A Rohingyan Survivor of The Boat Journey & Genocide

My name is Muhammad Sajid and I am a Rohingya who survived genocide and boat journey. I fled my country with a small risky-wooden boat with a hundred thirty-three Rohingya people. We started our perilous journey directly from the shore of Myanmar and were rescued by Indonesians fisherman in the middle of the ocean. On this deadly journey, many of our members were drowned, died due to starvation and killed by Thai navies. And I and other are the people- you may have heard of- once denied saving our lives and this my story of how I have survived until today.

When I turned seven, I was moved to a school in the north of my village, where I studied from basic and middle to high school levels and completed my year ten. During my school years, I felt so grateful that I was able to attend a formal school. Interestingly, I was able to attend a school close to my home, unlike other students who had to walk for hours to get to school. Another exciting point about our school was that the teachers were both Rakhine and Rohingya, working side by side in unity under a Muslim principal, Mr Muhammad Alom.

For Rohingyas, happiness is just like a wave in the ocean which lasted only for a while then shattered into pieces like a broken glass.

As time passed on, things have taken dramatic change; every single Rohingya’s dream has broken into pieces as discrimination against the Rohingyas began to appear among Rakhine teachers after the new Rakhine principal was hired to overrule the retiring previous principal. Even though the school generally belonged to the Rohingya community, it was eventually confiscated and the new staff ran it as they pleased. From then on, Rakhine teachers would make differences between the Rohingya students and other Rakhine students. The Rohingya students were not allowed to sit in the front, as all front desks were reserved for Rakhine students. Rohingya students would no longer be called by name but with an abusive word ‘Kollah’ (illegal immigrants) to intimidate us. Fees for Rohingya students would be greater than for Rakhine students; there was also violence and they would beat us indiscriminately. Most frustrating was the fact that, no matter how well we did in exams, we always received a bad score.

I deeply regret that I was not allowed to sit for my matriculation exams, even though I wished to go to the University of Sittway. Instead, I had to flee the country. Though the above comments make it obvious that discrimination against Rohingya is rife, they are not the reason why I fled the country. There are several facts that explain why I left the country.

I make these points in response to those who don’t consider the causes that made our lives miserable and forced us to leave our country, those who think of us illegals or economic migrants. First of all, I would like to say that I am not an illegal immigrant and nor am I an economic immigrant. I am a refugee who is in search of a safer place to live in peace as I was subjected to genocide by the extremist Buddhist movement in Myanmar. Moreover, seeking asylum is not illegal, neither is it a crime.

The presence of the Rohingya people in Myanmar is not as easy as one might think, for example, if one considers a citizen who by his/her birthright can move freely and enjoy all inherited human rights in his/her own country. To put it simply, we, the Rohingyas, must obtain from the Myanmar immigration department permission to travel within a city, and from city to city; such documents are sometimes available only after payment of a huge bribe.

There are military checkpoints almost everywhere; these are set specially to harass the Rohingya travellers. Among those checkpoints, one of the most dangerous and terrible is Tana Chock, between my village and Maung Daw city. Whenever we Rohingyas crossed that gate, we would be stopped and screamed at to get out of the car, while other people from other ethnic groups would comfortably sit in the car, and laugh at us while witnessing the harassment and bad treatment meted out to us by the military.

On 3 June 2012, the day I started my standard nine, was the year when the Myanmar government systematically incited a deadly violence against the Rohingya Minority, in which a hundred Rohingyas died. After that, they banned us from schooling by forcefully removing us to isolated camps.

In December 2012, I was arrested by some Burmese soldiers while getting in the car on the backward street (Fesorastar) when I was about to return home with my mother. As a matter of fact, I had been falsely accused of using a mobile phone although it belonged to my Rakhine teacher, Mr Aung Min Towa (from Myebon city) who had joined us on the way back to home. Because of this incident, I did not wish to go to the main city on a daily basis, except in an emergency. I would not have gone there if my mother had not been sick and in need to see the doctor. Despite this, the police dragged me into custody and said, “You are a KOLAH (illegal immigrant) and are forbidden to use a mobile phone.”

They tortured me all night long and confiscated all of my belongings such as my white card (TRC- Temporary residency card), student documents and money.

