Special Reports

Rohingyas in the Andamans

By V. Muzafer Ahamed

Port Blair (Andamans): “We were in the process of dying in the unihabited island. It was then that crab-holes on the shore caught our eyes. We tried to survive catching crabs, and eating them baked. We couldn’t walk, couldn’t even stand up. Yet, each of us went for crab hunting, crawling on all fours and standing up on our knees. Whatever we caught, we baked and ate, thus killing our hunger. Some species of wild goats were grazing there. We had an irresistible temptation to catch one and eat, but none of us had the stamina to chase them down…We were constantly in search of a chance to get out of that island of dormant volcanoes. Whenever we spotted boats or ships at a distance, we tried to holler and catch their attention, but in vain. Our voices wouldn’t reach them. Eventually, when we saw a helicopter flying over our heads, we took off our clothes and waved frantically to draw their attention, but to no avail. Later, one day a helicopter flying at a low altitude spotted us. By then, we had already spent eleven days in that desolate island,” said boat-master Shah Alam who was lost fixing his eyes somewhere in the distance.
Rohingya refugees in the Andamans

What was the purpose of such an adventure?
We were facing death. Back home, we were dying slowly, caught in ethnic/racial riots. Fleeing from there didn’t give us any guarantee to life anywhere we landed. Yet, it is the wish of every human being in this world to earn his bread and live with dignity. We shouldn’t lose any opportunity to do so and later regret. Hence we try for survival, and you call it adventure, said Shah Alam. Doubt not, we embarked on this journey knowing full well the possibility of death. My father was killed right before my eyes in the riots. I escaped to Bangladesh, taking my mother along. We spent some days there at the U.N. refugee camp. The ration allotment of rice there was six kgs for half a month. Even that was not fully disbursed. So we decided to go to Malaysia where there are job opportunities, but we couldn’t reach there. It’s a terrible fate.

Showing his identity card issued by the U.N. which marked their refugee status, Shah Alam says, “This is what the refugee camp has presented us with.” In the card issued by the UNHCR, Myanmar has been marked as the true country of domicile. But Myanmar doesn’t accept Rohingyas. Nor does Bangladesh. The only option left for them is illegal immigration, exile. Their fate during the course of this journey was either to drop down dead, and if they survive, to be thrown afar never to be able to return to their motherland.

Did you expect the boat to reach Malaysia, the destination?
If there were no hitches, it could have reached Malaysia on the 14th day, according to our estimates. However, our boat ran out of engine oil, and our calculations went wrong. Then, the sail was fitted. Our plan was to catch the wind and reach the destination. Even that didn’t work. The boat then began to flow with the tide aimlessly. Our food and the drinking water reserve began to dwindle. Two days later, we spotted land at a distance. No one knew which place it was. Nevertheless, it was land and we decided to take the boat to the shore. Finally, we reached an island. Wind began to blow hard there. The boat hit a rock and shattered. Since it was close to the shore, we gathered whatever we could in our hands and dived into the sea. We swam to the shore.

As Shah Alam sat talking, a young man from the Distress camp’s verandah shouted into the mobile phone, “Andaman, Andaman,” and burst into tears spreading a momentary gloom all over the place. The young man was informing his kith that he was trapped in Andaman, unable to reach his destination.

Shah Alam and the passengers of the boat he was driving had given 20,000 Bangladeshi takas to an agent. The absence of GPS meant that they had to resort to the good old method of a mariner’s compass to know the directions. There was no provision to either measure the depth or detect the speed and direction of the wind.

It was on the eve of the Republic day this year that I reached the distress camp of Rookshabad in  Port Blair, after travelling through Andaman Islands, and happened to meet around 450 Rohingya Muslims including Shah Alam.

The tendency of Rohingya groups to infiltrate to Bangladesh and from there to go to Malaysia by boat has become strong since December 2008 when the anti-Rohingya racial riots gathered momentum in Myanmar. Violence is repeated from time to time. For three decades, Rohingyas are subjected to different types of torture. Towards the end of 2008, large numbers had been killed in racial violence. It was since then that media around the world started publishing news about Rohingyas.

