The Noorjahans of Balukhali: The Continued Persecution of the Rohingya
I have an affinity with names, an unusual sort of attachment, and this name I already had a connection with, because it was the most important name in the world to me, - the name of the woman who gave me life. Every Noorjahan I met in the camps I couldn’t help but feel an attachment to, and they did me. I can still feel their warmth, their hands gripping on to mine dragging me to visit their homes. The lines left on their hands from age, pressed on to mine leaving indentations I can feel to this day. I can still feel the cool air blowing on me as they fanned me down upon seeing the first bead of sweat drip down my face, a heat I couldn’t handle for a second, that they were compelled to deal with daily. The stories they told me are still hard to process, regardless of any subconscious motherly attachment I had formed, but that made it far harder than I anticipated.
Noorjahan is 86, and like most of the Rohingya, particularly the elderly, all she wants is peace and to return home. She introduced herself and as soon as I heard that name, I couldn’t unlock from her gaze the entire time I was there, eyes grey, but bright. The more we spoke, the more I noticed how her eyes, initially so full, became “less”, to eventually welling. I held on to her hand, the only thing I could do to show some sort of support, although I can’t help but feel I was helping myself more than her. She spoke to me about her life in Arakan, how she kept a small garden where she grew squash, how she would spend time with her many children and many grandchildren. A young girl, who couldn’t be more than 15 years old walks in and sits beside me, smiling with a baby on her hip. She gestures the child toward me, and I happily take the child on to my lap.
Noorjahan points at the young girl.
“She is my youngest grandchild, Anowara, and that baby you’re holding,” She points directly toward the baby babbling on my lap “… is my great-grandchild, Showkat.”
The introduction of family members when entering a person’s home for the first time is normal, but this introduction was loaded, contextualised by an escape from a state-sanctioned military purge and genocidal rape.
The genocide of the Rohingya, carried out by Myanmar continues to this day, despite being in breach of UN court orders. In January, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rejected the nation leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s arguments and ordered Myanmar to stop all acts of genocide, to protect the Rohingya left in the country and to report back to the UN every six months.
The UN General assembly expressed “grave concern” over the serious violations against the Rohingya and as a result, voted for a draft resolution. In response, Myanmar has branded the decisions of the UN as “intrusive” and “illegitimate”, to then only concede that the actions of a minority of its military to not be within protocol, and insisting that those who acted out would then be put to trial within their own court system.
Whilst the ICJ and UN General Assembly are both in unison with there being a very clear mistreatment of the Rohingya people, this isn’t enough to ensure their safe keeping. Court cases as big as ones like this take years to have an effect. As well as this, Myanmar’s stance is very clear – they have done nothing wrong and furthermore, the very term “Rohingya” is banned from being used. How can the ICJ and UN, expect the very government that does not accept the very existence of the Rohingya to protect those remaining?
"The Genocide is still ongoing,” says Tun Khin, president of the Burma Rohingya Organisation UK (BRO UK) “… Myanmar government and military are calculating that they can safely ignore the provisional measures and not face any consequences," he explains.
Heavy aid restrictions have been imposed in Rakhine State (where the majority of the Rohingya reside) for years, and to keep up appearances have said that those who wish to return to Myanmar are more than welcome to, but must accept a “national verification card”, which is not considered citizenship.
This month’s election saw the ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) secure a majority in parliament, claiming a land-slide victory. An election that deliberately excluded the Rohingya, making it impossible for them to vote, stand, or to take part in at all.
The constant waiting game that comes with the long process of international courts leaves millions of Rohingya in uncertainty – some at the mercy of Myanmar, some at the mercy of the countries who host them. It’s a grim limbo. Myanmar continues to operate how it pleases, successfully having pushed millions of Rohingya out of their homeland, encouraged by the support of international governments seeking to form development relationships with the country.
Noorjahan said so much without explicitly saying anything. This wasn’t just her granddaughter’s story, but the story of thousands of Rohingya women and girls. She explained how so many women and young girls arrived in Bangladesh “honourless”. I could see tears within her tears as she extended one hand to Anowara, and the other to mine, a strong grip for fragile hands.
What I find hard to process is that the camps are an escape for the Rohingya.
A refugee camp.
An overcrowded, poorly constructed, temporary settlement. Unreasonably hot in the summer and toe-numbingly cold in the winter. A place where women and children are the majority and most vulnerable. Where girls are compelled to shave their heads and disguise themselves as boys to avoid sex trafficking. A grave for the elderly, who continue to hope that the world will help them in time so that they may spend their last moments in their homeland. This was an escape.
It’s hard to digest that whilst the millions of Rohingya did manage to escape the atrocities they were facing in Myanmar; a whole list of struggles and danger were waiting for them in the refugee camps too.
During the influx of the 750, 000+ Rohingya in 2017, there was an initial spike in interest and donations, this has declined since and there’s been severe donor fatigue. Covid-19 has not only exacerbated donor fatigue but has compelled most international agencies to leave the camps. Covid-19 has impacted those in refugee camps in the world, the Rohingya being one of the largest have been deeply affected. This makes it imperative for us to do something and to ensure we continue to sustain the work we do and the support we provide for the community whilst they are living in the camps.
Give a little hope to the Rohingya and set up a small monthly donation which can make a huge positive difference to one of the world's most marginalised communities. Having a safe space to talk, learn, build and play is the first step to healing. We have built Restless Beings Rohingya Children's and Women's centres to do just that. With your monthly support, we can sustain some form of daily hope and make a meaningful difference.