Hindu refugees in Bangladesh isolated, uncertain about future


Displaced Hindu people who fled from Maungdaw township gather inside a temple in Siittwe of Rakhine State, western Myanmar, 05 September 2017. Photo: Nyunt Win/EPA

Hindu refugees living in a temporary camp in Bangladesh remember when harmony prevailed between them and their Rohingya Muslim neighbors back in Myanmar.

“If we held any ceremony, we called them. If they held any ceremony, they called us,” said 60-year-old Bolaran Shil, who says he lived in a village in Maungdaw called Siyon Suri, or Ah San Kyaw in Burmese.

But the violence that erupted on August 25 between the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the Burmese military shattered those bonds, perhaps permanently. 

Hindus from Yebawkya, a village near Siyon Suri in Maungdaw, accuse ARSA of killing dozens of their relatives and dumping them in mass graves shortly after they attacked police and army posts. Dozens more Hindus remain missing.

While ARSA denies responsibility, the Myanmar government has seized on the allegations to prove the sinister intent of the group, and brought back relatives of the victims who fled across the border.

Hundreds of Hindu families fleeing violence in Rakhine have sought shelter in Rakhine, where the government has provided for them.

But tensions have carried over for those who fled to Bangladesh amid allegations of a violent encounter in a Rohingya refugee camp here, compounding the sense of isolation and uncertainty about the future.

Many don’t want to stay or return, leaving them in limbo.

“Bangladesh is a Muslim country. We want to go to India,” said Sitro Runjun Pal, 55.

FORMER FRIENDS

Hindus in northern Rakhine State enjoyed more freedom of movement than their Rohingya neighbors, but they were also discriminated against, providing some common ground between the two groups.

The entrance of ARSA into Siyon Suri, however, drove a wedge between the Hindus and Muslims there.

Though Rohingya insurgencies are not new, most have been short-lived and unsuccessful. 

ARSA emerged in the aftermath of 2012, when violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State increased restrictions on the more than 1 million Rohingya living there at the time, sending more than 140,000 mostly Muslims into internal displacement camps, where they remain today.

Led by a Pakistani-born Rohingya man named At Ullah, ARSA first attacked a year ago, on October 9, when it was still known as Harakat Al-Yakin, or the Faith Movement. The group attracted more members in the aftermath of that first military crackdown, which brought widespread claims of sexual assault, extrajudicial killings and arson.

Pal said he saw recruitment in the village. He said young people and even those he knew were persuaded to take part.

“Some of my friends joined ARSA,” he said. He asked them why. They told him they needed freedom. 

One of them was a close friend. 

“We grew up together,” he said. "I know him, his name, his father's name."

In private they talked more about it. Pal advised against getting involved, telling his friend that the government “can do anything to you.”

His friend told him not to share his disapproval with anyone else, because if others learned that he knew of their activities, “it will be a problem.” ARSA has been accused of targeting informers. He kept quiet.

After the attacks on August 25, Pal said ARSA members wearing black scarves around their faces surrounded his village and told him they wouldn’t be harmed. Some even secretly gave him cooking supplies and cigarettes. 

But a relative called him and said he had heard rumors of Hindus being killed, and told him to leave. 

“We started to be afraid of them,” he said.

That’s when he went to Bangladesh. Pal hasn’t seen his friend since.

THE FIGHT

More than 500 Hindus went to Bangladesh, a number dwarfed by the more than 500,00 Rohingya who fled across the border. They were given a separate shelter in a chicken coop, near an existing Hindu temple. 

The camp is not as crowded and chaotic as the Rohingya settlements, nor does it have the same level of despair and destitution. But it's still not home.

A week or so after arriving in Bangladesh, the villagers from Siyon Suri were able to get in contact with some of their former neighbors.

According to their accounts, the Hindus wanted to collect money for livestock that their neighbors had sold for them. 

What happened next remains murky, but two Hindu men said their group of 11 was accosted on the way and beaten with wooden sticks and metal bars.  

One man showed scars on his arms and buttocks where he said he was struck.

Inspector Mohammed Kai-Kisluin from the police station in Ukhia, a sub-district of Cox's Bazar where the camps are located, said he believes the alleged incident happened around September 12, and that it stemmed from grievances in Myanmar. He said that some of the men in the group were later herded into a forested area and assaulted. 

“They tied their hands with the rope and started beating them another time,” he said, citing information gathered from a complaint.

The men escaped, but not all came back, the Hindu refugees say. Kai-Kisluin said Ukhia police did find two bodies, but they were so decomposed it's impossible to say if they are connected to the case. 

One family member came to claim a corpse, insisting it belonged to the community, but authorities remain skeptical.

“Nobody can identify the two guys,” Kai-Kisluin said.

Another police source said the matter was still under investigation, but that inconsistencies in the story left many holes. For instance, he said, one of the men who was thought to be missing was found in the end. 

Still, Kai-Kisluin said the cases are being considered murders.

THE GRAVE

Jagadish Pal removes his footwear, climbs the grassy embankment and walks over to a fresh mount of dirt. He offers a prayer to the makeshift grave, which he says belongs to his father, Rabindra Pal. As part of mourning rites, the son’s head is shaven.

The grave is in the same temporary refugee camp for Hindus, separated from an existing Buddhist cemetery. There are no markers. Both look like part of the fields and forests, blending seamlessly into the landscape.

Pal says his father was one of the men who never came back after going with the group of 10 other Hindus to collect the money. Men in the camp say they were able to identify him as Hindu because of the remnants of a red bracelet that many wear on their wrists.

Pal, whose six siblings are also in the camp, said his mother is still in Myanmar, and that he had been working in Chittagong as a barber. 

He said that he would consider going back to Myanmar for good if the country granted them citizenship and let them live in Yangon, the commercial capital.

“We cannot exist in the same village [as before],” he said, adding that “we don’t want to stay in Bangladesh.”

He also suggested India as a prospect. 

“We don’t have safety here.”

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