Hasan Zillur Rahim: What is most jarring at first sight is the juxtaposition of natural beauty and human misery: Waves from the Bay of Bengal lapping at sandy beaches while desperate refugees fleeing genocide next door are packed 1,000 per square mile into unhygienic camps.
I am in Cox’s Bazar in the southern tip of Bangladesh, where more than 655,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh since August of last year after Myanmar’s military and Buddhist mobs carried out a genocide against them. As an American of Bangladeshi origin who grew up in the port city of Chittagong 100 miles north, I was compelled by conscience to see firsthand the current situation and the future of the most persecuted minority on earth.
Visiting one of the most congested settlements, in a place called Ukhiya, the first thing that struck me was that no Rohingya was starving. As Commissioner of Relief Control Mustafizur Rahman explained, the months from August to October were rough because the government and the NGOs were unprepared for the massive exodus. Now food was plentiful and Rohingyas were eating rice, lentils, vegetables, fish and fruit. What has helped was the takeover of camp management by the Bangladesh army from corrupt civilian administration that mismanaged aid while doing nothing to prevent local predators from exploiting the vulnerable Rohingyas.
Health organizations have also found their stride. I saw a physician named Dr. Mohsin treating patients for anemia, high fever, pneumonia and respiratory diseases. He lauded UNICEF for vaccinating children, Bangladesh-based BRAC for providing sanitation and People’s Health Center for providing pre- and post-natal care for pregnant women. A surgeon named Dr. Tahmina identified Florida-based HOPE Foundation (www.hopeforbangladesh.org) and Doctors without Borders for providing critical surgery and OB-GYN services.
The problem, I found, was not humanitarian but political. The Rohingyas have stirred the conscience of humanity, but their political status is in limbo. Chemon Bahar, a woman in her mid-20s who was violated but escaped death, told me of her dreams of returning to Rakhine, Myanmar, where her ancestors had lived for hundreds of years but doesn’t see it ever happening. China, eyeing the Rakhine State’s reserves of timber and gas, has threatened to veto any Security Council resolution critical of Myanmar. India, which has turned Bangladesh into a captive market for its products and policies, has sided with Myanmar, as has Russia. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and some congressional members have labeled the Rohingya crisis as ethnic cleansing, but as Usman Sarwar, a camp administrator, told me, everyone finds it a cruel joke that President Trump will help Muslim refugees from Myanmar while imposing a travel ban on Muslims to America.
Bangladesh and Myanmar have formed a joint commission on repatriation but with no clout at the negotiating table, Bangladesh has meekly accepted terms dictated by Myanmar. Two points make any meaningful repatriation risible: 1) Returning Rohingyas must offer proof of residence, an absurdity since they have lost everything, and 2) Even if some are accepted, they will be confined to concentration-like camps.
The Rohingyas I met, particularly adolescent and pregnant girls, seemed stuck at the threshold between life and death. Thanks to the generosity of members of San Jose’s Evergreen Islamic Center, I was able to distribute some clothes and blankets to the neediest of them. But as heartbreaking as my interaction with them was, my moment of truth came when I distributed some candies to the children. Eleven-year-old Jannat smiled through tears and said, “I have never tasted anything sweet in my life.”
She meant “until now” and she was obviously being literal but in a spontaneous sentence, she summed up the sorrow and the tragedy of her people.
Hasan Zillur Rahim is a professor of math and statistics at San Jose City College. He wrote this for The Mercury News.
Source: The Mercury News