Today the news once again discusses genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Burma. In October 2017 I travelled to Bangladesh for aid work. I lead a group of like minded people who wanted to help the Rohingya after seeing images of these people being burnt out of their homes. The closest country to the Rakhine State (where the genocide is taking place) is Bangladesh and both are separated by a treacherous river. We went to make-shift camps which had turned into tent cities in Bangladesh.
Let’s go back in time
The year is 1430 and Muslims have been living in Arakan (now called Rakhine) for centuries already, in fact they make up a majority. It is not part of Burma or Bangladesh, it is an independent nation with its own King. Due to the Muslim majority King Min Saw Mon decides to switch the local currency to the Bengali gold dinar and cedes some territories to the Muslims of Bengal. This doesn’t last long, King Min Saw Mon is kicked out and goes into exile in Bengal. Due to the massive Muslim population, the Buddhist rulers of Arakan decide to keep Muslim titles, wear Muslim clothes, use Muslim currency, use Arabic in court and have a many Muslims in government and key positions. This works so well that they decide to invade Bengal all the way to Chittagong.
The year is now 1666 and the Europeans have arrived bringing the slave trade. Portuguese raiders took people, mainly Muslim, from Bengal and sold them down river in Arakan. This annoys the Muslim Emperor of India, Aurangzeb, who sends 6000 troops and 288 warships to liberate Chittagong but only gets as far as the Kaladan river which is today’s Burma-India border. Soon after this the Burma decides to raid Arakan and kill the majority of the native population named Rohingya, imprisoning the rest. Some Rohingya made it to Bangladesh.
Only a couple hundred years later and now the British take over literally everything. So no borders exist between India, Bengal, Arakan or Burma allowing completely free movement. The British were great at utilising fertile land and Arakan happened to have more fertile land than people, thanks to the Burmese genocide before the British took over. The British encouraged the Rohingya to move back to Arakan and encouraged immigration from Bangladesh.
Fast forward to 6 February 1978 and the ruling brutal Burmese military begin “Operation Dragon”. This operation literally plans to kick the Rohingya off the fertile land of Rakhine – the country Arakan is now called the Rakhine state and is under Burmese borders. A fascist campaign begins in Burma to exterminate the Rohingya completely. If it wasn’t for the international community such as the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and countries such as Turkey, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia piling pressure on Burma, they would probably have succeeded in their genocide.
There were hopes for the future when the “champion of democracy” and darling of the western world wormed her way into government. Aung San Syu Kyi was supposed to bring human rights abuses to a halt, bring equality to the forefront of life in Burma and stop the extremist Buddhists. Instead she did everything in her power to please the Buddhist extremists including freeing one of the greatest terrorists in the world: Ashin Wirathu.
Today we are witnessing the sixth attempt at exterminating the Rohingya. Does Aung San Syu Kyi speak against it? No, quite the opposite. She has claimed Muslims are torching their own homes and killing themselves because the hundreds of thousands of Muslims being killed are “terrorists” according to her. Propaganda from Burma didn’t stop. They kept running fake news story after fake news story claiming the Muslims were torching their own houses, they even went to the extent of hiring a Hindu woman to pose as a Muslim woman and depicted her torching what the news story claimed to be “her own house”. She was only later seen to be speaking as herself in another news report with her real name.
Aung San Syu Kyi’s official website even belittles the rape stories as “fake rape” and calls the Rohingya “Bengalis”. A government backed report by the internationally humiliated propagandist Rick Heizman backed by the Burmese government published a report which pinned Rohingya as terrorists and suggested all Rohingya be “returned” to Bangladesh in exchange for the Buddhists in Bangladesh. The international community laughed at the credibility of the report, the Bengali Buddhists asked not to be brought into the fight and linked to the terrorist Buddhists in Burma. Even the government later admitted their report was completely biased.
What Did We See?
Bangladesh is developing country – that’s a nice way of saying its poor. It is extremely poor. These people had nothing to offer the Rohingya except their hearts, and that they have done. The Bangladeshi people had invited these people to their table and into their homes. The camps had been set up by the military and had literally been dug out of the jungle for the Rohingya.
