Srinagar: Salamat, 35, left his home in Rakhine province of Myanmar in 2012 after waves of violence began sweeping the province. He says he is from Shahbazar, a village mostly inhabited by Muslims, and was forced to leave behind his ailing parents and the family’s “vast property” – 500 acres of land and cattle, untended since he made his way to neighbouring Bangladesh with his wife and their three children.
“We were forced to leave our home. For us, it is not easy to be called migrants. It kills us,” Salamat says with teary eyes as he sits restlessly in a quarter in Khimber, six km from Hazratbal. He checks his phone for any messages, frequently and anxiously. The horrors of his past have forced him into an utter silence – he shivers at the memory of the events that unfolded when he was fleeing to Bangladesh.
He says several Muslims were killed or burnt alive in front of his eyes. Women were raped. And the family “lives with the nightmares” that “are hard to get rid of”.
“The truth is, I don’t know how I survived,” he said. “All I have left is a taste for silence. And the dream, that may never be realised, that someday I would see my home again.”
On 25 August 2017, he says, his brother-in-law and uncle were killed by the Myanmar army. “I am in touch with my sister and ailing parents. They are in Qutubpala refugee camp in Bangladesh. They had to make an odious journey to save their life.”
The journey to Bangladesh with his wife and kids was nothing short of trauma. “We were scared, very scared. We saw blood on the road – dead bodies everywhere. No hope,” says Salamat as his eyes fill with the horror of the journey.
From Bangladesh, he left with his family for India in 2013, crossing the border at night without any papers, and reached West Bengal. They took a train from Bengal to Rajasthan. “It was very hot in Rajasthan and the rent was about Rs 4,000. I could not afford it.”
The family left Rajasthan and reached Jammu. Hundreds of refugees had already reached the city and were squatting there. “Life in those makeshift tents was not good,” he says. He worked as a labourer, he says, but “there was always a sense of insecurity” among the migrants.
“We were surrounded by Hindus. They do not trust us and they look upon us with disgust,” Salamat says. In the year 2016, he took a bus to Kashmir to find a “sense of security and trust”.
There are 18 Rohingya Muslim families living in Kashmir under the foothills of the Zabarwan mountains in Khimber. All of them have fled persecution at the hands of the Myanmar government. Reports say that 7,800 Rohingyas, 1,870 families, live in Jammu and Kashmir. All have been registered as migrants by UNHCR, which declared Myanmar’s 1.5 million Rohingya Muslims the world’s most persecuted ethnic minority.
The Myanmar government has deprived the Rohingyas of citizenship, voting and other rights for years. Between 1949 and 2017, 14 military operations were carried out against them – from March 1978, around 20,000 Rohingya Muslims were killed and hundreds were arrested. About three lakh Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh during this period. A law was subsequently passed that Rakine Muslims would need permission to marry and bear children. In 1982, another law was passed, depriving Rohingya Muslims of citizenship.
Since 2012, when violence broke out once again in the province, hundreds and thousands of Muslims have been forced to escape persecution and take shelter in neighbouring countries.
Hasan Sharif, 34, fled with his wife and two children in 2012. He said he has no idea where his parents are. He lived with 18 other families in Khimber. He works as a labourer and fights a “new challenge” every day. “We live miserably. Every day we remind ourselves that we are migrants,” he says.
He recounts how, when he got married, he had to get permission from the authorities, for which he paid thousands to government officials. “When my wife was pregnant, I had to pay again to get a birth certificate.”
Hassan was a farmer in Rakhine. He owned thousands of acres of land, he says, adding that a change in the law forced him to give half his land to Buddhists and share his produce with them. “They snatched our freedom,” he said.
He refers to the historical date of 18 December 1784, when, he says, the Buddhists attacked Rakine and killed thousands of Muslims. “We can never forget that date,” he said.
The Rohingyas enjoy freedom in Kashmir. They can work and move freely. They don’t need permission to marry and have children. “My child was born in Jammu, and I didn’t have to get permission for it,” Hassan said. “Even some among us marry. We feel an aura of freedom here. Although it is not our land, but we are safe here.”
Salamat and Hassan say they long for their home and would want to go back. “We are migrants and this is not our home,” Hassan said. “Our issues should be resolved by the United Nations. We are citizens of Myanmar. That is our land. And the world must support and protect us.”