'If we can ever live peacefully again in Myanmar, we will return'

Tayeba Begum
Tayeba Begum is a mother of five-year-old twins. She fled Myanmar in 2017 with nothing but the clothes on her back. Now, five years later, Tayeba describes life in the camps for the twins and herself. Despite longing to go back home, she says it is difficult to return to Myanmar without knowing if her rights would be ensured

Two Rohingyas, Tayeba Begum and Razi, have described harrowing tales of persecution by the Myanmar army five years ago and their bleak future of uncertainty going back to their homelands.

Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) took testimony of these fateful Rohingyas in July. Prothom Alo collected those from Doctors Without Borders.

“My twin girls, Nur Ankis and Nur Bahar, were only six-month-old babies when we escaped from our homeland in Myanmar. I ran with them. All we had with us were the clothes we were wearing," she lamented.

"After the killings began, we couldn’t stay in Myanmar any longer. We had to save ourselves. The military were brutally murdering Rohingya and burning their houses."

"Even two years prior to us leaving in 2017, young men were being taken and tortured. At the time, my son was afraid and left for India. He’s still there."

When I fled with my babies, we crossed jungles and muddy roads in the soaking rain to get to Bangladesh. The journey was difficult, especially with children. After reaching the border, people were resting wherever they could, but there was nowhere to shelter. We sat in the bushes or under trees if it rained heavily, waiting and hoping for assistance.

We ate whatever we could find to survive. My daughters became weak and vomited whenever I tried to feed them. They suffered for a long time as it was difficult to find medicine when we arrived.

A few days after our arrival [to Cox’s Bazar], shelters were built for us out of cloth and bamboo. Now, we live here in the refugee camps. My twins are five years old now. It has been five years of living in distress.

We have shelter, but beyond that, we do not have much for our children. We depend on food assistance and worry about what to feed them and if it’s enough. We worry about how to clothe them and how to educate them.

I cannot provide what they need as I have no money. Sometimes I eat less than I should because in my heart, I want to sell the extra food to buy my children something.

This is how we are living – half fed. Otherwise, I cannot buy my children anything.

Sometimes I hear from my son in India. He calls every two or three months. I don’t have a mobile phone and can only speak with him when he calls someone else’s.

I have not seen him for years and I miss him and my home in Myanmar terribly. I long for peace. If we can ever live peacefully again in Myanmar, we will return. Why wouldn’t we return if justice is served to us and we are given citizenship? Is it not our homeland also? But how can we return if our rights are not ensured? Where will we live, since our houses have been destroyed? How can we go back if our children could be taken away and murdered?

You can keep us here or transfer us to another country, we will not refuse, but I would not go back to Myanmar without justice being served.”

Mohamed Hussein
Mohamed Hussein worked as a civil clerk under the home minister’s office in Myanmar for more than 38 years. In 1982, he was stripped of his citizenship because of his ethnicity as a Rohingya. Since then, Mohamed Hussein has seen his rights and freedoms eroded. He was forced to flee to Bangladesh and has been in the camps for five years.

“I passed high school in 1973. I even had a job as a government employee because at the time, Rohingya were recognised under the constitution. They appointed us directly after checking if we had completed high school.

After achieving independence from British rule in 1948, the government accepted us as citizens. If someone's father was born in Myanmar and the son was as well, both could be recognised as citizens. People of every ethnicity enjoyed equal rights. No one faced discrimination.

This all changed in 1978, when the Naga Min, or ‘Dragon King census was conducted. The census determined who was a citizen of Myanmar and who was Bangladeshi. Many people were arrested for not having proper documents. Scared for my life, I fled. Later, the government of Myanmar took us back again. They made an agreement with the Bangladesh government, and we were promised if we returned, our rights would be guaranteed. This promise was not kept. The lands were returned to their owners, but our rights were not ensured. This was the beginning of our oppression. We were treated as pariahs and gradual deprivation turned into persecution.

The authorities stripped us of our citizenship [in Myanmar]. Under the [1982] Citizenship Law, they recognised categories of ethnicity, and percentages of each were announced. This categorisation had not existed before.

At this time, despite our citizenship being taken away, Rohingya were still accepted in the country as foreigners. Different regions broadcast the news of Rohingya communities. After the military takeover, our radio airtime was cancelled.

If we are truly foreigners, why did the old constitution not recognise us as foreigners?

We were not allowed anymore to pursue higher education. Travel restrictions were imposed, and the military accused us of being involved in conflict with the Buddhists. Reputed members of the Rohingya community were arrested or fined due to allegations of oppressing the Buddhists. Curfews were enacted and if someone was found visiting another house, he was tortured. So, we started keeping our mouths shut when something happened in our community.

Every year, they came up with new orders. The ones who failed to comply were arrested.

Despite all of this, we could still vote. We elected members that participated in parliamentary sessions. Then, in 2015, even our right to vote was taken away.

We felt belittled and worried. In the country where our ancestors had been living, we could no longer vote. Our hearts sank when we were called intruders. The unjust treatment came to the point that we had to flee.

One morning [in 2017], we heard gunshots. [Then], it was a Thursday night that actual shots were fired from the military post close to our home. The next morning, we heard some Rohingya people had been killed.

When people saw the military entering our area, they started running away. We were terrified, as the military were arresting and killing people everywhere. Running for our lives, we arrived here to Bangladesh. We were fortunate that we made it here alive. Bangladesh is doing a lot for us and standing by us.