We had travelled from the UK where immigration is the backdrop of every political discussion, despite the UK government planning to take in only 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 and no plans to take in any Rohingya refugees. In Bangladesh they’ve taken in around 1,400,000 Rohingya refugees and now they have started a discussion around immigration, a discussion which isn’t half as xenophobic as the discussion in the UK. The UK has 168,900 refugees. almost a tenth of what Bangladesh has taken in despite suffering from overpopulation and being a developing (poor) country. This is a worldwide phenomena, 86% of the world’s refugees were taken in by poor countries. [Reference]
The first thing which shocked us was what 1.4 million refugees look like. As far as the eye could see in front of us, behind us, to our right, to our left for miles and miles all we could see were tents. These tents were plastic sheets stuck over bamboo sticks and a tent which should house four people was housing eight. I had been on Hajj the year before and a similar number of people pour into Saudi Arabia but this was completely different. It wasn’t just the squalid conditions or the shock of facing young children who had no clothes to wear, it was the desperation of 1.4 million people which made us feel tiny. There we were taking in 1,000 food packs to feed 8,000 people for a month and we were faced with 1.4 million people. Even the queue where we distributed the 1,000 food packs had 7 times more people than the number of food packs available. When the food packs ran out we had nothing to give them.
The second thing to shock us was the smiles. We were facing a people who had seen pure horror and just witnessed genocide and they just smiled and said “Alhamdulillah” meaning “All praise/thanks is to God”. I wondered if these people were the people who had fled before the terror had started and perhaps this is why they would smile. Oh, how I was wrong.
One of the first people I spoke to was a man who told me how while he was out of the house, Buddhist terrorists had torched his house killing his wife and two children. His two children, a girl and a boy were his entire life. His words reminded me of how when I return from work every day and see my kids, I always think “these kids are my life, I do it for them”. But he watched them burn in front of him and he recounted “I could not even bury them as all that was left was ashes”. He then had to leave as the Buddhist terrorists were returning so he went to his mother’s house and ran away with her and while she was running away into the mountains she had fallen and broken her foot. He had carried his mother for 8 days to the Bangladesh border.
Putting Skills to Use
Before we could pause to take in any of the things we had heard, the next day we were in a medical camp. I am a Pharmacist so it was my time to shine. It was a small tent with extremely basic medication, there were no facilities to operate and the Rohingya were not allowed into the Bangladeshi hospitals unless an emergency. I treated all the minor ailments and we made a perfect queue for the doctors and nurses to treat everyone accordingly. While sifting through the queue, one heavily pregnant woman I spoke to asked me for an abortion. I saw she had two other children and assumed it was because she already had children and couldn’t manage with them. There were no such services and I explained as such and she said “please but I must, my husband was killed” which I assumed was part of her explaining life was difficult without him with two children so she must want an abortion for ease. I felt I should listen to her regardless so I asked “How did he die”.
“At the call of prayer, all the men went to the mosque but Buddhists were waiting there for them. When each man arrived they would kill them including my husband. When they had killed all the men they went to all the houses and gang raped the women including me. This was 9 months ago”
She was carrying the child of her rapist, not just her rapist but the murderer of her husband. I had no words. I did not know how to respond or what to say. My training as a Pharmacist or my training as a Prescribing Pharmacist thereafter had not prepared me for these discussions. I felt my heart rip out of my chest when all I had for her was a prayer “God be with you” as I turned her away.
I didn’t sleep well that night despite having treated over 200 people, I couldn’t shift the patients from my mind. There were children with burns from when the Buddhist monks torched their village, one child with a gash on his leg when a Buddhist monk tried to hack his leg off, a man with not just a disfigured face but testicles the size two grapefruits because the Burmese military had tortured him but somehow he had survived when they left him for dead. These images didn’t leave my mind so the next day when we were delivering hot food I felt numb.
We were delivering 5,000 hot food packs but the number of people in the queue was 20,000. When we got down to the last 2,000 a food riot broke out and the military had to restore order. When I say restore order I mean they had to whip them back with the branches of trees. The military were not excessively harsh, they purposely used branches to make sure it didn’t seriously injure anyone. But these people had not eaten for 15 days and when a person has not eaten for so long they will do anything for food. Their desperate eyes full of tears made it difficult to turn them away when they jumped the queue and the people in the queue from child to elderly started crawling on their hands and knees towards us for a food package. Women older than my mum and girls younger than my daughter were crawling across the mud for half a plate of rice.
