Elderly Rohingya rely on families to carry them to safety
KANJUR, Bangladesh – This is not how Mabia Khatun, 75, imagined she would spend her old age: as a refugee, cocooned in a blanket and carried for 17 days through the jungle, fleeing devastating violence in Myanmar.
As Bangladeshi fishermen pass the blanket by on the way to their boats, a weak hand emerges to beg for water. Slowly, Mabia’s dusty face emerges as her sons lower the bamboo stick that the blanket is hanging from.
“I didn’t know what was happening because I was in the blanket,” she wheezes. She is sick, and thirsty. It is hours since she last drank, and sweating heavily in the blanket, she is wilting. “I am unable to walk, but to live, I have to fight.”
An estimated 370,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh since the latest bout of violence convulsed Myanmar’s Rakhine state on August 25.
Forced to trek for days in search of safety, often through mountainous jungle and across brimming rivers, elderly people like Mabia are among the most vulnerable refugees reaching the neighbouring country.
When their village was torched, Mabia’s sons bundled her up and ran from the village. “We love our mother, that is why we carried her, even though it was difficult,” says her son Ali, who struggles along a muddy path towards the village of Kanjur, carrying Mabia.
The Rohingya, a largely stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar have been the victims of persecution in the past.
“We love our mother, that is why we carried her, even though it was difficult.”
“This time it is worse than before,” Mabia says, as two of her grandchildren rest up on a sack beside the path. “And the violence is worst for the elderly.” Unable to run, the elderly frequently rely on their relatives and neighbours to carry them to safety.
Grandfathers and grandmothers dragging their grandchildren along paths and roads are a common sight, as younger family members lug large sacks of rice or pots and pans. Hungry and weak, many are being propped up by their younger relatives.
One hundred metres further back, closer to the river, is Mabia’s sister-in-law Amina. She is 80, wearing a bright yellow headscarf and being supported by two sons. She has been walking for 15 days from her home village in Myanmar.
“I had to rest, because I am old. It was so difficult.” Like Mabia, this is the worst bout of violence that she can remember.
On the river, a half dozen fishermen row up and down. The fishermen are taking up to 10,000 Taka (US$123) to ferry fleeing Rohingya across the river into Bangladesh.
Those without the cash pay with treasured family heirlooms that they had hoped to save for future generations.
Mustafa Khatun, 80, is seated regally in a red plastic chair, in another time, another place, it would have been described as a sedan chair. Her 25-member strong family has crossed in the last boat of the day and are resting before they make the final move towards the road that leads from the border to the refugee camps.
“We saw four people. They were just sitting there, they didn’t have anybody to help them.”
Mustafa, her four sons and 17 grandchildren fled from Maungdaw 17 days ago. “I was carried by my sons. They carried me here on this chair, with the bamboo sticks.” Despite her plight, she retains a sense of humour. “We’ve even bought the chickens,” she jokes.
Mabia and Mustafa are the fortunate ones. During the chaos that followed the attack on their village, Mustafa’s son Abu Siddiq says that he had seen some of the oldest Rohingya simply sat by the road, too tired or sick to go further by themselves. “We saw four people alive and one dead person.”
There is a clap of thunder over the hills in Myanmar. It is drizzling. “They were just sitting there, they didn’t have anybody to help them,” he says.