his wife, in Delhi’s downmarket Vikaspuri area.
He makes ends meet by doing some translation work for the UNHCR.
Nizamuddin may be one of the lucky ones as tens of thousands of Rohingyas have fled Myanmar on rickety boats over the last year, many suffering terribly and many others dying on the way.
“It is critical to realize that they (Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar) are deprived of citizenship,” says Lilianne Fan, International Director and Co-Founder of the Geutanyoe Foundation. That means they have no rights and live precariously, on the edge of violence and even when they escape persecution, their lives continue to be perilous, adds Fan. They often risk passage on dangerous operated by human traffickers, in conditions Fan describes as “floating concentration camps.” Access to food and water is limited and many die. If no country is willing to give them asylum, they cannot disembark.
Bangladeshi photographer Saiful Huq Omi tells poignant stories of Rohingya refugees. In Kuala Lumpur, he came across a young Rohingya couple who had escaped Rakhine. They presented a picture of domestic joy, lending themselves to a series of delightful portraits until he heard their story, which was as cruel and ugly as the portraits were beautiful.
The man had made it out of Myanmar to Malaysia after the violence began, but managed to stay in touch with the woman he loved. An escape attempt, they both knew, would expose her to the likelihood of brutal rape by human traffickers. They decided despite it all that seeking refuge was worth the risk, so desperately did they want to be together. She was indeed raped by the traffickers, both Thai and Bangladeshi.
“They put the girls in cages and raped them for weeks,” says Saiful.
Even more heart-wrenching was the story of 139 Rohingya men and boys who tried to reach Bangladesh in broken boats. Saiful was at Cox Bazaar in Bangladesh when the order came to push them back, knowing they would either drown or die at the hands of their persecutors. “We pushed them back into the sea…of the 139, 132 died,” recalls Saiful.
Fan isn’t overly optimistic about Aung San Suu Kyi, who has yet to make a clear statement on the Rohingya crisis. The mentality that the Rohingyas are battling was underscored by a video clip of an interview with a Buddhist monk, played after Saiful had told his story.
The monk declares (heard in a voiceover) that the Muslims are ” defecating” over Burma: they want to take over the country and will not be satisfied until “they have converted the entire world to Islam”, he said.
Fan recalls simple fishermen from Indonesia going out to sea to help the Rohingyas stranded in boats earlier this year. No one asked them to; they just did. That basic humanity, as journalist Suhasini Haider pointed out, offers the Rohingyas a tiny sliver of hope.