In the middle of the night, I managed to flee. I stealthily jumped from two floors of the building and ran into a Muslim village. From there, I secretly went to my village. However, they never stopped tracking me down as Police officers would occasionally come to my school and my home, looking for me. As a result, without having any corner to hide, I had to find a way to leave the country. I fled to the south of Maung Daw and reached a village called Doun Khalii, where I found people getting on a boat; I joined them, then left my country.

On Tuesday 5 February 2013, I started on this perilous journey which has no certainty of future or survival; it was not an option we had to choose, but a must. The boat was cramped with one a hundred thirty-three Rohingya people including six women and two young children; the rest were men and boys. After riding for five days continuously, our rations ran out and we started to suffer from starvation, which lasted for the rest of our journey. However, we did not give up and kept on going toward the safety of our future. In total we travelled for twelve days, then we made to the Thai sea.

I could say it was the most dangerous border I have ever seen. The brutality the Thai border people showed to us was as if they had forgotten to see us as human beings. As soon as we entered the Thai territory, we were surrounded by navies and we cried out to them. We begged them to save our lives by letting us land on the shore, but their hearts were so hard that they did not feel even a little pity towards us; instead, they when they brutally destroyed our boat’s engine. They took away the anchor, then tied our boat to a Navy boat that dragged us out for a day. Then they started shooting at our boat while screaming to go back where we came from, throwing in the middle of the ocean from where we could see neither ship nor land. In the aftermath of the shooting, Habizullah, who is from (kiarifaran) village, got a bullet on his nose and those who jumped to ocean died and disappeared. Then the navy went off abandoning us in the middle of the ocean. Luckily, after two days, a Thai fishing boat found us floating, and kindly gave us sail and paddles with which we sailed and reached a Thai island. We rushed into a mountain and ate what we could find such as leaves and fruits. Approximately two hours later, the navies and small boats surrounded us and pointed guns at us. As soon as we noticed them we raised our hands in surrender to them and shouted at them “we are Rohingya and we left our country to save our lives from the Genocide of the Myanmar government.” After hearing us, they gave us some food. Then they got us on the boat, tied our boat to theirs and started dragging us. The boat, which they shot at before, had many holes, and hence started breaking and sinking as the navy raised their speed. Finally, the boat totally sunk and twelve people died.

I held MD Solim (a five years old child) on my back and swam for two hours towards the land but could not make it as the soldiers started shooting from the navy boat. They picked us and on the navy ship, they beat us badly with our hands tied behind our backs.

After riding for five hours, they transferred us to another bigger Navy ship. On that navy ship, they asked us “why did you enter our Thai border?” We replied, “we are persecuted Rohingyas and we fled our country because of the Myanmar government who are attacking us there.” We pleaded “as human beings please save our lives and take us to your country.” However, they turned their back to us and gave us a small boat without an engine; and then again dragged us to the ocean. After some hours, as we realized that they were throwing us again, we all together screamed to them “we are innocent Rohingyas, please, don’t kill us!” Then they cut the rope to our boat and disappeared. They abandoned us without any engine or ration in the middle of the ocean where I could see no sight of boats or ships. After floating for three days, luckily, we saw two boats approaching us. We raised our hands and asked for help “we are persecuted Rohingyas from Myanmar. Please save us.” Then they said, “we are Indonesian fishermen, how can we help you?” We called out “we are innocent Rohingyas. Please take us to your country and save our lives.”

The fishermen called other boats, which brought an engine and fixed it to our boat and in five hours, we have reached an Indonesian Island called “ACEH –Utara.” As we arrived there, we felt like we are in heaven as Indonesian civilians showed us great kindness in providing us with food, clothes and medication. They were so kind to us that I can never forget their gratitude to us.

In March 2013, they handed us to Indonesian government who kept us under security in designated accommodation, we later realized was an immigration detention centre, where we were detained for about one month under IOM’s supervision. Then they split us into groups and transferred us to several detention centres in different cities. Our group, which has a total of eighteen persons including me, was sent to the Surabaya immigration detention centre (IDC).

