No place like home
Persecuted and pushed out, the Rohingyas of Myanmar's Sittwe city have lost everything in the latest waves of violence to sweep Rakhine State. Words and pictures by Greg Constantine
Broken bricks and rubble shift and crumble under the feet of 23-year-old Mohammed.
“This is the spot where my family’s house used to be,” he says, pointing to a cracked slab of concrete on the ground.
Once home to more than 20 Rohingya families, the area around Mohammed’s old house hugs the border of the Muslim quarter of Aung Mingalar, in the city of Sittwe, in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
In June, ethnic clashes between Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya erupted in Rakhine, unleashing a tide of destruction and displacement primarily in and around Sittwe. During that wave and a second in late October, some 170 were killed, more than 100,000 – mostly Rohingya – were displaced and thousands of buildings were destroyed. “I don’t like coming here because my brother was killed in the violence,” says Mohammed. “There is nothing left, almost all of them were forced to leave Sittwe. Now, most are living in the IDP [internally displaced persons] camps.”
In the mornings and late afternoons, the streets surrounding Aung Mingalar bustle with bicycles and trishaws carrying Buddhist students. Less than a kilometre away, in the heart of Sittwe, the main markets along the Kaladan River teem with Buddhist merchants and porters. Even though Muslims have lived in this historic port city for centuries, today they are nowhere to be seen.
The entry points to Aung Mingalar are manned by soldiers sitting behind barbed-wire barricades. The 8,000 or so Rohingya who remain inside are unable to leave for fear of being attacked, and deliveries of food, fuel and other supplies are being turned back by their aggressors. Rohingya stalls in Sittwe’s main market have been boarded up or confiscated. Rohingya day labourers have grown desperate from the absence of work and Rohingya students haven’t sat in a classroom for months.
The Rohingya have lived in Rakhine (historically called Arakan) for generations but the authorities reject their presence, saying they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Refused citizenship and stateless, some 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar have been denied almost all rights and have been subjected to any number of abuses. As a result, waves of Rohingya have fled Myanmar. Some 300,000 currently live in Bangladesh and, each year, thousands pay brokers to smuggle them by boat to countries across Southeast Asia.
The United Nations and other human rights organisations have described the Rohingya as one of the most persecuted peoples in the world. This year’s violence almost completely emptied Sittwe of its Muslim population and erased nearly all signs of a Muslim presence in the city. Only Aung Mingalar still exists, albeit precariously – the other 11Muslim quarters in Sittwe were destroyed in the clashes. Bulldozers brought in later by the government razed whatever remained.
Though both sides have committed atrocities, the recent bloodshed has highlighted the legacy of persecution the Rohingya have had to bear. While hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have lived for decades in the townships of north Rakhine, isolated from the rest of Myanmar (and the eyes of most international observers), the violence in Sittwe has led the government to encourage an apartheid-like segregation between Buddhists and Muslims.
Mosques and schools in isolated rural areas have been transformed into overpopulated, barrack-like camps that are now home to some 100,000 exhausted and traumatised Rohingya. Open fields have been turned into tent cities, where any semblance of human dignity is diminished by a lack of clean water, food, medical care and sanitation.
As international pressure mounts on Myanmar’s leaders, including President Thein Sein and democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi, proposed solutions have become bogged down by definitions of “Myanmese identity”, national interests and political and ethnic loyalties solidifying ahead of elections in 2015. The government has indicated that it will be two to three years before those displaced by the violence can return to their homes in Sittwe.
Many displaced Rohingya, such as 25-year-old Abdul, lying on the ground inside his tent at the Baw Du Pha IDP camp, see little light at the end of the tunnel. Scratchy music plays on the small radio he holds in his hand. He adjusts the antenna, seeking a clearer signal. He and his family fled Sittwe as their home in the Nazir Muslim quarter burned to the ground.
“I drove a rickshaw,” Abdul says. “Now we are isolated here with no jobs and not enough food. We lost everything. What are we to do?”
All the pictures presented here were taken in Sittwe last month.