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Digging with defiance

  • Published at 03:51 pm September 6th, 2019
All they want is peace / MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

How the Rohingya farm for vegetables in No Man’s Land

The Rohingya camps of Bangladesh are associated with deforestation, soil erosion, and other potentially irreversible environmental problems. The challenge for the authorities is to stabilize the environment of the camps and at the same time increase greening and provide nutrition. 

Vegetable garden schemes exist to some extent in the camps, introduced by various organizations, including the IOM and FAO. However, it appears that the vegetable gardens located in the No Man’s Land Rohingya encampment, where absolutely no support has been provided, have not only fared well, but have contributed to community cohesion and self-sufficiency. 

This article looks at the origins of this community and the political significance of their vegetable gardening.

If you drive towards Teknaf, the southern-most tip of Bangladesh, past the dismal and sprawling Rohingya refugee camps of Kutupalong and Balukhali, you will encounter a road turning on the left near Gundum. This will someday become the Tran-Asian Highway connecting Bangladesh to Myanmar, Thailand, and beyond. 

If you take that turn and somehow get past the three Bangladesh Border Guard (BGB) sentry posts on the road to Taung Pyo No Man’s Land Rohingya settlement (also known as Tombru), you will see vegetable crops on both sides of the narrow winding rural road, and to your east you will see the barbed wire fence erected by Myanmar. 

As you approach the border settlement, you will encounter a final BGB check post. There, once you have been given the all clear by the armed 34th Battalion border guards in their distinctive brown and green uniforms, you can proceed to view the Rohingya settlement on No Man’s Land -- an encampment which has become a thorn in the side of the Myanmar authorities.

You will not be allowed to cross into the settlement unless you happen to be working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the only organization allowed access to the 4,500 residents of the strip of land in No Man’s Land. Your movements will be strictly confined to the Bangladesh side of the zero line border pillar. 

From this point you will see a small canal, and on the other side an embankment lined with dusty and dilapidated looking huts made from tarpaulin, plastic, and bamboo. There are naked toddlers and young children, and some will be playing in the small amount of water in the canal. 

People will have hung out their washing on bamboo washing lines. There are chickens running around, and here and there you will see men sitting around and chatting. And you will see vegetable patches. Everywhere.

Whilst not exactly a peaceful sight, it is at least not as acutely dispiriting as the sights in the aforementioned refugee camps. Until, that is, your gaze falls on the barbed wire barrier erected by Myanmar. 

The size, presence, and proximity are disconcerting. And you will begin to recall that it was only in late August 2017 that the Myanmar military were burning, killing, and raping their way through northern Rakhine State. All along this very border area, clouds of dark smoke emanated from burning Rohingya villages. Land mines planted near Taung Pyo Let Yar, a few hundred metres from the settlement, killed and maimed several fleeing Rohingya. 

Elephants have been killed too. And now the forces responsible are within spitting distance of the Rohingya encamped at Taung Pyo. Only they don’t spit. The Myanmar Border Guard Police (BGP) strike and intimidate the residents in other ways -- by broadcasting with megaphones, throwing rubbish, and pelting people with slingshots. Far more seriously, they have fired live rounds injuring three Rohingya children in two separate incidents.

In many ways, members of this community are at the frontline of the unprecedented humanitarian crisis that has engulfed Rohingya in Rakhine state. When the clearance operations were launched by the Tatmadaw on August 25, they ran for their lives and clambered over the fence into No Man’s Land. 

Most of them hail from nearby hamlets on the Myanmar side. Many were prevented from entering into Bangladesh by the BGB. However, within a matter of weeks, they had actively decided against entering Bangladesh proper even though it would have been possible for them to do so and instead decided to stay put. 

Deprived of Myanmar citizenship, labelled as Bengali, rendered stateless and freshly deprived of their livelihood, land, and property, fate brought them to a patch of land without sovereignty of either state. Being within striking distance of the Myanmar military, members of this community are effectively standing up for their own security and this is a forceful statement to make by a people regularly depicted as wretched and perpetual victims.

Unlike the refugees in the camps on Bangladeshi soil, their contact with life beyond their encampment is mediated by the ICRC and the BGB. The plethora of other INGOs, humanitarian organizations, and charities have no access to this community. Whether this has contributed to their self-reliance is an interesting point.

Their existence on this tract of land (the size of which is around 40 football pitches) has been difficult to say the least. “We live apprehensively,” declares Dil Mohammed, a resident of No Man’s Land. A psychology graduate from Yangon University, he was formerly a businessman and has emerged as the community’s spokesperson. 

