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The Rohingya of Pakistan

Updated September 17, 2017
Photos by Basil Andrews
Photos by Basil Andrews

Pakistani passports hold no value, at least not to those in power.

“Look at the date of issuance, look at it!” exclaims Mohammad.

“July 31, 1954.”

“And they are still asking us to prove our nationality.”

All of us tut-tut in unison. We are seated outside the Arakan Muslim Primary and Secondary School, about nine of us huddled in a circle as life around us moves ahead as normal. This is Burmi Colony, home to about 55,000 Rohingya Muslims in Karachi. There are other colonies in the area that are also housing the Rohingya but this is arguably the largest.

The Burmi Colony is located on the edge of the Korangi Industrial Area, perhaps the mega-city’s largest industrial zone. Apart from products, Korangi and the adjoining Landhi area produce the largest number of low-wage workers settled in small settlements off the main road running across the two zones. Burmi Colony, like the others, is organised along ethnic lines.

The ongoing strife in Myanmar’s Rakhine State targeting the minority Muslim population has shone a light on Karachi’s own substantial Rohingya population. Who are they and what are they all about? Eos finds out…

There are many in the neighbourhood who claim to have arrived in (West) Pakistan well before the formation of Bangladesh. Most Rohingya often identify themselves to officials as Bengalis because this provides them a chance to claim Pakistan citizenship. It is only the recent events in Myanmar which have made them own up to their identity publicly. An elderly grocer who could barely speak Urdu narrates that he arrived in 1965 as a boy. His son is now father to three.

A young Rohingya girl leaves school for home in Burmi Colony in Karachi
A young Rohingya girl leaves school for home in Burmi Colony in Karachi

“It’s a curse living here,” says 25-year-old Mohammad. “People reject our job applications and all doors [of opportunity] are always shut in our faces when people find out that we are from Burmi Colony.”

Perhaps this shunning by the outside has reinforced the notion that only the Rohingya will come to each other’s aid. This has meant that Burmi Colony has evolved as a closely-knit community where everyone knows everyone.

It has also reinforced the belief that the only way to survive is to stick to tradition, which in turn, means social insulation and conservativism. There are no women loitering around in the colony and those in sight are draped in head-to-toe niqab, walking either in groups or chaperoned by a man.

The organisation that all colony residents seem to have reposed their trust in is the Social Aid Committee. Its members are drawn from the community.

Posters of the Tehreek-i-Jawanan Pakistan, a party headed by the son of former intelligence chief Hamid Gul, are ubiquitious in Burmi Colony
Posters of the Tehreek-i-Jawanan Pakistan, a party headed by the son of former intelligence chief Hamid Gul, are ubiquitious in Burmi Colony

“We tend to tasks such as burials,” says Iftikhar, a community activist who is also a muezzin in a neighbourhood mosque. “But then we also guard the neighbourhood at night. If there is trouble brewing somewhere, people inform us and we reach the spot. Some of our youngsters became drug addicts, we counselled them and admitted them for treatment too.”

Every household has lost a loved one,” says Ibrahim, “but do you see any of us taking to crime to vent our frustrations? Of course not. It’s crucial for us, at this point, to keep trying to make contact with those stranded in Myanmar and to finance their safe passage to Bangladesh.”

A few minutes ago, our group had been graced by the presence of Abdul Haleem, the chairman of the union council. An elderly bearded man, he has been contesting local elections since 1979. “My father, too, was a councillor, Maulana Abdul Quddus Mozahiri,” he says proudly. But today, at his age, Abdul Haleem is running from pillar to post to have his citizenship status confirmed once again.

Haleem’s first national identity card was made in 1973-74 during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government. “90 percent of older generations have those identity cards,” he says. “Once we had those in hand, there was no need to have other documents. We thought we were safeguarded forever.”

Muhammed Hafeez in Burmi Colony runs a food kiosk that serves fish gravy and rice
Muhammed Hafeez in Burmi Colony runs a food kiosk that serves fish gravy and rice

“Imagine the irony,” chuckles community activist Mohammad Ibrahim seated next to him. “We got national identity cards because of Haleem Sahib’s signatures. Today he isn’t even eligible for an identity card himself.”

News from home

There is no house in Burmi Colony that hasn’t lost a loved one in the ongoing Rohingya massacre in Myanmar. Or at least that’s what residents of the colony claim.

“My father-in-law’s brother was murdered just recently by the Myanmar army,” says Ibrahim.

