By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury, with photographs by K M Asad
DHAKA – Baby Fatema was crying in the arms of Mostofa Begum (50), around 11am on June 14, when journalists went to see her at the house of fisherman Kabir Ahmed of Gholapara village in Teknaf, the southernmost point in mainland Bangladesh and a stone’s throw from the Naf river, which separates it from Myanmar. The nearly two-month old baby was rescued by members of the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) from inside an empty fishing trawler that drifted towards Shah Pori Island of Bangladesh on the Naf early on June 13.
She was one of the lucky one among thousands of Muslim Rohingyas fleeing this week’s ethnic violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State; the BGB says it has pushed back 1,500 refugees as of June 13. Locals in Teknaf claim the number is as high as 2,000. Around 30,000 people have been displaced in Myanmar following the violence, Agence France-Presse reported on Thursday.
“We are patrolling the villages almost 24 hours of the day,” said Major Saiful Wadud, commander of Shah Pori Island BGB camp. “We are not going to let them [Rohingyas from Myanmar] in.”
The BGB is acting on orders from the Bangladesh government, whose Foreign Minister Dipu Moni told parliament on June 14, “Considering our national security interest, Bangladesh will not allow any Myanmar refugees in its territory”.
She added that Bangladesh is not bound by any international law to open its border as there was “no war-like situation” in Myanmar and that its government is not forcing its citizens into exile. Predominantly Muslim Bangladesh is already home to an estimated 500,000 registered and illegal Rohingyas who have fled Myanmar over the past several decades, according to the Bangladesh foreign ministry.
The BGB suspects that baby Fatema was abandoned by her parents after possibly being attacked by robbers on the river while on their way to Bangladesh in the dead of night, much like thousands of Rohingya men, women and children since riots in Rakhine State broke out on June 8.
Fatema in the arms of Mostofa Begum.
The riots have claimed the lives of at least 25 people, as reported by Agence France-Presse on June 12, which said the actual number is likely to be higher. The number of dead excludes 10 Muslims killed on June 3 by a Buddhist mob to avenge the rape and murder of a woman that initiated the violence in Rakhine.
After providing the famished baby primary medical care, BGB handed her over to Kabir and his family, requesting them to take care of her. Kabir named the baby Fatema and her new mother, Mostofa Begum, has been taking care of her since.
“We have eight children already,” Mostofa Begum told Asia Times Online. “Even then, we are going to raise her as our own,” she said.
Although Fatema was fortunate to find a family that is ready to look after her, the fates of three-year-old Omar Faruque and his three cousins Yasmin (8), Easha (6) and Yassir (5) are still uncertain. The four Rohingya children along with their grandmother Nurjahan (49), her daughter Momena Begum (19) and daughter-in-law (18) are hiding in the villages of Teknaf.
The seven had fled the violence from their village near Akyab at Rakhine on June 9. Yunus, Nurjahan’s husband, Nurjahan’s son and son-in-law were all slaughtered that day before their very eyes.
“The [Buddhist] Rakhines and the Myanmar military personnel attacked the villages together,” sobbed Momena Begum. “They initially went after all the men while we managed to run away with the children to the jungle. When we returned, we found the men dead and our houses burnt. Fearing the next wave, we got onto the first trawler we found and sailed toward the Bay of Bengal.”
The seven survived four nights and three days on the trawler until June 12, when they managed to set foot on Teknaf. Locals have helped them to hide in their houses ever since.
A Rohingya man describes the riots to BGB officials and journalists at the shore.
Zohra Khatun (50), a Rohingya muslim who has also fled to Bangladesh, has also witnessed the murder of her husband Ahmed Hossain during the riots. “Before the attacks, our village near Akyab was shelled. I saw policemen aiding the Rakhines in setting fire to the houses after hacking the Rohingyas,” she said.
A refugee hears that Bangladeshi border guards will drive her and her family back to Myanmar.
Zohra with her two sons spent the night on the Naf river shore on June 9. After braving three days on the river – a journey that normally takes a day – without adequate food or drinking water, the three also landed in Teknaf on June 13.
They are now hiding in a village, hoping to evade BGB officials who regularly arrest Rohingya refugees from the houses of locals, to be pushed back into Myanmar later.
Other refugees described dismemberment of dead bodies while others were thrown into the Naf. Some BGB personnel on duty at Shah Pori Island claimed to have seen a helicopter on the Myanmar side of the Naf shooting bullets shore three days earlier. Foreign Minister Moni said the Myanmarese government has communicated its anxiety over the refugees to the Bangladesh mission in Myanmar, alleging that Jamaat-e-Islami of Bangladesh, one of the parties in the 18-party alliance that makes up the opposition in Bangladesh, had been aiding Rohingya groups in Bangladesh with arms to provoke a sectarian clash in Myanmar.
Refugee families huddle in their boat, their future in the hands of hostile Bangladeshi border guards and bureaucrats.
She observed that international organizations and other non-governmental entities should go to Myanmar and extend their support and aid to Rohingyas instead of pressing Bangladesh. The United States, Canada, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Human Rights Watch have requested Bangladesh not to push back the refugees.
Rohingya refugees plead for shelter at the Bangladesh side of the Naf river.
When asked whether there is a solution to the crisis, Dr Amena Mohsin, at the Department of International Relations of the Dhaka University, told Asia Times Online, “There are three options. One is assimilation, which is not possible given Bangladesh’s economic condition. Second is ‘push back’, which does not seem humanitarian. The third option of third-country settlement for the Rohingyas is a feasible solution if the developed Islamic countries come forward to help these people.”
Rohingya children seek shelter from a storm.
The Rohingya influx began after a military crackdown during democracy protests around the country in 1988. Rohingyas were provided shelter in Teknaf and Cox’s Bazaar refugee camps in Bangladesh until 1992, when they were asked to return to their country and they did, before returning the next year. The influx occurs whenever there is a conflict in Myanmar. The foreign ministry in Dhaka said on Thursday that Rohingyas have been entering Bangladesh illegally seeking jobs since 1978.
Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is the Editor of Xtra, the weekend magazine of New Age, in Bangladesh. K M Asad is a freelance photographer.
(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved.