JAMMU, India: In the semi-lit makeshift tent covered with strips of cardboard, five women sit in a huddle. As their young children, covered in specks of mud and soot, move around noisily, the women try to hush them down. Hollow-eyed and visibly malnourished, all the women also appear afraid.
Aged 19-30, they have two things in common: one, they are Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and two, they all live in fear of being sent back to the country they were forced to flee.
“I came here when I was 13. Now I am 19,” says Nur Kalina, the youngest. She faintly remembers running with her parents from their village in Myanmar’s violence-wracked Rakhine state.
“From Akhyep (Akyab, currently known as Sittwe) we started. We ran through rice fields, then by the river. When we came to Cox’s Bazar (across the border in Bangladesh), our fellow villagers were there. My aunt was there. They said, there is no food, no work, no future here. So my parents came here.”
All the other women in the room – Leila, Shamshida, Taiyyaba and Rahena – nod. Their stories are not very different from Kalina’s. Each one of them came to Jammu in 2012. Since then, the rows of huts in the Kiriyani Talav neighborhood of northern India’s Jammu city have been their home. They all got married here and became mothers.
Each one of them has relatives who are still living in Sittwe who call every now and then to talk about the current situation. Every time, they share news of fresh attacks and new names of relatives and neighbors who have been murdered. “They always tell us, don’t come back here,” says Laila\
There are around 5,743 Rohingyas in Jammu & Kashmir state, according to the state government. Scattered over Jammu, the summer capital of the state, and neighboring Samba district, their number is a fraction of that in Bangladesh (858,898) or Pakistan (350,000).
Yet this tiny population is at the center of a controversy with some local factions accusing them of indulging in criminal activities such as land grabs, illegal settlement and aiding terrorists, and demanding their repatriation.