'Villages were theatres of war, with bullets everywhere' - Children haunted by the horrors they have witnessed

UKHIA, Bangladesh: A Rohingya child uses his food bowl to shelter himself from the sun at the Palangkhali refugee camp in Ukhia district yesterday. — AFP

LEDHAPARA: Hollow-eyed and detached, 11-year-old Rohingya refugee Sayed Nul betrays little emotion as he recounts why his family fled Myanmar: "The Rakhine Buddhists burned my house. Killed people with bullets. And raped the women." For the aid workers in Bangladesh dealing with the current exodus of Rohingya escaping sectarian violence of Myanmar's Rakhine state, it is a familiar and upsetting sight as they try to put young lives back together.

Of the 520,000 Rohingya who have arrived in recent weeks, 290,000 are children, many haunted by the horrors they have witnessed, now crammed into teeming refugee camps with minimal facilities to deal with traumas embedded deep inside so many youngsters. Aid groups are hurrying to set up schools and safe zones for children in the grim camps as part of the answer. The few schools that have sprung up offer a brief respite.

At the entrance to the packed Leda camp a handful of learning centers have been set up opposite a brick factory with a smoke-blackened chimney. Inside one of the classes about 30 children sang, the torrential rain beating down on the canvas roof almost drowning out their little voices. But memories of the Rakhine violence is never far away. "These are children, they do not understand what has happened," Rohingya teacher Shamsul Alam said. "We are trying to make them forget what happened so they are not disturbed," he added pointing to a bucketful of toys.

UN workers say many of the young exiles never went to school in their country of birth, where the Buddhist majority treat the Rohingya with disdain. The Myanmar authorities say the military have only targeted Rohingya militants in their crackdown in Rakhine since August 25. But many of the kids in camps around the Bangladesh border town of Cox's Bazar recount scenes of massacres, torture and rape. "Their villages were theatres of war, with the noise and the bullets everywhere," says Shamail Das, 22, another teacher at the hastily set up school.

'Ease their pain'

Alam, Das and the other teachers deliberately do not discuss the Rakhine horrors in class. "If we talk about the atrocities with them, it could damage their minds at first. But in time it could help ease their pain," said Morsida Akter, a Bangladeshi teacher. There are currently 200 learning centers in the camps teaching 17,000 Rohingya. But those schools are just a drop in the ocean compared to what is required the UN children's agency, UNICEF, says it needs to build 1,300 schools.

The curriculum is also starkly different from Bangladeshi schools in the region, a reflection of how the Rohingya are far from welcome even in the comparative safety of Bangladesh. The only permitted subjects are English, the Burmese language, maths and health advice such as washing hands. The Bengali language used every where in Bangladesh is deliberately off limits.

Before the current exodus, Bangladesh already hosted some 400,000 Rohingya refugees from previous upsurges in Rakhine's long history of sectarian violence. The Dhaka government has let the new Rohingya refugees in, but it does not want to do anything that could facilitate their integration. Their freedom of movement is strictly limited and marriages between Rohingya and local Bangladeshis are banned. "They don't need Bengali. English is an international language," said local education department official, Mohammed Zakara. "Anyway they are going back to Myanmar."

Bangladesh has repeatedly said that the Rohingya must return to Myanmar. But Myanmar, which has always refused to give them citizenship, has made vague promises. Few of the Rohingya expect to return to their villages in Rakhine. Some of the earlier influx of Rohingya have already spent more than 20 years in the Bangladesh camps. And that means children like Sayed Nul may have to live with their Rakhine traumas in squalid camps for decades to come._ AFP