Sittwe to Hyderabad: An Unyielding Quest for a Home

In this first-person account, photographer Kashif Ali describes the lives of a Rohingya community in Hyderabad as they seek recognition by the Indian government on the one hand, while making peace with the finality of their exodus on the other.

Written by Kashif Ali Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes
A Rohingya child sitting by the only water source in the community stops crying to look at the camera. Kashif Ali

Over 2,400 miles (4,000km) and, most would conclude, in the wrong direction. That’s how far more than 100 families traveled between Sittwe in Arakan (Rakhine) state, Myanmar, and Hyderabad in the newly christened state of Telangana in southern India. The families, members of the long-persecuted Rohingya ethnic group, followed this less trodden path in the faint hope of finding acceptance in 2011. Five years later they remain in seven settlements sprawled across a wasteland, enduring conditions that mirror those of the internally displaced Rohingya stranded inside Myanmar.

The 100 families are crammed into tiny single-room quarters, most lacking electricity and running water. (Kashif Ali)

The 100 families are crammed into tiny single-room quarters, most lacking electricity and running water. (Kashif Ali)

We met Hameed-ul-Haq on our first visit to the informal refugee camp. The meeting was arranged by Yousaf, a function hall owner whom the refugees know and trust. The crowd pushed Hameed slowly toward us, like a peace offering. It quickly became clear that this man held considerable sway over the community when the others told me in broken Hindi that he was the “camp elder,” the person to talk to.

On our second visit we congregated inside a one-room mosque within the camp. Hameed had put together an assortment of men from the camp for the interview.

Hameed-ul-Haq, the camp's mullah and community elder, led the conversation. (Kashif Ali)

Hameed-ul-Haq, the camp’s mullah and community elder, led the conversation. (Kashif Ali)

Before starting, we tried to talk Hameed through what we were hoping to understand. How did these Rohingya Muslims end up in Hyderabad, what brought about their exodus, how was life in the camps, what were their hopes for the future, among other things.

A minute in and it became apparent that Hameed was using this opportunity to articulate his agenda. He gave a well-rehearsed speech – a spiel that walked us through life under the army’s regime in Myanmar to life in India, where they were welcomed with open arms. He went on to make a plea for official recognition by the Indian government, which he claimed has been very benevolent so far. He wanted ration cards and better opportunities for his fellow refugees. What difference would a measly 40,000 people make to a country with a population well into the billions, he said to elucidate his point.

This was his narrative and he didn’t budge from it. At points, others tried to speak up about what had transpired in Myanmar, the events that had led to their eventual exile, only to be silenced by him. The hierarchy was clear. The leader had decided that it was futile to harp on about the past.

Eventually Hameed retired to his quarters, adjacent to the mosque, and the others began to talk.

The discussion we were hoping to have, however, remained elusive. The conversation repeatedly veered off toward a single point – the Buddhists, as a people, supported and enabled by the army, were evil and ruthless in their pogrom of wiping out the Rohingya Muslims.

Abdul Hussain talks about life under the army’s rule. (Kashif Ali)

Abdul Hussain talks about life under the army’s rule. (Kashif Ali)

Even this close, we still weren’t getting a complete picture of what had befallen this particular community. We wanted to know what had happened to them and to the families they had left behind, to build a tangible, emotional bridge between them and those of us reading their story. We wanted to go beyond the black and white picture of the oppressors and the oppressed that often dictates the Rohingya narrative.

It was only toward the end of the session that some of the people started to open up. They said they had Buddhist friends who, while powerless to help them, were not entirely indifferent to their plight. They became yet more expansive when we put away our cameras and pens, telling us they owned nothing in the country that was their birthplace. Idris, a passionate and emotional young man, said, “We couldn’t call the land or cattle our own. Everything was owned by the army and everything was taxed, from newborn calves to babies.” There was a flat price of 10,000 Indian rupees ($150) – whether for a boy or a calf, we were told. Muslim boys were picked up at random, tortured and eventually released.

Idris, a passionate young man, discusses the state-imposed tax on Rohingya Muslims that extends from their cattle to newborns. (Kashif Ali)

Idris, a passionate young man, discusses the state-imposed tax on Rohingya Muslims that extends from their cattle to newborns. (Kashif Ali)

Why? We asked.

Why not? They had clearly come to believe.

From what I understood, their reluctance to talk about what happened and the reason people like Hameed have a script ready was worry over the consequences.

Mohammed-ul-Haq, head of the Rohingya Muslim welfare community, talks about life in Myanmar. (Kashif Ali)

Mohammed-ul-Haq, head of the Rohingya Muslim welfare community, talks about life in Myanmar. (Kashif Ali)

Opening up to us – about the abuse and violence at the hands of the state – might somehow lead to an equally violent retaliation against their family and friends still stuck in Myanmar. This was something that Mohammed-ul-Haq, an individual who heads the Rohingya Muslims welfare society, confirmed.

