by Harry Wilson
Harry has been serving among the Rohingya people since the late 1990s.
It is a cold night. Amira shivers and moves closer to her two children under her blanket. The bamboo and tarpaulin structure does not protect the family sufficiently from the damp and chilly climate. Winter nights in Bangladesh can be cold – especially if you are living in a refugee camp!
Most of the 700,000 Rohingya came only with the clothes on their backs. Since they arrived in late 2017, United Nations (UN) agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been trying hard to provide for their basic needs. There are outbreaks of cholera, measles and diphtheria. Food, shelter and clothing are major challenges for a population equivalent to what would be the third-largest city in the UK. Beyond their pressing material needs, these people desperately need good news – the good news of love, forgiveness and reconciliation.
The UN refugee agency described this most recent mass exodus of Rohingyas, from Myanmar’s Rakhine State to Bangladesh, as ‘the fastest-growing refugee emergency in the world today’. Though tensions between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine State have been simmering for decades, recent years have seen a dramatic escalation of the conflict. Week-long violent clashes in 2012 caused the expulsion of almost the entire Muslim population from Rakhine’s capital city, Sittwe. For about six years now, over 140,000 Rohingyas have lived in camps near Sittwe, with little or no hope of ever returning home.
However, things turned from bad to worse following the election of the National League for Democracy (NLD), under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. The previously unknown terrorist group, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked some police posts in October 2016. Heavy-handed ‘clearance operations’ by the army followed suit, with mass killings, rapes and the systematic burning of villages. On 25 August 2017, so-called ‘Black Friday’, ARSA conducted another coordinated attack on border-guard police posts. The UN called the army’s retaliation ‘a textbook example of ethnic cleansing’, which has consequently triggered the unprecedented flight of over 700,000 Rohingyas across the border. Although Myanmar and Bangladesh are discussing their eventual repatriation, nothing indicates that the refugees will return any time soon, so long as the underlying reasons for their persecution remain unresolved.
“What has happened to us was not nice, but I cannot imagine what others had to go through. I do not want to think about it.”
The fact that 55% of the refugees are under 18 years of age poses a unique challenge in this tragedy. Children and youth are especially vulnerable to risks of abuse, exploitation, human trafficking and malnutrition. Most of them are traumatised through unspeakable horrors, which no child in the world should ever have to experience. There are only a few makeshift schools operating in the camps. Many children queue for hours every day to get food, water or other supplies. One of these children is Amira’s daughter, Hasina.
My name is Hasina and I am seven years old. I lived with my parents and two brothers in Rakhine State. My father was a rickshaw driver. Some days, when he made enough money, he brought home some sweets for us– that was always nice. We lived in a bamboo hut, just big enough that we all could sleep in it.
My elder brother and I went to school, but the teaching was so poor that we did not understand and had to take extra private lessons. That was very expensive, so my parents could only afford it for my brother. But in my first year at school I was so eager to learn that I was promoted to the second class.
On 25 August 2017, we heard that terrorists had attacked police stations. After that the army attacked many villages and banished the inhabitants. My school was used as a refuge for Buddhists who escaped from the villages.
There has been hatred against our people group longer than I have lived, but it has never been as violent as it is now. In our town we were despised, and more and more repressed. We girls were afraid to go out of the house, so my father had to do all the shopping.
One day in September, many people from our neighbourhood suggested that we flee to Bangladesh to take refuge there. In total, about 100 people left. For ten days we had to cross the jungle, because we had to hide from the police and the army who were posted in the Buddhist villages. Once Buddhists tried to rob us, but we ran as fast as we could. Three people were murdered by bandits.
We had to climb high mountains and cross rivers. In one of the rivers my two-year-old brother slipped out of my mother’s arms. That was a shock! He almost drowned in the fast-running water. But luckily one of our neighbours, who crossed the river further down, rescued him. Praise God! We were so happy! We ran out of food for the last three days of our escape. On the other side of the big river, that forms the border with Bangladesh, there were many more refugees from our people group in need of help. We got something to eat. That was good! My father and my brother were registered and got cards to receive food.
We were put into a big tent with many other families. Tarpaulin sheets divided it into separate rooms. We brought nothing, because we had to leave all our belongings behind when we got on the boat to cross the big river. We received the most necessary things like pots, rice, lentils, salt, oil and sugar, but no fruit or vegetables.
For my brothers and I, life is dull. We would like to go to school. We have to wait in a line to get drinking water out of a big truck. Sometimes children disappear; their kidnappers sell them to work in cities. We have heard from other families that very bad things have happened to people at home. They were killed with swords or guns and their houses burnt down. What has happened to us was not nice, but I cannot imagine what others had to go through. I do not want to think about it.
‘The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.’ Psalm 9:9
Two years ago, I wrote in Echoes magazine that, ‘there seems to be little public interest in the plight of the Rohingya’ (see Apr. ’16 Echoes p155). That does not hold true anymore. The tragedy of the refugees has put the Rohingya in the international media’s spotlight, which, in turn, helped propel this issue onto the agenda of politicians, human rights activists and Christians alike. This long-overdue attention, to an otherwise neglected problem, generated momentum and help for the Rohingya in their material and spiritual needs.
What is God’s perspective?
Psalm 9:9 states, ‘The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.’ God sees the Rohingya’s trouble and wants to be their refuge and stronghold. In the vast refugee camps there are a few hundred people who believe in Jesus as their Saviour. Besides the dire material conditions, they are under intense pressure from Muslim fundamentalist groups. Unfortunately, some well-meaning Christians have drawn additional attention to the Rohingya believers. Now they are being intimidated and threatened. However, among all these challenges God is building His Kingdom. Bible materials are being translated and distributed. Believers follow Jesus faithfully, yet carefully. This is just the beginning. The believers make up only 0.02% of the Rohingya people! Millions still need to hear the message of Jesus in a language and form they can understand.
May this unprecedented refugee crisis result in an unprecedented movement of Rohingyas towards Christ!
- that the Lord may bring justice, peace and reconciliation to the suffering Rohingya.
- that traumatised children in the camps, like Hasina, will experience healing in body, soul and spirit, and will receive education to have the chance for a better life.
- that Christians who work among the Rohingya would be wise and careful in their approach.
- that the few Rohingya believers would remain strong and grow in their faith, despite persecution and threats.
- that efforts to translate Bible portions, and other gospel materials, into the Rohingya language will yield fruit and that many Rohingya will be able to access these materials.
- that vulnerable refugees will be protected from floods, landslides and storms in the upcoming monsoon season.