Part one
Black magic

Rohingya Woman
Rohingya women in refugee camps share stories of loss and hopes of recovery | © UN Women/Allison Joyce

“Mumtaz Begum practices black magic. Else which kind of girl survive a dead family, a runaway husband and still paint her nails red,” warns Mehrunissa, a 60 year old woman from Kariyani pond camp of Rohingya settlement in Jammu, a north Indian district with a large Rohingya refugee settlement.

Mumtaz Begum is 22. The entrance to her shanty is adorned with sequin embroidery patches that sparkle in the winter sunshine. She had fled Maungdaw in Myanmar along with her neighbours, after her village was attacked by the Buddhist mobs in 2013. “The sight of her parents and younger siblings chopped to death does not fade away from the mind easily,” she says.

The neighbours, Shahida and her husband Younis, both in their 60s, were the only familiar faces she could trace after losing her family. They first crossed over to Bangladesh and then came to Jammu via Kolkata in India.  “They were kind and gave me shelter throughout. There are not many takers for an orphan, unmarried girl for this sort of help,” she says.
That’s where she was introduced to Mohammed Aarif, 42, a man twenty years her senior. Aarif too had lost his family like Mumtaz except that he did not have the assurance that Mumtaz had. That they were dead. He worked as a farmer in Buthidaung town of Rakhine state in Myanmar. Then there was a spate of violence in April 2011 where his house and crops were set to fire. This was second time in two years. His brother had already shifted with his family to Cox Bazaar in Bangladesh, a year before when the sectarian violence against Rohingya Muslims had taken a full swing.

Nagma, his wife and his three sons packed whatever was left at home and joined a set of 300 people who were leaving Arakan to go to Bangladesh with a plan that they will come back once the conflict cools down. They walked for nine days to reach the Myanmar-Bangladesh border on a dark night in May, 2011. As they reached, there was a small explosion and the ground beneath Nagma’s feet moved. It left a gaping wound in her right leg. It was a suspected landmine that had been allegedly put in by  the inter-agency border control force called Nasaka to prevent the Rohingya refugees to return to Bangladesh.

She bled profusely as the shrapnels had torn her flesh apart. There was a long queue and a waitlist to let the refugees in through the border. They were told that they had to wait for another ten hours before they would be allowed entry to Bangladesh and then access the makeshift clinic to treat Nagma. Aarif asked his sons to wait on her as he went looking for a way to speed up the process. When he returned an hour later, most people from the spot had fled after a rumour that the Burmese military was moving towards the border to attack them. That was the last time Aarif saw of them.

He looked for them in Cox Bazaar for an entire year before someone told them that his family is in Jammu. Next week, he crossed over to India, took a train from Kolkata to Jammu and reached the Narwal camp near Kariyani talab in June 2012. Shahida and Younis, the neighbours who had given refuge to Mumtaz were Aarif’s maternal uncle and aunt.

They helped him to look for Nagma and the boys all over. Even made trips to Hyderabad and Delhi, where there is a large Rohingya settlement to look for them. But they were nowhere to be found.

In 2013, when the next round of Rohingya refugees landed in Jammu, he heard from one of the families that Nagma and the boys were killed by the Burmese military. Aarif sunk into depression for several months. To shake him out of it,  he patriarchs of the camp decided to get him married off to Mumtaz. “This is an efficient way of getting people to start a new life,” says Yousuf, a self appointed community leader in the camp. “Initially ,Aarif was unwilling but we convinced him. Both of them were alone. So that was the correct thing to do. Also, an unmarried girl should be gotten rid off as soon as possible,”he says.

Aarif and Mumtaz got married in September 2014 and set up new shanty in the settlement. “ I constructed it bit by bit just like the ones in my village in Maungdaw. Just like my mother made one back home,” says Mumtaz. She set up tall bamboo poles to raise the eight with bamboo partition walls. The walls were three layered- bamboo mat, tarpaulin and blankets.  There was also an attic, unlike the Indian shanties. “Attics help during waterlogging,” she says.

A new life seemed to have begun. Aarif started getting regular work as a daily wage laborer with a local contractor who was laying broadband cables all over the Jammu city. Mumtaz transformed from an emaciated, pale, short girl with matted hair to a plump, glowing woman with new clothes and trimmed, neat hair. She no more doubled up as the community babysitter or children’s barber to survive on leftover food and castaway clothes. Her time was now either used up in fixing her house or practicing brocade or sequin embroidery on her clothes, hair bands, her burqas and even the wall hangings. She was no more dependent on the neighbours for food and castaway clothes.

Meanwhile, Shahida and Younis traced their elder son in a Rohingya settlement in Mewat district of Haryana, 700 kms from Jammu and moved there.

“He was a reserved, quiet man. She was talkative, extrovert and social. She forgot that she was now a married woman and could not go around galloping like pampered teenagers,” says Afsana her 40 year old neighbour disapprovingly. 

Rubaiya, another neighbour from the camp interrupts,“Poor girl, she had found someone of her own after three years. And Aarif never stopped her from mingling.”

“She kept arguing with Aarif over silly things. Like why does he not eat the lunch she packs for him. Why does he not talk to her enough. Why does he talk about Nagma and his sons so much? And why does he not buy a smartphone to play music and films,” adds Afsana. “It is a sin for a woman to question and badger their husbands. With a big mouth and no hesitation even when she had lost her whole family.”

Then, one day, Aarif did buy the mobile phone that played music and had internet. He got obsessed with Whatsapp and managed to connect with his displaced family and friends all over Asia. He found his elder brother in Malaysia, an uncle in UAE, one nephew in Delhi through several Whatsapp groups. “That is how a lot of Rohingya people continue to find their lost ones,”says Yousuf. 

A year later in September 2017, he found a message in one of the groups. “Mohd Salim, son of Mohd Aarif from Buthidaung in Myanmar looking for him. Contact on this number.” Aarif immediately called up on the number.

“He spoke to his wife and the elder son, Salim and found out that they were in Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia in Cox Bazaar, Bangladesh,” says Yousuf.

Two days later, Aarif had tea just like any regular morning, Mumtaz packed his lunch like she did everyday. He gave Mumtaz a new smartphone and told her that he had found his lost family in a very matter of fact tone. Before Mumtaz could ask any question, he left for work. He did not come back that evening, next evening or the evening after that. It has been four months.

Yousuf says, “Who will say that she has been deserted by her husband? Look at that sparkling sequence burqa. No grief on her face at all. This is why Aarif ran away.”

Mumtaz has found out through Whatsapp on her blue smartphone that Aarif has reunited with his family. “I cant reach his phone. I cant even reach his son’s phone. I dont even have the money to go there,” she points out the picture of Aarif and his family in Bangladesh.

The other day, Yousuf told Mumtaz that Aarif told him that he plans to settle in Bangladesh. “He has no reason to come. He doesnt even have children with Mumtaz. She is cursed that is why no one stays with her, family, husband, no one” he says.

Mumtaz thinks in retrospect that it is good that she does not have children or else what would she have told them about their abandonment. “Children cannot be reproduced alone. Things also need to be done by the husband too,” she says.

Mumtaz now embroiders from home for a local boutique and earns her own living unlike a few single women who continue to work as babysitters for the community’s children for food and shelter.

“I always knew that she practiced black magic. With those needles and threads. How else can a young, single girls live without the community’s help.”