“Ne Win, son of a whore!”
“Light of glory, light of despair!”
“Police beggars, soldier thieves!”
“Sein Lwin, king of murderers!”
The villagers march through the streets of Mylmin, brandishing multicoloured banners and chanting at the tops of their voices. The entire village – from local government workers to students and farmers – is out demonstrating, confident that Ne Win’s dictatorship can now finally be overturned, after years of repression and terror.
Tutu, Phyo, Froo Win, Kyaw, and I are overexcited, elated by this new wind of freedom. At the back of the crowd, we mimic the adults and raise our fists, before dashing to the front of the procession, exclaiming: “Watch out, Ne Win! We are the highlanders and we’re coming to get you!”
But play soon takes precedence over our urge to protest. In the middle of the demonstration, we start up a game of tag. We split up and weave our way in and out of the marchers.
Villagers of all colours, religions, and ethnic groups are marching arm in arm. Rohingya, Khumis, Bamars, Rahkines, all together with the same voice and the same determination. “Highlanders!” “Freedom!”
A few days later, gunshots echo a chilling warning across the village. Soldiers have emerged from the forests, the river, and the surrounding plains, and taken up residence en masse. They lay siege to our little world deep in the mountains. Multiple arrests are made. People are screaming and crying. For the first time, I witness neighbours, men and women alike, being dragged away from their families and taken I don’t know where. I never see them again.
The days go by and a hush descends over the village. The procession is over. Expressions harden. No more singing, no more protesting. The village is plunged into absolute silence. Soldiers patrol around the houses, sowing terror wherever they go. Spies skulk everywhere, and suspicion grows. The solidarity that united us is shattered, replaced by fear.
At home, Dad is sick with worry. He has been removed from his post at the workers’ association. My aunts try to keep calm by concentrating on the housework. Their usual cheerfulness has vanished, and their silence unsettles me and my brother and sisters.
My Uncle Dim, who lives in another village, is due to arrive today. He is a larger-than-life character, always full of joy, who never misses an opportunity to crack a joke and make us laugh. I have wonderful memories of his last visit, several years ago. My parents often talk about him. His presence will surely bring some good humour to the household. I am excited just at the idea of giving him a hug. I am so looking forward to his arrival that I bombard my aunts with questions about him.
When my father reappears alone in the doorway of our hut, looking distraught, my enthusiasm evaporates. Dad walks over to the table, where he starts gathering together important documents. Auntie Kulama rushes to his side.
Dad stops leafing through his papers and turns to her with a serious look.
“He was arrested by the authorities as soon as he set foot on the jetty. The same old story: breaking the law that forbids Muslims to travel outside their village. They’ve taken him away. We have to act quickly.”
Auntie Kulama and Auntie Fuma glance at one another and the blood drains from their faces. Auntie Fuma stumbles and catches herself on one of the bamboo walls of the hut. She struggles to contain the tears that she hurriedly wipes away with the back of her hand. Auntie Kulama helps her to sit down.
Dad eventually manages to find what he is looking for – an envelope hidden inside a bamboo cane. He removes a thick bundle of banknotes.
“I’m going back to the police station. As long as he hasn’t been sent to the military camp, there’s still time for me to negotiate his freedom.”
Before he leaves, Dad lifts me up onto his lap. Since I turned ten, he has taken to speaking to me like this, man to man.
“Habib, there are some things that you will understand later, but for now you must listen to me. You are a Rohingya, never forget that, but you must never again say this word when you are with people from other ethnic groups, even your best friend.”
He squeezes my arm and shakes it until I look at him right in the eye.
“Never. Do you understand?”
“You can say that you are a Muslim. But if you say that you are Rohingya, they will lock you away and then kill you. We all have to stick together even if it costs us the last kyat† of our savings. The authorities want one of two things: to eliminate us or to strip us bare. Our blood or our money. Policing in Burma is corrupt to the core, but it’s also thanks to this corruption that we can buy our freedom. Think about it.”