In that detention centre, they locked all of us in a small room for one month as if were criminals. They did not give us enough food or clothes. Consequently, we suffered from starvation and great mental stress. We did not receive any assistance from any organization. Fortunately, we finally met with the UNHCR who interviewed us for our formal registration on 2 May 2013; then IOM and another organization called (JRS) Jesuit Refugee Service provided necessities. Some months later, they interviewed us again to assess our refugee status. On July 1st, 2013, the UNHCR handed us our refugee cards. We had been detained there for more than a year before being granted refugee status, IOM, in cooperation with the Indonesian Immigration authorities, transferred us to Makassar where they accommodated us and are now providing us with a monthly allowance of 1 million two hundred fifty Rupee in (JL. Pettarani South Sulawesi Makassar) in 2014. Even though I was very thankful to UNHCR for giving me life security, I am however deeply dissatisfied with one of the UNHCR officer’s, Mr Adi, who was as the head of the UNHCR in SURABAYA. When he interviewed us, I told him everything including our suffering in Myanmar and how we arrived in Indonesia, but he never highlighted our issue to the international community. As a result, the international community left us without any durable solution to our future, and also, we are also isolated and ostracized from the rest of Indonesia’s society by the Indonesian government. As we were feeling bored and frustrated, we requested IOM to assist us with some activities. They conducted some basic activities for us such as English speaking classes from basic to intermediate, learning how to drive excavator and forklift, mechanic and machines. And I have completed all these courses and obtained certificates.

Having finished all these courses, I have approached IOM to help me with formal education as I desire to be a well-educated person. But they always replied is that “this is all we can do, and we cannot provide anything more than this.” Having faced the refusal from IOM, I have tried to approach an Indonesian school, but I faced rejection there as well. I was told that I was a refugee who does not any right to gain formal education in Indonesia. However, I never gave up, instead, I have saved some money, with which I learnt how to drive a car which was another dream.

Speaking more about refugee lives, especially in Indonesia, there are in many difficulties we face and deal with every day. Something that even the organizations who are said to be looking after us, are the very same that we feel less comfortable with; we feel hopeless as things are happening before their eyes and they keep turning their backs on us. To tell you the truth, one year ago, in 2016, when I was happily attending an intermediate English course, I unexpectedly received a letter from the Indonesian immigration department warning me to go to the immigration office. I felt very scared and confused about the letter because I had done nothing wrong and had not committed any crime, so why was I called immediately. I was horrified and rushed to him as quickly as possible. When I arrived at his office, the immigration officers locked me up without giving me an explanation. Two days later, as I was asking them again and again why, they give a reply “I am locked up because I work here” which is unbelievable because even if a refugee were to want to work here in Indonesia, nobody would give him a job as they said we are not allowed to work. It was a false accusation to discriminate against us as refugees. This type of thing occasionally
happens to most of the refugees in Makassar city.

Apparently, not only does the Indonesian government deny our human rights but also there is no rule of law for us to seek justice. Right now, the place where I live is a place where my ability to live as a normal human being is severely restricted as the Indonesian government vehemently denies our fundamental human rights.

Another frustration for me and my friends is that IOM and the Indonesian immigration authorities split us into groups and transferred us to various locations. The place where I have lived for three years had become something like a community to me, where we created a family-zone with the local people and where we could also learn English from Rohingya volunteers. By separating us from each other, IOM and the Indonesians have ruthlessly destroyed this safe zone and further destabilized us.

This also means that we are distracted from education and even if I try my best to find a way out to continue my studies, there no avenue left for refugees through which we could have access to any kind of education, or do anything. In fact, after five years of living in Indonesia, I finally, deeply realized that I am indeed a refugee who is living in a world isolated or hidden from the rest of the world.

This persecution of Rohingya did not suddenly occur in Rakhine. It has been going on since our land was conquered by Rakhine people.

Let me take through my ancestral history to give a clear picture of Rohingya’s persecution. If you look at my great grandfather’s history. Busagadi, he lived a peaceful life in Rohan city, which is now considered the ancestral city and foundation of Rohingya history. In his period, there was less discrimination against the Rohingyas because they were the majority of the population and more influential people than other Rakhine people. However, during the period of his son’s life, Bosir Mohammad, things began to change little by little among the Rakhine population as more joined the Burmese majority influence to conquer Arakan. Nonetheless, Bosir Mohammad lived somehow a good life in the same city.

The most dramatic changes happened in my grand grandfather’s time: the Rakhine and Burmese war clash against the Rohingyas, during which thousands of Rohingya were massacred in 1942. At that time, all of my grandfather’s property was confiscated. Subsequently, they fled to Maung Daw city with Bangladesh to save his family from being raped and tortured. There they started a new livelihood and stayed to rebuild their lives. However, their newly built homes and family did not last long as they were again moved to Bangladesh due to a genocidal movement carried by the Burmese against the Rohingyas in 1978, which resulted in my grandfather died. But following an agreement to provide safety between Myanmar government and Bangladesh, my parents were sent back to Myanmar some years later.

