Content warning: violence and violence causing death
Balukhali Refugee Camp, Bangladesh
“We’ve been through this before, but never like this. Never so many people. And now it feels like it might go on and on. It has been eighteen months, but it feels like forever.”
Mohammed Ali, a 65-year-old farmer, was returning from his fields to his home in the village of Kyein Chaung, in the Township of Maungdaw, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in early September, 2017. And the attack began. The village was surrounded by government soldiers who began shooting at villagers and setting fire to houses as they advanced. The people of Kyein Chaung knew what was coming as they had already seen dead bodies floating down the stream from other neighbouring villages.
“There was only one thing to do. We knew we had to leave and we ran. And fortunately, no one in our own family was injured or killed. But we heard cries around us. We knew that could easily have been us. And it was only good luck that it was not.”
Mohammed fled along with 10 other family members, including his mother, wife, children and grandchildren, the youngest being 10 years old. And since that time they have been living in the Balukhali Refugee Camp, across the border in Bangladesh, for nearly 18 months. Safe from the attacks of the Myanmar military, but still not free.
“We have never really been free, long before the violence that brought us all here in 2017. We are not even recognized as citizens, in our own country. Here in Bangladesh we are safe, and for that we are very grateful to the government for allowing us across the border. But we are not free. We have no freedom of movement. We have to stay in the camps, which are so overcrowded. If we try to go anywhere else we are stopped at the checkpoints and sent back. It feels like a prison.”
Mohammed thinks of the future and what lies ahead for his family. He particularly thinks of his children and grandchildren.
“There is much talk about what they plan to do with us. Last year they wanted us to return to Myanmar. But no one wants to go back there at this time, because there has been no progress. It would be returning to exactly what we left. Without a promise that we will be recognized as full citizens, with equal rights, that is not an option. My children deserve better than I had.”
“And the Bangladesh government says they might send us to Bhasan Char [an island in the Bay of Bengal]. I would rather die. They cannot separate us by sending some of us to an island that would be cut-off from the rest of us. Our unity cannot be broken. That is what keeps us strong after everything that has happened. And it would be inhuman for anyone to be sent to such a place. There will be flooding when the monsoons come. There is no safety and security there.”
For Mohammed, it comes down to education.
“The way ahead for us is not clear. We can’t go back, but we can’t stay like this. And the best hope for making things better is to make sure our children are going to school. Right now there is very little available for them. The very young children have fun playing and learn a little in the Child Friendly Spaces. But there is nothing for the older children.”
“I see young people sitting around with nothing to do and I worry. Learning is what will give them hope and ideas. I am helping as I can. I take some children aside and teach them what I can. Others are doing that also. But I am old, and I am not a teacher. They need real schools with real teachers.”
“This is so important for their future. It is so important for our future.”
Amnesty International echoes Mohammed’s hope and expectation. It is time for steps to be taken by the government of Bangladesh and the international community, working together, to ensure education of good quality is available in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.