For Noor Muhammad, a Burmese Muslim who migrated in 1979 to Pakistan, setting foot in Karachi was a joyful moment as he thought he would be able to build a better life for his family in the absence of persecution. More than 30 years of living in squalor, he has changed his mind, like many other residents of Korangi’s Arakanabad.
Sitting in a poorly furnished room in the locality, many Burmese Muslims vented their anger and frustration. They live without basic amenities. Electricity is acquired through the kunda system and there is virtually no gas supply. They also have to rely on tankers for water. The houses in Arakanabad are dilapidated, roads are broken and there are no schools. Agitated by the lack of a sewerage system, the residents used their entire savings to lay down pipes in the area five years ago.
“Officials ask for a bribe of up to Rs25,000 to make or renew our identification cards,” said an angry young man, brandishing his expired card. Most others also feel that the government has not done enough for them since their arrival in the country. “We are grateful that the government gave us shelter. But we haven’t been given any more help since our arrival,” said Noor Mohammad, 65, as others in the room nodded in agreement.
The Burmese Muslims of the city live in 60 squatter settlements which are also home to other ethnic groups. These are mostly located near riverbeds, drains or canals and these people rely on fishing to earn a living, said social activist and sociologist Rana Asif. Arakanabad, which was named after the Arakan province in Myanmar, is one of the more heavily populated areas with around 5,000 Burmese Muslims.
The community claims that it has been a part of Pakistan long before it was created. “Our forefathers have been living in this part of the country. Others like me were born in British camps in Bangladesh before independence,” said Haji Hussain Ali, twitching his beard, as his dark skin and narrow features glowed in the sunlight.
Even though they may have to deal with their own set of problems, the Burmese Muslims in Pakistan are shocked and upset at the ethnic cleansing currently taking place in Myanmar, where the UNCHR claims that around 80,000 people have been displaced. While washing dishes in a dingy room, Ayesha, an elderly woman, started weeping as she remembered her sisters who chose to stay behind in Myanmar. “Last week, I found out that the army had set my nephew on fire,” she cried. “They are taking away men and burying them in mass graves. All of it is so horrifying.”
The community feels that the world is keeping silent about the atrocities being committed in Myanmar. Nazeer Ahmed, who recently protested at the Karachi Press Club, wants the Muslim countries and the Organisation of Islamic Conference to take action.
“It seems that misery is written in our fate. We have no place to go,” he said.
But based on his experience, Noor Mohammad feels that escaping to Pakistan is not a good solution. Whenever his relatives, who are being persecuted by the troops and citizens in Myanmar, express their desire to migrate, he squarely says, “Become martyrs there, but don’t ever make the mistake of coming to Pakistan.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 3rd, 2012.