Rakhine to Kashmir: Away from genocide, Muslim refugees battle harsh valley winter
Srinagar, Jan 19: On chilly Friday afternoon, Haroon Rasheed, a Rohingya Muslim refugee, rests on a rock outside his rental accommodation at Khimber here, loudly praying in his native language. He raises his hands westwards, and prays for peace in Rakhine state of Myanmar from where Muslim have been fleeing to other parts of world to escape ethnic cleansing being executed by the country’s army. His eyes moisten and sobbing rises as he takes the names of his slain kin: Qasim, his uncle, and Abdul Mutalib, brother-in-law, both of whom “the Buddhist cut into pieces”. Subconsciously, Rasheed puts on his ragged boots and heads home. Hesitatingly, he begins narrating his ordeal from the harrowing past, a detail painful enough to make 50-year-old him break into tears like a child. He recalls January 2014, when had been expecting a good winter harvest at his native place. “I had never imagined that my condition would be this worse in future. I was a rich man three years ago and now I am living in a shack, far away from my native land. We would have vegetables in our gardens ready to be transported to the market at this time of the year,” he remembers. Rasheed, a farmer, lived in Mondo, Myanmar, along with his family of five. In 2014, he, like thousands of other fellow Rohingyas, had to flee in the dead of the night after local Buddhists started attacking Muslims in the area. “I can’t narrate the scene when I saw my brother-in-law in a pool of blood. All the villagers left and ran for safety,” he says. Rasheed, pointing to his rugged appearance, says, I “was never like this.” “I had 20 acres of land, 15 cows and nearly 40 sheep and hens,” he says, refusing to be photographed or filmed. Tagging along his family, Rasheed, in search of safety and hopefully life, first landed in Bangladesh. Not satisfied with the earnings and growing expenses, he entered into India via West Bengal border. “We faced a lot of problems in Bangladesh, where we struggled to find work. The value of money there is too less to suffice our needs. We had to put our lives in danger and entered into Indian Territory,” Rasheed says. Fearing deporting by the local government in West Bengal, Rasheed says he had to wander in cities like Hyderabad and New Delhi to find a place to live in. “The voice against the Rohingyas was already growing strong in India, so we had to look for an even safer place,” he says. His family along with many refugee families lived in a makeshift camp in Jammu for Rs 1,000 a year till 2016. Rasheed claims that Jammu had not been safe for them initially, as the local Hindu populace would often threaten to exile them. “Many Rohingya refugee families are living there in Jammu. But we felt that Kashmir, being a Muslim-majority place, would be safer for us, which we do feel here,” he says. A year of safety, food and shelter in Kashmir is not that satisfies these Rohingyas refugees. All these 11 refugee families long to return to their homeland. “If anyone tells me peace has returned to Burma, I won’t stay here for a moment. Our country is a part of our Imaan (faith). Even if we are offered biryani, or any other cuisine to eat, it doesn’t equal a simple roti available at home,” Rasheed says. Rasheed is joined by another Rohingya refugee Anayatullah, a student turned labourer, who said that living in Kashmir during winters have been challenging for them. “We are refugees without enough clothes or food. We came from a warm place and our body cannot bear this bone-chilling cold here,” he says. Anaytullah claims they rarely get any help from the locals and have to toil hard during harsh winters to eke out their living. “Initially, the nearby villagers came to help us by donating rice and vegetables. But then, we had to arrange everything ourselves by doing menial jobs,” he says. “During winter there is not much work, even if we find work, it is hard to take up the job during the cold climate.” Although they get good returns compared to other states, Anaytullah says, they have to pay a hefty sum as rent for their stay in Kashmir. “Each family which has sole earner has to pay Rs 2,000-3,000 for each room. But the problems like health issues and food is consuming our earnings,” he says. The refugees say they often have to struggle for basic needs like electricity and water at their rented accommodation. “Our women have to walk a kilometre at least to fetch water. Then this absence of electricity has made our lives miserable during cold weather. We can’t even complain, as we are refugees here,” he says.