The brother might have been killed but the father-in-law managed to reach Bangladesh. And that, too, because Ibrahim had sent money over to him.

“We received word that he needed 10,000 Bangladeshi takas to cross the river between Myanmar and Bangladesh,” he narrates. “Those running boat services on the border are charging 5,000 takas per head to safely transport people into Bangladesh. The other 5,000 are spent in bribes at the refugee camps in Bangladesh. If you pay that sum, officials facilitate you in various ways. Your paperwork is processed quickly, you don’t have to stand in queue, and you also get the ward of your choice.”

When the stranded father-in-law sent an SOS for financial aid, Ibrahim says he remitted the money to a trusted contact in Bangladesh. The contact then transferred the money into the boat agent’s account, which is how a deal was struck and the father-in-law made his way to safety.

“We sent 14,000 rupees which converts to 10,000 takas,” he says.

How could Ibrahim produce such an amount within minutes?

“We were prepared for this eventuality.”

a protest in Karachi against the Rohingya massacre in Myanmar
a protest in Karachi against the Rohingya massacre in Myanmar

Ibrahim goes on to explain how families are set up in Burmi Colony, which in turn, helps rationalise how money is saved and spent.

“The average household size is about 10,” he says. “A husband and a wife, at least six kids, and the husband’s parents.”

Although the estimated average income brought in by those with gainful employment is 15,000 rupees, at least one member in many households is working abroad. The most popular work destination is Saudi Arabia followed by the United Arab Emirates (Dubai), Malaysia and Turkey.

While those in Karachi work two or three jobs to make ends meet, funds are also sent home by the expat familiy member. These remittances are saved up for larger expenses such as weddings or a rainy day. These days, most remittances are being utilised to help family trapped in Myanmar to flee to Bangladesh.

Ibrahim then pulls out a smartphone and shows a video that was forwarded to him on WhatsApp. The video is a news report of the Arakan News Agency, where two middle-aged women are interviewed in a Bangladeshi refugee camp. One’s husband was 70 and the other’s was 60. Both men were allegedly killed by the Myanmar army.

One of the widows goes on to describe how women are being raped. “They thrust their gun machete into women’s private parts and shoot. They ask them if they have given birth to Rohingya offspring and when the woman says yes, they pull the trigger.”

Such accounts have also been detailed by The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In a report issued on February 3, 2017, the UNHCR details narrations of 204 people, of which 101 were women. “More than half [the women] reported having suffered rape or other forms of sexual violence,” details the report.

a 1954 passport that was allegedly issued to a Rohingya elder, with the last line saying “citizen of Pakistan”
a 1954 passport that was allegedly issued to a Rohingya elder, with the last line saying “citizen of Pakistan”

“Especially revolting were the accounts [about] children — including an eight-month old, a five-year-old and a six-year-old — who were slaughtered with knives. One mother recounted how her five-year-old daughter was trying to protect her from rape when a man ‘took out a long knife and killed her by slitting her throat.’ In another case, an eight-month-old baby was reportedly killed while his mother was gang-raped by five security officers.

“Our relatives say that there is a CPEC-like plan that goes through Rohingya land,” chimes in one. “This wave of violence is to clear the land so that new projects can be initiated.”

We put the phone down and I refer to the episodes of Hindu-Muslim violence that took place in 1947, and how they seem to have left scars that still haven’t healed. Does the ongoing brutality in Myanmar evoke similar rage? Has helplessness set in and if so, to what extent? Has there been any re-enactment of violence in Karachi by those who have lost loved ones back in Myanmar?

“Every household has lost a loved one,” retorts Ibrahim, “but do you see any of us taking to crime to vent our frustrations? Of course not. It’s crucial for us, at this point, to keep trying to make contact with those stranded in Myanmar and to finance their safe passage to Bangladesh.”

Political potpourri

If Karachi is a city that is territorially marked by political parties, then the Burmi Colony is currently marked by the Tehreek-i-Jawanan Pakistan (TJP). The TJP is headed by Abdullah Gul, son of the former intelligence chief General Hamid Gul.

Such is the imprint of the TJP in the area that the walls in the locality have all been marked with “Long Live Hamid Gul” slogans. Posters plastered on the walls have been branded with Hamid Gul and Raheel Sharif images. And the Pakistani flag is prominent on all branding.

“There were only three military generals who were worth their weight,” argues Deen Mohammad, the vice-chairman of the local union council. “General Ziaul Haq, General Hamid Gul and General Raheel Sharif.”

