Ro­hingya des­per­ate to flee Myan­mar swim on con­tain­ers

Santa Fe New Mexican - - NATION & WORLD - By Bernat Armangue

SHAH PORIR DWIP, Bangladesh — Nabi Hus­sain owes his life to a yel­low plas­tic oil con­tainer.

The 13-year-old Ro­hingya boy couldn’t swim, and had never even seen the sea be­fore flee­ing his vil­lage in Myan­mar. But he clung to the empty con­tainer and strug­gled across the wa­ter with it for about 2½ miles, all the way to Bangladesh.

Ro­hingya Mus­lims es­cap­ing the vi­o­lence in their home­land of Myan­mar are now so des­per­ate that some are try­ing to swim to safety in neigh­bor­ing Bangladesh. In just a week, more than three dozen boys and young men used cook­ing oil con­tain­ers like life rafts to swim across the mouth of the Naf River and wash up ashore in Shah Porir Dwip, a fish­ing town and cat­tle trade spot.

“I was so scared of dy­ing,” said Nabi, a lanky boy. “I thought it was go­ing to be my last day.”

Al­though Ro­hingya Mus­lims have lived in Myan­mar for decades, the coun­try’s Bud­dhist ma­jor­ity still sees them as in­vaders from Bangladesh. The gov­ern­ment de­nies them ba­sic rights, and the United Na­tions has called them the most per­se­cuted mi­nor­ity in the world. Just since Au­gust, af­ter their homes were torched by Bud­dhist mobs and sol­diers, more than 600,000 Ro­hingya have risked the trip to Bangladesh.

“We had a lot of suf­fer­ing, so we thought drown­ing in the wa­ter was a bet­ter op­tion,” said Ka­mal Hus­sain, 18, who also

swam to Bangladesh with an oil con­tainer.

Nabi knows al­most no one in this new coun­try, and his par­ents back in Myan­mar don’t know that he is alive.

Nabi grew up in the moun­tains of Myan­mar, the fourth of nine chil­dren of a farmer who grows paan, the be­tel leaf used as chew­ing to­bacco. He never went to school.

The trou­ble started two months ago when Ro­hingya in­sur­gents at­tacked Myan­mar se­cu­rity forces. The Myan­mar mil­i­tary re­sponded with a bru­tal crack­down, killing men, raping women and burn­ing homes and prop­erty. The last Nabi saw of his vil­lage, all the homes were on fire.

Nabi’s fam­ily fled, head­ing to­ward the coast, pass­ing dead bod­ies. But when they ar­rived at the coast with a flood of other Ro­hingya refugees, they had no money for a boat and a smug­gler.

Ev­ery day, there was less food. So af­ter four days, Nabi told his par­ents he wanted to swim the

delta to reach the thin line of land he could see in the dis­tance — Shah Porir Dwip.

His par­ents didn’t want him to go. One of his older broth­ers had left for Bangladesh two months ago, and they had no idea what had hap­pened to him. They knew the strong cur­rents could carry Nabi into the ocean.

Even­tu­ally, though, they agreed, on the con­di­tion that he not go alone. So on the afternoon of Nov. 3, Nabi joined a group of 23 other young men, and his fam­ily came to see him off.

“Please keep me in your prayers,” he told his mother, while ev­ery­one around him wept.

Just af­ter sun­down, the group reached Shah Porir Dwip, ex­hausted, hun­gry and de­hy­drated.

Nabi is now alone, one of an es­ti­mated 40,000 un­ac­com­pa­nied Ro­hingya Mus­lim chil­dren liv­ing in Bangladesh. He looks down as he speaks, just a few feet from the wa­ter, and mur­murs his big­gest wish:

“I want my par­ents and peace.”

BERNAT ARMANGUE/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ro­hingya Mus­lim Ab­dul Karim, 19, uses a plas­tic con­tainer as a flota­tion de­vice as he swims the Naf River on Nov. 4 while cross­ing the Myan­mar-Bangladesh bor­der in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh.

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