Rock Ronald Rozario, Dhaka, John Zaw, Mandalay, and Umar Manzoor Shah, Srinagar,Published: February 05, 2018 06:19 AM GMT
Nilu Bala, 10, a Hindu refugee, at Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh in September 2017. Masked men killed Nilu's parents in Rakhine State, Myanmar, and she fled to Bangladesh with her relatives. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Amid the relative peace and security of Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, Shishu Pal yearns to return home to Myanmar's Rakhine State on the other side of the Naf River that separates the countries.
"At home we lived in peace and harmony for generations. Now, we are refugees here, but we hope we will be able to go back home when all the troubles are over," Pal told ucanews.com.
"My elderly father and four sisters are there. They are safe, but I worry about them every day."
Pal, 30, a Hindu father of a young daughter, moved to Bangladesh in July last year before "unprecedented troubles" started in their homeland.
At home Pal worked as a barber in a salon. Today, he is assigned as a majhi (community leader) in the western part of Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar.
His responsibility is to address the needs of some 450 Hindus from 101 families who live separately from Muslim Rohingya.
They fled to Bangladesh following a brutal military crackdown in Rakhine on Aug. 25 in response to Rohingya militant attacks on 30 security posts and an army base.
The crackdown, dubbed "ethnic cleansing" by the United Nations, triggered an influx of more than 650,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh.
While minority Hindus were spared from military atrocities, a mysterious, armed and masked group detained and murdered dozens of Hindus in Rakhine during the violence.
On Sept. 24-25, Myanmar authorities said two mass graves containing 45 bodies of Hindu men, women and children were found, and most of them had their throats slit.
The military claimed Rohingya insurgents carried out the killings, and displaced Hindus in Rakhine and Bangladesh supported the allegation.
"I didn't witness murders but Hindus here told me Muslim militants were responsible. A total of 186 Hindus were murdered," Pal said.
He says the massacre took place in the Fakira Bazar area of northern Rakhine and most victims were from predominantly Hindu Chikanchhari village.
"One of my paternal uncles and his whole family were killed. Militants killed them as they refused to join their group and to fight for freedom from Burmese rule," he said.
Pal says most Hindu refugees have identity cards issued by Myanmar's government and want to go back.
"Hindus, Rohingya and Rakhine have lived side by side for ages, but the massacre triggered a mistrust and fear of Muslims. They want to go back with United Nations monitoring and live separately from Muslims with a guarantee of safety and security," he said.
"They are not afraid of Rakhine or the military, but they fear militant attacks."
Muhammad Noor, 45, a Rohingya community leader in Kutupalong, says fear of Muslims among Hindus is "unfounded and unacceptable."
"Rohingya have no interest in attacking Hindus. We are peaceful people. Moghs (extremist Rakhine Buddhists) killed Hindus with military backing so that Myanmar can get Hindu India on its side and tarnish the image of peaceful Rohingya," Noor told ucanews.com.
"Only if Hindus can realize who the real enemy is and who actually benefits from attacking and murdering Hindus, they would agree to live with Muslims."
Babul Sharma, a Bangladeshi Hindu from Cox's Bazar who has been supporting refugees, says it is unlikely the two groups can be at peace again.
"Muslims killed two Hindus in the camp over a monetary dispute. The distrust and animosity they have developed is getting stronger," said Sharma, who rescued 16 Hindus from Muslim-dominated camps.
Repatriation in limbo
On Jan. 22, Bangladesh said repatriation of refugees to Myanmar would not start on Jan. 23 as planned because vital arrangements remained incomplete.
On Jan. 16, a joint working group of officials from both countries signed a deal for repatriation of about 770,000 refugees who have fled to Bangladesh since October 2016.
"We cannot specify a timeline as we are on the second stage of repatriation. Actual repatriation will need some time," Muhammad Shamsudohja, assistant commissioner of Bangladesh's state-run Rohingya Refugee Repatriation Committee, told ucanews.com.
"We are concerned about the fears of Hindu refugees and will take measures to address them."
Myanmar earlier said Hindu refugees would be the first batch of people to be repatriated, and officials said they were ready to accept them.
Hindu refugee children with their mother at Kutupalong camp in September 2017. Masked men killed their father last August in Rakhine State. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Ni Maw, a Hindu leader and social worker in Maungdaw, said they had not been informed by the government about developments with Hindu refugees' repatriation despite the initial plan that more than 450 Hindus would be taken back on Jan. 23.
He said all Hindu refugees want to return to Rakhine but have concerns over security.
"All Hindu people don't dare to go back to their respective homes to live together with Muslims as they are concerned for their security and safety," Ni Maw, who helped security forces identify Hindu bodies last September, told ucanews.com.
Mg Hla, a Hindu resident of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, said the Hindu community had no problems with Rakhine or Muslims and no violence had been reported.
"The Hindu community is a small minority group and we want to have peace and stability in the country, but doubts and mistrust have come up since the Aug. 25 violence," Mg Hla told ucanews.com.
He said the community wants the government to provide security for Hindu refugees from Bangladesh.
"All Hindu people want to be resettled with other ethnic groups such as Rakhine as they don't want to return to their original homes where most of their neighbors are Rohingya," said Mg Hla.
The violence reportedly displaced about 3,000 Hindus internally and about 500 fled to Bangladesh.
About 8,000 Hindus lived in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships before the violence last August, according to local Hindus.
About 500 internally displaced Hindus returned to Maungdaw and sheltered in a building near the district administration office. They have been struggling from a shortage of food and livelihood opportunities, Hindu leaders said.
In Rakhine, Hindus account for 9,791 of the population of two million. In Myanmar, Hindus make up 0.5 percent of the population, Muslims 4.3 percent and Buddhists 89 percent, according to the 2014 census.
India supports Myanmar
While the West and the Muslim world have been critical of Myanmar's de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi for her silence over atrocities against Rohingya, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has supported the embattled leader.
Hindu groups have called for the deportation of some 40,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly living in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state.
India's pro-Hindu Bharatiya Jananta Party-led government and Supreme Court also favored deportation of the refugees, claiming they threaten India's security.
"It is not a question of if they are Hindu or Muslim. A Rohingya is a Rohingya, and all such refugees need to be sent back to Myanmar," said Ashok Koul, the BJP's general secretary in Jammu and Kashmir.
Koul said the Indian government is talking to Myanmar's government about the issue.
However, Muslim leaders say Myanmar's move to take back only Hindu refugees shows the government's religious bias.
The discriminatory move is to show that "only Muslims can be trouble mongers and terrorists," Kashmir-based cleric Moulvi Javaid Ahmad told ucanews.com.
"Why divide Rohingya refugees on the basis of religion? What is the reason being given for such an unnatural action?" Ahmad asked.