Another throws in the incumbent chief’s name, too. “General Bajwa has been associated with the Jamiat too,” he says. “He is a fine man.”

The preference for these military men can, in part, be explained by the shroud of religiosity that spans the Burmi Colony. But the relationship and respect for General Zia and General Gul dates back to the late 1970s and the early 1980s when the Rohingya were welcomed with open arms by Pakistan during the anti-Soviet Afghan war. Some of them were inducted into the army too, as muezzins, prayer leaders and cooks. But religion is what bound the two together.

“We have the greatest number of hafiz-e-Quran anywhere in Karachi,” boasts Mohammad.

In all, there are 13 mosques and eight madressahs in Burmi Colony. Most youngsters of the locality are said to be studying religion — as evidenced by the number of boys and young men wearing the white skull caps as part of their everyday attire.

“Young men are typically married off between the ages of 20 and 22,” says Iftikhar. “Girls are married off when they are 14 to 15 years.”

Deen Mohammad interjects: “This trend for girls has been changing though. Since 2000, when a law was passed against under-age marriages, many families are now marrying off girls around the age of 18.”

This change is explained in other ways as well.

“There was a time when the only requirement for marriage was family pedigree and if the girl was a practising Muslim,” says Iftikhar. “Now boys want their wives to be able to speak English too, times have changed you know.”

Despite the social conservativism prevalent in the area, Deen Mohammad is politically affiliated with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P). His partner is young Abdul Rauf, who is currently serving at party chief Farooq Sattar’s PIB Colony residence.

The MQM exerted great influence over the area some time ago. After August 22, 2016, when Altaf Hussain delivered an incendiary speech outside the Karachi Press Club, things suddenly nosedived.

“When the party was united, we could get things done despite all obstacles,” says Deen Mohammad. “Now it’s different.”

Deen Mohammad is among the few men in the colony with citizenship papers. He had managed to move paperwork forward in the “good times” of yore; today he can’t have his brother’s papers verified because the party’s wings have been clipped. “No police official or bureaucrat is now willing to entertain Rohingya requests to verify our citizenship,” he says.

The MQM’s interest in the area stems from its fear of the tentacles of religious militancy spreading far and wide in the city. The locality lies in close proximity to Jamia Darul Uloom, the largest Doeband institute in the city. And from what party sources claim, the party’s presence in the area was to ensure that a counterweight existed to religious politics in the area.

But in certain ways, the issue is also tagged with that of Bihari populations currently stranded in Bangladesh. The MQM entered the area proper back in 2005, under the auspices of the Pakistani Bengalis Action Committee (PBAC). Over time, the locality began to trust the MQM as its parliamentarians and office-bearers began to frequent the area.

The MQM member of National Assembly for the area was Asif Husnain. Residents narrate how Husnain would often visit the area to resolve petty disputes and to listen to any grievances of the community. Husnain subsequently abandoned the MQM and joined the Pak Sarzameen Party.

“These are all fallouts of August 22, are they not?” argues Deen Mohammad.

Although the locality still has “Jeay Altaf” slogans painted on the walls, many of them have been painted over or dominated by rival parties’ slogans. Chief among them is the TJP, but residents describe how all political stakeholders are present in the area.

“Our greatest mistake was not having our citizenship issue resolved once and for all when General Pervez Musharraf was in power,” says Deen Mohammad. “At that time, we had everything. Even the home minister was from the MQM. We never foresaw that the issue would become this complicated.”

The other organic political presence in the area is of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). Much like the PBAC, the JI, too, maintains a separate wing to deal with the issue of Rohingya Muslims. While the MQM’s power in the area has indeed dwindled, the JI has found more space in which to operate. Recently, the colony filled 15 buses for the JI’s protest against the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar at the Karachi Press Club while most also claim to have joined anti-America protests organised by the same party.

“Why is there such a negative perception about the Burmese?” asks Mohammed.

I inform the young Rohingya about talk in political and law-enforcement circles of religious militants being drawn from Rohingya Muslims by mainstream actors.

“Not from this locality, no,” retorts Iftikhar. “There was only one Burmese who has been listed in the black book, the others are innocent people. How can someone claim that all Rohingya are terrorists or criminals just because one was?”

Cycle of abuse

Maulana Abdul Kabir Ansari was a 60-year-old councillor of the area. Last Ramazan, he had travelled to the Malir court to meet a judicial magistrate who could verify his national status. He was given short shrift and asked to return another day.

