Imaginary homelandInternational refugees in Nepal have been protesting outside the UNHCR premises in Kathmandu with a host of demands, the first and foremost of them being food
Hassan Hassan, a resident of Konchi village in Burma’s Rakhine’s state, returned home on May 20, 2012 from Maungdaw to find that his house had been reduced to cinders. His parents, little sister and four younger brothers were missing. The conflict between the Rohingya Muslims and the Buddhists in the Rakhine had set his village ablaze. The 19-year-old had been working in Maungdaw as a plumber when he heard the communal riots had spilled across the state. But he arrived home too late, he says.
In 2012, at least 80 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced as the Muslim and Buddhist communities in Myanmar’s Rakhine state attacked each other.
“Growing up, I knew there was trouble for our community. Rohingyas are a minority in the country and majority in our part of the state. We wanted democracy. My father, a farmer, was arrested for his views when I was eight. Suu Kyi’s NLD (National League for Democracy) party was the only force who supported our voice. But in a country like Myanmar, even she has no power,” Hassan tells me in fractured, heavily accented Nepali.
Kneeling down before what used to be his house, with his family gone, he was overcome by a desperate urge to find them. A Buddhist woman in the village told him his family had fled to Bangladesh and Hassan decided to get on the next boat. In a small bag he carried two tee shirts, two pairs of pants and a lungi, and some money, which converted to 5,000 Bangladeshi Taka. In Chittagong, he remained in a refugee camp with the others, for 45 days, looking for his parents and siblings. There were no traces of them. He decided to push further into India with the others who were also searching for their missing relatives. He stayed in Siliguri for a week, showing his parents’ photo around, and being met with nos. The authorities in the West Bengal city advised him to go to Jhapa, where he was told, the nearest UN agency office was located. He crossed over to Kakadvitta and then boarded a bus that brought him to eastern Nepal, without realising that he had left Indian territory.
For Hassan, who had never received any formal education, the journey was filled with psychological trauma, worsened by his inability to communicate. The only language he could speak was Arkanese, besides basic understanding of Bangla.
The UN officers in Jhapa referred Hassan to the UNHCR office in Kathmandu, where he arrived on August 28, 2012. Arrangements were processed for him to be registered as a refugee and he was asked to go to the Jame Masjid, for community support. At the mosque, he met four other Rohingyas, who said they had also arrived after fleeing different villages in the Rakhine state. Along with them, the UN had made arrangements for him to stay at Chandani Hotel in Sundhara.
Hassan’s first memory of being in Kathmandu is walking into a shop hungry and being unable to tell the shopkeeper what he needed. “I was speaking a silent language. No voice. Pointing out at biscuits and noodles on the shelf and showing him Indian currency I had with me then.” When the money ran out, Hassan joined some others outside the mosque, spreading his palms out for alms.
After being registered as a refugee, Hassan was entitled to a stipend of 50 USD a month, as subsistence allowance. And he, along with others from the community rented rooms in Kathmandu’s Kapan, where the community soon swelled to 130. For the first time, Hassan found himself sitting in a classroom, taking English and Nepali literacy classes run by the UN. The men took up jobs as painters and plumbers, the only available without presenting legal documents, while the women and children stayed indoors.
“Nepali people are nice at first but when we tell them we are refugees from Burma, we find that they look at us differently. They don’t want to give us work. But we are illegal, so we can’t apply for jobs here,” he says.
For the past three and a half years, with the allowance provided by the UN, and some odd jobs on the side, the community was able to pull through. But every day, Hassan has only wanted one thing. “I want to go back to Myanmar, because once I go there, I will be able to look for my family. Rakhine state is not safe for us. But we could go to other states, if the UN can help us seek state protection. Because, if I go as I am now, I know they wouldn’t even care to arrest me. They’d just shoot me.”
After the earthquake, Hassan found it difficult to find work. When the fuel embargo set in, the refugees became the last ones in Kathmandu to receive rationed cooking gas. On October 28, a group of Rohingyas arrived at the UNHCR, when they heard the agency had decided to phase-out subsistence allowance to urban refugees in Nepal, who arrived after 2012, in order to divert funds to emergency operation elsewhere, as Europe experienced an exodus of refugees from the Middle-East. Refugees from ten countries, including those from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia decided to stage protest, demanding continuation of the allowance. Last month, when police tried to remove them from outside the UNHCR office in Maharajganj, Hassan injured his leg and his phone broke. Four Rohingyas decided to begin a hunger strike on December 1. Two of them were admitted to Teaching Hospital this week, after their health failed. Hassan and his fellow countryman, Hamid Hussein are still striking.
On Thursday, Hassan appeared disoriented and a little stooped, which I hadn’t noticed on our previous meetings. His doctor, Kamal Pandit of Physicians for Human Rights, told me his blood pressure was very high, which explained his bloodshot eyes. Hassan has been suffering from abdominal and joint pains and Pandit says he might have to be sent to hospital soon. But the Rohingya says he’d rather die of hunger because he has no money to buy food, anyway.
I ask Hassan if he gets any sleep in the Kathmandu cold, under the tarpaulin sheet they’ve up on the road, where they are picketing. “I don’t have another place to sleep right now,” he says. The forty women and fifty children from the community live in seven rooms the group has rented in Kapan. Some women, clad in black burkas, holding underdressed, confused children, continue to camp with the men in Maharajganj.
“When I finally fall asleep, if I get a dream, it’s always about the day I went home to find my house burnt down. And I wake up feeling terrible. There’s no other dream.” Home is to Hassan, what he remembers of it from his childhood, now. “We didn’t have enough, but with my parents and siblings, we were happy together,” he says, of what only exists in his imagination now.
Photos and Video by Prateebha Tuladhar