Like many others, she believes only death awaits her in Myanmar
Mariam’s story is slightly different than that of other Rohingya refugees. Unlike most of them, she fled Myanmar back in 2012 after the riots in Rakhine. Her home and her family were all she had left in Myanmar, after the government stripped her people of their rightful citizenship. But Mariam had the audacity to dream that if not her, then perhaps someday, her children or their children would be acknowledged as citizens and live the life they deserve as equals under the state.
In a dusty, squalid part of a refugee camp for Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar, she recalled her odyssey to the Dhaka Tribune as some children frolicked behind her on a dry, spring day.
In Mariam’s words, things were different in 2012, and she had found shelter at a refugee camp in India’s Hyderabad with her husband and children. But after the 2016-2017 ethnic cleansing in Rakhine prompted the largest Rohingya exodus, India reconsidered its stance and declared that all Rohingya refugees would be expelled, thus, tearing down the semblance of normalcy Mariam had developed in her new home.
With their six sons and three daughters – eight of them married – Mariam and her husband had already found work around the Hyderabad camp in those five years. The Indian government started preparing lists of Rohingyas to repatriate to Myanmar, in spite of alarming reports that urged greater commitment and transparency on Myanmar’s part. Even when the Rohingya refugees pleaded with India, asking that their repatriation be delayed until the UN and other human rights agencies were confident about peaceful repatriation, the Indian government ordered its border forces to repel any Rohingya refugees.
Realizing that staying in India any longer would mean forcefully being returned to Myanmar, Mariam opted to travel to the world’s largest and fastest-growing refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar in neighbouring Bangladesh instead.
Like many others, she contacted human traffickers who make huge profits from the trade, which involves many stages of transit and many members of law enforcement agencies and border guards.
At the Manipur border in India, Mariam and her family paid Tk10,000 per head to cross into Bangladesh. Under cover of darkness, they were passed from trafficker to trafficker to the border. And just as they were about to sneak past the barbed wires, dawn broke and Indian border guards spotted the trespassers.
While the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) is notorious for gunning down people at the border, they did not kill anyone that day. But Mariam did not feel lucky. Everyone managed to get away, except her.
The BSF troopers thrashed her, without any regard to her gender or age. She was hauled back to camp and imprisoned in a dingy cell. Cut off from her family and without a shred of idea as to what her options were, Mariam felt her mind succumbing to madness with terror and panic. In the dark and solitary hours, thoughts of suicide began to appeal to her.
But before she could attempt to take her own life, a surprise came to her.
BSF soldiers marched into her cell and dragged her out, taking her to the border. Once there, they pushed her towards Bangladesh, glaring all the while.
Once again, Mariam was in a foreign land without anyone she could turn to. Unlike her earlier incursion into India, she was all by herself, without her family. But she had lived through horrors and indignities long enough to have arrived here. With renewed vigour and a woman’s resilience, she embarked on a crusade to track down her missing family.
Her frantic search bore no fruit, until she learned that all the Rohingyas in Bangladesh were being sheltered at refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. She boarded a bus to Cox’s Bazar and reached Kutupalong Rohingya Refugee Camp in Ukhiya.
With tears streaming down her face, she spoke in a wavering voice: “My daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren are still in Hyderabad. They will join us very soon. They are not the only ones coming. Each and every Rohingya in India is trying to come to Bangladesh. We all know that returning to Myanmar would lead to our deaths at the hands of the Mogh (Rakhine Buddhists). We have nobody left in Rakhine, only the ruins of our homes, and the dreams of someday returning to rebuild them. My blood, my kin, they lie in unmarked graves in Rakhine…”
She choked on her tears, cutting short her story.
Updated On: February 13th, 2019