Her eyes milky with age, 90-year-old Gul Zahar looks back on the lifetime of injustices that have stalked her family.
Back home in Myanmar, they lacked basic rights and freedoms. Gul first fled to Bangladesh in 1978, then again in 1991 and once more last August, when her village was torched in a deadly attack.
Now a great-grandmother, she lives in a one-room shelter in this Bangladesh refugee settlement with four generations of her extended family. “It’s been a lifetime of sorrow,” she says.
Gul and her kin are among some 700,000 Rohingya who have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh since August 2017. The violence that has driven them here in recent months follows decades of deep repression and social exclusion in their homeland, where they lack citizenship.
Gul’s son, Oli Ahmed, 53, explains how being stateless stifled their daily lives.
"We couldn’t move freely … We couldn’t visit our neighbours. It was intolerable suffering.”
“We couldn’t move freely … We couldn’t visit our neighbours. It was intolerable suffering,” says Oli, a farmer who fled to Bangladesh for the first time in 1991. “We grew vegetables, but we couldn’t go to market to sell them. When we did, we got bad prices."
At least 10 million people around the world have no nationality and consequently face a lifetime of impediments and inequities. The Rohingya are the largest stateless group by far. Born and raised in Myanmar for multiple generations, they know no other place to call home.
Oli says the constraints placed on their community included roadblocks and a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, during which the family could not even burn a candle in their homes.
Without access to the banking system, they lived a hand-to-mouth existence. “We lived at a purely physical level, just survival. What we earned in a day was not enough to survive on,” he says.
For Oli’s wife, Ayesha Begum, 40, poverty and restrictions on free movement meant she was unable to seek health care when she was pregnant with her children.
“I had fever and headaches, but was so scared that I didn’t dare go to a hospital,” she says, sitting on the floor of the family’s bamboo shelter, beside her son-in-law Mohammad Ayub, 31.
Mohammad, who first fled to Bangladesh in 1991 as a small child, recalls yearning to contribute to civic life back home in Myanmar. “Being stateless means not being able to be a part of my country,” he says. “I couldn’t join the army, or get an education. We want to be a part of our country in every aspect, if we had the opportunity. It would give me my dignity.”
Sitting with his three-year-old daughter, Kismat Ara, on his lap, he tries to take the measure of his anguish. “A day is made up of 24 hours. But I have not found even five minutes’ peace,” he says. “That’s the worst of it. From the very beginning of my life, I’ve not had even five minutes of peace.”
Beside him on the floor of the shelter sits his brother-in-law, Mohammad Siddiq, 25, who once dreamt of becoming a teacher. But with no basic rights, he was not even able to enrol as a student back home.
“We weren’t allowed to go to the official schools,” he says, noting that he had occasional home schooling during the monsoon months. “But by the time the next year came around, I had forgotten what I learned. I want to get a job, to be a teacher, to help others, but how can I? I can’t read or write. I am not hoping anymore. I’ve given up hope.”
When the family’s village came under attack in August, they had no recourse to justice. Once again, the only choice was to flee.
The Bangladesh and Myanmar authorities signed an agreement concerning voluntary repatriation in November 2017. In recent months, UNHCR signed two memoranda of understanding, one with Bangladesh and one with Myanmar, setting the framework for voluntary returns in line with international standards. But UNHCR believes the conditions are not yet conducive for their return, as the causes of their flight have not been addressed and no substantive progress has been made in addressing their exclusion or denial of rights. Without access to citizenship, most of Gul's family will not think of returning home.
“What I know is that I won’t go back,” says Oli Ahmed. “I want my voice to be heard. I want peace to be restored and I want citizenship. Citizenship is key to everything: peace, security and education.”
“I want my voice to be heard. I want peace to be restored and I want citizenship."
Mohammed Ayub agrees: “The first thing we need is recognition that we are Rohingya and a part of Myanmar. Then, we need full access to our rights, and then we need full restitution of all that we have lost,” he says.
“Without citizenship, I won’t go back… We’ve had enough,” he adds.
At 90, Gul feels differently, though she is grateful to Bangladesh for the safety it has given her. “I’m not willing to die here. I want to die on my soil,” she says.