For a long time, I associated Myanmar only with its military junta, the democracy crusader Aung San Suu Kyi and the Buddhist-majority population. My outlook changed when I read about the Rohingya Muslims, the atrocities faced by them, the attitude of Suu Kyi,and the tag of being the ‘most persecuted community in the world’.

Even though I empathised with the community and advocated their cause during discussions on the Myanmar, which were rare, I had never thought I would get a chance to meet and interact with the refugees personally so soon.

Training to be a journalist in the south Indian city of Chennai, a professor mentioned, during a lecture, that the United Nations Human Rights Council had set up a refugee camp for about a hundred Rohingya Muslims in one of the suburbs of the city.

I had to visit them.

The makeshift kitchen at the refugee camp

Not only do they live without a global address, it was difficult to find their local address too. I won’t be surprised if one passes by the community hall without a second look. The only way to identify the camp was that it was bang opposite to the Government Primary Health Care Centre.

As I entered the hall, I was welcomed with curious eyes of the women and kids came running toward me. The murky and blue building had many ‘rooms’ divided by walls made of tattered, useless clothes sewed together. But there were some lucky families to have durable plastic walls.

Many have been living in the area since 2012 and were made to shift base from one place to other till the National Human Rights Commission pulled up the Tamil Nadu government and the present community hall became home for them and a refugee camp for us.

When I asked a young and shy boy, Shahbad, about what made them leave home, he told me just one thing and ran away. “The Buddhists beat us, kill us, they rape our women.” Even though I knew through media reports that they were loathed by the majority, that one sentence made me freeze. They were forced to leave their homes after a bloody crackdown by the army in their home state of Rakhine.

A child belonging to the Rohingya Muslim community at a refugee camp near Chennai

An elder of the tribe Mohammad Rafiq explained the situation in detail. “They have emulated small kids with petrol and diesel, they burnt down our houses, and they even raped my own sister and mother. They took hundreds of our women to the hills and raped them. To save our lives and dignity, we have taken refuge in India.” Time and again, Rafiq praised India for giving them refuge.

“Those who could run went to different countries. We managed to come to India,” said Taslima while waiting for the common tap to throw out water. That tap was the only source of water for them; water did not run in any of the taps in the washrooms.

Later, Taslima brought her husband’s e-tablet; a cheap one but precious as it helped the refugees to stay connected with the latest news and incidents in Myanmar, especially Rakhine. A group of women surrounded me and talked about their experiences in excitement. They showed a series of heart-wrenching videos and photos of the atrocities committed against them by the military. While pointing to a video, she said, “Do you see these women? They all have been raped by the army.”

“Look at this video! Last week, a pregnant woman was killed and her child was pulled out after piercing through her stomach,” said another.

In one of the better rooms of the camp

“Can you see this open drain? It is filled with bodies of our people. The Buddhists don’t like us, they want to kill us for our land,” said Imtiaz, a 23 year-old girl as she put her month old baby to sleep.

After sometime I caught hold of the shy boy again, Shahbad, who told me that he first went to Bangladesh by boat with many others, but they weren’t allowed to stay there. So he went to Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, and then went to Jammu, in North India. “I stayed there for 3-4 months in a shanty. I was a rag-picker there too. What other work will I get? I don’t know the language. Now, I am here.”

The touts, no doubt help these people escape the atrocities, but they strip them off their savings. The boat journey from Myanmar to Bangladesh cost around 6-7 thousand Burmese kyats per person. Rafiq managed to flee with his family of five and paid about 40,000 kyats to escape and had to start from the scratch when he reached this land unknown to him.

Mohammad Rafiq in the centre with fellow refugees

In this camp, there were many like Shahbad who had been shifted from Jammu refugee camp, while some came directly from Bangladesh. “In Jammu, we had to pay the rent of the rooms; at least here we don’t have to bear that cost. But we still don’t have any savings, the 200-300 rupees which the men earn in a day gets spent on the food,” said Shahida, a 15 year-old girl who was made to drop out from school when she turned 12.

They refugees had constructed a makeshift mosque in the camp premises. Though they were allowed to go to the nearest mosque, but they find it was far to make multiple visits. Though it looked unstable and not very pleasant, but I am sure the strongest and most sincere prayers arebe made from these four walls. As I peeped from a distance, I saw a small blackboard was hung which informed of the timings of Namaaz and four men praying.

The men make ends meet by rag-picking, mainly plastic, and earned a daily income of about 250 rupees by selling it to the wholesaler. “Though many people suggested that extra income can be earned we, the women folk worked as housemaids, but religion doesn’t permit us to work,” explained Imtiaz.

The prayer room or what they consider their mosque in the camp

Talking about the struggle to find a better job, 18 year-old Mohammad Ayub said, “The UNHRC has given us refugee cards which save us from the police and being evicted from the country, but we need the Aadhar Card for better jobs which is not so easy for us to obtain, so we make do with the present situation.”

There was a makeshift kitchen outside with a tin roof and five mud stoves. The women collected their personal firewood and cooked food in turns.“You can’t leave without having lunch, let me make you anda-parantha, said Salma, a middle age woman. As I left the camp, I was reminded of the powerful poem by the Palestinian political activist, Rafeef Ziadah – “We teach life, sir.”