The next day, Dad returns from the police station, supporting Uncle Dim, who is shuffling. When he sees me, he manages a tiny glimmer of a smile and pinches my cheek. After swallowing some tea and eating a plate of rice with chilli sauce, he tries to lie down, helped by Auntie Fuma, who is attentive to his every need. He has been beaten on his stomach and the back of his neck, and is in such pain that no position is comfortable for him. His swollen eyelids disfigure his face.
Ever since the demonstrations, school has been closed. My uncle’s arrival reminds me of Grandma, who returned to her village a few months ago. I miss her presence and even her long stories.
Now that we are on enforced holiday, I ask my father, “Dad, can we go and see Grandma?”
“No Habib, we’re not allowed to leave the village.”
“But why are my friends allowed to leave?”
“Your friends are not Muslims, Habib.”
“Will we ever be able to leave?”
“We’ll try to bribe the authorities so that Grandma can come
and see us. I promise, son.”
I spend a dismal evening trying to untangle my confused
thoughts and questions: Why am I not treated the same as my friends? Why am I the only one to be confined within the perimeter of our village? Why was my uncle beaten? A sense of injustice gnaws away at me.
The following day, I play with my brother and sisters in the yard as if everything were normal again. As it turns out, I barely have time to enjoy being off school before Dad decides that he’ll personally take over from my teacher while we wait for classes to begin again.
So, every morning at dawn, my brother and I go with him to his shop, where he now sells a wider range of products including shirts and longyis, fabrics, bags, and groceries, while continuing to offer medical treatment to the villagers, who come to him for daily consultations and trust him implicitly. He prepares traditional concoctions from Burma, China, India, and the West.
For me, it is the start of a new school of life. It is around this time that Dad gives me my first book: an encyclopaedia of medicinal herbs. He also teaches me about business and the art of negotiation and, more importantly, the art of listening – paying particular attention to people’s aches and pains; observing, investigating, and understanding.
With each sick person who comes to see him, Dad takes time to interpret their symptoms and what brought them on. He treats malaria, flu, bronchitis, migraines, wounds, and diarrhoea caused by filthy water. He teaches me to give injections, and about the properties of plants, such as cardamom for relieving gas and stomach pain. Dad can cure anything, except for illnesses that require surgery.
This morning, like all the others, I wake up, hair tousled. I pull on my longyi and T-shirt and shake Babuli awake.
“Come on, time to get up, lazy bones.”
Babuli mutters and sits up mechanically, still half asleep, eyes half closed. A swift prayer, a cup of tea, and I am ready to go.
Dad is busy writing a letter and beckons me over.
“Habib, come here. I’m not going to open the shop today. I have to go and talk to the pastor and some other villagers. Listen, what I have to tell you is important. I want you to spend the day thinking about it seriously while I’m out.”
I sit down cross-legged, all ears, looking directly at him. He comes up to me and wraps his arms around my shoulders.
“Before I fled the village in Arakan where I was born, I was a leader who was respected by the Rohingya, but also by members of other ethnic groups. The secret is tolerance and accepting differences. You have to be open to the people around you without imposing your beliefs or your choices on them, and you need to know how to listen and find grounds for understanding, which is how people are able to live together.”
His arms gently tighten their grip on my shoulders. He continues: “Your actions will define you, much more so than your prayers. Ignorance and certainty only generate hatred. Instead, learning from others, analysing, confronting, and questioning things make you more open to the world. Even if you have obligations of your own, it’s good to give some time to those in need, particularly those from other communities. You see, I’m going to take some time today to meet our Christian, animist, and perhaps even Buddhist neighbours.”
He pauses before going on, cupping his hands around my face when he sees my attention drifting: “So, tell me what is most important.”
“Exactly. Right, work hard today and don’t forget to go and fill up the buckets with water. We’ve nearly run out.”
Excerpted with permission from First, They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks, Habiburahman with Sophie Ansel, translated by Andrea Reece, Penguin Viking.