Busaghadi, from whom my family is descended, died living a dignified life full of peace and happiness in Rohan city Arkhan. But his son, Basir Mohammed, became a refuge in his own city after the massacre of the Rohingyas in 1942. And his son, Adul basu, also became a refugee in 1978 due to same reasons and therefore he had to flee to Bangladesh. At the same time, my parents also became refugees in Bangladesh. My brother, Mohammed Salam had to flee the country as a refugee in 2004. And in 2013, I was made refugee by the Burmese government. And my parents were made refugees in 2016.

And now, my rest of my family members and relatives who are now in Bangladesh; all of them became refugees in 2017.

The attack on the Rohingyas has continuously escalated since then, such as in 2012, 2016 and 2017. In 1942, my forefathers’ property was confiscated; in 1978 so was my grandfather’s and also my father’s in 2016.

It is clear that we, Rohingya, have been subjected systematically to genocide with a continuous attack on us since the independence of Myanmar. Among several attacks, all of which have already killed more than half of the Rohingya population of 1.5 million, the deadliest one was on Saturday, November 12, 2016. I clearly marked the date and time of that attack which destroyed my whole village. That day at 5 am, The Burmese troops and Rakhine started attacking my village. First, they rocked the oldest Islamic school, killing the entire students and teachers who could not make the escape. Second, they burnt houses.

Despite all of this, now that I am in Indonesia, I feel safe and secure compared to Myanmar where I was systematically subjected to persecution which maximized to genocide by the Myanmar government. Recently, international research on Myanmar described the persecution of Rohingyas as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” I was denied my right to citizenship in spite of the fact that my ancestors have been in Myanmar for generations. I was accused of being an illegal immigrating who came from Bangladesh. As a result, I was not able to travel freely as they imposed restrictions on movement and my ambition to pursue higher education was dashed and my dream to live a fulfilling life was ruined. The saddest thing is that I was isolated and ostracized from the rest of the whole Burmese society. In fact, I could not even go to my capital city, nor could I go to any other city except my own city, in which I was kept under curfew. I was not allowed to go out between 6 pm and 6 am. I would need permission if I wanted to stay up at my relatives’ house; it did not matter if the house was just next to your house; I was not allowed to visit my relatives or friends. Overly, throughout my childhood and as long as I lived in Myanmar, I was like a prisoner imprisoned in his own home and native land. I wonder if they even consider me as a human being.

However, there are similar situations I am encountering in my daily life here in Indonesia. On the other hand, I am very thankful to the Indonesian government for providing me with shelter and security, but I don’t feel like it is a home even though I have lived here for more than five years. As human beings, do we live only to survive, or to do something else? Generally speaking, we, human beings, live not only to survive, but also to lead a happy life. And to do so, we need to enjoy some fundamental human rights, which include the right to move freely and the right to make a living for ourselves and our family, and the right to pursue education, and right to speak up over injustice. If a man is denied all these basic human rights, he cannot live a normal life, rather his life becomes a total misery as he deals not with life itself, but with anxiety and frustration every day, which leads to great suffering and mentally disordered. Why did I flee my home country? If I deal with this question, as a Rohingya. A member of a group considered to be the most persecuted minority in the world and recently described by scholars on Rohingya persecution described as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing, I could come up with several reasons. Honestly, these are just reasons but the reality I have experienced and encountered on this journey is more than that. Being a Rohingya in Myanmar was not as easy as one might think of a citizen of a country.

However, the first reason I would immediately state if someone were to ask me, is that after living my entire childhood in persecution in Myanmar, I hope to live a better life, after having obtained refuge in a country which respects and values my human rights as a vulnerable person. The second reason is that I escaped genocide to save my life; had I not done except that I would not have always lived in fear of death every day in Myanmar.

The story you just have read above is truthful not a just another story you read casually or on daily basis to take a rest. It entirely represents me and my real situation; this is the reality in which I have been living since the day I was born in this very world as I am an ethnic Rohingya. My ethnic identity has been forgotten and the history of my people has been totally denied as if they had lived only in the long distant past. I, therefore, remain on this earth not just as a refugee but as a stateless person.

If you wish to help us Rohingyas, please share this story on your social media so that the
world can hear my voice and help me find a solution to my situation, and that of my people.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.

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