IN the semi-lit makeshift tent covered with strips of cardboard, five women sit in a huddle. As their young children, covered in specks of mud and soot, move around noisily, the women try to hush them down. Hollow-eyed and visibly malnourished, all the women also appear afraid.
Aged between 19 and 30, they have two things in common:
ONE, they are Rohingya refugees from Myanmar; and,
TWO, they all live in fear of being sent back to the country they were forced to flee.
“I came here when I was 13. Now, I am 19,” says Nur Kalina, the youngest. She faintly remembers running with her parents from their village in Myanmar’s violence-wracked Rakhine State.
“From Akhyep (Akyab, currently known as Sittwe), we started. We ran through rice fields, then by the river. When we came to Cox’s Bazar (across the border in Bangladesh), our fellow villagers were there. My aunt was there. They said, there is no food, no work, no future here. So, my parents came here.”
All the other women in the room — Leila, Shamshida, Taiyyaba and Rahena — nod. Their stories are not very different from Kalina’s. Each one of them came to Jammu in 2012. Since then, the rows of huts in the Kiriyani Talav neighbourhood of northern India’s Jammu city have been their home. They all got married here and became mothers.
Each one of them has relatives who are still living in Sittwe who call every now and then to talk about the current situation. Every time, they share news of fresh attacks and new names of relatives and neighbours who have been murdered.
“They always tell us, don’t come back here,” says Laila.
There are some 5,743 Rohingya in Jammu and Kashmir state, according to the state government. Scattered over Jammu, the summer capital of the state, and neighbouring Samba district, their number is a fraction of that in Bangladesh (858,898) or Pakistan (350,000).
Yet, this tiny population is at the centre of a controversy with some local factions accusing them of indulging in criminal activities such as land grabs, illegal settlement and aiding terrorists, and demanding their repatriation.
One of the political parties spearheading the opposition against the Rohingya is the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party (JNKPP), a Jammu-based right-wing group led by Harshdev Singh. On March 3, he led a protest march in Jammu and urged the home minister of India to send back the Rohingya, who he described as a security threat.
Opposition to the Rohingya intensified after a terrorist attack on an army camp in Sunjwan, an area on the city outskirts. Right after the attack, Kavinder Gupta, a local politician, accused the Rohingya of being involved in the attack. Although he was criticised by other lawmakers, his party members stood by him.
India, which has not signed the International Refugee Convention, asked the states in August 2017 to identify the Rohingya for a possible deportation. The decision, however, has since been challenged in the Supreme Court of India by some Rohingya refugees.
Hazara, who asked to go by her first name only, is a 29-year-old Rohingya refugee woman living in a hut bordering the army camp in Sunjwan. Like all the other women Rohingya refugees, Hazara never went to school. With no education and no specific skills, the single mother of two was earning her livelihood by shelling walnuts for her non-Rohingya neighbours. The wages of 12 Indian rupees (72 sen) for each kilogramme of walnuts were not very high, but they helped the woman feed herself and her family.
Mushtaq Ahmed, one of the 16 teachers at the school, says that right after the attack on the army camp, security forces entered the school to question them about the assailants. Since then, the attitude of the neighbours changed dramatically.
“Since 2017, we have been hearing things like we are collaborating with militants, helping them, etc, but this time, the attacks are more direct. Some women are still shelling wallnuts, but once the season is over, who knows what will happen?” Ahmed said.
Laila Begum, 34, and Taiyyaba, 29, have asthma, while Taiyyaba has a 3-year-old daughter with stunted growth and weak limbs. As many as 12 women in the camp say they are suffering from respiratory diseases, while some, including Kalina’s mother, Medina, 54, has tuberculosis. Kalina also has chronic lower back pain that often keeps her in bed.
None of the women gets regular medical treatment because they can’t afford it. Laila, who has visited the government-run hospital a few times for free medicine, says that the hospital asked her to pay 2,000 Indian rupees for medicine the last time.
“I don’t have so much money,” she said, adding that only the widows among them are entitled to some aid — 10 kg of free rice each month.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has advised the Rohingya to move elsewhere in view of the growing political opposition. Since then, some of the Rohingya refugees — about 200 of them — have indeed moved out of Jammu.
But the women refugees say that despite the growing threat to their safety, leaving is not an option.
“In Myanmar, they are still killing our people. Here, they say we are Bangladeshis. We do not even speak Bangla. Where shall we go? Why shall we leave? There is no safe place for us, so only way is to keep quiet,” says Ansari, a Rohingya woman. --IPS