Short Story: The Refuge(e) by Sabiha Huq
Vultures or the army, who were the worse predators?
They came in huge numbers when the Myanmar Government ordered the evacuation of our village. Do vultures heed government orders? Perhaps they do, why else would they accompany the military jeeps through the nights? I saw them sitting on the branches, witnessing the military slowly march into the villages, hunt all the young men, ransack the houses, and finally push the families through the Bangladesh border.
I did not want to leave but they entered my house, looted our valuables, and… oh, the physical torture is unspeakable in public. I was gang raped in front of my speechless children who forgot to cry after waking up at midnight. When the military left and there was graveyard silence, only the vultures screeched, feasting on the dead bodies lying in the yards and streets. In a petrified village, I and the other women were preparing for our unknown journey to a foreign territory.
My children were literally hanging on me. The youngest, a daughter only five months old, was in my lap; the eldest, a boy, was clumsily hanging on my sari like a bat on a palm tree. My second is a daughter, who was standing behind me, hiding her tiny face out of fear. I usually wore lungis and scarves, but while leaving the village I carefully wore a sari from my trunk. Rashda, my neighbour, also came to me in her tattered petticoat, to ask for a sari. Her husband and eldest son were killed; she was fleeing with me with her remaining children.
I looked around for Rashda; she was lost in the crowd. I was attempting to reach my husband’s friend Jalil in Bangladesh. Jalil was a timber merchant and used to visit us in Myebon sometimes. I continued without Rashda.
I first met my husband when he was just back from Yangon after finishing high school and he was working in the timber factory. He was tall, handsome and proud of his education, as most of the other workers could not cross the elementary school in the village. He was full of ideas, rebellious ideas, of course, for he thought much of Aung San Suu Kyi who had been house-arrested and tortured by the dictator. He used to visit the town regularly to take part in the anti-government processions. On his return he would gather the young men of the village to discuss political issues, emphasizing the importance of Suu Kyi’s release. My older brother was one of the gathered youths of the village who was equally interested in freeing Suu Kyi from her house arrest. Sometimes the gatherings took place in our front yard and I was supposed to provide puffed rice or homemade cakes or biscuits to the gathering.
I usually did not participate in their conversations but sometimes my husband (we were not yet engaged then) would ask me this and that regarding politics. I did not have much to say, only I would tease them by saying, “Suu Kyi would be lost if you were not here, she is waiting for you – her prince, to release her from the custody of the giant.” I would giggle at this but my husband’s face would become grave and dark. I would then feel sorry for my frivolous behavior and surreptitiously go inside the house.
I was the prettiest in the village, and a little educated. My father named me Mya, which means emerald, because I was born with bright greenish eyes. Not a Muslim name in particular, but he thought I would feel at home with other girls in the school if I have a common Burmese name. I went to the primary school and I learned to recite the Quran from my mother. My father took me to Bagan once, where I discovered the beauty of the stupas, the towers of the pagodas, and when I came home I was full of gossip. No other girl roamed that far at that time, and I was treated with some respect for that. My husband had his eye on me from the beginning and once he found me alone in the yard, he expressed his feelings about me. I asked him to send proposal to my parents via my brother, his friend, and he did so.
I recalled those past events while walking but the children could not walk anymore. We sat at the roadside and waited for some vehicle to approach us. When I had crossed the border I saw some people around us, but now I don’t see anybody. Where did all the people go? Were they killed and their dead bodies thrown into the river? Did they get permission to stay and move forward? The street lamps were mocking at our darkened bodies. The little one had suckled of me and was now asleep in my lap. I thought of buying some food for the other two and myself. The only shop standing close to us was open and there were some men sitting in the front benches, and I did not dare to go near. My bowels now shuddered at the very sight of men.
But dire necessities perhaps subsume fears after a time. With trepidation, after how long I cannot remember, I gathered courage and went to the shop. After all, I hardly had anything much left to lose of my womanhood.
“Brother, give me a pack of bread.” I told the shopkeeper.
After the children had eaten, the shopkeeper kindly let them drink water from his jug and offered me a cup of tea. I was glad and my eyes were filled with tears. I accepted the offer with a hesitant shyness.
“Coming from Yangon, na?”
“No, from Myebon.”
“How far is that from Yangon?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never been to Yangon, but it shouldn’t be far because people say it takes about five hours by a bus. It is closer to Bago though.”
“I see. Where will you go?”
