When Bilkis Jaan, 60, fled from her village, Bohmu Para in Maungdaw district, in June 2013, Ghona, her 12 year old, brown and black furred bitch cried to death.
Ghona was her constant companion for ten years. She was a few months old puppy when she adopted Bilkis. Rehmat Ali, Bilkis’s 45 year old husband had just passed away. He was a skilled boatsman and ferried people in the Kaladan river. It is the fifth largest river in the world to remain unfragmented by dams in its catchment. Over the years, the water got polluted with India and Myanmar trying to connect seaports of both the countries through the Kaladan Multi Nodal Transit Transport System. This caused infection in his legs, amputation and death within a few months of that.
Bilkis had two daughters, Safiyah and Shagufta. To raise them, she took up work as a farm labourer. That’s where Ghona found her. “The owners grew peas and chillis, better quality than the ones you get in Jammu. Ghona would stay with me like she was my body part,” she says. Dig when she would plough, cover the pit with mud, when Bilkis would try to fill it.
The next year, Essar, an Indian oil company started exploring natural gas option in Sittwe and Maungdaw area in the state. The area falls under what is called L Block, an oil exploration circle. As part of an agreement signed in 2005, Essar along with state run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise was to do drilling test wells in the area. Over 2 million acres have been seized from minorities in Burma for such projects by India and China. The farm patch on which Bilkis was employed was also taken away.
She then took up a job at a butcher shop. At the end of each day, she was given a few pieces of meat and some money as monthly allowance. Ghona would follow her there too.
“Unlike Indians, we cannot survive with just vegetables. We need meat everyday. Even the fish that you get in India is dead. We used to catch fish fresh from the pond and the river and cook it. It used to taste so much better. Ghona would sit quietly next to me when I would catch fish in return of a fresh fish at the end of the exercise,” she says. She worked at the shop for five years.
In 2011, the butcher shop was set to fire on accusations of selling pork by Kaman Muslims, an ethnic Muslim group recognised by the Burmese government as one of the seven ethnic groups of Rakhine who are acknowledged as Burmese citizens and hold national identity cards. Consuming pork is prohibited in Islam. After the onslaught against the Rohingya Muslims started in Myanmar, a number of Kaman Muslims have also been targeted by Buddhists for sharing the same faith. “This led to conflict, insecurity and a competition to prove that who were better Muslims,” says Bilkis.
While she was still doing odd jobs to make ends meet, within a year, in 2012, a mob of Buddhists from Arakan along with Burmese military attacked her village. They entered the house and caught hold of fifteen year old Safiyah. “They did the same to what was done to several of her Rohingya sisters. We were in the same room when it happened. I asked her not to resist as two men one after another thrust themselves over her. Tears flowed from her eyes as she stared at me. They would have done the same to my other daughter had I tried to save Safiyah. Ghonu kept barking, tied in one corner of the same room. The army guys kept asking me to shut Ghonu up or they will shoot her,” Bilkis recounts in a matter of fact tone. Rohingyas have little access to healthcare in Myanmar. In a vitiated environment, getting Safiyah treated medically was impossible. Her private parts bled profusely for days and she succumbed to her injuries, three days later.
A humanitarian aid agency came to the village next day and took away all the Rohingyas to a camp. “They refused to allow Ghona in the truck. She watched as we got on to it. Barked and barked and then followed us for full one hour before the swampy mud patch slowed her down while the truck raced away. I lost my body part of twelve years,” says teary eyed Bilkis.
Bilkis and Shagufta came to Jammu three months later to stay with relatives where seventeen year old Shagufta was married off to her first cousin, Saif.
In September, 2017, a carcass of dead cow was found next to their shanty. Twelve people along with Saif were picked up by the cops at the Channi Himmat police station in South Jammu. Members of BJP, a Hindu nationalist political party accused the detained of consuming beef. The political party has raised a nationwide campaign to protect cows, considered a holy animal by some sects of Hinduism and has been in the news for lynching and flogging Muslims and Dalits-a marginalised, discriminated group, lower in the caste hierarchy of the Hindu religion. “What do people get by fighting over meat. Pork in Myanmar and beef in India when millions have already been killed over religion,”says Bilkis.
Bilkis now works in a butcher shop next to her camp where they supply fresh fish, prawns and mutton to the four Rohingya settlements in the vicinity. Her new companion is a ginger cat named Jhontu who loves fish.