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Still, Nowhere to Go

"They threw people asking water into the water" Firsthand accounts of Rohingya refugees on their perilous journey (1)

by Yu-Kyung Lee, Kuala Lumpur, Penang (Malaysia)/Bangkok (Thailand), 04 July 2013

Jani Alam, a 25 year old supposedly full of vigor, is walking slow and painfully. Having feet slightly swollen, the ‘exercise’ is the only ‘treatment’ besides ‘snake oil message’ by 60 year old traditional doctor, Guramia Saiyid. Both Jani and Guramia are stateless Rohingya refugees from Arakan state in western Burma now living in Malaysia. Guramia has lived in the country for 11 years, while Jani has arrived 4 months ago.

"In the past months, dozens of refugees arrived almost every day. This month, May, a bit decreasing” said Jamar Udin (41) a neighbor and also a Rohingya. According to Jamar, many of the newly arrived have difficulty for walking. The reason is lack of exercise.

Jani exercise by walking. Due to lack of exercise while making horrible journey by smugglers’ boat, Jani has difficulty for walking. photo: Yu-Kyung Lee

It was last November that Jani got on the boat in Bangladesh, to where he crossed Naf River from Arakan State. Since then, he hardly stretched or moved his legs for months. During 7 days journey from Bangladesh to Thai shore, 2-3 persons per day died, he said. After he arrived at Thai shore, smugglers used Toyota pickup truck, in which Jani and others were stacked atop one another to have perfect condition to be suffocated.

Having been tossed over from boat to truck, from shore to jungle, from Bangladesh via Thailand to Malaysia, smugglers were absolutely dictating desperate bodies. After terrible ordeals, survivors were dropped off at Penang the northwest coast of Malaysia.

Lack of exercise causing serious inability

Due to lack of exercise while making horrible journey by smugglers’ boat, Jani has difficulty for walking. He’s getting ‘snake oil’ massage by Rohingya Traditional doctor, Guramia Saiyid who is also a refugee.  photo: Yu-Kyung Lee

"Rakhine Buddhists armed with arrows, machetes and sticks came to our village to destroy everything. NASAKA (the border police in Arakan State) who just watched it, however, started to shot at us as we tried to put out the fire. My both parents succumbed to their bullet wounds after three days".

Jani described the first wave of Buddhist riots in Soparan village, Buddhing township, one of the two townships imposed the notorious ‘two child limited’ policy. The violence was initiated as an inter-communal one but quickly turned to be a massacre against Rohingya in June last year. As he saw the second wave of riots in October when targets were expanded to Kaman Muslims, who are recognized citizens unlike Rohingya, Jani decided to leave the country.

Among thousands of victims of October riot is Salim Bin Gulban (48), Kaman business man, who arrived at Malaysia in mid-January. To Salim’s witness, security forces set a blaze of 6 boats in Kyawkpyu between 9 am and 4pm in October 23, as he rushed to quay in an attempt to flee by boat. When tide came around 4pm, people hurriedly got on remained boats to flee to Sittwe or Sinnamaw, a small Island near Sittwe.

He and 74 others fled the country by his own boat, he claimed. They have made a direct journey from Arakan to Malaysia with little trouble, while Rohingya boat people who normally rely on Smuggler’s hands from Bangladesh experienced to a great extent.  

"We met Indian Navy 4 days after departure. They helped us to direct the way for Malaysia and also have given us drinking water."   

Salim’s troupe has arrived Malaysian shore, where Malaysian Navy found and brought them to Lankawi. They were provided food and health check-up at first. Some of them including Salim have been released to community after an interview with UNHCR as of mid-May.

According to UN’s estimation, around 20,000 people (13,000 last year and 7,000 in the first two months of this year) fled the country by sea since the religious riots broke out June last year, which is unprecedented and significant. There’s another unusual phenomenon, UNHCR analyzed, that Women and Children started to join the dangerous voyage. Among them were Salima Nora Ahmad, 25 year old  Rohingya woman, and Nurul Islam, 14 year old Kaman Muslim.

Nurul Islam, a 14 year old boy is Kaman refugee. Kaman is recognized as one of 135 ‘national races’ unlike to stateless Rohingya. However, they also have been targeted as Buddhist extremism on rampage beyond the initial target of Rohinya Muslims. Nurul got on the asylum boat with his uncle to his mother’s request. photo: Yu-Kyung Lee

Direct route vs. Smugglers’ route

In the past months, dozens of refugees arrived almost every day. This month, May, a bit decreasing” said Jamar Udin (41) a neighbor and also a Rohingya. According to Jamar, many of the newly arrived have difficulty for walking. The reason is lack of exercise.

It was around utterly dark night in April 2011 when Salima got on the boat in Maungdaw in Arakan state with 8 others. Although she fled the country before the 2012 massacre erupted, she was absolutely convinced that life as a Rohingya was nothing worthy in Burma. Her husband, Mohamad Tandamia (25) has already left for Malaysia in 2006, where Salima was hoping to join her husband.  

"We have no citizenship, no freedom of movement. And government grabbed our land where I built a house. So I left," said the husband, Mohamad.  Salima had waited three days in Teknaf, Bangladesh border town, until getting on the fishing boat to travel 4-5 hours to somewhere, she thought, international sea in Bay of Bengal. There, she moved from the fishing boat to a bigger vessel, which has some 50 person capacity. The boat departed, however, when 250 people were on. The captain was Bangladesh, crews were Thai except few Burmese, Salima asserted. All have pistol and rifle. Salima hardly stretched her legs for 18 days, during the time 18 died.

"14 people were suffocated to death at the bottom of the boat. The other 4 were thrown into the water by crews because they asked water. All were young men" she said. ‘Throwing people who ask water into the water’ was common allegation by boat people whom I interviewed.  By contrast, crew allegedly allured women for water and food, but raped in the end. 

Nurul Hessen (41) who left Burma in January, said rape often occurred in his boat, where 750 persons were on.

"The crew ordered women to stay upper deck, where no one was allowed to be. We heard rape sounds very often. But Muslim women wouldn’t say this," said Hessen. He, like many others, believed that he’s heading to Malaysia. Instead, their boats reached at Thai shore, from where ‘trafficking’ kicked off.

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