“To Chandanaish. Is there a bus that I can take?”
“No, not at this hour.”
“What will I do then?”
“You can stay the night in my house and in the morning take your bus to Chandanaish or wherever.”
I did not know what to say. This kindness and sympathy should have been responded with equally strong gratefulness, but my mind could not accept the offer without suspicions arising out of fear that had traumatized my entire existence.
“Who else lives with you?”
“I have a daughter and my wife. Don’t worry. You are like my sister and the children seem to be very tired. You should take some rest.”
I was on the verge of collapsing; even in the dark the man could see my distress. I accepted his offer and when he closed the shop we came to his house. It was a slum, built with mud and thatches. His wife was paralyzed for years and his daughter was almost my age. I felt like bathing but I could not say this to the man. The daughter understood and asked me if I wanted to go to the tube well for washing up. I cleaned the children first and let them sleep on the floor where a kantha, a sheet made of old saris, was spread to make our bed. When the children slept, I came to the tube well and rinsed my body thoroughly as if I wanted the scorching touch of the beasts to go off my body. When I came to the floor bed, I could not hold myself anymore. My sobs must have woken up the girl, the shopkeeper’s daughter, and she came up to me.
“Don’t cry. There are thousands of women like you who are coming here everyday, being raped and tortured, relatives killed,” she placed a hand on my shoulder, “Many don’t even make it to the border. You are lucky. We will take you to the rehabilitation centre tomorrow.”
“She has a relative somewhere near Chandanaish. She wants to go there.” said her father who was also awake.
“I may go to the centre, if you suggest.”
“There they will ask you for details.”
I could not sleep till it was almost dawn. The baby suckled and other two cried in their sleep. When I woke up, it was broad daylight. I found the daughter of the man making ghute or cow dung cakes for fuel in the uthan, the front yard.
“There is rice for you in the kitchen.” She told me.
The children woke up and we cleaned ourselves in the tube well and ate the rice kept for us with mashed potato and lentil. The food tasted like manna!
I was eager to go to the rehab as soon as possible. The girl told me she would take me once she was done with the ghute.
It was almost noon when we arrived at the centre and I was scared to see so many people in a small place. There was the stench of urine everywhere. Small children crying in their mothers’ laps, old men coughing and spitting, old women sobbing and crying in pain, the place looked like hell to me. I settled in one corner of the floor with my kids who became unusually quiet. The shopkeeper’s daughter left us as she had to cook for her parents and feed her mother. I didn’t know when we would eat again.
Suddenly there was a stir in the crowd. “Khichuri,” shouted someone. I understood it. Rice mixed with lentil and spices, the yellow colour was splendid. I moved a little forward to see how one shared the meal. Everyone had plates and dishes to receive it. Someone nearby told me to bring a banana leaf if I didn’t have a plate. Where would I find one here? I found a plastic bag on the floor, dirty with mud and something rotten. I swept it with the end of my sari and spread it in front of the man who was distributing the food. He looked up at me and asked, “Are you new?”
“Okay, first register your entry. Then you can have a share of the food.”
He called someone to collect information from me. I retreated to my corner of the room and told my name, my husband’s name. He took my records carefully and led me to the queue of khichuri takers.
I was startled by this sudden call. I was almost over with my food, having fed my children a few morsels as well; but I was not ready for a call as yet.
“I am here.”
“Apa from the NGO wants to talk to you.”
Apa must be a woman as Apa meant sister, I was assured. I hurriedly stood up and took the children with me. I was given a narrow passage in the crowd and made my way to the next room. A young woman was sitting behind a small desk. She looked up from some papers and asked me to sit.
“I heard that you speak good Bangla; where did you learn it?”
“Our language is almost similar to the local language they speak here, Apa. Besides, my husband had friends from Bangladesh and we used to visit them, and they visited us too. I learned some Bangla words from them.”
“I see. Impressive!”
“Will you send us back?”
There was a frown on the lady’s face. “If you want to go back.”
“I don’t want to, Apa. They will kill me and my children.” Then I narrated how my husband was killed by the army, I was raped and the villagers fled for their lives. I was sobbing too much and the little baby started crying. My elder children looked at me quietly, as if they couldn’t cry even. Their tears were dried up.
The NGO woman told me that she would arrange for a staying place for me and the children but I had to have my ID card first. She would also arrange for that.
