Karen Williams writes about a month in the Rohingya refugee camps

Nearly a million Rohingya refugees are currently housed in refugee camps in Bangladesh after fleeing violence in Burma/Myanmar. The UN has called the violence ethnic cleansing, with the Burma/Myanmar army accused of committing atrocities, sometimes in collaboration with Buddhist villagers. There have also been widespread allegations of rape and sexual violence committed against Rohingya women and girls. Most of the Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, where they’ve joined other Rohingya refugees who have fled earlier bouts of violence. Karen Williams writes about a month in the Rohingya refugee camps.

1. The photo tells of a different man from the one in the longyi (sarong) sitting in front of me. The passport-sized photograph in the ID badge that he wears over his T-shirt is of a different person: a person who wears a well-fitting suit, white shirt and a distinctive red tie. The small ID tells of a time and of a man who can never be restored. Not to him nor to the nearly million others who fled across the Bangladesh border the past year, compelled to leave at a moment’s spin while busy cooking dinner, giving birth, or staring aimlessly out of the window. Where is the photograph from, how did it get here? Did he carry it with him on the flight here? If the photo was taken in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, where did he find the suit and the well-knotted tie among neighbours who also ran, just ran for their lives

Before I spotted the photograph, I had heard him talking frequently about his house: what he now calls home after losing not only everything, but also everything that he was, and all that he thought he and his family and friends would be in the future. That future will now never come. His life is now tethered to that moment and his exile risks becoming a permanent condition.

Betel leaf paan (Elizabeth Brabec, Flickr)

2. There was good crockery and serving ladles at the party I went to in the refugee camp. Food aplenty for everyone and then some. After we had feasted, plate upon plate coming around, with others lined up at the door, ready to take our places when we left, there was more, more coming our way. This is not a small thing: to allow yourself joy. And so we feasted at the celebration, singing, clapping along, ending the meal with the plate of betel leaf/paan passed around. You are this side of the border now; you live, and at some point you have to decide that this is where you have to live.

3. I know the statistics; I know the politics. But then, individually, the devastation, the intimacy of learning to live with hopelessness hits you. This is their life now, tied up in a suit, a tie knotted correctly and tightly. This is their life now; this is what they must.

4. It is hard being despised. If you are this despised, it is hard to justify your place on earth. What have you done, what did you do, heh, because surely there must be something, something that you did.

Thousands of stories and nobody is faceless. Each brings that distinctive life, that whom they are, right here. I look forward to the people I meet; enjoy the laughter, the moves toward conversation. But there are the moments when an individual will just slip away in the conversation, just melt into the wall when we are alone. With one, two people I notice this: the ones who had the rich, rounded middle class lives, before. They fall through a crack in the pause while telling me something. Right in front of me they get lost.

5. The Rohingya atrocities tests my relationship with longstanding friends in Burma/Myanmar. Brave people whom I cherish and love and who for the past few years can’t wait to tell me how much they despise these people now driven this side of the border. They offer this in conversation, hurriedly wanting to get away from the “What you been up to?” to talk of them.

All the years of these activists’ bannings, torture, exile, being on security lists, families dragged to prison again and again and they are now seemingly united in an absolute hatred of them. It’s a unity that I cannot fathom: sudden and seemingly impermeable. You can’t talk to it; it rests, there, alongside the steel they forged internally in their years in prison, the beatings, the torture, the parts of what happened to them that they can’t joke away

Hpa An, Kayin State, Myanmar (Wikimedia)

At the same time, it is ironic that these despised refugees may be the only chance to alert the wider world that what has happened relentlessly for decades across the country to other ethnic minorities. It is still going on, and nobody even talks about a solution anymore. Separate strands of wars against ethnic minorities have been raging up and down the country – including what is called the world’s longest civil war with the Karen, started before the country even gained independence. The Karen ethnic group took up arms in 1947 – before Burma’s independence in 1948 – and for decades was one of the key ethnically-based armed resistance groups who  fought the Burma/Myanmar central government. Before that, the Karen were instrumental in fighting with the British against Japanese occupiers. 

6. I know the politics of blame and am intimately close to its defenestrated history, razed buildings and plunder that it leaves in its wake. It’s not a problem particular to this region. I’ve turned it over in the stones along Istanbul, the telephones that at some point would go dead that April-June 1994 in Kigali, I’ve heard it from Uganda’s Asian exiles, growing old in London, wanting to go home.

