1978 : The Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh (In French)
Report from Bangladesh in the refugee camps of the Rohingya Muslim minority, driven out of Burma since last February by the Burmese authorities as part of the ethnic cleansing operation named “Dragon”.
Presenter (in studio): An exodus of misery to Bangladesh. For weeks now, in South Asia, 200,000 Muslims from Arakan state in Burma, south of Bangladesh and across the bay from India, have been forced to leave their country due to tribal, religious and perhaps economic conflicts. The smell of petrol hangs in the air in Arakan. What makes this exodus all the more exceptional is that these half-starved communities are seeking refuge among communities that are even poorer than them, in Bangladesh. In this report we witness the depths of mass misery in a country that knows misery all too well.
Reporter (VO): On the other bank of this river, the mountains in Burma, one of the most secretive countries in the world. These boats are carrying Burmese people fleeing their country. According to their testimonials, everything is in turmoil in Arakan, a large coastal state in Burma that runs along the border, from where the Muslim population have been seeking forced asylum in Bangladesh since 23 April.
Almost 200,000 refugees have already crossed this river that separates the two countries. They belong to the Rohingya ethnic minority, a group of 1.5 million inhabitants. This human tidal wave has surprised observers for its sheer size. The situation started to deteriorate in February when the Burmese government launched Operation Dragon King in Arakan under the pretext of a national census. The Rohingya community quickly understood that they were the only group targeted by the operation. From March, those who managed to survive the massacres and rape rushed to the border with Bangladesh where the Bengali border guards drove them back. How could one of the poorest countries in the world accept thousands more starving people? On 23 April, however, the Bengalis could no longer hold them back and Bengali soldiers opened fire on Rohingya people along the border river and in the tremendous panic the Burmese in a single day forced 40,000 Rohingyas over the border to Bangladesh. Since then, the border has continued to haemorrhage refugees. Every night, 4-5,000 new arrivals cross the river by boat loaded up with children and pitiful bundles of clothes.
From the point where they disembark to the first camps where the refugees assemble, they will have travelled 20 kilometres by foot.
Exhausted and starving, they congregate around the first camp they come to in the hope of getting something to eat or reuniting with a relative or friend.
Faced with this dramatic situation, the Bangladeshi government has responded with unmistakable efficiency. In six weeks, they set up nine camps, the one closest to Burma called Leda. After a few days, the new arrivals will be registered and then sent on to other camps. Here, 62 Bengalis are overseeing 28,000 refugees. Twelve kilometres north, at the Nila camp, there are 17,000 children under 15 out of a total 21,000 people. The vast majority of refugees are completely illiterate farmers. In Nila, for example, the Bengalis identified just 128 Burmese out of 21,000 who could read and write. One of them, a 22-year-old student, explained the situation in Burma.
Reporter (interview): Is operation Dragon King run by the Burmese authorities?
Maung Kyawna (student): Yes, it’s an official operation. The Burmese police, army and immigration department are all involved. Sometimes the Magh, i.e. the non-Muslims, help them.
Reporter (interview): Have you seen people tortured or attacked?
Maung Kyawna (student): Yes, lots of people. First they raped the women, young and old, our sisters and our mothers. Yes, my sister was also raped by Burmese soldiers. In this camp there are many, many women who have been raped and we can’t wait for this number to grow. It’s like Hitler and the Nazis. You know about the Nazis and Hitler in Germany? The Rohingyas are tortured like the Nazis used to do.
Reporter (interview): When did operation Dragon King start?
Maung Kyawna (student): It began on 6 February this year, first in Akyab (Sittwe) and in the district and then Buthidaung and Maungdaw.
Reporter (interview): Who are they targeting?
Maung Kyawna (student): The Rohingyas most of all, Rohingya equals Muslim, the operation has targeted one and a half million Muslims.
Reporter (interview): Do you think this is a religious war?
Maung Kyawna (student): Yes, it’s a religious war. Being Burmese means being Buddhist, that’s the law now. The government is today using this law against non-Buddhists. Save us from this genocide, save us from extermination, stop this genocide.
Reporter (VO): In the camps, the refugees assemble five times a day to pray. On that front at least they have nothing to fear as Bangladesh is undoubtedly the most religious nation in the Muslim world.
The women too spend most of their time praying. They believe that if God is striking them today, it’s to punish them for the sins they’ve previously committed. Islam means ‘submission to the will of God’.
In accordance with Muslim practice, women stay cooped up in their straw huts where they look after their many children and cook meals. The Bengalis supply each refugee with a daily allowance of a pound of flour mixed with fluoride and half the quantity for each child. The women use this survival ration to make flat cakes that they eat dipping them in tea.
In the camps, whatever time of day, stretch long lines of people waiting to collect water or flour, and fill out forms. The international agencies, like UNICEF and the Red Cross, are helping to run first aid programmes. The High Commissioner for Refugees, a UN body, has sent a planner to the field.
HCR planner: The High Commissioner for Refugees does not have its own resources, as you know, so has to call on the international community, chiefly governments, and a call was made two or three days ago to raise about 15 and a half million dollars’ worth of resources, in cash and in kind, to provide aid to 200,000 people until the end of the year, until 1978 more or less. The High Commissioner will not and cannot organise the aid itself, the Bangladeshi government doesn’t want it to either. It’s the government that organises aid, who distribute it with advice, funding and aid, in every possible area, technical, etc. not only from the High Commissioner for Refugees, but the entire UN team here in Bangladesh.
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