From hope to despair, life goes on for the Rohingyas

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For Mariyam, a single mother, abandoned by her husband, it was not easy to build a ladder. The ladder, which she made herself by hammering pieces of old furniture, is a lifesaver whenever it rains and her tent is flooded. In her tiny room made of bamboo sticks, plastic sheets and old sheets, she managed to add another makeshift floor. The steep ladder is her bridge to cut her off from the outside world. On a worn mat, she plays with her pet cat.

“I may not get food every day, but I make sure my cat has it. Allah is there to feed everyone,” laughs Mariyam, a ragpicker. Among his possessions are a few utensils, a water tank and clothes, some of which belong to his daughter.

Like hundreds of others, Mariyam, a Rohingya, has been living in crowded, poorly ventilated tents along the Yamuna in Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar for a year.

Their old tents, located on land owned by the government of Uttar Pradesh, were destroyed in a mysterious fire on June 13, 2021.

Overnight, they were moved by Delhi government officials and Delhi police to nearby land owned by an NGO, the Zakat Foundation of India (ZFI).

political storm

The roughly 50 tents that house nearly 350 people are at the center of a political storm between the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi.

There are no toilets in the whole camp. “We urinate on old clothes, then we wash them or throw them away,” says Miza, a 20-year-old who studied at a nearby private school and can read and write English.

Mobile toilets are stationed a few hundred meters away, but Miza says it is not possible for women, children and the elderly to go there frequently.

Pointing to a square shape in her tent, Mariyam says this is where she bathes. Next door is the kitchen where she stores the essentials.

Outside the tent, there was a common earthen stove where the inmates took turns cooking.

Fatima, 35, sitting by the stove coating the tava (iron plate) with a layer of mud. “In Burma [Myanmar]we have special roast made of rice. Since the rice powder is in suspension, I apply this layer so that it does not stick and the roast come out hot and crispy,” says Fatima.

She says their eating habits changed after arriving in India, but there are some culinary delights they have managed to preserve.

At the end of the alley, cramped between the tents, Iman Hussein, 82, runs a vegetable shop that caters only to camp residents. He gets his supplies from a nearby vegetable market. This shop is also his home. He came to India in 2012 with his wife and three sons.

Hussein says his wife, who was mentally unstable, disappeared when the full lockdown was imposed on Delhi in 2020.

He was selling leaves of arbi (taro plant), much in demand at camp. “It’s a Burmese specialty,” he says.

After arriving in Delhi in 2012, around 1,200 Rohingya live in temporary shelters on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border.

From Myanmar, they first traveled to Bangladesh on boats and then entered India through the porous border, heading to many parts of the country including Jammu, Telengana and Rajasthan.

Detention center

The Union Home Ministry has asked the Delhi government to designate the camps as a detention centre. The AAP countered that such a designation is made by the Regional Aliens Registration Office (FRRO), which comes under the Ministry of Interior, and that it has no power.

Syed Zafar Mahmood, president of ZFI, says the police forcibly settled Rohingyas on their private land. They wrote several times to the authorities to evacuate the premises.

The ministry did not respond to a question about how the land owned by a private organization would be designated as a detention center.

The FRRO, meanwhile, has been searching for a year for a safe place to hold the 1,200 Rohingya in a detention center under constant police surveillance.

Miza says 365 people lived in this camp, including 50 school children. After the 2021 fire, a police station was set up near the camp.

“I have lived in this neighborhood for 10 years. I studied at a nearby school. We have never been discriminated against. India is our home,” says Miza, who has now enrolled in Class X.

She says she came here as a toddler and is used to being counted by the police, but the frequency of police visits increased after 2017.

“The police are here every day, sometimes they come twice a day. Visits increased after the lockdown (2020),” says Taslima, another resident.

She says her husband works as a plumber. “My two children were born in India. We learned Hindi here. How can they send us back to a country that doesn’t want us,” asks Taslima when told of the Indian government’s decision to deport them.

Miza chimes in, saying that at home they weren’t even allowed to sit or talk in a group.

“In schools, Rohingyas are forced to sit in different classrooms than Buddhist children. They deliberately failed us in the exams. It is impossible to find a Rohingya who is a doctor or an engineer,” she says.

Miza’s eyes light up when she refers to Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri’s August 17 tweet that Rohingyas would be moved to flats.

“India has always welcomed those who have sought refuge in the country,” the minister tweeted, adding that “India abides by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and provides refuge to all regardless of race. , religion or belief”.

His joy, however, was short-lived. The Home Ministry, facing backlash from several quarters including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), announced that the Rohingyas would soon be deported.

“How can they send us back to a country that doesn’t want us? We will be killed if we go there. Our relatives who live in Myanmar live in horror,” says Miza.

The detainees now depend on food aid from the UN and some NGOs. The male members do odd jobs in the neighboring areas of Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Nagar.

Residents say the authorities have never stopped them from working but they are closely watched. All have identity cards provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a valuable asset.

“We can’t afford to lose these cards; our survival depends on it,” Fatima says as she pulls out her map wrapped in layers of plastic sheeting.

Until a few years ago, the UN also provided them with cash assistance. “Now only the elderly receive an allowance of ₹4,800. We get 20 kg of rice and 3 kg each of pulses, salt and oil from the UN, but the frequency is irregular. The last time we received the supplies was two months ago,” says Mariyam.

Locals are fuming at the presence of the Rohingyas. “We heard that these people were being moved to an apartment in Bakkarwala. I will hand out sweets if that happens,” says one resident.

Zohra Khatoon, 70, who came in 2012 with her daughter and son-in-law, sat outside admiring her henna-painted hands. Barely able to speak Hindi, she told one of the residents that she picked henna leaves from a nearby tree and painted her hands “it looks beautiful”.

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