Ro­hingya com­mu­nity pleads for help

Sunday Star-Times - - NEWS - AMANDA SAXTON

Anayat Ul­lah’s cousin Mo­hammed died among mango trees last month, shot down by Myan­mar’s mil­i­tary.

His wife and chil­dren had fled across the bor­der to Bangladesh days ear­lier. Mo­hammed stayed in Rakhine State to pro­tect their land; he had hoped the lat­est wave of vi­o­lence would be brief, that his fam­ily would have a home to re­turn to.

In Auck­land, 23-year-old Ul­lah has strug­gled to sleep since Au­gust 25. That was when the most re­cent sys­tem­atic slaugh­ter of Myan­mar’s Ro­hingya be­gan.

‘‘They flee or die,’’ he said. ‘‘My cousin hadn’t re­alised those were the only op­tions.’’

Since then, 380,000 of the 1.1 mil­lion Ro­hingya have fled Myan­mar, and more than 400 have been killed.

Last week the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil ap­pealed to Myan­mar’s au­thor­i­ties to halt the per­se­cu­tion; closer to home, Kiwi ac­tor Sam Neill called on Prime Min­is­ter Bill English, via Twit­ter, to take in more Ro­hingya refugees.

Although Ro­hingya have lived in western Myan­mar for gen­er­a­tions, they are de­nied cit­i­zen­ship. A lack of pa­per­work lim­its their op­tions to study, work, travel be­yond their vil­lage, or own prop­erty.

The tense re­la­tions with Rakhine State’s Bud­dhist ma­jor­ity stems from Ro­hingya be­ing con­sid­ered il­le­gal Mus­lim mi­grants from Bangladesh – a view de­nied by both Ro­hingya and Bangladesh. The cur­rent crack­down is the lat­est in a se­ries of vi­o­lent up­surges trig­gered by ex­trem­ist Ro­hingya at­tack­ing po­lice in Oc­to­ber 2016.

For­mer refugee Shah Alam un­der­stands the mar­ginal ex­is­tence of Myan­mar’s un­wanted. Af­ter the mil­i­tary seized his fam­ily’s prawn farm in 1995, he moved to Yangon and lived in fear of his faux-Burmese ac­cent slip­ping.

Alam, 39, at­tended uni­ver­sity but was not al­lowed to sit tests or grad­u­ate. He could rent a room, but only for up to six months. He could work, but only un­of­fi­cially.

If the au­thor­i­ties sus­pected he was from Rakhine State his lack of iden­tity pa­pers would have been dis­cov­ered – and he would have been sent back or jailed.

Yangon be­came too tense for many Ro­hingya af­ter a ter­ror at­tack in 2005. Alam fled to Thai­land and fi­nally ar­rived in New Zealand as a refugee in 2012.

He now op­er­ates a paint­ing busi­ness in Auck­land and, along with Ul­lah, runs the Ro­hingya Wel­fare Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

The group is hold­ing a demon­stra­tion in Auck­land’s Aotea Square to­day, call­ing for New Zealand to ramp up sup­port for Ro­hingya.

They want the Gov­ern­ment to push for an ‘‘end to eth­nic cleans­ing in Myan­mar’’ and for the UN to in­ves­ti­gate what has gone on in Rakhine State since Au­gust 25. They also want to see New Zealand take in refugees di­rectly from camps in Bangladesh, which has not hap­pened since 2011.

Ul­lah was born in one such camp and ar­rived in New Zealand with his par­ents in 2009. His two el­dest sis­ters stayed be­hind, rais­ing their chil­dren un­der tar­pau­lins, on dirt floors cov­ered with plas­tic sleep­ing mats.

‘‘I think about my nieces and neph­ews a lot,’’ said Ul­lah. ‘‘They’re grow­ing up ex­actly like me, but our lives will be so dif­fer­ent.’’

When Ul­lah got to Auck­land as a teenager he spoke no English; he now has de­grees in com­puter and in­for­ma­tion sci­ence and works as an un­der­writer for an in­sur­ance com­pany.

Most of his sav­ings go to Bangladesh, fun­nelled into the bank ac­count of a Ben­gali gate­keeper at the refugee camp he used to call home.

Ul­lah’s sis­ter had be­friended the man; she would col­lect the cash from him, then divvy it up between rel­a­tives.

Stay­ing in touch was im­por­tant for Ul­lah’s far-flung fam­ily and much of the money went to­wards their daily phone calls.

Many bore sad news – such as Mo­hammed’s death at Eid ulAdha, a time when Mus­lims around the world hold feasts to hon­our the sanc­tity of hu­man life.

‘‘When it hap­pened, he’d been run­ning for the jun­gle to hide,’’ said Ul­lah.

‘‘Another rel­a­tive of mine was al­ready in the trees and watched it all. He saw him get shot … and saw the mil­i­tary just left his body on the ground.’’

Ul­lah said the mil­i­tary tended to wait for enough dead to pile up be­fore dis­pos­ing of them en masse: ei­ther dous­ing bod­ies with petrol then set­ting them alight, or throw­ing them down wells.

In Mo­hammed’s case, his reached him first.

‘‘He buried my cousin, re­alised there was no hope left in the vil­lage, and fled for Bangladesh.’’

Ul­lah’s voice cracked as he told of the in­ci­dent. He said he didn’t cry of­ten, that he was de­ter­mined to ‘‘stay strong to give my fam­ily hope’’ – but at times could not stop the tears. rel­a­tive

LAWRENCE SMITH / STUFF

Anayat Ul­lah, left, and Shah Alam will hold a demon­stra­tion in Auck­land to­day to raise aware­ness of the sit­u­a­tion in Myan­mar.

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