Rohingyas in Delhi: Home is not a place, it’s a feeling
Fifteen-year-old Mariam has no memory of her homeland—Myanmar. No smell fills up her olfactory organs, no landscape comes to her mind and she cannot think of any particular sound that reminds her of the country that she has left behind. Her mother thinks it’s good because what they escaped was no less than a nightmare. It’s been seven years since they fled the country along with a group of other Rohingya Muslim families to escape persecution by the country’s military. Many stayed back in Bangladesh, while some crossed over to India and fanned out in different directions in the country: Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir and Haryana.
The JJ colony that is inhabited by Rohingya Muslim refugees in Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar looks like a colony of people in the middle of a wasteland. From a distance, all that is visible is tufts of wild grass, but as you go closer you see houses with roofs made of black plastic sheets stacked on top of one another. The slum is small and houses about 60 families in 6x6 feet large shanties. Set in the middle of the wilderness, people living in these shanties are at the mercy of nature—three children have succumbed to snake bites and one person has died of malaria. There are two hand pumps that provide water to the settlement, both for drinking and cleaning purposes. But if you ask these people about the problems they face, they wear a big smile and say they are doing just fine. “Koi takleef nahi hai. Sabkuch hai jo chahiye. (There are no problems. We have everything we need),” says a woman as she bathes her child in a common washing area with a hand pump.
Shenwara, a mother of two, says that the military does “zulm” (crimes) against young Rohingya women, burns kids alive and slaughters men. She adds that all the families that stay in the slum are happy that they have managed to escape that fate and therefore, the life that they have built for themselves in the capital city may lack a lot of basic amenities but it is adequate—it is a life that is free from the horrors that they lived with everyday. Her husband Mohammad Bashir says that even though they were not behind bars, life in the Rakhine state felt like they were living in a prison. They paid the military amounts to the tune of Rs 4 lakh for getting married, they paid varying sums of money for travelling from one village to another and one person from every Rohingya family was made to work as a labourer for the military for two days a week without any a penny or food. Myanmar has a large Buddhist population and considers the minority Rohingya community illegal immigrants. “All the doors for our people are closed. We can’t be teachers, we can’t join the army and there are no Rohingya politicians. When we have no representation anywhere, who will listen to us? The only destiny that awaits us in that country is that of a fly that can be smothered just by lifting a hand,” he says and thumps his hand on the wooden bed where he is seated.
Bashir says he paid Rs 5,000-6,000 for crossing over to Bangladesh on a tiny ‘kashti’ (boat) carrying at least 20 people. Hasn’t he heard about incidents of overloaded boats capsizing in rivers? “Trust me, it’s better to drown in the river than die at the hands of the military,” he says. After reaching Bangladesh, the onward journey to Kolkata in India cost another Rs 10,000 per person. They left behind green rice fields, the warmth of home and their relatives.
After reaching Delhi, the Zakat Foundation helped them settle in the slum that they now inhabit and paid the fees for children to attend a school. A masterji who speaks fluent Hindi says that the foundation also imparted vocational training to them for a while, which helped people to start a livelihood—few people opened ration shops in the locality, while some started working as mechanics.
They have pieced together a life for themselves from scratch but they are worried about their kin who have been left behind, not knowing if they will hear from them or not. In a country that is home to Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the Rohingya community continues to be persecuted by the military two years after her party, National League for Democracy, scored a landslide victory in the general election. The families living in the Delhi slum are particularly concerned about the reports trickling in on the Internet since October 2016 when the military started a massive crackdown against Rohingyas in Rakhine state in response to attacks on border police camps by unidentified insurgents.
Shenwara says that although they have built a life for themselves in the slum but it doesn’t feel like home, maybe because home is not a place, it’s a feeling that they have left behind in Myanmar.