Srinagar: “She was desperate to get out of the detention center. She was suffocated there,” says 21-year-old Akther Hussain, whose mother, Noor Aisha Begum, became the first Rohingya refugee to die in detention in Jammu and Kashmir.
Sixty-two-year-old Noor Aisha Begum was among the 220 Rohingya refugees being kept in a “holding centre” set up by the administration of the Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory in March this year to detain what it called were “illegal immigrants”.
She and other 52 inmates at the detention centre at Hira Nagar, in Jammu province’s Kathua had tested positive for COVID-19 after rapid antigen tests were carried out by the authorities last month.
She died due to “post-COVID-19 complications” at the Government Medical College Kathua on June 7. She was admitted to the hospital on May 31 after her condition deteriorated at the detention centre.
Akther says that whenever he met his mother at the detention centre, she would plead with him to find a way out for her.
“I managed to meet her thrice before the authorities suspended physical meetings of the jail inmates with their families due to a surge in COVID-19 cases. Whenever we met her, she would cry. She would always ask me when they will be released. But I could do nothing to get her out of jail,” Akther says.
The family of Rohingya refugees, originally residents of Dumbey village in Rakhine state, lived in shanties at the Bantalb area of Jammu. Members of the family fled Myanmar in groups from 2012 to 2017 to save their lives.
“My five elder brothers live in separate shanties in the locality with their wives and children. My younger brother Feroz and I lived with our father and mother,” says Akther.
The family, he says, lived largely without fear in Jammu . “Fear of death always haunted us in Myanmar. In Jammu, there was no such fear and we were content with the life we had. We would do menial jobs to eke out a livelihood,” he says.
On March 6, 2021, when authorities detained Akhter’s father Nadir Hussain, mother Aisha Begum, brother Feroz Ahmad and his wife Hafsa Begum and lodged them in J&K’s lone Rohingya holding centre.
“What is our crime? We have never broken any law. We came here only to save our lives. We will go back when peace returns in Rakhine province,” says Anis Ul-Mustafa, one of Akhter’s brothers, who was the last family member to leave Myanmar in 2017.
“I tried to stay there but had to flee when I realised that we would be killed soon. The Myanmar military kill us, rape our women and torch our homes,” he says.
Anis says he and members of his family ran in the middle of the night in 2017. “We trekked for two nights before we reached Bangladesh. We hid ourselves in forests during the day to avoid being spotted by soldiers,” he says. The brothers’ two sisters live in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
According to Anis, their detained family members were allowed to attend funeral of his mother. “The sight of our brother in handcuffs and our father unable to walk was painful for us. My sister-in-law, who is in detention, fainted when she saw my mother’s dead body. After attending the funeral, they were again taken to the detention centre,” he says, making a fervent appeal to authorities to release them on humanitarian grounds.
Described as the world’s most persecuted minority, Rohingya Muslims have been living in Buddhist-majority Myanmar for centuries. Subjected to summary executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, along with torture, ill-treatment and forced labour, thousands of Rohingya people have fled to Bangladesh and southeast Asian countries including Malaysia and Thailand since the 1970s.
Of them, 6,000-7,000 have come to Jammu between 2012 to 2017, mostly living in makeshift huts built on rented land.
On March 6, Jammu and Kashmir administration detained several Rohingya people and lodged them in the Hira Nagar detention centre, which earlier served as a sub-jail, after the Jammu and Kashmir high court directed it to spell out what measures it is taking to identify and act on “illegal immigrants.”
The court passed the directive on a petition filed by Hunar Gupta, who is affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP and other rightwing groups in Jammu have been campaigning for ouster of Rohingya peoples from the city.