7. It’s been Eid recently: for many their first Eid in the place, here across the border, where some point out that their cattle back home lived in the places that they do now. But for the refugees whose first fleeing this is, they have not yet affixed their lives to this exile’s calendar: our first Eid away from home, our second Eid away from home, our third…. For them this is still the first Eid. Years from now, maybe a generation hence, they will look back and say, “That was our first Eid away from our home.” There are other refugees here, who have been here much longer, ticking off the years of fleeing: 1942, 1979, 1990/1, 2016, and 2017.

For them, in their sturdier homes and settled lives in the front part of the refugee camp, this was just Eid, it comes by every year.

They find, in small ways, how the new refugees and the ones who’ve been here from previous fighting, have grown past each other. The uncomfortable relationship of old Rohingya refugees who grew up in Bangladesh who are now suddenly identified with the ‘new people’. 1979, 1991: it all lives on – people stranded/ estranged in the separate strands of their exiles.

8. We’d like to think that they were political and aware, and that they saw this coming. But less than 12 months ago, somebody was chopping vegetables, stirring the pot for supper when they immediately had to drop everything and go. There were those who believed, who really believed that they had a place in their country, that their home accommodated them. In their tie-and-suited lives they were government officials, the ones from their stateless community who had “made” it. How familiar that sounds. Until they show you your place. Now, they’re all equal here, those with their English, their well-chosen ID photographs. The Rohingya’s repeated history of fleeing and returning between Burma/Myanmar and Bangladesh has mowed everybody to a miserable equality.

It rains here in Cox’s Bazar in June and July, torrents down, the deluge washing through everybody’s house. It rains in Burma/Myanmar too, whooshing down with a fury that astonishes you, even if you’re used to south-east Asia’s rainy season. The rain finishes what the dispossession started. Grief and horror, it levels the driven-out.

9. I want to cry but I’ve been wanting to cry for decades. I know the tears won’t come: there’ll be exhaustion, frustration, the stubborn refusal to get used to the fact that this happens, the familiarity of the story. I will want to cry, as I already can see the other forces that could shape this region. This dispossession will be easy to hijack, to pressgang into larger histories of grievance and pushback: love the story and be flippantly indifferent to the victim.

10. They cannot say their name: In Burma/Myanmar they are referred to as Bengalis. I get cornered by friends, veering the conversation (any conversation) to the topic of “these Bengalis from Bangladesh who came over since the 1970s and now want to pretend to be us”.

Bay of Bengal (Wikimedia)

There is also the other name they are referred to: explicitly understood across south-east Asia to mean the dark-skinned ones. There is a dogmatic refusal in conversation, in the Burmese media, even in official statements to dare to speak the name “Rohingya”. But there is little compunction in using that other word, on protest posters, in conversation, in soldiers’ boastful comments on their kills.

I reach for history, try to find a place, a foothold. This history is contested as people pick and choose. But history does not provide a foothold. In the Rohingya’s case it is the fact of their existence counterweighted with the visceral drive of a country that wants them disappeared.

11. This must all be contained in your life now, this life you would never have been able to imagine. Your volunteer card carrying your face, with a well-fitted dark suit, pressed white shirt even in this stifling tropical heat and dampness. The well-knotted red tie that tells all: you were one of those who had a place to go, before, where suits and ties were welcomed and the absence of them were frowned upon. You had these multiple cultural languages, and now you are a recipient, a number among hundreds of thousands.

And in the life that you must now accommodate, you need to accommodate that man in his red tie, too. How could he not have foreseen this? Who are you now: stateless on this side of the border, and where does that man live now, who wears his suit back home, does his wife still meticulously iron his white shirt for appointments that he must keep? Does that man whom he was still live on, in his well-pressed suit? Does that man keep existing as you stand here, devasted, erased.

12. There is the genial older gentleman in front of me who has had to learn humility, and quickly, since he came here. He still wears his sharp-edged civil servant’s haircut. The T-shirt and longyi worn in public and “to work” must sit uncomfortably on him, so used he was to his well-pressed suit as armour. This is something else he has had to learn, and quickly. What gets recorded as history now, and for the future of the Rohingya, will not contain the daily learnings of this man. It does not contain the clear path that that ID photograph took, driven across the border into Bangladesh, suit-and-tie from a time when he wore white pressed shirts, in a time when his name was his own.

Additional reading

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Karen Williams works in media and human rights across Africa and Asia. She was part of the democratic gay rights movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. She has worked in conflict areas and civil wars across the world and has written extensively on the position of women as victims and perpetrators in the west African and northern Ugandan civil wars.

Main image Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh via DFID, Flickr.


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