Lives hang in the balance
Azaadbin Arakan Published at 08:14 PM December 21, 2017 Last updated at 01:46 AM December 22, 2017
The forcible repatriation of 1993 is a lesson of blood and tears
No one claims ignorance anymore about what is happening to the Rohingya. The United Nations’ human rights organisation and the capitals of the world all agree that the war being waged against the Rohingya is a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Yet, on November 23, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement regarding the return of Rohingya refugees back to dangerous conditions in their homeland in Rakhine state “within two months.”
Myanmar agreed to take necessary measures to halt the outflow of refugees into Bangladesh, to restore normalcy in Northern Rakhine State, and to encourage those who had fled Myanmar to return voluntarily, saying they can be returned safely to their own households and original places of residence or to a secure place of their choice.
Myanmar agreed to take all possible measures to see that returnees will not be settled in temporary places, like IDP camps, for a long period of time and that their freedom of movement in Rakhine state will be granted in conformity with existing laws and regulations. Myanmar agreed to allow access to basic services and other needs and said they would issue identification for national verification upon their return.We have seen these kinds of promises before, and survivors recall the horrors left upon the Rohingya who’ve faced mass exodus after mass exodus for decades. We have to ask, were the 240,000 Rohingya who were forcibly repatriated to Myanmar in 1993 treated humanely or even given the choice to return?
To understand the dangers of Myanmar’s plan to repatriate the Rohingya, one only has to speak to the Rohingya who lived through the horrors of this time and they can reply, now from the refugee camps in Bangladesh.
The nightmares of repatriation
Rafia Begum sat dishevelled and draped in a brown Unicef donated blanket in a Bangladeshi refugee camp. Her perception is sharp and she draws the listener in as she speaks about her experiences from 1993: “My husband was handcuffed and others caught me. Soon we were taken to a truck and sent to transit point nearby the border” recalled Rafia.
“When the UNHCR’s staff went back home in the evening, the security forces started torturing my husband when he was refusing to go back. I shouted out for help and ran towards my husband. I was kicked and taken to a room and locked up there,” she continued, tears streaming down her face. Rafia was in a Bangladesh’s transit point for 55 days as she refused to go back to Myanmar. The safety assured to her included being abused and her husband being tortured.
As we now seek to solve the refugee crisis of the Rohingya, remembering these lessons will be key “Finally, we were sent back to Myanmar where we were forced to live in an undignified fashion,” she continued. It is known that some returnees during 1993 received some cash and kits in Myanmar. “We, the family, once received 10,000 Kyats and some kitchen kits. But we could not build a house in our original place with that less amount of money,” Rafia added.
During the repatriation of Rohingya refugees in 1993, there were four transit points in Bangladesh and two in Myanmar. The UNHCR had a reputation for poorly managing and intervening in this system.
Abdul Shukur, a 48-year-old refugee recalled: “When I heard repatriation orders over the loudspeaker, I felt half dead and ran away with my wife and child. Not long after, a group of security forces and local volunteers surrounded our camp and started looting everything. We escaped into the jungle until everything became calm. Then we moved to a local village.”
He has continued refusing to return to Myanmar since 1993. In 1998, he was imprisoned for his refusal and wasn’t released until 2004. Currently, he is registered as a refugee with the UNHCR in Kutupalong refugee camp.
“This is the third time I have had to flee to Bangladesh from Myanmar. The last time, in 1993, we left our two sons. They went fishing in a lake on the border region, but my husband and I were sent to Myanmar. It was all so harsh,” recalled 88-year-old Ghulam Bahar.
“I don’t think I can go back now this time. I might die on the way from my old age” she says this all to me as she’s lying on a plastic mat beneath the blended tarpaulin used as a roof in Nayapara Refugee camp.
In these callous and violent ways, 240,000 Rohingya refugees were forced to return to Myanmar, but nearly 22,000 refused to go and remained hiding in Bangladesh since 1993.
Should we forget about them when discussing repatriation plans for this most recent batch of refugees? Among these refugees are tales of when aid was cut off for eight months as a mean to drive them back to Myanmar.
Rohingya refugee men were killed brazenly and dozens were arrested and imprisoned for years on accusations of illegally staying in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
“The horrors of that return are unforgettable. First they cut off our rations, then they looted what we had, and finally they tortured us from shelter to shelter,” said Nur Kamaal. Kamaal was a former refugee. He fled Myanmar in 1992 and returned in 1996. In September 2017, his house was burnt down in part of Myanmar’s clearance operation.
Rather than fleeing to Bangladesh he chose to stay in a neighbouring village instead. He said: “Loronot tuwarow moron bala” — dying is better than fleeing. He is convinced this is true of his current situation.
Maybe, learn from past mistakes?
No sustainable change with positive and peaceful outcomes can be obtained without learning from past mistakes, and unfortunately the mistakes of the past are hardly known, let alone discussed.
The stories of those who faced the forcible repatriation of 1993 are an important lesson for those invested in solving the current refugee crisis. Their stories scream to us of the horrors that will unfold when those unwilling to return to hostile lands are forced to do so anyways.
While the lives of 645,000 refugees hang in the balance, we must ensure they do not face the same fate, that forcible repatriation isn’t disguised as voluntary and, most importantly, we must ensure the lives and safety of the most vulnerable are the first priority of those who are designated to care for them.
History must be learned from, and the forcible repatriation of 1993 is a lesson of blood and tears experienced by the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. We must learn from the mothers who had to leave their children, the wives taken back without their husbands, and the disabled left alone and forsaken inside the refugee camps.
While Bangladesh is a place of its own needs, being one of the poorest nations in the world, they have shown true and beautiful compassion and generosity to the Rohingya when they have been in need. But, we cannot let this blind us to those who have also harmed the Rohingya in the past.
As we now seek to solve the refugee crisis of the Rohingya, remembering these lessons will be key. In aspiring for a future where we live as neighbours with full rights and dignity, we can hope too that memories of pain can be transformed into memories of comradery and respect.