Habibullah is an ethnic Rohingya Muslim. He lives with his family in a wooden house in Sittwe, the capital of western Myanmar's Rakhine State. Like all Rohingya, he is officially considered stateless.
The 46-year-old father is luckier than many. He did not join the thousands of Rohingya fleeing abroad in rickety boats earlier this year. Nor were he and his family forced into grim internment camps in Rakhine State, as thousands of other Rohingya were in the wake of communal violence between Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.
But that doesn't mean things are easy. Habibullah, who uses just one name, struggles to survive in Aung Mingalar, a Rohingya ghetto. All but 4,000 of the neighborhood's 15,000 mostly Rohingya residents either fled or were forced to move to the camps after the 2012 violence. The enclave is isolated from the rest of the city by barricades covered with barbed wire, and is guarded by armed security forces.
"It's like a prison without walls," Habibullah tells me. "Instead of walls, there are police checkpoints."
The situation of Habibullah and people like him is important to understanding the recent crisis of boat people in Southeast Asia. The Rohingya's plight has affected the entire region and focused international attention on ethnic tensions that have complicated Myanmar's democratic reform efforts.
I met Habibullah earlier this month in an internment camp outside Sittwe, dressed in a white robe and skullcap. He suffers from diabetes, but the government won't allow Rohingya to go to hospitals in Sittwe. So every couple of weeks, Habibullah has to make a 4-mile journey — in a police truck, under armed escort — from Aung Mingalar to the camp at Depaing to get rudimentary medical care at a government clinic.
The summer monsoons have turned the camp into a sea of mud, lapping at rows of thatched bamboo huts. Fewer desperate Rohingya are taking to the rough seas at this time of year than they did in the spring.
After being seen by a doctor at the camp, Habibullah puts his name on a list to return home to Aung Mingalar. Then he boards a truck full of other Rohingya, which is escorted back to the ghetto by shotgun-toting police.
The truck arrives in a pouring rain and residents offload bamboo, foodstuffs and other supplies brought from the internment camp.
Aung Mingalar is not affluent, but its wooden, brick and cement buildings are certainly more solid than the thatched huts in the camps. I follow Habibullah back to his house, where he has lived for decades, and which is decorated with pictures of Mecca and the Taj Mahal. He lives there with nearly a dozen family members.
Habibullah tells me he used to sell dried fish over the border to Bangladesh. During the 2012 violence, he lost his business. All of his fish rotted in a warehouse. He has been unemployed since.
His brother, also unemployed now, used to run a spice shop in the local bazaar, Habibullah says. But police confiscated it in 2012, when all Rohingya stalls and shops in the bazaar were either closed or seized.
Now Habibullah says he and his family are struggling to survive on the small daily rations the state government provides – one 16-oz. can of rice per person per day. Other food, scarce in Aung Mingalar, is brought in from the camps. Residents of Aung Mingalar are not considered displaced persons, so they receive less food aid than the Rohingya in the camps.
Habibullah worries about his 4-year-old son, Mohamed Harris, who he says has had a fever for almost a month.
"He's not getting good medical treatment and he is malnourished," he says. "He has become weak, and now he is unable to walk."
Manmade Boundaries, Jihad Fears
Walk for a few minutes in any direction in this ghetto, and you come to a manmade boundary — metal barricades patrolled by police and soldiers. Ethnic Rakhine Buddhists are allowed in to trade with the Rohingya here. Foreign journalists and nongovernmental aid groups require authorization to enter. But Rohingya cannot leave without permission.
Myanmar's government insists the security forces are necessary because, for now, the Rohingya and the Rakhine can't live together in peace. It denies accusations by human rights groups that it is committing ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. It says it is providing humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya in cooperation with international non-governmental organizations.
Tin Maung Swe, executive secretary of the Rakhine state government, says the government will resettle the Rohingya who now live in camps into new homes. For now, he says, travel by the Rohingya remains restricted. But the government helps them get around.
"If they want to go to town, we have arranged a car every day," he says in an interview in his office in Sittwe. "They can go by this car. In case of emergency, if they want to go to hospital, to Yangon or to other places, OK, we can arrange."
Fellow Muslims across Asia have expressed sympathy and outrage about the plight of the Rohingya. Islamic political parties and civic groups in Indonesia and Malaysia have called on their governments to give refuge to the boat people. More ominously, the Pakistani Taliban last month encouraged the Rohingya to fight back against their oppressors.
Abdul Hakim, an imam at the mosque next to Habibullah's home, worries that some Rohingya could take that advice seriously. Too much suffering, he warns, could radicalize Rohingya youth and force them to consider jihad, or holy war.
"Jihad would require radical ideology and foreign support," he says cautiously. "But if we had those, the Myanmar government would destroy us. So we don't dare to use the word 'jihad.' "
Back in Aung Mingalar, Habibullah cradles his feverish son. As bad as things are here, he says he feels lucky to be in his home — and not in the camps.
He says it's important for Rohingya to hang onto this foothold, to show that they have the right to live in this place. They were born and raised here, and have lived here for generations.
"We'll never move of out of this quarter," he says resolutely, "no matter what problems we face, including lack of food. God willing, those who had to leave will be able to return."
He asks for the faithful to pray that his neighbors may soon come home.
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