This camp, that camp
“I know all about groundnuts, betelnut, coconut. We used to grow them in our farms back home. But walnut, I saw it for the first time only in India,” says Mariam Bibi, a sixteen year old worker as she pauses to think.
“I know all about groundnuts, betelnut, coconut. We used to grow them in our farms back home. But walnut, I saw it for the first time only in India,” says Mariam Bibi, a sixteen year old worker as she pauses to think. She continues, “Actually, we dont get them back home, in Burma. Even our potatoes, watermelons, mangoes and guavas we get there are not like the India ones. They are smaller, sweeter and much better quality,” she says.
Ashiya, a 45 year old worker, in a yellow thami, a traditional Burmese skirt and a blue scarf intervenes, “Till when are you going to keep comparing the potatoes and tomatoes from Burma and India. Get used to them. We are not going back anytime soon.”
Mariam smiles and continues to break walnuts with a flat stone sitting on the floor and extracting the kernels with a screwdriver.
She works in a walnut ‘factory’ in the Kariyali pond camp in Jammu in northern India. She moved here with her mother, three younger sisters and two elder brothers from Maungdaw in Myanmar in 2013 .
The ‘factory’ is owned by Veeru, a local feudal landlord. He is fifty, tall,huge built and his hair and beard are dyed in henna. Veeru has set up numerous small tin shade ‘factories’ in the camp where women and children extract walnut kernels. They are big tin sheds lined up with gunny bags full of walnuts in one half and the other half with workers queued up on the bare,cold floor to break the walnuts.
For every one kg of walnut kernel they extract, they are paid Rs 10 (.15 USD). Mariam is the most efficient and fastest extracter and manages to make Rs 80 (1.2 USD) over 12 hours of work. Veeru also owns the land on which this Rohingya ghetto near Kariyani talab in Jammu exists. There are 800 families, 3,000 people here. The rent per shanty is Rs 1500 (USD 24), Rs 1000(USD 16) for electricity and Rs 300 (USD 5) for water each month. Mariam also lives here and makes roughly Rs 2000 per month (USD 32).
The workers, mostly women assemble at 6 in the morning and extract the kernels till 6 in the evening. Young girls like Mariam sometimes work for another one or two extra hours if they have younger sisters who can do the housework and the cooking on their behalf.
It is mandatory for at least one woman from each household in the settlement to work in this factory. The three women who refused Veeru because of back ache and the other seven who started working in walnut ‘factories’ outside because they were getting paid Rs 16 (USD .25) per kg of extracted walnut kernels have been shunted out of the ghetto. “He owns the land. He decides who gets to stay here,” says Mariam.
Mariam’s father, Junaid, was a singer and a tobla player. “Have you seen a tobla? It is a set of two drums with a leather membrane over it. Like this,” Ayesha, Mariam’s ten year old sister explains by putting a polybag membrane over the recycled paint bucket Mariam was using to store the walnut kernels. The bucket topples and the kernels spill on the ground. Tabla is a common classical musical instrument in the Indian subcontinent.
Mariam scolds Ayesha, “That’s why I asked you to not bunk school. Now open your copy and finish the homework.” Young children like Ayesha from the settlement go to an NGO run school in the vicinity. There are a couple of such schools in the neighbourhood. Mariam couldn’t complete school because the Burmese government wouldn’t let Rohingya children get higher education in schools in Rakhine.
Ayesha replies, “But it is so cold. My hands dont move in the school.”
Mariam starts talking, “We have three seasons in Burma- winter, summer and monsoons-three months each. Not like India with extreme winters and summers.”
Ashiya yells, “Again! Why do you keep talking about things that dont matter , dont exist in our lives any longer?”
One day, in January 2012 in Maungdaw, when it was as cold as this day in Jammu, Junaid was out for a musical performance in a wedding. That is when he was picked up by the military. They took him to the hills as a porter to carry arms and ammunition. Forced labour by the military in Myanmar is a common practice. In 2005, the International Labour Organisation governing body stated that “…no adequate moves have been taken by the Burmese Military Regime (the ‘Government’ of Myanmar) to reduce forced labour in Burma/Myanmar.”
