Wednesday, March 06, 2019

People without a country

Malappuram native Nipin Gangadharan talks about his experiences of dealing with the Rohingyas at camps in Bangladesh. He is the country head of a French NGO

Photos: Nipin Gangadharan; a girl at the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp, at Cox’s Bazaar. Pics taken by Jean Sebastien Duijndam/Action Against Hunger 

By Shevlin Sebastian

In September 2017, the Malappuram native Nipin Gangadharan stood at the entrance of the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp, at Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, as a stream of Rohingya refugees arrived on the back of trucks. They were fleeing the violence meted out by Myanmar soldiers who allegedly burnt their houses, raped their women and shot dead protestors.

Nipin noticed a 40-year-old man. He was standing immobile. “This person looked completely lost,” says Nipin, who is the Country Director of ‘Action Against Hunger’,  a French non-profit humanitarian organisation. “He had this look of horror in his eyes. There was no light on his face. And he was not comprehending what we were saying.”

Nipin immediately understood that more than food and shelter, the man needed psychological help. So he got a counsellor to talk to the man so that the refugee could articulate the trauma he went through and start healing in some way.

This camp is spread over 4000 acres but that is clearly not enough because there are 6.2 lakh people present. “In total, there are nearly 10 lakh Rohingyas in Bangladesh now,” says Nipin.

A lot of the forest land has been denuded because wood had to be cut for cooking. “There has been a lot of damage to the environment,” says Nipin. So now, aid agencies are rushing to provide gas cylinders and solar equipment.   

YouTube videos reveal bamboo huts with thatched roofing. Sometimes, tarpaulins have been used. A child collected water in a plastic bottle from a ditch. The colour, not surprisingly, was yellow. A woman, in a hijab, holding a small child was crying. Another woman, in a long gown, but with a tired looking face, was sleeping on the mud floor of a hut in which the walls had not yet been put up.

And when they do come up, there is a danger that it could come down again. That’s because Cox’s Bazaar is a cyclone-prone area. There is heavy rainfall period between June and September. So the chances of cyclones occurring every year or every other year are very high.

As for the Rohingyas, it has been a time of distress and uncertainty. “They are trying to get used to this new life in the camps,” says Nipin. “The transition has been hard to bear.”

These were people who were living in individual houses, had their own farms and could walk around their homesteads freely and without fear in the state of Rakhine in Myanmar. Now they are living in slum-like conditions, with few social services, and not enough policing. “So that makes it very stressful,” says Nipin. “The people are not comfortable. It’s not nice to be living in a camp-like situation. All of them want to go back to Rakhine. But they want their rights, and to be treated with respect and dignity.”

Meanwhile, when asked about the attitude of the people of Bangladesh, Nipin says, “They feel overwhelmed. When the influx started, there was a deep empathy. The Bangladeshis provided food and water and opened up their homes. But as this influx  continues, tensions are rising.”

One reason is because the Rohingyas are now competing for resources with the local people in an area which is traditionally not very well off. Since the refugees have not been given the right to work, and earn a living, they work in informal economies, doing manual work, which brings down the cost of labour and the locals lose out.

But there is a silver lining. “Because this has become a major humanitarian operation, there are a lot of employment opportunities,” says Nipin. “This benefits the local people. And because of construction activities, a lot of new businesses have come up.”  

Nevertheless, the Bangladesh government do not want the Rohingyas to stay too long. “They want them to go back from where they came from,” says Nipin. “That is the crux of the negotiations that are going on between Myanmar, Bangladesh, regional as well as global powers.”

But Nipin is pessimistic because when you look at the history of forced migration, people don’t go back soon. “The Rohingya crisis has lasted for three decades,” he says. “I believe it will take another two to three decades before the people can start going back.”

Which means that many refugees will probably die in the camps. And the future of the children seems to be bleak.

As for whether any education is being provided, Nipin says, “Education is a bit tough. There is a lack of space. Congestion is quite high. People are crammed in a very small area. But there are many organisations, including UNICEF, which have set up learning spaces where children can come and learn.”

The children have spoken about their dreams of becoming doctors and engineers. But Nipin, with a sad shake of his head says, “They are stateless. So they cannot go anywhere. At the most, they can become teachers in the camps.”

Meanwhile, the question now arises as to whether Myanmar has committed genocide.  “The Canadian Parliament called it a genocide and so did the Americans,” says Nipin. “Genocide is defined as the intent to eliminate a person or a group because of their identity.”

And this has been the case with the Rohingyas. They have been persecuted for decades. And in this recent instance, which triggered the influx into Bangladesh, they were deliberately targeted. “There is a historical background to the hostility between the Rohingyas and the Myanmarese,” says Nipin. “The military junta exacerbated some of these social tensions and converted it into animosity and hatred for the Rohingyas. It is a tragedy because once upon a time, all the communities used to live peacefully together.”


Helping the distressed

Before arriving at Bangladesh in January, 2016, as the country head of the French NGO, ‘Action Against Hunger’, Nipin Gangadharan worked in South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Nepal and the New York offices of the NGO in various capacities.

He has also worked with national and international charity organisations as well as the United States in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan, on reconstruction efforts after the Gujarat Earthquake (2001), and relief and rehabilitation following the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004).

Nipin, who is from Tirur, Malappuram, holds a MA in International Affairs with specialisation in conflict and security issues from the New School University in New York. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram)

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