He stepped outside the court and on to the main road to catch a bus. But he fainted and a speeding vehicle ran him over.

“He collapsed because of the constant mental anguish we have been kept under,” says Mohammad. “If Myanmar is meting out physical and sexual abuse, we are being saddled with mental abuse in Pakistan.”

The Rohingya are often referred to as “stateless” but to do so is a disservice to them. Such notions deny their claim to any nationality, particularly of being Myanmars or Pakistanis.

The received wisdom from community elders therefore is that to find salvation in this country, it is crucial to have the issue of national status resolved.

It isn’t as if the Rohingya were never declared Pakistani citizens to begin with. As late as the year 2000, teams arrived from the National Database Regulation Authority (Nadra) and went door-to-door to register all residents of the colony. Computerised identity cards were subsequently delivered to residents via mail.

The problems began in 2004 when B-Forms were computerised. That meant handing in documents detailing their migration to Pakistan. Many third-generation Rohingya were unable to produce all documents which, in turn, put their citizenship status in peril. Ever since, the Rohingya have seen their problems multiply manifold.

“They wrongly wrote my gender as female on my birth certificate,” narrates young Naeemullah, born and bred in Pakistan. “I have spent three years trying to have it changed but to no avail.”

In theory, the process to do is simple: file an application with Nadra and have the mistake rectified. “We submitted the form a number of times but it was never uploaded to the database. Our requests never went through.”

What is happening at the Nadra end is that since most Rohingya families don’t have Child Registration Certificates (CRC or Form B), they are asked to get a Family Registration Certificate (Form F) first. But in order to get a Form F, the Rohingya have to get certain documents verified from the Arambagh Police Station which largely deals with foreign nationals. But residents of Burmi Colony complain that the cell which is supposed to clear their credentials at the police station is nonfunctional, nor is anyone else taking responsibility to issue these documents.

“If we go to Nadra or the passport office, they refer us to Arambagh,” claims Deen Mohammad. “Earlier they were entertaining requests of those who entered the country till 1982. Now that limit, too, has been changed to 1978. So if someone has a nikahnaama from 1979, it won’t hold any legal value in the eyes of the state.”

Obtaining a national identity card or passport, however, is fraught with low-level government officials all waiting for bribes.

The closest Nadra office is in Landhi but that too doesn’t entertain the requests made by the Rohingya. “You need to get a token early morning,” describes Iftikhar. “But tokens are sold at a price — at least the first 50 or so. Even if you have been camping the night out at the Nadra office, the token you’ll get is likely to be numbered 51.”

In Naeemullah’s case, he paid 25,000 rupees for his passport. But since he was declared a woman on his birth certificate, the passport too reflected that. “I couldn’t go for Umrah this year because we couldn’t have this one simple issue resolved,” he claims. “There is no guarantee that even if you pay the money, you’ll have the work done.”

Forever condemned?

Mohammad Hafeez is the owner of a food shack in Burmi Colony. It is past lunchtime but Hafeez still serves us the fish gravy and rice lunch that is staple to the Rohingya. Then he opens up about being a member of the JI, a privilege only bestowed upon the pious and upstanding.

“I could easily pull my Jamiat connections and have my loved ones admitted to government colleges, but I don’t,” he asserts. “If we become corrupt in our daily lives, what moral standing do we have to urge others to do good?”

Hafeez was picked up by the Rangers on charges of possessing a pistol and carrying hashish. He describes the incident as a “matter of perception” about the area.

“There is a raid here every 10 days,” describes Iftikhar. “Hafeez Bhai, too, became victim of that. The Rangers were looking for criminal elements but we don’t even rent houses here before we get a police certificate from the prospective tenant.”

“This area has a separate flavour and a very unique charm,” says Hafeez. “It’s home for us.”

Over lunch, there was talk of census officials having visited the area, twice, to complete headcounts. There was talk of the population having swelled — Iftikhar attributes this increase to a fish-diet.

“We can be distinguished by our eyes and complexion,” he says. “Our eyes aren’t big but because of consuming fish, we don’t lose power in our eyesight. You won’t find a single bespectacled Rohingya in the world.”

The Rohingya’s cultural habits and traditions are intrinsic to their identity which they protect zealously. It is after all their only possession that holds permanence as they search for an abode they can truly call home.

But what of the future?

“We need a leader from within who can inspire the community,” replies Iftikhar. “But in the meantime, we have decided to enter all political parties for representation. The more we penetrate into the mainstream, the louder will be our voice.”

The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 17th, 2017