“I ask for your forgiveness,” the Pope said, “in the name of those who persecute you.”
“The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”
These were the words of Pope Francis in Dhaka on Friday, in the penultimate day of his visit to Asia, where he rose to the occasion after the diplomatic prudence he had used in Myanmar in recent days. While there, he had avoided using the name for the Muslim minority from the Burmese state of Rakhine (formerly Arakan).
But here he did say their name, after meeting with a Rohingya delegation in the garden of the Archbishopric of Dhaka during the meeting for ecumenical and interreligious peace. They told him their stories, stories of dramatic insecurity and suffering. “Enormous suffering” which has “a place in our hearts,” said Pope Francis in an off-the-cuff speech.
The Rohingya are hoping to find in the Pope a supporter to resolve the dramatic standoff in which they find themselves: forced to flee Rakhine, refugees on the other side of the border, they are between a rock and a hard place. They would like to return to their country, but they know that the Burmese regime will not be able to give them guarantees of a future without persecution.
At the same time, they sense the growing impatience of the Bangladeshi government, which welcomed them generously — as Bergoglio underlined in Dhaka, urging the international community to help the government of Prime Minister Hasina Sheikh — but hopes to be rid of them soon. This is shown by the agreement signed a few days ago, in vague terms, which provides for the gradual repatriation of the Rohingya. On paper, this should be managed by a joint Bangladeshi-Burmese commission, but the Burmese military will be given the last word — the very perpetrators of the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.
There is another contradiction hidden within the story of the Burmese Muslim minority seeking a diplomatic ally in Bergoglio. It can be seen clearly when visiting the camps in the Cox’s Bazar district, where at least 620,000 Rohingya have found refuge since last August, according to estimates by the International Organization for Migration.
Cox’s Bazar is the main tourist destination in this country of 170 million inhabitants. At sunset on the long beach overlooking the Bay of Bengal, local tourists take selfies over selfies, a true national pastime, and then crowd the fish restaurants and overpriced souvenir shops. “Are you here about the Rohingya?” everyone asks us. “Ugly story,” they all say, while sinking their hands into the rice.
The informal city of the Rohingya, a few kilometers from here, is another world entirely — the true opposite of the touristy Cox’s Bazar. It can be reached by a trip that takes about an hour, passing through farmland and villages, with peasants bent over the crops and smiling girls in school uniforms. When the road reaches the town of Ukhiya, there’s much more commotion.
Until recently, just 3,000 people lived here, but today the markets are crowded. With the arrival of the Rohingya, a major informal market has developed, meeting the needs of the giant humanitarian machine. The refugee camps are divided into sectors, the only way for international organizations and the Bangladeshis to orient themselves in a web of streets that climb up and down deforested hills, occupied by thousands and thousands of tents pitched using plastic and wood.
Outside the tents, men and women are carrying bundles of wood, bamboo rods, and food rations. Here and there, you see some small shops, with only a few products, managed by local Bangladeshis or by the Rohingya themselves.
It was from here that the delegation that met Pope Francis started off, on Thursday afternoon. They had to have the purpose of the meeting explained to them, as well as who Jose Maria Bergoglio was — because the man who came from Rome to become the protector of the Rohingya is not known here.
“Francesco who?” replies Rahamatullah, a man in his 30s who arrived here with his wife and four children, when we ask him what he expects from Bergoglio’s visit. We meet him in the mobile clinic run by the Italian Red Cross and Bangladeshi Red Crescent, in the so-called extension zone of the Kutupalong camp, accessible thanks to a new road cut through the hills by the Bangladeshi army.
“Over there they are putting up new tents, day after day,” says Riccardo Bagattin, a field officer of the Red Cross in Cox’s Bazar, pointing toward the horizon. Inside the clinic, managed together with the Bangladeshi Red Crescent, Dr. Erika Dellavalle and nurse Fabio Antonucci are treating patients, mostly women and children.
We are in an “extended” area, a large new plot destined for tents. In spite of the agreement reached with Myanmar, the Rohingya families continue to cross the border, as we can see for ourselves visiting the no man’s land. After crossing the Burmese border, once they arrive in the area not accessible to the Burmese military, thousands of refugees are waiting for Bangladeshi soldiers to give them the green light to get to the Transit Center of UNHCR, the U.N. organization for refugees.
“The flow has decreased, but it has not stopped,” Olivia Headon, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, tells il manifesto. To address this situation, “long-term policies are being considered,” as we are facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history.
Pope Francis’ commitment, while important, will not solve the situation. The Rohingyas know little about him, but they hope he can still help them. “If he is a powerful person, we hope that he can help. Here we are safe, but we cannot live like this for long,” says Nur Jonayat Baser, who was also forced to leave Burma. He has been here for three months and is still waiting to see what his future will be.