Mariam’s family looked for her father all over “but whoever is once taken away as a porter by the Nepalis never comes back,” she says with a straight face as Ayesha listens intently. Nepali is a slang used for Burmese by Rohingya Muslims owing to their Mongoloid features.
It is the same year, when a series of conflicts between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhines in the Rakhine State of Myanmar were triggered. Riots were instigated by insinuations that the Buddhist Rakhines will soon become a minority in the state. This was alluded to the stereotype that Muslims produce more kids. On May 28, 2012, news spread that three Rohingya Muslim men had raped a Buddhist woman in Rakhine state. As part of major backlash against the Rohingyas, houses in 14 villages were burnt down that night itself. In the spate of violence over the next few months, close to 2,500 houses were destroyed and over 30,000 people were displaced. The homeless, affected Rohingyas were ushered in the 37 IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps set up by the Myanmarese government.
Mariam and family had to stay in one such camp in Maungdaw township.
The IDP camp was meant to protect the displaced Rohingya Muslims but the army instead converted them into jails. “There was no drinking water, food or doctor,” says Humaira, Ayesha’s 12 year old daughter who was helping her break extra walnuts for the day. The inhabitants of the camp were completely cut off from all livelihood options. “We were not even allowed to go out and do some farming, fishing or collect firewood to cook. We were starving.”
It is estimated that about 140,000 Rohingya in Burma still remain confined in IDP camps. According to a report by World Food Program, Maungdaw is one of the worst locations in Burma in terms of food security. Study found that close to two third households are unable to acquire adequate amount of food to sustain diet.
Unable to see the family starving, one day in October 2012, Haroon, Ayesha’s husband took the risk. He was a fisherman and he escaped to earn some money. “His dead body was thrown outside the camp next day. He was hogtied with plastic strip with a gunshot on the forehead,” says Ayesha also with a straight face.
There is silence for half a minute which is broken by Mariam, “It was done to give us a message. Even the restrictions on us were deliberate. To make us leave the country.”
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, “Many Muslim IDPs have been living in overcrowded tent camps, others in “semi-permanent” structures, and some have had no shelter or basic aid at all, in full knowledge of the Burmese authorities. Meanwhile, the relatively few sites populated by displaced Arakanese have been well provided for by local and national government programs, and are supported by national TV and radio fundraising drives that secure donations from Burmese society only for displaced Arakanese.”
Ayesha says , “Buddhists are free but Muslims are not.” After that, twelve families including Mariam and Ayesha’s collected some money to pay a middleman to ensure safe passage to Jammu. It took them over two months via Bangladesh to reach here in February, 2013.
Mariam butts in,“I learnt Hindi in flat two weeks. It is in some ways similar to our language. And we also have different dialects. Just like in India.”
“We didnt know the language, we are very different from the Muslims here but our biggest achievement in the last five years here is that we have managed to stay alive,” says Ayesha.
This assurance to a safe life has once again been threatened by Islamophobia. With growing religious polarisation and the politics around it, Rakesh Gupta, the President of Jammu Chambers of Commerce and Industries (CCI) has threatened the state government that if it does not deport the 7,000 Rohingyas living in Jammu, he will launch “identify and kill movement against such criminals.” Gupta says that this demand is part of the Chamber’s “social corporate responsibility.”
Veeru walks in and says in a roaring voice, “Will you women work also or keep talking?”
The women and young girls nod and continue to work. He walks out.
“So which camp is better? He uses force and pays you less.” I ask
“The Indians rant too much but at least no one has yet attacked us physically unlike Myanmar,” says Mariam with a smile.
Ayesha says, “Dont say bad things about Indians. You should be sent back to Burma.”
Mariam replies, “Dont tell me that you dont crave for the curry with bamboo and prawns which you havent eaten in six years. I know you want to go back home. See, see. Your mouth is watering.”
Ayesha lifts up her head with a beaming smile on her lips. Everyone bursts into laughter.