This was when one of my team members broke down completely and had to move away. Physically he is one of the strongest men I know and throughout the trip he had worked like a machine to serve these people without showing he was tired but seeing people crawling for food and others beaten back and desperate people fighting for a plate of rice…it was too much for anyone. He moved to the side and broke down like a child only to be comforted by a Bangladeshi Military Officer who said to him “You have seen this one day, we see it every day. We have families at home just like them, it is hard on us but we must put a smile on our face for the sake of these desperate people” and just like that, he was back serving people.
A Class Divide
Every day in the morning breakfast buffet I would have a full English breakfast to ensure I had energy throughout the day. Toast, eggs, beans, tea and a scone were what got me through the day as we always had to skip lunch, so pain from overeating was all too familiar. In the camps when I handed a food pack to a woman who had been waiting in the blistering heat for 6 hours and was drenched in sweat. I noticed her laboured breathing and saw her sway so I called her to the side to offer her some shade and water. She came over clutching her plate of rice to make sure I wouldn’t take it away from her but when I offered her a glass of water she thanked me and sipped it till it was finished. When I offered her a second glass she refused, which made no sense. Why would someone thirsty for 7 hours and having not eaten anything for 3 days turn down water? I offered it to her again and again, believing she was trying to be polite. She sipped some of the second glass but couldn’t drink any more and she pointed to her stomach.
It made no sense to me so I wondered all day why she had done that. It was only in the evening when I went live from Muslim World Journal’s Facebook page that someone told me why this had happened. When a person hasn’t eaten for a long period of time, drinking too much water will cause pain on the empty stomach. I felt ashamed, there I was having pain from overeating and never in my life have I gotten to the stage where I have known hunger to such an extent to know that it causes pain to eat when the stomach is truly empty.
On the last day we went all the way to the border with Burma. We had gone two months after the initial killing started and nearly a million people had come over from Burma since. We expected the killing had ended as almost every village was burnt. When we got to the border and saw Burma we saw smoke still rising from freshly burnt down villages.
The Burma Border
And we went to the border where people were climbing out of the water. We asked them what had happened and why it took them so long to come over, one man told us “I didn’t want to leave my homeland so when our village was being torched by the Buddhists, we luckily lived at the opposite side so we ran to the mountains. We have been hiding in the mountains for two months but now the Buddhists came up into the mountains to hunt us and are killing the people in the mountains so we came here” This guy was stick thin, I understood that this man was completely starved. One of my team asked him what he and his family had eaten while in the mountains “Leaves. Leaves off trees that didn’t digest. We spent our time hungry but some of the children died from hunger”
There was signs of the brutality everywhere. One of my team members was hugging two young children and crying. He explained that the two children had watched their mother be killed infront of them. He said “Shoaib, I lost my mum to old age and its been a year and I still pain for her. What about this 4 year old and this 5 year old? How long will they remember watching their mum being killed? No one can give them the love of a mother” I looked at the father who stood next to the children, he looked at me and said “My wife was pregnant with our third child and the Buddhists noticed her stomach bulging so they stabbed her through the front” I held him and he broke down crying. I realised that so far no one had even hugged this man to console him and tell him it will be OK. He has just been running and arrived in Bangladesh where he will fight for his food, but has anyone hugged him and consoled him? No. And that was true for all the people in the camps, there was no one to console them properly as every day was an uphill struggle with new challenges.
When we returned to our lives in the UK with peace in the streets, a roof over our head and plenty at our table I looked at my children and realised how lucky I was to happen to be on this side of the world and nothing but fate or the will of God dictated where we are or end up.
The saddest part of when I came back was the online abuse we received. People claimed the Rohingya were terrorists and what was happening was “good” and some said it is exactly what Muslims deserve. I would not wish the horror I witnessed upon anyone, not even the people making these horrendous statements. My only response to these vile people was a prayer that may they find guidance away from such hatred.
I plan to go again at some point. My team and I travelled on our own expenses and paid for our own flight, hotels, travel costs and food. We have a policy to not take even a penny from the donations for ourselves or even admin use. So if you want to support my 100% donation policy campaign for the Rohingya, donate by clicking here
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