Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – Rohingya refugees tuned in on handheld, nine-band radios to the news that the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar had signed a preliminary deal for their return.
The news slowly made its way throughout the labyrinthine alleyways of tarpaulin and bamboo shelters that more than 800,000 stateless Rohingya now call home. For those living in the camps, the development was frustratingly light on details, but the first repatriations could start in two months.
More than 620,000 Rohingya, a minority Muslim group, have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State since August 25 amid allegations of murder, mass rape, and coordinated arson carried out by the Myanmar military, in what the United States and United Nations have called “ethnic cleansing”. The violence came after attacks on Myanmar police stations by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
A 1982 law prohibits Rohingya from becoming citizens of Myanmar. For decades, smaller groups of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh to escape persecution from the majority Buddhist population in Myanmar. The most recent repatriation agreement was in 1992.
Rights groups have called for international monitors to oversee the latest repatriation, noting that Rohingya must be promised safety, the right to return to their land, equal rights and citizenship. Amnesty International has called the deal premature, as thousands of Rohingya continue to flee to Bangladesh every week.
Al Jazeera spoke with Rohingya refugees at the Kutupalong Refugee Camp about the prospects of returning to Myanmar.
The military started firing at us as we were fleeing our village when they started the attacks [in August]. My son was killed and two of my daughters were taken away by the military. I have five other children who made it to Bangladesh … I am educated. When I was younger, it was better for us. I was educated by a Muslim government teacher.
But education is not so easy for Rohingya any more. I did not get a job, despite being educated, because I was Rohingya. Rather, other non-Rohingya got the job, even though I was better educated.
I heard the news about the repatriation agreement from the radio. We don’t want the 1992 agreement. We want that no violence will happen to us, that people will get an education, that people will freely move and not have to bribe the military to get around. If we do not get more rights, I will die here in Bangladesh.
I came to the camps in the beginning of October. Our mosques and madrasas were closed by the government in 2012. The government has been pressuring us, and the situation got gradually more difficult. Our clerics were jailed.
If a Rohingya is well educated, he cannot get any job like Rakhine people. We cannot live freely. I’m extremely eager to go back to my homeland, but the first and main thing we need is citizenship. If we are not given citizenship, I would die rather than go back.
After the repatriation in 1992, Rohingya continued to be repressed. They would say, “Why are you here? You are Bengali.” We’re afraid this repatriation agreement will be the same as in 1992. We want a different agreement. In the 1992 agreement, you needed to show Myanmar identity papers to return. Most people don’t have Myanmar identification cards. I have one and my grandfather has one, but my father does not. Families will be separated.
I will also only go back if we can return to our land. We really miss our land in Myanmar; it is too crowded here in the camps. We are in hardship here. We don’t have fuel to cook food. First, we want citizenship status; that is our main demand. We want all people to be treated equally.
I will never go back to Myanmar as things are now. The Myanmar government disregarded our dignity. Women were raped and oppressed by them. The military surrounded our village and began firing on us. We ran. My aunt’s child and husband were killed.
We tried to hide in the woods. I was raped by the military. I was beaten, hit in the head and shoulders and legs. I never experienced peace in Myanmar. There, we could not sleep. Here, at least we can sleep and know we are safe.
Even if the Myanmar government says we are safe, I won’t go. They say one thing and do another. I will only go if we are given citizenship status and the government promises us protection. They need to settle this in a just way. Otherwise, I will not go back to Myanmar, even if they have to kill me here in Bangladesh.
I came to Bangladesh in 2007. When I left Myanmar, there wasn’t any violence, but we had no rights. I had to bribe the government just to do business and move around where I wanted to.
We want to go back to our homeland, our farms, our cattle and our shelters. We miss these things. But we are trying to get more rights from Myanmar. If they don’t give us citizenship, why would we want to go back there? The people are not free to work, do any kind of ritual, choose any kind of profession. It is hard for children to get an education and we cannot freely move.
I will return if the situation improves, and our kids can get an education, and our land is returned, so we can live like the other people in Rakhine. We want equality.
My daughter was thrown into the fire of a burning house by the Myanmar military. The military killed her. She was three and a half years old. I have no other children.
I will not return now because we have been oppressed and I remember that oppression. I do not hope to return.
We should have citizenship status and the military must assure the international community that they will not oppress us. But I don’t believe we will be safe. I don’t believe the military will change anytime soon. The Myanmar government must promise us stability, and the world must force them to obey.