It was at that juncture that  Rohingyas started migrating to many places. The majority reached the neighbouring Bangladesh. Survival there was more or less difficult. They began to try migrating to Thailand and Malaysia etc. Many got caught at the coastal  boundary of Thailand. Those who managed to reach Thailand had to face very cruel atrocities. Those who arrived at Malaysia were imprisoned for three months after which they were freed and provided with a work permit. For this reason, Rohingyas prefer Malaysia as a target.

The Rohingyas never wish to return to their native lands. They want to somehow reach Malaysia, get a job there and live decently.

Another boatmaster, Noor Mohammed (50), had embarked on a voyage on his boat to Malaysia. He had been a farmer. Since nature hadn’t been so benevolent, he found it impossible to survive with his family in his homeland, depending solely on farming. That is how they decided to migrate to Malaysia. His passengers belonged to Thambahar Budhitong in Burma. They got together via an agent. Once they reach Malaysia, invariably, they would be forced to abandon their boats. There are agents who will sell their boats and take money. There is a whole gang thriving on such people’s misery. They take the boats and sell them.

The boat, that Mujibullah bought for 300,000 takas, is said to have a China-made engine. It was from Jahangir boat jetty in Bangladesh that Mujibullah and group embarked on their voyage to Malaysia. Those who accompanied him jointly raised money to pay for the boat.

Boat master Shafeeq Ahmad (55) was a fisherman and a tailor. However, when he found it difficult to raise a family of nine, he organized a boat and some people and started for Malaysia. The beginning of the journey was from Sittwe in Burma. These people landed on the shores of Andamans either because their boats had stopped working, or because they had lost their way or because fuel had run out. The sea route from Bangladesh to Malaysia passes close to Andaman.

I saw three children in the distress camp. Mohammed Yusuf, Ismail and Mamanna are ten year-old. They are children who have lost their parents and relatives in the communal riots and thus forced to leave their homeland under threat to life. After reaching Malaysia, they plan to work, earn money and in their youth, go back as tourists to their homeland. They didn’t try to hide their dreams in the course of their conversation with us. However, the fear of the torturous boat journey is imprinted on their faces. Mohammed Hassan, who got shot on his leg, and Mohammed Sharif whose right leg was burnt in the racial riots against the Rohingyas, are part of the group here.

Happaroj, a young man, told me, “There are women too with us. They are put up elsewhere.” Being born and brought up on the borders of Bangladesh, this young man has learnt Hindi. He is the one who helped us in interpreting others.

Twenty-one women and their children were put up in the ladies’ dormitories set up to prevent human trafficking in the Police Station of Port Blair. While entering this place, women were reciting the Quran. A woman was reciting the last lines of Surat Yassin, in hushed tones. There are prayer mats next to the sheets on the floor. Only Fatima knows Hindi among them. With her are her two children, Muhsin and Kamal. She wants to join her husband who reached Malaysia five years ago.

Zubair Ahamed, editor of Light of Andamans, pointed out that these people told him on arrival that they survived by chewing uncooked rice mixed with water. Once, 407 people arrived, like this, and among them only 107 survived. The rest died in the boat. There was no other option left for their companions other than to throw the dead bodies into the sea, Zubair said.

During the days of Cellular Jail, Andamans was known as Kalapani from where there was not escape. The camp at Brookshabad is not a jail. The basic puzzle facing these people that no country will take them. Once Andaman was the ‘the land of the exiled’ from India. Today, that fate stares at the stranded Rohingyas. Historian Claire Anderson, who is researching  the Penal colonies of Britain, has studied this kind of migration including Rohingyas’. She had come to Port Blair to participate in a seminar. I found that the Andaman administration is handling the issue with compassion. But as they do not have travel documents, their exit process from India is complex.

The Rohingyas we captured on our camera were all shrouded in fogs of uncertainty. Next day being the Republic day, all shops had put up tricolour flags for sale. While walking along the streets, I kept wondering if the camp dwellers clutching their refugee identity cards issued by the U.N., would one day be able to celebrate their republic day.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 April 2013 on page no. 13

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