Rohingya man refugee again 40 years after leaving Bangladesh

Alexandre MARCHAND
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Rohingya refugee Fazol Ahmed's family fled an earlier wave of violence against the Muslim minority in Myanmar's Rakhine state in 1978, when he was still a child

Nearly four decades ago Fazol Ahmed returned to his native Myanmar with his family under a Rohingya repatriation scheme. Now he is back in the teeming camps of Bangladesh with his wife and children, a refugee once again.

Ahmed is among the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have crossed into Bangladesh since an upsurge in violence in neighbouring Myanmar in August that the UN has said amounts to ethnic cleansing.

Unlike most, he has been here before.

Ahmed's family fled an earlier wave of violence against the Muslim minority in Myanmar's Rakhine state in 1978, when he was still a child.

"We couldn't take it any more," he said, recalling the campaign of violence that forced his family of rice farmers from their village in mainly Buddhist Myanmar in 1978.

"They were kidnapping young people. They killed some and demanded ransoms for others," he said, accusing the Myanmar army and the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who also inhabit the state.

Ahmed, who gave his age as 41 though his white-flecked beard and testimony suggest he is older, said there were far more people in the camps this time round.

His story -- recounted to AFP on a bamboo bench in Kutupalong, the largest of the camps -- underscores the intractable nature of the unfolding refugee crisis.

Impoverished, overcrowded Bangladesh is now home to nearly a million Rohingya refugees, the majority of whom have arrived in less than two months.

Most live in desperate conditions with limited access to food, clean water or proper sanitation.

Dhaka has made clear it wants them to return to Myanmar and is in talks with the government about taking them back.

But Ahmed's experience demonstrates the difficulty of negotiating a lasting return to a country mired in a cycle of hate, where the Rohingya are reviled as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

- Firing rocket launchers -

Last time around, Ahmed's family spent eight months in Bangladesh before returning under an agreement between the two countries' governments whereby around 200,000 refugees were repatriated.

After two days of interrogation in an internment camp in Myanmar they arrived in their village of Shil Khali in Maungdaw, the district nearest the border with Bangladesh, to find their house damaged and all their crops destroyed.

"We went to the hills and cut down trees to rebuild the house. It took three to six months to return to normal work," he recalls.

Once the returned refugees were finally back on their feet, he said, their Buddhist neighbours returned to extort money from them.

Decades passed and Ahmed married. His wife gave birth to four sons and two daughters.

Then in late August this year, he was preparing for early morning prayers when he heard a series of explosions.

He rushed outside and saw fire in the distance.

"The army was firing rocket launchers at houses and mosques," he said.

Ahmed and his relatives rushed into the jungle before their own village came under attack.

Hoping to return to retrieve at least some of their possessions, he said he hid in the undergrowth and watched as soldiers took women into the houses and slit the throats of young children.

"The soldiers gathered the men on the side of the road and tied their hands behind their backs," he recalled.

The killing lasted three hours before the villagers' bamboo homes were doused in petrol and set alight.

Ahmed watched as his village went up in flames before fleeing into the hills to join his family who had hidden there.

For two days they survived on leaves before finally resolving to cross the Naf river, a natural frontier between the two countries, and go into exile in Bangladesh.

Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been severely criticised for her failure to curb the military crackdown, has said the country would take back "verified" refugees.

But for Ahmed and others like him, that provides little hope.

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