TOMBRU, Bangladesh – For three weeks Dil Mohammad and his family have been stranded on a thin sliver of land between Bangladesh and their native Myanmar with thousands of other Rohingya, after running for their lives when their village was torched.
More than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have now arrived in southern Bangladesh seeking sanctuary from violence that the United Nations says likely amounts to ethnic cleansing.
But unlike those arriving now, thousands of Rohingya who fled in the early days of the crisis that erupted last month were initially blocked from entering Bangladesh.
Too afraid to go back to Myanmar, they set up camp in a small area of no man’s land where they have been ever since, waiting for the world to force the country they consider home to take them back.
“We have no intention of going to Bangladesh. We want to go back to our native land,” Mohammad told AFP in the camp, waving an arm towards the lush green hills that separate the two countries.
“Myanmar is my home, my family has been there for generations.”
The 51-year-old rice farmer said 150 families from his village of Mae Di in Rakhine state were now living in the makeshift settlement after fleeing an attack by the Myanmar army and Rakhine Buddhists.
His adult son, who was shot as they fled, is being treated in Bangladesh.
But although the Rohingya are now being freely admitted to Bangladesh, Mohammad does not intend to join him.
He and the thousands of others living in the camp, which lies just a few hundred metres from a barbed wire fence that marks Myanmar territory, have regular food deliveries and access to clean water, medicines and even a rudimentary washing area.
Much of that is down to Lieutenant Colonel Manzurul Hasan Khan, who as the local commander of Border Guard Bangladesh is responsible for policing the frontier with Myanmar.
He was one of the first in Bangladesh to become aware of the unfolding crisis when guards at the hilltop border post of Tombru heard gunshots and mortar fire coming from Myanmar in August.
Khan’s first instinct was a military one – he tried to call his counterpart in Myanmar for a flag meeting, whereby military commanders meet on the border to try to resolve tensions.
Before he could get through, he saw that women and children were flooding over the hills of Myanmar into the valley below.
He and his officers rushed down to the area, where they corralled the panicked crowd into a meadow, sat them down in the shade to explain that they could not come in and tried to establish what was going on.
Later that day, the Rohingya women and children went back over the hill of their own accord, Khan said.
But the next morning the firing resumed and they returned, this time in greater numbers.
“At that point I knew it was a humanitarian crisis,” said Khan.
One woman gave birth in no man’s land; another held up her seven-day-old baby and begged for Khan’s help. So he decided to give it.
He allowed the sickest ones into Bangladesh and ensured those that stayed were given food and clean water.
In the days that followed, he would witness the devastating effects of the unfolding crisis in Myanmar at first hand as more and more people arrived, most from villages near the border.
One woman arrived with her leg blown off, apparently in a landmine explosion on the Myanmar side.
Aid groups and Bangladesh government officials say Myanmar has mined the border to deter fleeing members of the Rohingya community from returning.
‘HAND OF HELP’
Myanmar does not recognise the Muslim minority as its citizens, and they have endured decades of persecution.
The situation has deteriorated dramatically since Rohingya militants ambushed security forces in Myanmar last month, and Amnesty International says there have been “systematic” clearances of Muslim settlements.
When AFP visited the Rohingya in Tombru this week, Myanmar soldiers could be seen patrolling on the edge of no man’s land, near where another group of Rohingya had apparently settled.
Khan, who served in war zones in Africa and is no stranger to conflict, says the situation is the worst he has ever seen.
He is proud that his country is helping the Rohingya – and happy to have played his own role.
“These people may stay for a long time. Bangladeshi is a poor country,” he said. “But we have offered the hand of help, and that makes me proud.”
Khan admits that the Rohingya will not be able to stay in no man’s land forever. He believes they will move into Bangladesh once the government completes its plan of building shelters for thousands of refugees.
But for many of the Rohingya here, that represents an unappealing future.
“I like it here,” said Mohammad Arif, 42.
“I can look across to the hills and feel the breeze from my country, and that makes me feel good.”