By Adem Carroll
The air grows cooler. Suddenly evening drops a pungent mist veiling the displacement camp. All up and down dark muddy hills small fires have been lit, wavering spots of orange that unfortunately recall the village fires they fled.
Imagine fleeing home and scenes of death. Imagine fleeing the unimaginable pain of dear ones murdered. Now in the flickering flames their images seem to appear again, calling out from burning homes.
You can hear a rising murmur. The 620,000 Rohingya camped out in the Bangladesh mud whisper in the night of the new repatriation agreement announced by Bangladesh and Burma. Can it really be possible? It has been announced that repatriation will start in two months. Bilateral negotiations between the two governments excluded any Rohingya leaders. Negotiations excluded United Nations agencies too. What guarantees does the agreement make? How can one go back?
And first, how can one return safely? It is implausible that the Burmese military will really resettle them, when the military set the fires, when soldiers encouraged Buddhist neighbors to set homes ablaze. How to return to homes that are destroyed, with neighbors who are hostile, empty fields that have been harvested by others?
“I will never go back home,” said Mohamed Rafique, a Muslim cleric who arrived in a refugee camp in Bangladesh in September. “How can I go back to a place where they want to kill me?”
“'They burned our houses, they took our land and cows – will they give us these things back?'” asked Abdul Hamid from Hoyakong. “I’m not happy at all. First, I need to know if they are going to accept us with the Rohingya identity,” said Sayed Alom, also from Hoyakong.’
In the Repatriation Plan announcement, Suu Kyi’s office did not even use the term “Rohingya.”
Burma (Myanmar’s) government has issued troubling, contradictory statements on how many Rohingya may be allowed back in the country, suggesting it might take seven years, warning that identity would have to be closely vetted, and confirming that “model villages” would be prepared to confine Rohingya, instead of allowing them to return to their own lands and properties. Such “model villages” will include no right to come and leave freely. Such concentration camps will of course be for everyone’s own safety. Moreover, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of the Burmese military, has raised doubts about any repatriation process at all, saying that it had to be “acceptable” to those same ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who joined the mass atrocities against the Rohingya that the US government finally admits is “Ethnic cleansing.”
Questions swirl in the air above the flickering campfires. Naked Rohingya children stop their wandering and exploring, stand and stare as adults raise their voices in confusion and alarm.
Similar questions swirl in the air and cyberspace as human rights advocates and humanitarian relief professionals share their alarm around the world.
“There can be no safe or dignified returns of Rohingya to Myanmar while a system of apartheid remains in the country, and thousands are held there in conditions that amount to concentration camps. Returns in the current climate are simply unthinkable.” states Charmain Mohamed, Amnesty International’s director for refugee and migrant rights. “Myanmar and Bangladesh have clear obligations under international law not to return individuals to a situation in which they are at risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations. The fact the United Nations and the international community have been completely sidelined from this process does not bode well for ensuring a robust voluntary repatriation agreement that meets international standards.”
In tweets and in press releases, the international community is clearly skeptical of the agreement. Burma Task Force has framed it as “Repatriation Fraud.” The office of the UN High Commissioner of Refugees spokesman Adrian Edwards has warned, “It’s important that people don’t end up being sent back to confinement and ghettos.” And Bill Frelick, Refugee Program Director for Human Rights Watch added indignantly, “Instead of signing on to a public relations stunt, the international community should make it clear that there can be no returns without international monitors to ensure security, an end to the idea of putting returnees in camps, the return of land and the rebuilding of destroyed homes and villages, and many other conditions."
The Burmese government plans an elaborate verification process. Anxieties loom large like dancing shadows cast by flames. Few Rohingya could save their documents from the fires along with their lives. Those that did may find their papers mocked as insufficient. If other ethnic groups in Burma had been asked to provide such proof, how many could do so? During the days of military rule, the government had deliberately destroyed so many records, erasing generations.
Meanwhile the majority of Rohingya refugees are women and children, wondering about missing men who hover like ghosts in the dusky air. Will families and villages ever be reunited, will Rohingya have their lives back again? Will the children have a future, farms to tend, books to read?
One wonders what the Pope will say when he arrives in the coming days. Surely, Francis knows how empty government promises can be, but he is also a messenger of hope. Beyond the camps, stirring in the air across Burma, scented with exhaust smoke and the perfume of night flowers, there is noise instead of the silence of uncertainty and fear among the tents of the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh. But the cries are of children are the same.