A Young Rohingya Mom: Pregnant, Stateless, Living In Limbo

Feb 8, 2018
Originally published on February 8, 2018 7:18 pm

Sanura Begum misses her family's farm back in Myanmar.

She's 20, with rich brown eyes. In August, she joined the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing their homeland.

Sitting in a shelter made of plastic sheeting and bamboo in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, Begum says she longs for her parents' sturdy wooden house. The roof of the hut she now shares with her husband, her sister and her 2-year-old son is so low she has to crouch while she's inside. Neighboring shelters crowd right up against hers. Begum misses the fields, rice paddies and cattle her family had in Myanmar.

"I used to take care of the animals," she says. "And I'm still really missing them."

Her family had nearly two dozen cows, 12 water buffalo and some chickens, she says. They milked the buffalo and used them to plow their rice fields. The family grew chiles and vegetables, and had plenty of food. Now, Begum says, she runs out of rice each month and has to beg for food from her neighbors until she can get her next set of rations from the World Food Programme. Begum left her village after the Myanmar military attacked a village near hers, part of a scorched earth offensive against Rohingya militants. She believes her family would have been killed if they stayed.

"We left with one straw mat, two cooking pots and ten kilos of rice. We had just our own clothes and nothing more," she says.

Begum doesn't know what happened to her family's cows and buffalo but thinks the soldiers probably took them.

In Myanmar, the Rohingya have been persecuted for decades. The Muslim minority aren't considered citizens despite having lived there for generations. The Myanmar government insists they're illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Since August, in what the U.N. called an "unprecedented" flow of refugees, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have crossed the Naf River into Bangladesh.

Before coming to Bangladesh, Begum and her fellow Rohyinga weren't allowed to leave their villages without the permission of the military, which was rarely granted. Begum says she'd never seen a doctor or been to a health clinic.

In addition, she says, the soldiers insisted that her parents' farm belonged to the army.

"We had to pay them every week," she says. "The military said, 'We take care of you. No robbers come for you. So you have to pay for us protecting you.' "

If they sold a cow, the soldiers demanded half the sale price as a grazing fee.

"The soldiers said, 'This is our land, so if you are raising any cows, any goats on our property, you have to give half to us,' " she says. "The people who didn't pay, the soldiers tortured these guys. So in the end, you had to pay."

Now living in what's become the largest refugee camp in the world, Begum says her days are relatively quiet. She cooks in the morning and washes clothes at a communal hand pump. Sometimes she naps in the afternoon. On the day I met her, she was at a Doctors Without Borders clinic and had just found out she's pregnant. Begum says this is her last pregnancy.

"In Myanmar when we give birth, the children grow up and the military kill them," she says. "So if I have a lot of children, and we have to go back to Myanmar, they'll kill my children. So I'm not having more children."

Last month Bangladesh and Myanmar finalized a deal to send Begum and nearly 800,000 other Rohingya refugees, back to Myanmar. The repatriation program was supposed to start at the end of January but was put on hold allegedly for logistical reasons. Bangladesh officials insist that it will be voluntary.

Begum says she'll only go if she's given citizenship and the return of her livestock. She also wants her land and her house back. I ask how likely she thinks it is that would happen. She shrugs and says only God knows.

In the meantime she hopes her children can go to school in Bangladesh. And while there isn't any room in the camp for cattle, she's thinking she might try to get some chickens.

In other words she's settling in.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There are more than 130 officially recognized ethnic minority groups in Myanmar. Each has its own culture, even language. The Rohingya Muslims are not one of them. Myanmar's government won't grant them citizenship. Its leaders won't even utter the word Rohingya because they don't believe the group exists. And that's led to the crisis that we've been following closely. Some 800,000 Rohingya have fled what some human rights groups are calling a campaign of genocide by Myanmar's army. NPR's Jason Beaubien recently visited Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, and he brings us this story about what it means to be stateless.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Twenty-year-old Sanura Begum misses her cattle. Sitting in her plastic and bamboo shelter in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, Begum says she longs for her sturdy, wooden house on her parents' farm back in Myanmar.

SANURA BEGUM: (Through interpreter) I used to take care of the animals, and I'm still really missing them.

BEAUBIEN: Her family had 20 cows, 12 water buffalo and some chickens, she says. They used the buffalo for milk and to plow their rice fields. They grew chilies and vegetables. And unlike now, they had plenty of food. On this day, Begum says she's run out of rice and won't get her next ration from the World Food Program for another four days.

Begum fled her village in Myanmar in August after the Myanmar Army launched a scorched earth offensive against Rohingya militants. The government soldiers ransacked Rohingya villages throughout the state. Begum believes she would've been killed if she stayed. Along with her husband, her sister and her 2-year-old son, she walked to the border with Bangladesh.

BEGUM: (Through interpreter) We left with one straw mat, two cooking pots and 10 kilos of rice. We had just our own clothes and nothing more.

BEAUBIEN: They left everything else behind, including all of her animals. She says she doesn't know what happened to her cows or her buffalo, but she thinks the soldiers probably took them. In Myanmar, the Rohingya have been persecuted for decades. The Muslim minority aren't considered citizens despite having lived there for generations. The Myanmar government insists they're illegal immigrants who arrived years ago from Bangladesh.

Begum and the other Rohingya weren't allowed to leave their villages without the permission of the military, which was rarely granted. Begum says before coming to Bangladesh, she'd never seen a doctor or been to a health clinic. In addition, she says the soldiers insisted that her parents' farm belonged to the army.

BEGUM: (Through interpreter) We had to pay them every week.

BEAUBIEN: She says if they sold a cow, the soldiers demanded half the sale price of the cow as a grazing fee.

BEGUM: (Through interpreter) The soldiers said this is our land, so if you are raising any cows, any goats on our property, you have to give half to us. The people who didn't pay - the soldiers tortured these guys. So in the end, you had to pay.

BEAUBIEN: Now, in what's become the largest refugee camp in the world, Begum's days are relatively quiet. She cooks in the morning and washes clothes at a communal hand pump. Sometimes she takes a nap in the afternoon. On the day I met her, she was at a Doctors Without Borders clinic and had just found out that she's pregnant with her second child. Begum is only 20 years old, and she only has one other kid, but she says this is her last pregnancy.

BEGUM: (Through interpreter) In Myanmar, when we give birth, the children grow up, and the military kill them. So if I have a lot of children and we have to go back to Myanmar, they'll kill my children. So I'm not having any more children.

BEAUBIEN: Last month, Bangladesh and Myanmar finalized a deal to send Begum and nearly 800,000 other Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. Begum, however, says she'll only go if she's given citizenship and the return of her livestock. Then, she adds, she also wants her land and her house back. I ask how likely she thinks it is that all that would happen. She shrugs and says that only God knows.

In the meantime, she hopes her children can go to school in Bangladesh. And while there isn't any room in the camp for cattle, she's thinking she might try to get some chickens. In other words, she's essentially settling in. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE PEOPLE'S "MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.