Hindus from Myanmar find welcome in Bangladesh
HINDU PARA, Bangladesh – Two neighbouring villages were already in flames when the figures dressed in black, their faces covered, reached Onu Bala’s home in northern Rakhine state of Myanmar.
As they tossed incendiaries into the houses, she ran with her three daughters, aged three to eight, into the forest, where they spent two nights in the open, thirsty and hungry.
She is now safe in this small village in southeast Bangladesh, where she is living in an old chicken farm repurposed as a community shelter, as she puzzles over what happened.
“I don’t know who they were, the only thing I could see were their eyes … It didn’t matter if we were Hindu or Muslim … they were burning down everything,” she says, sitting cross-legged on a hessian rice sack.
While the vast majority of refugees fleeing to Bangladesh are Muslim, a smaller number, like Onu, are Hindu. They speak the same dialect and self-identify as Rohingya, and have been swept up in the purge that has driven half-a-million women, children and men to flee across the border.
In total, 101 Hindu families comprising 523 individuals are currently living in Hindu Para, a farming community fringed by forest that was settled by a previous influx of Hindu refugees in the 1990s.
“They were armed with guns, knives and petrol bombs."
Also in the community shelter is 50-year-old barber Nironjon Rudro, a father of four. He remembers his home village as a hardworking community of Muslim farmers and Hindu laborers and small business owners, who lived side by side “in harmony, for years.” That peace shattered on August 26 as his uncle came running from the next village with a tale of murder.
A masked mob had entered that community, butchered another relative, and had started burning houses. The warning came too late as by then they had Nironjon’s village surrounded. “They were armed with guns, knives and petrol bombs,” he recalls.
Their captors spoke both Burmese and Rohingya, so it was not clear to him who they were. They kept villagers hostage for five days, but when news of violence at another village distracted them, Nironjon and his family seized their chance: “We escaped with just the clothes we were wearing and ran for the hills.”
Now in Bangladesh, with survivors from his village regrouped around him in the longhouse, he reflects on their situation in Myanmar. As part of a minority within an already persecuted minority, he felt “bad” and “scared” there. “In the Hindu community, we had no-one defending us. We’re just hardworking people.”
After reaching Bangladesh, where most of the half-a-million newly arrived Rohingya refugees struggle to survive in informal camps, the Hindu families denounced ongoing friction and isolated acts of violence. In response, they relocated to Hindu Para, where they have received support and assistance from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and its partners.
Settled into the hamlet of mud-brick and rice-straw roofed homes, they have been embraced by private donors from Bangladesh and beyond, whose kindness is proving a healing antidote to the sectarian strife and violence they fled.
On one recent day, three groups representing a spectrum of faiths, drive up the muddy track with aid. A Muslim group from nearby Cox’s Bazar drops off a donation of rice, potatoes and vegetables. Then some Sikh volunteers from northern India’s Punjab state truck up with a meal of dal, cooked up in large pots over a wood fire.
“If they are suffering, they’re in pain, we feel their pain and we respond.”
“All human beings are one for us. It doesn’t matter if they are Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim,” says Harpreet Singh, a spokesman for the group, which has been in Bangladesh for 10 days providing hot food to all. “If they are suffering, they’re in pain, we feel their pain and we respond.”
The donations are logged by a local representative of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council and distributed to those in need. For its part, UNHCR brought a second delivery of aid to Hindu Para, ensuring that each and every refugee family there had jerry cans, plastic sheets, blankets, mosquito nets, cooking pots and solar lanterns.
Inside the longhouse where most are lodged, an air of calm prevails. The rafters are festooned with donations from aid agencies and private donors. It feels orderly, dry and relatively comfortable. Children use old t–shirts to sweep the plastic sheeting floor clean. As the faint rhythm of normal life resumes, some refugees can now start to look to the future.
UNHCR is calling on the Myanmar authorities to end the violence in Rakhine State so that solutions to the situation could then be discussed, including the return of refugees. But Nironjon says he does not want to go back to his village, and has given up any thought of recovering his property. “I would not be safe there, but maybe in Yangon,” he says, naming Myanmar’s former capital.
Onu, though, is unsure. Asked what she plans to do, she throws the question back. “Would it be good for us if we stay here or if we go back? You tell us,” she says. “If we go back to Myanmar, again they will slaughter us, again they will kill us.”
Weary of being a part of a small group within the already spurned Rohingya minority, denied nationality and even basic rights by Myanmar, she would like to go to India, where more than three-quarters of the population practice her faith.
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