Trau­ma­tised Rohingya chil­dren fear re­turn to Myan­mar

FEAR RE­TURN TO MYAN­MAR

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - An­nie Ban­erji and Red­wan Ahmed

The dis­turb­ing draw­ings of homes en­gulfed in flames, and stick­men hang­ing from trees that are pro­duced by Rohingya chil­dren in Bangladesh's over- crowded refugee camps are slowly giv­ing way to the flow­ers and sunny days that psy­chol­o­gists ex­pect from healthy young­sters. But the prospect of re­turn­ing to Rakhine, where the Myan­mar army and Bud­dhist mobs or­ches­trated a campaign of eth­nic cleans­ing, could re­verse the heal­ing and dam­age chil­dren for­ever, say ex­perts.

"My friends were slaugh­tered by the mil­i­tary and Bud­dhists when we were try­ing to es­cape. There were dead bod­ies ev­ery­where," 12-year-old Sadiya told AFP in a trem­bling voice, wip­ing away tears with her head­scarf.

"If we go back now, they will kill all of us. I don't think we will ever go back. I don't want to."

Sadiya is one of the 690,000 Rohingya who have pressed into Bangladesh since last Au­gust. Two thirds are chil­dren. Thou­sands ar­rived alone, many car­ry­ing with them a hand­ful of piti­ful pos­ses­sions and graphic sto­ries of see­ing their fam­i­lies mur­dered and their vil­lages burned in an orgy of com­mu­nal vi­o­lence.

The United Na­tions es­ti­mates 170,000 chil­dren are suf­fer­ing from some form of men­tal trauma, hav­ing wit­nessed rape and tor­ture. For months they have lived in the camps that have spread from the river­ine border, where des­per­ate con­di­tions have steadily im­proved.

Af­ter months of global pres­sure on Aung San Suu Kyi, Myan­mar reached an agree­ment on Novem­ber 23 with Bangladesh to take back refugees. The re­turns were sup­posed to start this week, but were sud­denly shelved, with both sides blam­ing the other for a lack of prepa­ra­tion.

- Night­mares, stress -

Aid agen­cies and ex­perts say that is ac­tu­ally a good thing.

"We know the chil­dren that are al­ready trau­ma­tised and need ex­pert care, will be even more trau­ma­tised if they are forced to go back," UNICEF deputy ex­ec­u­tive director Justin Forsyth told AFP in the Balukhali refugee camp.

"Night­mares, wet­ting their beds, self harm­ing. These are things chil­dren be­gin to do in ex­treme sit­u­a­tions. I mean chil­dren shak­ing with fear be­cause they don't know whether they'll see the same type of vi­o­lence hap­pen­ing again."

The small army of psy­chol­o­gists work­ing in the camps say repa­tri­a­tion could cause the Rohingya chil­dren long-term dam­age just as they are com­ing to terms with the rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity of their new lives. A hand­ful of child-safe zones have sprung up across the camps, of­fer­ing a respite from the drudgery of sur­vival, where young­sters can play, draw, sing, act and read in safety.

Lit­tle is known about what prepa­ra­tions the Myan­mar au­thor­i­ties are mak­ing, but pic­tures that emerged this week of pro­cess­ing cen­tres wrapped in ra­zor wire of­fered a stark con­trast.

Si­ra­jum Monira, a Bangladesh­i gov­ern­ment clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist at Ku­tu­pa­long camp, said re­turn­ing young­sters was not sim­ply a case of shov­el­ling them back across the border.

"The in­ci­dents can't be for­got­ten eas­ily. It is a ma­jor in­ci­dent for their life which will be car­ried out through­out their life," she said.

"Af­ter repa­tri­a­tion, go­ing to their own home, they will psy­cho­log­i­cal sup­port." back need

Even be­fore the killing be­gan last Au­gust, life was hard for the Rohingya, a mi­nor­ity de­spised by most Burmese as il­le­gal im­mi­grants -- de­spite many hav­ing lived there for gen­er­a­tions. Myan­mar im­poses strict con­trols on ed­u­ca­tion, free­dom of move­ment and re­li­gion in Rakhine, though ac­tual con­di­tions are dif­fi­cult to ver­ify be­cause the gov­ern­ment not al­low for­eign me­dia or aid groups into the re­gion.

Ten-year-old Mo­hama­mad Zubayer, whose fa­ther was killed by Bud­dhist mobs, would pre­fer to stay where he is.

"I don't mind liv­ing here for­ever," he told AFP, say­ing he par­tic­u­larly en­joyed go­ing to school -- some­thing he had not been able to do in Myan­mar.

"If we go back now, they will kill all of us. I don't think we will ever go back. I don't want to."

Photo: Fatih Isik for Mizzima

NGOs are help­ing with relief work.

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