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Monday, Dec 16, 2019

Desolation through the looking glass

With the Rohingya community’s condition deteriorating day by day, Habiburahman, a Rohingya himself, with French journalist Sophie Ansel, try to give voice to the voiceless

books Updated: Oct 25, 2019 16:16 IST
Navneet Vyasan
Navneet Vyasan
Hindustan Times
(Photo: Alamy )

I am three years old and will have to grow up with the hostility of others. I am already an outlaw in my own country, an outlaw in the world. I am three years old, and I don’t yet know that I am stateless,” writes a Rohingya refugee, in his biography, First, they Erased Our Name. Habiburahman, who fled to Australia before being detained for almost three years, reminisces the time when on the summer of 1982 the then Burmese government (now Myanmar), out of the blue, refused to identify them as a community leaving millions of helpless Rohingya, essentially stateless. French journalist and author, Sophie Ansel, who helped him pen his biography talks about what it took to bring out the life of a Rohingya, for the first time ever. Excerpts:

Being an experienced journalist, there must have been something that you saw which affected you strongly with respect to the Rohingya community?

I, personally, got to know Rohingya through my travels in Arakan State and in Burma, on and off, from 2005 until 2012. I spent a fair amount of time in Arakan State where they have been hostage for decades. It was challenging and intimidating to access Rohingya villages as both authorities and Rakhine Buddhists were very suspicious on any travel of tourists and foreigners to Rohingya villages. I could feel the fear and misery of Rohingya when wandered in Rohingya villages. I had the opportunity to walk in a village called Nazi village who happened to be the place where Haibib’s grandmother lived and that has been wiped off the map in 2012.

Sophie has spent almost seven years with the community and knows their painful plight well
Sophie has spent almost seven years with the community and knows their painful plight well

When did you meet Habiburahman?

I met Habib in 2006, after he escaped Burma, and we have kept in touch for many years until he escaped to Australia by boat in 2009. It was decades since Rohingya have suffered a slow-burning genocide, ethnic cleansing and apartheid. Yet, their stories seemed to have been unheard to the world. Just as their name was unknown worldwide.

After all these years, the plight of the community seems to have fallen on deaf ears…

It takes intimacy in storytelling for people to relate and develop sensitivity to tragedies. And this can occur through understanding the personal life journey of one. Biography is a way to connect to humans. Therefore, we all relate to the stories that starts from a place where we all have been through. Having worked and researched on Myanmar and its refugee stories since 2006, the story of Habib was quite representative of what many Rohingya had suffered. Also, Habib has always been someone very aware of his rights despite them been denied.

Of late, we’re witnessing a number of countries being subject to ethnic cleansing. Sometimes, when people become onlookers to something for a long time, they inadvertently become insensitive…

I don’t feel the large extent of the ethnic cleansing is a specific reason why people are becoming insensitive. The proportion of massacres should actually raise more sensitivity and awareness, more reactions and humanitarian demands. I feel people are becoming insensitive because they do not try to read and understand others. Our world is becoming very egocentric because the system generally does not promote empathy. The world and the education system need to cultivate more empathy rather than competitiveness and self-centered interests.

The root of ethnic cleansing lies in racism, half-way through the book we read that Habiburahman’s called ‘kalar’. How deep rooted is racism when it comes to ethnic cleansing?

Yes, racism is key to ethnic cleansing. Moreover, it is the key that triggers it. Unsurprisingly, it’s exactly what promoted intolerance and violence against the Rohingya.

Habiburahman is one name who’s survived this onslaught, what are the steps ahead? For you and for him to better the lives of the unheard?

It’s been a long process to get this book out. Ideally, the objective would be for this book to be read by Burmese people who mainly have had a biased version of who are the Rohingya and lack of understanding of what the life of Rohingya people have been like. Through this book, they may understand that both the Rohingya and the Burmese have suffered a similar dictature for decades and that the enemy is not the Rohingya but those who have made suffered both The Rohingya and all the other ethnicities of Burma. Once this would be understood by the whole population, then maybe unity can bring the prosecutors to justice. and justice be given back to the Rohingya. So hopefully the book will make its way as an education tool and as a tool to increase understanding and ultimately promote tolerance, knowledge, empathy and reconciliation in Burma.