‘When I write, I exist and so does my community,’ says Rohingya poet Mayyu Ali

·7-min read
© Munir Uz Zaman, AFP

Mayyu Ali is one of the 700,000 or so Rohingya who had to flee Myanmar in the summer of 2017 following abuses committed by the Burmese army. Five years later, the 31-year-old poet continues to give voice to his people through his writings.

"The earth orbits with two different worlds; the hell and the heaven. I left one, to discover the other." One year ago, in September 2021, Mayyu Ali wrote those words as he walked through the door of his new flat in Ontario, Canada, with his wife and young daughter. It marked the end of a long ordeal for the 31-year-old Rohingya poet, who had spent four years in the world's largest refugee camp, Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh.

By chance or a twist of fate, he will be heading to university to study committed literature (littérature engagée) on September 6, five years to the day since he left Myanmar – like 700,000 other Rohingya – to flee army persecution. Since adolescence, he has dreamed of becoming a spokesperson for his community and telling its story. He has already published dozens of poems and, more recently, an autobiography in French, "L'Effacement" (Éditions Grasset), which he co-wrote with journalist Émilie Lopes. "Discrimination, flight, violence... I have seen and experienced everything. It is my duty to tell the world about it," Ali tells FRANCE 24 from Canada.

'To the Burmese government, I don't exist'

Ali was born in 1991 in Maungdaw, Arakan, a Burmese region on the Indian Ocean. The son of a fisherman and the youngest of six children, he recalls "a joyful childhood" spent bathing in the river and playing with his Buddhist and Hindu friends.

"But the joy soon turned to fear," he says. Since a 1982 citizenship law, the Rohingya, who are mostly Muslim, have been stateless, as Myanmar considers them to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh. This status has resulted in them being targeted by the army and Buddhist religious extremists. "One day, when I was about 10 years old, the military raided the homes of all the Rohingya in my neighbourhood. Including my house," he says. "They had a gun in their hands, it was terrifying. That's when it hit me: when I learned that they had not gone to my Buddhist or Hindu friends' homes, I realised that we were being discriminated against."

In the years that followed, the list of injustices faced by his family and friends seemed endless. "My brother was beaten and then thrown in jail for allegedly not paying a tax on his house, my grandfather's land was confiscated. People around me were prevented from working for no reason," he says.

In 2010, Ali was banned from studying English at university because of his ethnicity. Introduced to poetry by his high school English teacher, he had developed a passion for Shakespeare and the Indian author Rabindranath Tagore. The teenager, who had been writing secretly and for pleasure, thus began to take his writing more seriously.

"At the beginning, I wrote a lot about nature, friendship, family...", he explains, immediately smiling again at the mention of his profession. "And then, little by little, I understood that writing could be an act of rebellion. I am Rohingya. To the Burmese government, I don't exist. I am a human being without citizenship, without rights. But when I write, I exist and so does my community."

At a time when abuses against the Rohingya were increasing in Arakan in 2012, this young man took on the challenge of publishing his texts, which he wrote in English and Burmese. A few months later, one of his poems appeared in an English-speaking Burmese literary magazine. "I experienced it as a rebirth. All of a sudden, I became a recognised person with a name."

"That year was a turning point," he explains. "The Rohingya had always been discriminated against, but now the authorities' aim was to make us disappear," he says. He remembers violent riots, deadly fires, the first villages destroyed and the first people that fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. He decided to stay and get involved with associations, notably Action Against Hunger, to help the local population.

A collection of work

Things changed on the evening of August 25, 2017. "I was living in Maungdaw at the time, which was a two-hour bus ride from my parents' home. I was sleeping when my mother called me," he says. "Crying on the phone, she explained to me that the military had set fire to the village. Everything was destroyed." In the days that followed, he witnessed what he describes as "ethnic cleansing". "There was smoke everywhere, bullets were flying, screams were heard, women were being raped," he says, his voice full of emotion.

Like 700,000 other Rohingyas, Ali and his family resigned themselves to fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh. They had to cross a river and walk for three days. "We had to swim among the dead bodies in the river I used to play in as a child," he recalls. Even today, every August 25th, the Rohingya commemorate those days of violence.

As a refugee at Cox's Bazar, Ali kept up his writing. But his verses began to take on another dimension, as he also wanted to remember everything he was seeing. Through his work with humanitarian organisations and journalists, whom he guided through the makeshift shelters, he collected hundreds of testimonies. "I wrote everything down in notebooks. Little girls raped, murders, corruption, hunger, deplorable sanitary conditions," he says. "And I hope that one day it will serve to bring justice."

Because of these actions, armed militias stationed within the camp threatened to kill him. "I had to hide for several months," he says. "But it was also thanks to this that I was able to leave Bangladesh. The associations mobilised to offer me a way out."

Keeping the Rohingya culture alive at all costs

Even though Ali was able to reach Canada a year ago, he continues to be reminded of Cox’s Bazar every time he speaks to his relatives. "My parents and siblings are still there," he says. "They tell me that conditions are getting worse month after month. There is more and more insecurity. Every time there is bad weather, the shelters are destroyed. Diseases are proliferating," he says.

According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), cases of dysentery have increased by 50% compared to 2019 in the camps and skin infections, such as scabies, are exploding. The Rohingya are also concerned about the increase in crime, as around 100 murders have been committed in five years, according to an AFP count. Some of the victims include community leaders who are probably targeted in vendettas by insurgents. Young people, with no prospects for the future, are not allowed to leave the camps or to work. To relieve the camps, the Bangladeshi authorities have transferred some 30,000 refugees to Bhashan Char, an island off the Bay of Bengal.

The young writer remains keen to help. When he is not lobbying the international community to recognise the "genocide" of his people, he is working hard to provide access to education for the children of Cox's Bazar, some of whom were born inside the makeshift camps. "Some of the children have been there for five years, during which time they have been deprived of an education. I refuse to let this be a sacrificed generation," he says. He has managed to set up two schools, with the help of local associations, where the pupils study the Burmese curriculum. "If one day, by some miracle, they return to Burma [Myanmar], they will be able to go back to school," says Ali.

"When we talk about the massacre of the Rohingya, we think of the physical abuse and violence. But our culture and language are also being attacked," he says. "By being refugees, we lose our cultural roots. We have to fight against that. If our culture survives, so does our ethnicity."

Ali continues to devote the rest of his time to his passion – filling up pages. "I want to continue writing, be published in several countries, continue fighting for my people and encourage the international community to act," he says. In March 2022, the US was the first country to recognise the "genocide" perpetrated by the Burmese army against the Rohingya. The poet concludes: "A people, since decades, for being a Muslim minority, still under the blade and bullet. Still in hostile oppression, still in rape and incarceration. Still in fire and fear. Ah! What violence!"

This article is a translation of the original in French.