TEKNAF, Bangladesh — Nur Karim’s quest for safety took him on a five-day trek through Myanmar’s forests before he reached the dangerous, rain-swollen waters of the Naf River and boarded a boat to Bangladesh.
But the Rohingya Muslim man’s relief at escaping the latest violence in his homeland was tinged by a deep pain. In the chaos of an exit punctuated by the crack of Myanmar soldiers’ bullets, Karim lost track of his family.
“In the night the Burma army started firing,” Karim said Friday as he entered Bangladesh, exhausted and with sweat dripping from every pore of his wiry body. “My wife and child got separated. I don’t know where they are.”
Karim is one of nearly 430,000 Rohingya to cross into Bangladesh in the past month as the persecuted minority group flees attacks by security forces and civilian mobs in Myanmar, also known as Burma. The latest violence began when a Rohingya insurgent group launched deadly attacks on security posts, prompting Myanmar’s military to launch “clearance operations” to root out the rebels. It’s a campaign the U.N. has described as ethnic cleansing.
Karim left fear behind in Myanmar, but the memories of his last days in his village in Maungdaw remain painful.
“The authorities told us ‘You people don’t run away. We won’t do anything to you people. You people stay,'” he said.
That was a week ago and it was raining heavily. As the rain stopped, the soldiers returned and starting setting houses on fire.
“They started turning everything to ash so everyone started running away,” Karim said. “We ran to save our lives.”
Reaching Bangladesh’s shores, however, was simply the first step in another difficult journey.
The hungry and bone-tired man hadn’t eaten for a day when he arrived. Weariness and sadness seemed to envelope him. And still he needed to find the money to pay for his trip to one of the newly set up camps for the masses who have escaped over the last month.
The boat ride had cost him the last of his money, despite the fact that a kindly boatman charged him far less than the going rate and even gave him a life jacket when he learnt that Karim couldn’t swim.
Finally a stranger offered to pay his fare for the ride to the Balukhali camp, more than an hour’s drive away.
At the camp Karim smiled for the first time in days as he hugged his mother and sister, who had made the dangerous journey a few weeks before him. He hugged his little niece.
A plate of rice and chicken filled his hungry belly. Then he sprawled on the floor exhausted.
The tropical sun beat down on his plastic-covered tent, thickening the air with an oppressive heat. But he was safe.
Now he dreams of another act of grace that will unite him with his wife and daughter.
Story: Muneeza Naqvi