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The Women of Nayapara

by Jenny Stoecker | May 01, 2018

Asking the Question

I was nervous as we approached their tent. “If they don’t want to share it’s okay,” I told my translator, Muraad, for the third time. Who was I to ask them to share their story? “I know,” he said, “we’ll just ask and see.”

We greeted Begum and were invited inside. I took my muddied boots off at the tent opening and sat cross-legged on the mat they laid over the dirt floor. Three more women appeared from the back room and another walked in the door behind us. "Okay," I smiled at Begum, "Muraad will you tell her that we'd like to share her story, so that people know what's happening here. Ask her if she's willing...only if she's willing!"

He started translating and before finishing a sentence three of the women started speaking at once, waving their hands in the air. "What's happening," I asked? "They all want to share," he said, trying to keep up as they spoke over each other each other. They told us their story of leaving Myanmar and their new life in Bangladesh. For two hours I listened to all they endured and all they overcame.

Women (1)
From Left to Right: Feroja (sister-in-law), Begum, Aisha, Fatima, Rashida. On my first two visits their fourth sister was out running errands.

The Women's Story

“We were cooking lunch when saw the smoke and heard the gunshots.” The Burmese army was coming. Begum, her five daughters, two grandchildren, two son-in-laws, and her entire village dropped everything and ran. They didn’t know where they were running, but they all knew what the consequences would be if they stopped. In the chaos of one hundred and fifty people from their village fleeing, Begum’s daughters, Fatima and Rashida, watched in horror as soldiers snatched their husbands from the crowd and slit their throats. The women kept running. “If they caught us they would have taken us into the mountains to rape us and then kill us.”

Finally, the army fell away and the women made it to another Muslim village. They took stock and realized Hacina, Begum’s youngest daughter, was missing. Immediately Begum wanted to go back to find her, but her neighbors wouldn’t hear of it. “The army will burn you alive if you return.” She was persistent until community members came to tell her what happened. Hacina had fallen behind her family while running and the army seized her.

Begum was distraught, mourning along with her daughters as the reality of the day continued to sink in. Her eldest daughter and son-in-law had recently visited to drop their eight-year-old son off for few days with Grandma. On their return trip, they would have almost certainly crossed the path of the army. Begum’s son, Kamal, and one of her son-in-laws were at work when the family fled. Both were assumed dead.

In one day, they lost six family members.

Begum and her four remaining daughters and two grandchildren spent three days in the village, where they were fed and clothed by the kindness of strangers. After three days the entire village decided to leave, sensing it was unsafe to remain where they were. Begum headed toward Bangladesh in mourning.

On the four-day journey, they passed Muslim villages that offered them bananas and water, anything they could to keep the travelers going. When Begum arrived at the Naf River, another family graciously paid for all seven of them to cross into Bangladesh. The rain soaked their clothes as they, along with 25 others, braved the three-hour midnight journey by boat. They arrived in Bangladesh and were taken into a mosque to eat and get warm before moving into Nayapara Camp. In the camp, Begum was reunited with her sister, Feroja, who had also fled. Together, the six women began a new life.

Kamal

Kamal's Story

It had been a normal day at work, carrying goods from place to place for whoever needed it.

But, when Kamal came back to his village he was met with the burnt remains of his home. The army, still there, accused him of coming around to steal anything that was left, so they tied him up and beat him brutally. A Burmese man finally convinced the army that the village was Kamal’s home and he wasn’t coming to steal anything. Feeble from the beating, the army let him go to search for his family.

He started wandering, trying to determine where his family might have gone, when he was captured by another army group.

This troop showed no mercy. They stripped him naked, peeled back his fingernails and electrocuted him. When they grew tired of the torture and the beatings they lined Kamal and fellow hostages up along the river to be killed. A machete poised to cut off his head, Kamal knew this was his last chance – with the strength he had left he kicked his captor and jumped into the river below. He swam thirty minutes downstream until he spotted a Muslim family who was also escaping. They clothed him and brought him across the border – paying for his spot in the boat required to cross the river to get to Bangladesh.

An imam, a Muslim religious leader, at the border recognized how weak he was and immediately got him to a hospital.

Begum was shocked the day she heard her son’s name over a loudspeaker roaming about camp – broadcasting names of people alone in the hospital trying to find their family. When she was reunited with him, the entire family was screaming and crying, first out of joy and then out of concern. Kamal was incredibly weak, a shell of who he had been the last time they saw him. But, they were back together again.

Sisters

My Visits

The first time I met Kamal he was laying on straw mat beside me, moaning intermittently as the women shared his story. Doctors had assured Begum he would make a full physical recovery and the women were amazed by how much he had improved from when they first found him. On my second visit, Kamal was walking, but on his way to the hospital to be treated for residual injuries. The women told me he had never been the same and they suspected brain damage on top of the trauma he endured.

I left Bangladesh for two weeks, taking a short trip to the U.S. for meetings. While home, I printed photos of each of the families I visited, so I could deliver them when I went back. I wrote up Begum’s story and ended it on a hopeful note, one where the family was together again and felt safe in the camp, no longer oppressed in Myanmar.

Then, my first week back in Bangladesh, I received news that Kamal had died.

I went back to the camp to visit Begum that week, unsure of what I’d say or find. The women invited me in and I sat across from Begum – in the three weeks since I had seen her, it looked like she had lost all fight. I didn’t have the words, so after a few awkward sentences I passed her the printed photos. She paused on the photo of her son and held it tighter than the rest. I gave my condolences and left.

Two weeks later I visited again. She spoke more this time and cried when I asked how she was doing. She voiced her fears ­­– they sold their rations again this month to bury Kamal. None of the five women in the house can read or write. A man's family came to see her daughter, to see if she was marriage material – marriage is now their only hope. If Begum can provide 20,000 taka ($240) for a dowry, then it will be agreed, but neither she nor I knew where she could get that kind of money.

I left knowing that I could not write a hopeful ending to this story; I cannot tie it up in a nice bow, because it’s more than a story, it is these women’s reality. More than that it is the reality of the Rohingya – each person that fled has been touched by violence and loss. There is no escaping it.

My hope would be that you read this story and do something. I have talked to so many people since being home who don’t know about this crisis. So share: tell people about the injustice affecting the Rohingya. And give. These camps consist of over 670,000 people that left with nothing. Your money can make a difference. Give because we can’t sit by and do nothing.  

Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner said, “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.” Amen.