In August 2019, I met a young Rohingya girl through Nando Soibam whose NGO runs Open Shelter Home situated at Khurai Thongam Leikai and Ujjawala Project Home situated at Khurai Nandhabam Leikai. The girl is Zuhara Bibi, daughter of Alim Miya and Rojiya Katu, both deceased, from Baguna Alleiywa Village of the Rakhine State, Myanmar. Her parents, she said, were murdered by the Myanmar soldiers during the military crackdown in 2017. She and her siblings – a brother and a sister – had escaped the same fate but after fleeing their home lost contacts with one another. In August of 2019, she found herself living in Open Shelter Home in Imphal. This the story of her incredible journey and how fate landed her here.
Her story begins in the wake of the crisis of the Rohingya people in Myanmar in what the United Nations has described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Zuhara Bibi like most other displaced and traumatized Rohingya people found rehabilitation in refugee camps at Cox Bazar, Bangladesh. According to Al Jazeera news, more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslim people fled Myanmar for Bangladesh after a military offensive in August in 2017.
I interviewed Zuhara Bibi in August 2019. She was only 16 then. In the interview, she had said to me that she had met a man named Lalu whom she had met in Bangladesh at Cox Bazar and that he had told her that he knew how to get her away from Cox Bazar to Hyderabad in India where Zuhara’s maternal side relatives were.
A letter written to the project officer of Imphal branch of FXB India Suraksha by I. Bikramjit Singh, chairperson of Child Welfare Committee, Imphal East Manipur, states that Zuhara Bibi along with two minors were rescued by personnel of Jiribam P.S from Babupara, Jiribam Bazar, on February 1 in 2018 while carrying out frisking and checking duty in front of CID (SB)/FCP office, Jiribam, in an Imphal bound passenger vehicle coming from Fulertol, Cachar, Assam and accompanied by one Nasir Ali, 45, son of (L) Nasir Ali of Sigirbond Part – IV West, P.S Lakhipur, Cachar District, Assam.
Since Zuhara was a minor, the Jiribam police contacted N.S Associates’ Project Consultant and also the man who runs the Open Shelter Home in Khurai Thongjam Leikai, Manipur, and handed her over to him as a guardian till the matter was settled.
When I had interviewed Nando Soibam in August 2019, he had said to me, “Only up to 18 years of age, we can keep these children at the homes and they are so young and they need proper care. However, our hands will be tied after they turn 18 because we are only their temporary guardians. According to the relevant laws regarding refugees, we do not have the authority to make any decisions on where they should be sent at after they turn 18.”
Zuhara had told me then that the Human Rights lawyer, Rakesh Meihoubam had applied for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees certificate which will remove the illegal tag on her as a Rohingya during their stay in various places which are offer them a refuge until it is completely safe for them to go back to Rakhine valley in Myanmar.
In May of 2020, I further inquired Nando Soibam on the status of the Rohingya girls and he gave me an interview and also he showed me a copy of an affidavit presented before the Oath Commissioner at Imphal, Manipur by a Md. Azimuddin, 61, S/O Ahmad Fazalof Baguna village tract, Buthingduang township of Rakhine State, Myanmar , who is currently residing at 19/19/9 Royal Colony, Balapure, Hyderabad, India. On the affidavit, it is clearly stated that “Md. Azimuddin is a Rohingya refugee recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), New Delhi” and that he is a guardian of Zuhara Bibi and that “in this regard, The Child Welfare Committee, Imphal East District, passed an order dated 11th September 2019 in Case no. 271/CWC-IE/02-2018, entrusting the care and custody of three minor girls” to him, including Zuhara Bibi.
The affidavit also stated that “the above said three minor girls have already approached the UNHCR, New Delhi, for seeking refugee status and thereafter the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, New Delhi, issued Asylum Seekers Certificate” and that “they required to attend a personal interview at the office of UNHCR, New Delhi for completion of the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process”.
The photo copies of travel itinerary of the girls confirm that the girls travelled to New Delhi along with Md. Azimuddin to New Delhi for the UNHCR interviews. A UNHCR document photo copy further confirms that the UNHCR has issued a UNHCR Asylum Seekers Certificate to Zuhara Bibi on September 5, 2019 valid until March 4, 2020.
Nando Soibam also told me that Zuhara went to Hyderabad with her guardian and uncle Md. Azimuddin from New Delhi. She left Manipur on September, 18, 2019. Zuhara is now married to man living in Malaysia and she is currently residing in Malaysia with her husband. Nando Soibam showed me Zuhara’s photos on his wife’s mobile phone and one photo was of her husband and her on her wedding day. The girl looked charming.
Many other Rohingua refugees are not as lucky as her and continue to languish at Cox Bazar in miserable living condition. According to Al Jazeera, Bangladesh has now imposed a lockdown where many Rohingya people are being hosted in an attempt to prevent the spread of the corona virus and that entry and exit from Cox’ Bazar district has been prohibited after 218 cases and 20 deaths due to coronavirus were reported.