It is not always easy to travel back in time. For, we have a tendency to block the memories that generate emotional turbulence of some sort. But, once in a while, a unique moment of reckoning hits us and we cannot help but revisit our past—both beautiful and ugly. The French novellist Marcel Proust grappled with this dilemma before he started writing his seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu)—a masterpiece in fictional writing. Proust realised that past feelings and experiences, far from being lost, remain eternally present in the unconscious and could help reconstruct our perceptions of the present. Thus began his mission to find lost time through his writing.
For most of us, the good, bad, beautiful and ugly experiences of life fuse together at some defining moment so that their underlying unity reveals something significant. And like Proust, we, too, search for our lost past to better understand our present. My Proustian moment came while watching a TV clip of Rohingya refugees fleeing from the atrocities committed by the army in Rakhine state of Myanmar…
More than 400,000 Rohingya men, women and children have fled the brutalities of the Myanmar government, crossing over to neighbouring Bangladesh. In the deadliest ethnic cleansing in decades, the Rohingyas, mostly Muslims who have lived in Rakhine for generations, were subjected to rape, murder and unimaginable cruelties by Myanmar's security forces and Buddhist vigilante groups. Heart-wrenching stories of overcrowded boat rides, hazardous walks through forests, and dead bodies are being narrated by the refugees. The UN and world powers have cautioned Aung San Suu Kyi's government against killing innocent civilians but the Nobel Peace Prize winner seems to be immune to calls for compassion or empathy. In the Bangladeshi border district of Cox's Bazar, makeshift camps have been set up for the thousands of displaced who have found a safe haven in a friendly neighbour.
You might ask why the plight of the Rohingya people activated the subterranean layers of my past. The Rohingya tragedy has touched an inner chord, reminding me of my days as a refugee in Kolkata during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Having survived the carnage of the Pakistan army on March 26, I crossed over to India, where, fortunately, I received a warm welcome. However, I still carry deep within me the trauma and insecurity of living for nearly a year with no identity and no nation. The pain recedes only because I focus on the positive outcome of an independent Bangladesh.
Interestingly, the time I spent as a refugee has, in many ways, shaped my character and made me who I am today. It taught me that the best human values are those that inspire compassion and kindness for the less fortunate, irrespective of their religion, race or class. What especially moved me during my ordeal was that ordinary folks responded with extraordinary gestures of humanity: providing shelter, food and emotional support. Seeing the same empathy for the Rohingyas among countless Bangladeshis today gives me a sense of déjà vu. These are the people who restore our belief in the goodness of man. And these are the people who should be collectively awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—not the hypocritical leaders who orchestrate the massacre of innocent civilians for power and political capital!
The distressing memory of my own refugee experience has also helped me discern the subtle differences between perception and reality. I cannot, for instance, view the Rohingyas as part of a political power game or merely as sociological statistics. They are not voiceless, nameless men, women and children struggling for a seat on a boat or a mat in the corner of a tent. They all have stories of love, hope and aspirations that they have left behind. With time they may find shelter, jobs, safety, but can they ever reconstruct their shattered dreams? And who knows how many will succeed in fighting the battle of redefining their identity and regaining their sense of dignity.
The global unrest in recent years has resulted in an upsurge in the flow of refugees. Unfortunately, the term “refugee” evokes intense reactions both from those reaching out to help and those who perceive them to be a serious threat to social order, security, and cultural values. The lamentable fact is that while political and strategic battles are raging around the “refugee issue”, desperate people languish in makeshift camps—stateless, homeless and hopeless.
International reaction to the Rohingya crisis has been mixed. Some governments, civic bodies and celebrities have raised their voice against the terrible human tragedy, but the tepid denouncement of the organised brutality by Aung San Suu Kyi's government and the refusal of some neighbouring countries to offer a sanctuary to the refugees are shocking! As for the latter, one needs to remind them that discord, disharmony and suffering in their backyard could result in a blowback in their immediate vicinity. It is, therefore, only sensible that we set aside our narrow political agendas and prejudices, and adopt a just and humane approach to the refugee crisis. For, we have a moral responsibility to ensure that our children do not inherit a socially polarised and unstable world.
Milia Ali is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.