Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – With a blue and white-checkered lungi tied around his waist, Nur al-Amin gazes across a narrow muddy canal running along rows of tarpaulin-roofed bamboo shacks.
“There is no work here and nothing to do,” he says, recounting his monotonous routine.
“I wake up at dawn to pray, I read Quran, I take naps, I wait for the aid agencies to come,” adds al-Amin, who is in his mid-40s.
“That’s daily life.”
Al-Amin is one of the 4,600 displaced Rohingya stranded in bleak conditions at a camp in no-man’s land on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, known to locals as Zero Point.
The camp’s residents have not been given refugee status, as the area in which they have been sheltering for almost a year now is officially under Myanmar control – but a fortified border fence rigged with landmines makes a return to their villages in Rakhine state an impossible mission.
On the other side of the canal, a mere few metres, is the Tambru Konapara, which lies in Bangladeshi territory.
Twice a month, a team by the International Committee for the Red Cross arrives here with provisions for the displaced Rohingya.
Under the watchful eye of the Bangladesh Border Guards (BGB), the Rohingya are allowed to cross a newly-built wooden bridge into Tambru checkpoint to pick up the aid items, as well as carry out their frugal shopping at Tambru village.
The BGB and these Rohingya have a mutual understanding, a gentlemen’s agreement of some sorts, that the latter will always return to the camp on the other side.
Lieutenant Colonel Monzural Hassan Khan, the local commanding BGB officer, says it is simply a “matter of convenience” to let the Rohingya from no-man’s land to enter Bangladeshi territory.
“If they can’t come to this side, then how can they collect their rations from the international community?” he says.
“Although they are Myanmar nationals, they move around inside our land but don’t go far.”
For al-Amin, who used to own paddy fields in his village of Panipara in Muangdaw township in Myanmar, this is the third time he’s experienced displacement.
The first was in 1978, when he was still a child and had to spent a year at a refugee camp in Bangladesh after escaping anti-Rohingya violence by Myanmar’s authorities. Then in 1992, he was forced to flee for a second time and ended up living as a refugee for eight years.
And the third was last year, on August 27, when he and his family fled a Myanmar army crackdown in Rakhine state, which the UN said amounted to ethnic cleansing – an accusation Myanmar denies.
The mass exodus came after the military launched a ferocious counteroffensive following attacks on police and army posts by Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA), a small group of men fighting in Myanmar’s western region of Rakhine.
To date, more than 700,000 Rohingya – a majority-Muslim ethnic group often described as “the world’s most persecuted minority” – have been displaced and now populate several refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar.
“Two of my sons were injured by mine blasts, one in the head and the other in the chest,” al-Amin says. “They are now doing better, after a long treatment at the local Bangladeshi hospital on the other side.”
Acknowledging that his sons were lucky not to lose their limbs or, even worse, their lives, he recalls witnessing a 45-year-old woman losing both of her legs to the mines, which were placed in holes in the fence.
“How many more days will I spend here this time?” he asks, voicing his frustration and concern regarding the future of his children, the eldest of whom is 21 and the youngest is seven.
“Will they live the rest of their lives as refugees?”
The green bridge
Life in the camp is grim. There are no facilities, no jobs and no schools.
The rudimentary housing structures have now been built over stilts in a bid to avoid flooding, which hit the camp during the monsoon season last year.
Dil Muhammad, the Rohingya camp leader, points to the bridge: a simple, latticed structure that is painted green and supported by bamboo poles.
“This was built by us one month ago, on July 1,” he says. “The BGB turned a blind eye even though the construction materials came from them. We used to have to wade through the canal to collect aid.”
The 51-year-old father of six said his village lies only seven kilometres from the Myanmar border fence. He says he has faced continuous unfounded accusations from Myanmar authorities that he is a senior member of ARSA.
“When the UN Special Envoy to Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener came a few months ago from the border fence here to talk to me, the Myanmar government district sought to discredit what I had to say by calling me an ARSA leader,” he says.
According to other residents, it is not the first time Myanmar has said ARSA members live in the camp.
“Myanmar soldiers often attempt to provoke the younger men and boys to throw rocks at them by firing blank shots and throwing bottles at us during the night,” al-Amin says.
Muhammad sighs. He says no one wants to live under such dire conditions.
“When we first arrived, we thought that after a few days we would return back to our homeland,” he says. “One year has passed, and there has been no solution. The UN has failed us.”
‘On the same side’
Across the bridge, the Tambru border village in the Bangladeshi Bandarban district is home to about 6,000 people.
Its main road is lined with shops, tea stalls and vegetable stands. Some of the Rohingya from the camp in no-man’s land stand on the side of the road, while others move around with more familiarity.
“We are not disturbed by their presence,” says Nur Muhammad, owner of the Simanto Hotel and Restaurant in the village, adding that the mostly rural area had not witnessed any trouble from the newcomers.
“We are on the same side. We also face no troubles with the Myanmar authorities on the border.”
He regards the Rohingya that used to live in border towns in Myanmar as braver than the rest of the population because of their frequent experiences with violence due to their location.
One thing that locals are worried about in the short term, Muhammad says, is the daily cost of labour; a Bangladeshi worker will work for 500 taka ($6), but a Rohingya worker will work for less, 200/300 taka ($2.4/$3.5).
“Long-run assimilation would be a cause for tension because of the country’s over-population,” Muhammad says.
“We will still accept them though.”
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