COX’S BAZAR, BANGLADESH —
In the ramshackle refugee camps that dot the landscape of Bangladesh’s borderlands with Myanmar, the prospect of an imminent return home for the Rohingya people is growing ever dimmer.
It has been seven months since a military offensive began among the Rohingya community in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, prompting widespread allegations of mass rape and murder and the flight of around 70,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh.
Yet with recent U.N. efforts to investigate being stonewalled by Myanmar, and allegations of atrocities being downplayed, demands for justice continue to meet deaf ears.
Meanwhile, fears grow that this will become the latest generation of Rohingyas forced into permanent exile.
Conditions for return
In Balu Kali camp — situated in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district — they are building for the future ahead of the coming rainy season.
Alongside the recently built huts, bricks wait in piles on construction sites to be laid.
Mohammed Anwar dreads the onset of Bangladesh’s lashing rains and retains hope that he will see the village he fled three months ago.
However, he is firm about what is required to make him return to Myanmar.
“If we get a fair recognition as Rohingya, and a promise to the world that we will not be tortured, then we will go back,” he said. “Otherwise we will not go back.”
Anwar’s conditions for return are commonly echoed here.
Deprived of even the most basic rights in Myanmar, including citizenship and the freedom to move, the Rohingya are a Muslim minority group in largely buddhist Myanmar.
They are labelled by many in their homeland as Bengali immigrants, despite having a presence in the region stretching back generations.
Yet with hopes pinned on the international community, progress so far has been slow.
Myanmar’s military operation was prompted by the death of nine policemen at the hands of a Rohingya insurgent group in October. But the crackdown has faced accusations of brutally targeting civilians and widespread atrocities, a charge rejected by Myanmar.
Though the Myanmar military released a statement saying it had ended military operations in Rakhine in mid-February, reports indicate that few, if any, Rohingya have returned permanently.
Since then, real efforts to look into what happened have come to little.
While rebuffing the UN, Myanmar sent its own state-backed commission to the camps in Bangladesh, but Sultan Ahmad, who was present at the visit, told VOA “they didn’t hear or care what we said.”
“We said about burning many villages, and the burning of children by locking newborn babies in the houses,” said Ahmad, who is from nearby Kuptalong camp.
“We asked them why they were lying after what they’d done, and they said it was us that were lying.”
Disillusionment, meanwhile, has also set in regarding de facto Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Feted as a beacon in the country for human rights and given a role within government last year after her party won in a landslide election, she has remained largely mute on the topic of the Rohingya — save an interview this week in which she denied allegations of ethnic cleansing.
“We do not expect any positive steps from Myanmar.” added Ahmad.
Elsewhere in Kutapalong camp, the newly-arriving refugees are welcomed with empathy.
It is estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 Rohingya live in Bangladesh, having fled what they say is persecution in Myanmar that has gone on for decades.
A number of them live in the longer-established part of Kutapalong, where the houses are more firmly built and a scattering of tombstones marks a graveyard.
Minuara Begum, who fled to Bangladesh in 2012, fears that as more time passes, chances grow that those who arrived recently will also end up permanently displaced.
But with aid to the Rohingya already stretched, she also has another fear — that the patience of the Bangladeshi government will wane.
“People keep on coming to Bangladesh and, like us, living here,” she said. “There may be a population problem, and the price of food, and other important elements are increasing day by day.”
One NGO source, who did not want to be identified, told VOA that though the government had publicly given “the green light” in helping Rohingya, it was “making life difficult” for NGOs — leaving many without much needed assistance.
Recently, the government in Bangladesh proposed relocating the Rohingya to flood-prone and remote Thengar Char island in the Bay of Bengal, an idea that has drawn condemnation from human rights groups.
Requests from VOA for comment by the national government have been met with silence.
But at the local level, Kazi Abdul Rahman, deputy commissioner for Cox’s Bazar, referred to the ongoing presence as “a concern,” stating they would be “awaiting a decision” regarding Thengar Char.
Rather stay away
Some wait because they must, but there are others determined not to return.
With NGOs present, some are gaining access to services like healthcare that they were deprived of back home, even if many are living on one meal a day.
Rashida Begum was split from her daughter Senuara amid a military raid on her village in Myanmar, and fears she is in the hands of soldiers.
“If she is alive or not, I do not know,” she tearfully told VOA.
But while she is constantly hunting for news of her daughter from new arrivals, the prospect of returning home fills her with dread.
“There is no peace in Myanmar and it will never come. I’ll never go back to Myanmar, even if there is peace,” she said. “There, I couldn’t sleep at night. Here, though I am starving, I can sleep in peace.”