COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh - Mahamuda Khatur remembers the fateful day three years
ago. At dawn her husband had left their Kutupalong refugee camp in southern
Bangladesh for the forest to fetch firewood he would sell to other refugees or
local people. He never returned.
Mahamuda was told that he had drowned in a river, a claim she has never
independently verified. That left her as a 27-year-old widow with two children.
Now, suffering from tuberculosis for eight months, Mahamuda is too weak to work
and cannot feed herself or her children.
The pallor of her face and the thinness of her arms show the
unmistakable signs of severe malnutrition. Now, she has to rely on other
refugees' generosity to survive. "But there is not much that the people here
can do for us," she says. "Everybody is in the same situation."
Mahamuda is an ethnic Rohingya, a Sunni Muslim community that has fled
persecution in its native Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh and other
countries. Throughout this region, on a narrow strip of beach, sparse forest or
sandy land squeezed between the Bay of Bengal and the Myanmar border, Rohingya
exiles can be seen carrying heavy bags of salt, bundles of firewood, stacks of
bricks, baskets of fish, blocks of ice.
Above all, they carry the weight of being one of the largest stateless
populations on the planet. Out of an estimated 1.5 to 2 million population,
only the 48,800 Rohingya registered as refugees with the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangladesh and Malaysia have legal status.
The one million or so Rohingya living in Myanmar's western Arakan State are not
recognized as citizens and the 500,000 to one million others who have chosen
exile in other countries are mostly considered illegal migrants.
The Rohingya were not always a pariah in Myanmar, previously known as Burma.
Although they have been a constant victim of a chauvinist Buddhist regime
animated by anti-Muslim and anti-Indian sentiment dating back to the British
colonial occupation, the Rohingya had citizen status in Myanmar until 1982.
That year, then dictator Ne Win promulgated a citizenship law that stripped
them of their nationality. It was the epilogue of one of the darkest chapters
in the country's recent history, the Naga Min Operation ("Operation Dragon
King") launched in 1978 in the west Arakan State.
In the name of a crackdown on "illegal migrants", the army killed, raped and
arrested scores of people, mostly Rohingya. Villages were burned and looted.
Mosques and other religious sites were particularly targeted. That operation
forced some 200,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Most of them
were repatriated by the end of 1979. In 1991-1992, fleeing the junta's
widespread use of forced labor, summary executions, torture and rape, another
wave of 250,000 Rohingya left the country. Currently the regime continues
repressive practices, although on a lesser scale.
During a discrete visit in a large Rohingya village in Arakan State last year,
in the relative safety of an old mosque, an elder detailed the numerous
restrictions imposed by Myanmar authorities on the local population. "Even
though we have been living here for many generations, we need a special
authorization for almost everything: to move out of our area, send our children
to the university, marry them, run a business. And, as everyone else in the
state, we are constantly submitted to forced labor, arbitrary arrest, land
confiscation and other abuses by the authorities."
Rohingya also complain of being targeted by the Rakhine, the predominant
Buddhist group in Myanmar's Arakan State. It's a bitter irony considering that
the Rakhine themselves are subject to the junta's systematic oppression against
ethnic minorities. Violent incidents such as attacks on mosques by Buddhist
radicals and retaliation by Rohingya are regularly reported. To justify their
stance, both communities have traded endless arguments often founded on biased
or reconstructed historical facts.
Xenophobia, fueled by extremists from both sides but also by the ruling junta,
which has masterfully used divide and rule tactics to maintain its control, has
submerged any hope of a dispassionate debate. Still, arguments forwarded by the
Rakhine community, such as the "fear that the Rohingya occupy our land because
of their high birth rate and rapidly increasing population", as a Rakhine
journalist exiled in Bangladesh put it, have some basis and will eventually
need to be properly addressed.
The dramatic situation of Rohingya exiles in Bangladesh, a country more
accessible than Myanmar to outside observers, has become the show case for the
minority's stateless plight. Some 29,000 Rohingya live as refugees in
Kutupalong and Nayapara camps, south of Cox's Bazar, a booming beach resort in
Bangladesh. These camps are under the UNHCR's supervision and benefit from the
presence of a few international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). With
properly built houses, schools, playgrounds and a sewage system, they look like
any other adequately administered refugee camps in the world.
But the largest facility, Kutupalong, has a twin brother with a much less
amiable face. "Kutupalong makeshift", as it's commonly known, is literally
stuck to "Kutupalong registered". Thousands of adobe huts covered with plastic
sheets, branches and dried leaves cluster together over a succession of bare
hills, sheltering a population of 20,000, according to the latest count by a
NGO active in the area.
Here, there is not a single trace of shade. Nor are there latrines or a proper
sewage system. Only a few pumps installed by the French NGO Solidarites
International provide for basic water needs. In the summer season, the heat
inside the huts is sweltering. During the monsoon season, water often dissolves
the huts' walls and transforms steep alleys into muddy torrents. In any season,
day and night, disease-carrying insects are ubiquitous.
"We don't have enough mosquito nets," laments Karim, the community leader of
one of the six blocks dividing the camp. "Many diseases are endemic here,
malaria, diarrhea and tuberculosis. And now we have to face an epidemic of
chicken pox and measles."
Almost like an indecent exhibit, mothers show the faces of their infants and
children marked with chicken pox pustules. More worrisome is the 30% rate of
acute malnutrition reported in the camp by the European Commission Humanitarian
Aid Office (ECHO). Only the NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Holland, in a
clinic set out of the camp along the main road, and the French Action Contre la
Faim (ACF), has the right to provide medical treatment to the "Kutupalong
A few kilometers to the south, Leda, the other non-official camp with a
population of 13,700, offers a relatively less desperate face. Rattan-built
houses are properly aligned along paved alleys, here and there emblazoned with
flowers and greenery. Yet restrictions imposed by Bangladesh authorities in the
makeshift camps are drastic. Food distribution and education are sharply
curtailed. Still, if these rules were strictly enforced then "Kutupalong
makeshift" and Leda would have turned into full-blown death camps.
Despite the appalling conditions, refugees manage to bypass these interdictions
and organize their survival. In Kutupalong, for instance, as a substitute to a
proper schooling establishment, community leaders with the help of outside
sympathizers have set up a network of 30 classes inside huts with locally
The restriction on wandering outside the makeshift camps is perhaps the least
observed of the restraints. "Many refugees leave them for a few days or a week
to work in brick or dried fish factories, salt pans, as rickshaw drivers," says
Karim, the Kutupalong community leader. "They usually work for 100 taka a day
[about US$1.4], which is not enough to feed a family so often both parents have