A refugee talks about being threatened at gunpoint. He was one of the first to talk about how his Buddhist friends, while incapable of helping him, weren’t entirely indifferent to his situation. (Kashif Ali)

A refugee talks about being threatened at gunpoint. He was one of the first to talk about how his Buddhist friends, while incapable of helping him, weren’t entirely indifferent to his situation. (Kashif Ali)

He said that by mentioning names or details, they were indirectly putting their families in danger. “Because what you talk about will reach a wider media and there will be repercussions,” he said as I was leaving the camp.

While on their way to Hyderabad, Mohammed’s son got off at a train stop and couldn’t get back to the train in time. It has been four years since Mohammed last saw him, at the station. (Kashif Ali)

While on their way to Hyderabad, Mohammed’s son got off at a train stop and couldn’t get back to the train in time. It has been four years since Mohammed last saw him, at the station. (Kashif Ali)

People such as Hameed have positioned themselves as the religious heads of these satellite communities. That gives them a certain amount of implied and direct power. Inadvertently, this also makes them answerable to the community. Hameed’s agenda is quite evident in all of this. He wants to secure what he sees as a respectable and economically and socially viable future for his “flock,” with the added end goal of cementing his position of authority and power.

Altaas is 70 years old and lives by herself. She collects garbage around the neighborhood and makes 50 rupees – less than a dollar – per day. (Kashif Ali)

Altaas is 70 years old and lives by herself. She collects garbage around the neighborhood and makes 50 rupees – less than a dollar – per day. (Kashif Ali)

Sitting on land owned by a local landlord, who lets them use it rent-free, this particular camp has about 77 families and is the biggest of the seven camps. The inhabitants made their way to India from Bangladesh, through to Kolkata (Calcutta) and finally to Hyderabad. This appears to be a common route taken by refugees coming to Hyderabad. Beyond this they refused to provide further details.

Women from the families collect the 5 gallon (20 liter) barrels of drinking water that they receive every other day. (Kashif Ali)

Women from the families collect the 5 gallon (20 liter) barrels of drinking water that they receive every other day. (Kashif Ali)

Walking around taking photographs and talking to whoever understood Hindi, I chanced upon what I assume is the community kitchen. The women had just finished slaughtering a chicken and were plucking its feathers when they caught sight of me. As I expected, they moved behind whatever was big enough to hide them.

An elderly woman looks back as a child looks inside the mosque. (Kashif Ali)

An elderly woman looks back as a child looks inside the mosque. (Kashif Ali)

Talking to these women requires tact since my request to do so was met with a dead-pan response from the men: “They don’t go out of the camp. So they never learned Hindi and won’t be able to talk to you.” Hameed, our connection to the camp, could facilitate a translation, but it would likely be heavily edited and controlled.

With the onset of summer and the lack of rain, water woes are compounded. Here a woman from the camp drains water from the community tank. (Kashif Ali)

With the onset of summer and the lack of rain, water woes are compounded. Here a woman from the camp drains water from the community tank. (Kashif Ali)

Children have their Islamic studies at the mosque within the camp compound. This mosque, constructed by the landlord, serves as a madrassa for the children. Some of the children also go to an informal school run by a local NGO, which is specifically for Rohingya children. They also help out in the camp with the daily chores; the most essential task is fetching drinking water every couple of days from a local water distribution hub. For non-drinking water, the camp can access a bore well in the grounds.

Sanitation is, as might be expected, deplorable. There are a total of eight toilets, three of which are clogged. What really compounds the situation is the faulty ad hoc drainage system. Solid and liquid waste from the toilets goes out of the camp through a pipe and ends up on the road. Locals address this situation by dumping sand over the pipe, clogging it. The sewage then finds its way back into the camp, sometimes reaching knee height and flooding the tents. This flooding also happens every monsoon season.

The camp is exposed to waste from the toilet that flows through it. (Kashif Ali)

The camp is exposed to waste from the toilet that flows through it. (Kashif Ali)

The next visits will hopefully delve more into how the women inside the camps are being treated, what their concerns are and how marriages, births, pregnancies, abortions and other female health matters are dealt with. What does stability mean for children in this camp? Given the acute water scarcity in Hyderabad – a shortage of drinking water is expected during the summer months – how is the community coping? We walked away hungry for answers but realizing that the questions will have to be judiciously distributed over several trust-building conversations.

This is the first report from Kashif Ali’s ongoing documentation of life in the Rohingya camps of Hyderabad.

Children at the camp do not have access to formal schooling. For the time being they attend Islamic studies at the mosque. (Kashif Ali)

Children at the camp do not have access to formal schooling. For the time being they attend Islamic studies at the mosque. (Kashif Ali)

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