Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea

RNW archive

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He is a good looking man – or he would be, if it wasn’t for the hollowness of his eyes, that makes you think he looks at the world in a different, darker way than most other people.

Mohammed Rohim (28) does indeed have reason to view the world differently.   After all, he is a Rohingya in Bangladesh.  That means that he’s had about as tough a life as it’s possible to have on this earth. 

Mohammed was born in Rakhine state in western Myanmar.  As a Rohingya, he belongs to the poorest group in an impoverished country. The predominantly Muslim Rohingya are arguably the worst treated of all of the country’s ethnic minorities.

They need official permits to marry, own land or move to another area. They are often recruited as unpaid porters, used as human mine detectors and heavily taxed in crops and money.  So badly have they been treated, that for years, they’ve been escaping across the river to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Escaping for love, freedom and a better future
Mohammed Rohim’s family was poor, so he couldn’t pay the requisite bribes when the authorities came looking for slave labour.  For at least ten days every month, he was forced to work for nothing at the local army camp. 

Mohammed was in love with a girl who lived next door.  The feelings were reciprocated, but the permit they needed to get married, cost an exorbitant 160,000 kyat (150 euro).  So the young couple, decided to flee to Bangladesh. “When I left, my parents were crying,” he says, “so crying.  They knew we’d never meet again.”

Burning bridges
Rohingya who make the decision to leave their village know they’re burning their bridges.  They are struck off the local registers and become, to all intent and purposes, officially invisible in Myanmar; non people, with no rights to land, to papers, to birth certificates for their children.

The couple had a difficult trip.  They paid 10,000 kyat each to stow away on a cattle barge. Every time the barge pulled up to a stop at the river bank, the couple had to hide in the latrine; the trip lasted 13 hours.

When they arrived in Teknaf, in southern Bangladesh, they entered the illegal shadowland of the some 200,000-500,000 illegal Rohingya living in the country, always on the alert for police, open to exploitation, and forced to bribe their way through daily life.

Mohammed got a job on a fishing boat where for a 9 hour day, he earnt 80 cents.  One day while fishing, he lost a net worth 6000 taka (60 euros).  The owner threatened him, so he borrowed money bonding himself in labour to pay it back.

Over the next three years, he worked as a daily labourer, as a gardener, in shrimp growing, whatever he could find to feed his growing family. 

Life is no easier
Mohammed has been in Bangladesh now for 4 years and has three children, but life is not getting any easier.  These days, he pulls rickshaws. ferrying people around town at a fast trot, through the heat and the monsoon rains.

He pays a daily rent of 60 taka for the rickshaw and earns around 200 or 270 taka (2 – 2.70 euro) on a good day.  He sleeps in the rickshaw, eats two simple meals a day, and the rest of his earnings go to feed his family, currently living in a hut made of mud and plastic sheets in Kutapalong camp. 

It’s an unregistered camp which means that no one gets any food assistance at all.  It’s too far from Cox’s Bazaar where he works, so Mohammed takes a bus there once a week to bring them money and to make repairs to the hut which is often washed away after a heavy rain.

Despite the chiseled muscle of his shoulders and calves, his jutting cheekbones and spare frame are a testament to an underlying malnourishment.  His face shows an exhaustion out of keeping with a 28 year old man at the prime of his life.

An act of human kindness
As we near the end of the interview, I ask him whether in all these years in Bangladesh, he’s ever been shown an act of kindness.  He thinks for a while and replies: “A politician came once and gave each family 7 kilos of rice and some soap”. 

“No,” I say to him, “I’m not talking of political gestures – I mean, has anyone looked you in the eyes, and recognized that you have suffered a lot, and just been kind to you as a fellow human being?”

I see him searching for an answer to a question he's clearly never thought about before.  I can see he wants to answer me, but the question simply defeats him.  Finally he says with an almost apologetic shrug, “Just that politician and the rice.”

And what does Mohammed dream of? What is it that he wants most in the world? “If they would just stop the forced labour, and if I could find work, I would go home.  This is not my country, not my place. I only want a life."


This story was originally published on 7 July 2011.