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“Home is where the heart is!” – Rohingyas in camps and their idea of ‘Home’

Bayes Ahmed10 November 2020

Written by Dr Niloy Ranjan Biswas, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Email: niloy@du.ac.bd

The perilous journey of Rohingya people fleeing their ‘home’ to Bangladesh, escaping persecution and genocide by Myanmar’s security forces, was full of quandary and uncertainty. They endured severe sufferings and pain in this journey to find safety and a new home. The brutal crackdown in 2017 forced more than 700,000 Rohingyas to leave their homes and embark upon a hazardous journey to neighbouring Bangladesh. According to Human Rights Watch (2017) report, the journey to Bangladesh was met with hunger, exhaustion and death. Crossing rivers, walking up and down steep and slippery hills across dense vegetation during monsoon rains with sore hips and swollen legs made it extremely challenging to survive. Furthermore, the Myanmar soldiers sexually assaulted Rohingya women and on many occasions raped them while they were fleeing to Bangladesh. Many of them had to continue their journey through the jungle with swollen and torn genitals. Many of them even gave birth on the road without medical assistance or proper medications.

Rohingyas’ journey from Myanmar to Bangladesh took up seventeen days. The route included either crossing the Naf River or taking a boat in the Bay of Bengal along the coast from the Myanmar shores. The desperate journey to find safety did not end for Rohingyas once they crossed the border of Bangladesh as they were stranded in the rice fields and marshlands and continued their journey to refugee camps cordoned by the security forces. For Rohingyas, arriving in Bangladesh after leaving behind their homes in Myanmar was just one part of their long journey. Their journey to escape trauma and horror in Myanmar has been juxtaposed with the misery of searching for a new home. What are ‘home’ and ‘homeland’ for Rohingyas? ‘Home’ has multiple interpretations for them.

The author visited the camps in 2019 to conduct extensive fieldwork in order to collect stories of Rohingya men and women. Those micro-narratives identify multivariate patterns of violence and trends of protection experienced by the refugees. It suggests that there is strong evidence of structural violence inherent in the society of Myanmar. Some of these examples are restrictions on movement and no access to health and education in Myanmar. The idea of accountability and justice are completely non-existent in the discourse of Rohingyas in Myanmar, which may need to be highlighted further as an important source of violence.

Hasina (a pseudonymous name), a 25-year old Rohingya woman, lives in a camp, near Thaingkhali, Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar. She was revisiting memories of her home in Myanmar and sharing her narratives with the author. She remembers her home in childhood as a quiet peaceful place. They could move out and roam around freely. She remembered they lived peacefully with Rakhaines (Buddhist communities) as neighbours. They used to get justice from representatives of local government. Her brother’s friend was a local government chairman from the Rakhine community, whose younger brother stole fruits from Hasina’s backyard and destroyed the field. Hasina’s father protested and complained to the chairman. He warned his own brother and apologised on his behalf. This was her impression of home when she was asked to share her childhood memory. Hasina said, “Home was peaceful, and everyone was living in harmony”. What has changed now?

Hasina was submerged under vivid memories—how her homeland, her village and adjacent areas turned into mayhem. She says that she was not able to study in Myanmar and will never get a good job. They will always live like their older generations —uneducated and unemployed.

In my home, we had no rights but we loved our home as we were born in that place.

Home is arguably the house and its surroundings, which is shared by her family and neighbours—both Rohingyas and Rakhaines. Has the ‘country’ ever turned into a ‘homeland’ for Hasina? Rakhaines are the significant ‘others’, and they dishonoured Rohingyas. Hasina says that they had to pay to get what they are entitled to get as citizens of Myanmar. Authorities do not like a Rohingya, who disobeyed their instructions, s/he would have to pay a monetary fine, or get beaten by uniformed security forces, or at least they would take ducks, chickens, cows, and goats. Prayers, Azan, and Madrasa—religious practices were also closed. Those who worked were barred from doing their work and even from leaving the house. According to Hasina, the security forces would go from home to home and torture and oppress women. No one could protest. They gradually began to inflict too much torture. They oppressed them in front of everyone, took their babies, or injure them and even burn them.

Her recent memories are full of bloodshed and loss. In August 2017, Hasina’s cousin (Bilkis) was raped by Myanmar’s security forces. Her parents were tied up and seven people raped Bilkis. “They were laughing and making fun of us as we are not human”—Hasina shared her experience with the author. Later Bilkis was shot dead and her body was fed to dogs. The girl left a child. The attackers set Hasina’s younger brother on fire. Hasina says that although she was not physically tortured, her relatives were severely tortured. She says they came to Bangladesh after suffering a lot.

Home is an existence of hardship and plight for Hasina. They faced violence every day in Myanmar. Her husband primarily worked in agriculture. He was beaten many times by the security forces for no reason. Once they had changed the fence of their house without informing local authorities, the security forces raided their house, beat them and asked for money. They took away their chickens, cows, and goats. “Hundreds of women were tortured by the military, their fathers, brothers, husbands could do nothing and everyone remained silent. No one could protest. “The family members could not save anyone and had to witness this by their own eyes. In Myanmar, the lives of Rohingyas are like the “lives of ants and lives have no value to the state”.

Home is where one can sleep peacefully. Hasina says, now in camps in Ukhia, she can sleep at night without worry or fear. “There is no fear such in Myanmar and I do not experience nightmares here”, she says. They are very safe in the camps of Bangladesh. Her children can go to school and mosques for prayer. “We are no longer slaves in Bangladesh as we were in our homeland”, says Hasina.

Home is where security forces do not scare Hasina every day. In the initial days at the camp, Hasina was scared to see members of security forces. It reminded her of her own country’s security forces and their behaviour. Later she realised that Bangladeshi security forces were actually providing them with safety and security. Camps were more like homes when security providers are not violators of human rights. Hasina repeatedly mentioned that if the military of her homeland behaved well, they would not have to worry about their lives.

Can Hasina return to her ‘home’ in Buthidaung, Maungdaw? She says her heart breaks into pieces when she thinks about her home in Buthidaung. Home is where she can trust people around her. She lacks trusts in her neighbours and local authorities in Myanmar. She rather trusts the people of Bangladesh who have been providing support in refugee camps. Hasina cheerfully acknowledges that she is happy to see her children playing, studying and going to the mosques without risking their lives. Hasina says she feels very good in camp’s plastic house as she knows none is coming after their lives. For her, a home is where she is not afraid of oppression and torture.

Hasina knows Myanmar is her country, nevertheless, she doubts whether or not it has ever been her ‘homeland’. They will eventually return to find their homes in ashes, if and when repatriation takes place. A big question, however, which was reflected in her face—has it ever become a home for her and her family? It seems she has lost her belief in Myanmar—its administration and security forces. Unlike Pliny the Elder suggests “Home is where one is most emotionally attached”, Hasina observes: “I lost faith in my country. I do not know where is my home and what will we do in future?” Her emotions are tormented that she will never have the same ‘home’ back in her ‘homeland’.

Acknowledgement: This work was funded by the British Academy as part of the project, “Rohingya Journeys of Violence and Resilience in Bangladesh and its Neighbours: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives” (Award Reference: SDP2\100094), supported under the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).