As foreign officials like to visit this curious No Man’s Land settlement, Dil Mohammed has probably met more ministers and dignitaries than any other Rohingya on the planet. He is also a gardener these days.

In other contexts, community vegetable gardening promotes community identification to place. Pride even. I asked Dil Mohammed whether the same applied here. He replied: “Look, most of us were agriculturalists in Myanmar. Some of us can see our land from that hill. And so doing this in this country is no comfort at all. We belong over there over that fence. Not here!”

Nevertheless, he acknowledges that there have been some very positive externalities. The food provided by the ICRC does not include fresh vegetables. “They don’t even give chilies,” Mohammed says. Only rice, lentils, chickpeas, oil, salt, and sugar are provided every two weeks. 

The nutritional benefits of growing spinach, marrows, gourds, aubergines, and other vegetables, in such circumstances, are obvious. In addition to that, the gardening activity has resulted in greater community cohesion. Not everyone has a patch next to his hut to plant crops. 

Those who do are often helped by those who do not -- perhaps to dig the furrows or mend the fencing or putting up trellises and other work. In return, they receive vegetables. This kind of exchange has helped strengthen their resilience.

Seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides are bought from local Bangladeshis. The No Man’s Land community have not been the beneficiaries of Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) seed distribution. 

Similarly, whilst Rohingya in the camps are now receiving gas cylinders, a prerequisite for reducing the pressure on forests for fuel, Rohingya in No Man’s Land are not permitted to use gas stoves as the BGB will not permit gas cylinders to be taken into No Man’s Land. 

Yet ICRC (Bangladesh) only provides 20kg of fuelwood per family of five. This, according to the Taung Pyo community, does not last even two weeks.

Critically, food distribution has historically been used as a coercive instrument by both Bangladesh and Myanmar. Put another way, starving refugees has been the strategy of choice in past repatriation plans. 

The Taung Pyo community believe they may soon be subject to coercive strategies. And they have good reason to think so. In this context, growing their own food is like setting the stage before the drama unfolds to prepare the actors and participants for the event.

On August 11, 2018, Myanmar made a request to Bangladesh Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali to stop providing the No Man’s Land refugees with food aid. They proposed that the supply responsibility be taken over by the ICRC from the Myanmar side. 

A month later on September 12, 2018, officials of ICRC (Myanmar) turned up at the Taung Pyo settlement and spoke to the refugees from across the Myanmar side of the barrier. At the time, Dil Mohammed made it clear to ICRC (Myanmar) that the community would not accept food aid from them. It would be tantamount to surrendering the received humanitarian aid to full Myanmar control. 

Mohammed rebuffed ICRC (Myanmar) proposals and instead suggested that the ICRC goes back to the Myanmar government and tells them to create conditions in Rakhine state conducive to Rohingya return. Three months later, on December 20, 2018, ICRC (Bangladesh) announced to a gathering of majhis from No Man’s Land a decrease in the amount of food rations to be distributed to the community. Only sugar and oil are affected, and from January 2019, these would be decreased to the tune of 50% for sugar and 25% for oil.

Unsurprisingly, the community are concerned about this sudden change. Are they at the top of a slippery slope? It all began early in 2018 with loud hailer announcements by the Myanmar Border Police threatening the refugees and telling them to move off from No Man’s Land -- either by entering Bangladesh or returning to Myanmar. 

Now the Taung Pyo community fears that the push-factor of food restrictions is what is being deployed. Whilst the ICRC maintain that the reductions do not affect WHO guidelines of 2100Kcal per day, what this change actually does is to effectively prevent the refugees from selling on the little extra they had. And from this income they would buy essential food and household stuff.

The Myanmar government narrative is that the Taung Pyo community harbours Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents and they constitute a security risk. They have made such unsubstantiated statements at press conferences and at flag meetings (meetings between the respective border guard forces of Bangladesh and Myanmar), even to the extent of accusing Bangladesh of training ARSA.

In reality, the Taung Pyo community is sick and tired of persecution and violence and their countless deprivations. To them, Myanmar knows only force, and now even humanitarian agencies are acting at Myanmar’s behest to strip away their food security. 

The Rohingya at the border see themselves as engaged in a fundamental act of peace -- growing food to feed their own. An act of peace and an act of defiance in the face of overwhelming forces wishing ill upon them. Yet for the rest of us, we see them move closer to the “fate” they have been forewarned about. 

Shafiur Rahman is a documentary film-maker.

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