“No Home or Land, No Country, No Earth”: Plight of the Refugees
"War is vast. It reaches across the horizon, loftier and older than peace. Killing came before war, but it might also be that refuge preceded war. It got attached to war like a child holding on to its mother's dress with one hand, the other waving to those it does not know. The refugee: a flute weeping over its original image before there was a camp."—Ever Since I Did Not Die, Ramy Al-Asheq
"Refugees are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country," says a UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) report. Very often, the report reaffirms, these people are forced to flee with nothing but clothes on their backs – and there are more than 27 million of them! It is happening right now in Ukraine, among the Rohingyas, in the Middle East and in more places.
Recently, Lesya Bakun, a Ukrainian refugee described how she had to hide from bomb blasts in Kharkiv when the war started. She described the experience in an interview: "You hide in a self-created bomb shelter while the shelling continues. When it stops, you sit there for some time, trembling and unsure; and by the time you get your guts together to go buy some food or supplies … the shelling begins again, and you cannot leave. You just sit at home, frozen, in the constant state of crippling fear." Lesya managed to flee and find refuge in neighbouring Lithuania and then to Poland. But her cousin who defended the factory of Azvotal is now a prisoner of war; "taken by the Russians." She had relatives in Mariupol and all their homes were erased out of existence.
And yet, there is another group of people in Asia whose land has been taken away — the Rohingyas of Arakans. Technically indigenous, they had been in Myanmar for hundreds of years. In the golden age of Akbar, the second volume of Ain-ee-Akbari, a manifesto written in Persian around 1590, and later translated to English, gives out:
"You hide in a self-created bomb shelter while the shelling continues. When it stops, you sit there for some time, trembling and unsure; and by the time you get your guts together to go buy some food or supplies … the shelling begins again, and you cannot leave. You just sit at home, frozen, in the constant state of crippling fear." Lesya managed to flee and find refuge in neighbouring Lithuania and then to Poland.
"To, the south east of Bengal is a large country called Arkung (or Aracan) to which the Bunder (or port) of Chittagong properly belongs. Here are plenty of elephants, but great scarcity of horses, also camels and asses are very high priced: neither cows nor buffaloes are found in this country, but there are animals of a middle species between those, whose milk the people drink, they are pied and of various colours. Their religion has no kind of agreement either with the Mahommedan or Hindoo. Twin brothers and sisters may intermarry, and only mother and son are prohibited from it. They pay implicit obedience to the will of their priests..."
Now, the descendants of these people live devoid of a home in refugee camps. The Rakhine people are said to be "stateless." In her short story, "The Magic Staff," based on her experiences with such camps, writer Shaheen Akhtar describes their plight in the words of a child refugee: "What sort of justice was this? No one would remain – no father or mother, sister or brother, no home or land, no country, no earth. What was his fault? Why did he have to spend his life at a camp – like a cockroach under a tarp?"
The child had been sent to 'safety' by his grandmother, the 'safety' of a refugee camp where he found himself trapped and alone. His plight is no different from Lesys Bakun's. Ramy Al Asheq, the Palestinian-Syrian poet born in a refugee camp, wrote on his own experiences and thoughts in his book, Ever Since I Did Not Die:
The camp is necessary, sometimes, for remembering that the lands across the river dropped off the face of the map when we weren't looking. The map: geography on paper, its borders drawn by the tank and the mortar shell for eternity. The mortar: a tiny cosmic explosion that re-arranges habitats by the whims of whoever launches it. One night, the mortar launcher awakened superstition from its sleep and dragged it away with an F-16 saying, "I cannot exist . . . unless there is a refugee."
Al Asheq makes me wonder, are weapons dependent on the existence of refugees?
More than seven decades ago, a war was ended by the deployment of a weapon that annihilated Man and Nature – the atom bomb. Did these bombs create refugees? Or, just destruction? There are survivors – and they recall the horrors and some at least plead for peace, peace so that there are no more refugees. The daughter of such a survivor, Kathleen Hilliker Burkinshaw, wrote in The Last Cherry Blossom, about the violence and the horror as well as in a bid to emphasise how Japanese are much the same as Americans, with similar concerns. While her book has been taken up by the UN as part of their peace keeping effort, Burkinshaw tells us how the scars linger: "I lived with the scars of the atomic bombing during my childhood watching/reacting to the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) effects on my Mom and I still live with it each day with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (chronic, progressive neuro pain disease that affects the sympathetic nervous system). Doctors have said that the damage to my immune system from the radiation my mom was exposed to from the atomic bomb, attributed to this."
What does such a survivor have to do with refugees? They are perhaps, more scarred physically, than the refugees in camps described by Al Asheq or Lesya Bakun. But are the refugees on the run any better off? It is difficult to ignore the pain and emotional scars of Al Ahseq and Bakun for not having homes. They are both comparatively young. But if you lose your home in your mature years – say you are sixty – can you restart a new life in a country where the local residents see you as a threat or a competition for sharing resources?
Then there is a new label cropping up these days– climate refugees or people who have lost their homes to climate change. A report made by the Ecological Threat Register predicts, "Over one billion people live in 31 countries where the country's resilience is unlikely to sufficiently withstand the impact of ecological events by 2050, contributing to mass population displacement."
In a world that finds it hard to accept or tolerate differences, that is still unable to get over the hatred fanned hundreds of years ago by historical divides, how will a flood of such refugees be accommodated? Perhaps, it is time to evolve towards a world painted by visionaries and change our mindsets to become more accepting and tolerant, to paint anew a beautiful world for the future of our progeny.
Mitali Chakravarty is the founding editor of Borderless Journal.