Thou­sands stranded in no-man’s-land

The Straits Times - - TOPOF THE NEWS -

TOMBRU (Bangladesh) For three weeks Dil Mo­ham­mad and his fam­ily have been stranded on a thin sliver of land be­tween Bangladesh and their na­tive Myan­mar with thou­sands of other Ro­hingya, af­ter run­ning for their lives when their vil­lage was torched.

More than 400,000 Ro­hingya Mus­lims have now ar­rived in south­ern Bangladesh seek­ing sanc­tu­ary from vi­o­lence that the United Na­tions says likely amounts to eth­nic cleans­ing.

But un­like those ar­riv­ing now, thou­sands of Ro­hingya who fled in the early days of the cri­sis that erupted last month were ini­tially blocked from en­ter­ing Bangladesh. Too afraid to go back to Myan­mar, they set up camp in a small area of no-man’s-land where they have been ever since, wait­ing for the world to force the coun­try they con­sider home to take them back.

“We have no in­ten­tion of go­ing to Bangladesh. We want to go back to our na­tive land,” Mr Mo­ham­mad told Agence France-Presse in the camp.

The 51-year-old rice farmer said 150 fam­i­lies from his vil­lage of Mae Di in Rakhine state were now liv­ing in the makeshift set­tle­ment af­ter flee­ing an at­tack by the Myan­mar army and Rakhine Bud­dhists.

His adult son, who was shot as they fled, is be­ing treated in Bangladesh. But al­though the Ro­hingya are now be­ing freely ad­mit­ted to Bangladesh, Mr Mo­ham­mad does not in­tend to join his son.

He and the thou­sands of others liv­ing in the camp have reg­u­lar food de­liv­er­ies and ac­cess to clean wa­ter, medicines and even a rudi­men­tary wash­ing area.

Much of that is down to Lieu­tenant-Colonel Manzu­rul Hasan Khan, who as the lo­cal com­man­der of Bor­der Guard Bangladesh is re­spon­si­ble for polic­ing the fron­tier with Myan­mar. He was one of the first in Bangladesh to be­come aware of the un­fold­ing cri­sis when guards at the hill­top bor­der post of Tombru heard gun­shots and mor­tar fire com­ing from Myan­mar in Au­gust.

Lt-Col Khan’s first in­stinct was to try to call his coun­ter­part in Myan­mar for a flag meet­ing, whereby mil­i­tary com­man­ders meet on the bor­der to try to re­solve ten­sions. Be­fore he could get through, he saw that women and chil­dren were cross­ing over the hills of Myan­mar into the val­ley be­low.

In the days that fol­lowed, he would wit­ness the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects of the cri­sis at first hand as more and more peo­ple ar­rived. One woman ar­rived with her leg blown off, ap­par­ently in a land­mine explosion on the Myan­mar side.

Lt-Col Khan ad­mits that the Ro- hingya will not be able to stay in no­man’s-land for­ever but is happy to have done his part. “These peo­ple may stay for a long time. Bangladesh is a poor coun­try,” he said. “But we have of­fered the hand of help, and that makes me proud.”

PHOTO: REUTERS

Ro­hingya refugees cross­ing a stream to reach their tem­po­rary shel­ters in the no-man’s-land be­tween Bangladesh and Myan­mar on Sept 9. For now, they have reg­u­lar food de­liv­er­ies and ac­cess to clean wa­ter and medicines, thanks to the lo­cal com­man­der of the Bor­der Guard Bangladesh.

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