Three days passed. Nothing happened. We were given khichuri and bread twice a day, and kids eagerly waited for the time when food arrived. I was disgusted with wearing one sari for days on end, but there was no way I could change it. On the fourth day there was uproar again. “We will get clothes”, “Bangladesh Government has sent relief”, “the reporters have come”, “we are going to be sent back,” such speculations were rife among the crowd of huddled men and women.
I was asked to visit the office again. The young lady whom we called ‘Apa’ told me that the reporters would take my photo and make a feature on my flight from Myanmar. The reporters asked my children to cry while taking the photo and asked me many questions. They asked me to describe how my husband was killed. I narrated as much as I could, but there are obviously human limitations of expressing personal grief. It was indescribable how my husband’s corpse was run over by military jeeps and how his blood bespattered bowels churned out and was devoured by the vultures.
I will certainly remember the date 6 September, 2017 – the papers had published my story on that day. ‘Apa’ called me to her room to show me the reports. There was a photo of myself and the children, and Apa told me that they had written about my husband’s murder in a vivid and sympathetic manner. She was irritated because on the very day there was another report on Suu Kyi’s comment on our problem. The de-facto leader of Myanmar had told the world that the Rohingya crisis was ‘fake’ and some terrorists were misleading the world with false information. I recalled a day when my husband was full of joy when he came back from the town in July, 1995. Suu Kyi had been released from her house arrest for the first time. And later in 2002, my husband even went to Yangon to participate in the rallies at the capital when she was released for the second time. Were Suu Kyi’s comments a reward he was receiving for all his devotion towards her? After all those years, was my husband getting an honour from his ideal leader, the lady of genocide? Am I a terrorist? Are my children guilty of misinforming the world? Apa also told me that there was an international organization trying to solve our problem, and it was also pushing the Bangladesh Government to accept us as refugees. I didn’t quite understand all of it though.
I was trying to send news to Jalil, my husband’s friend, all this while so that he would come and take us to his home. The NGO people were kind enough and Jalil received our news. Late September he arrived and wanted to take us with him. I told Apa that I would stay at Jalil’s place till she manages to get my ID card and a place to live. Apa said it would take time.
We came to Jalil’s place by a bus and then by an auto-rickshaw. Jalil’s wife didn’t seem too happy with our arrival. She remained quiet while we cleaned ourselves and ate supper with the family. I understood that she took us as intruders and didn’t want us to stay long. I asked Jalil if there was a problem and he said that there were always some or the other crisis as the pahari-Bengali conflict persisted. As I and the children looked more like paharis there might be some talk among the people in the village. I didn’t want to stay any longer but Jalil said that he would manage if anything happens. I couldn’t be sure; nonetheless my tired limbs and overwrought brains were aching for sleep. I don’t even know when I passed out.
Next morning there was news that the Bangladesh Government had accepted us as refugees, although they also wanted the world to push the Myanmar Government to take us back. The prime minister of the country boldly supported us but at the same time asked the world to create safe zones for us in Myanmar. I asked Jalil if I should leave immediately. He was confused and didn’t know what to say. Jalil called the centre and they didn’t know anything too. Afterwards it was settled that we stay with them as long as there is no news from the centre.
Three months have passed since then. I have started working at a rich man’s house close to Jalil’s house. The children stay with Jalil’s children and his wife has become less indifferent these days with them. She occasionally smiles at the kids and takes care of the little one while I am away. It gives me some solace too that I can contribute to Jalil’s already strained finances a little now and then.
We cannot return to certain points of our personal history to erase them, rewrite them or even embrace them as we feel like.
I wonder what awaits my children’s fate, what will they be, if they would ever settle on becoming either Bangladeshis or Burmese. I do not know my identity. Maybe I will return to my village one day; or maybe an identity card will be issued in my name, and I will become a citizen of this country, but then I will always be in exile. My village, my home, my husband –taken away for good; and I will only have dreams of them, dreams of restoration; dreams of return. We cannot return to certain points of our personal history to erase them, rewrite them or even embrace them as we feel like. There is an old Burmese saying, “If you really want honesty, then don’t ask questions you don’t really want the answer to,” and I know the world cannot be honest to me. So, I have stopped asking questions these days. I want no truth, no honesty, no justice, only a few yards of earth to live with my children in a house that I can call my own.
About the author
Sabiha Huq teaches English at Khulna University, Bangladesh. She occasionally writes and translates stories, some of which have been published in newspapers and magazines.