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Before they agree to go home, the Rohingya have some demands

They escaped a campaign of murder, repression and rape by Myanmar's military and militant Buddhist monks. Now hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims refugees in Bangladesh await the political deal that would allow a return to their homeland. Special correspondent Tania Rashid and videographer Phil Caller report in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Last August, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled their native Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh, joining tens of thousands already seeking refuge.

    They escaped a campaign of murder, repression and rape by Myanmar's military and militant Buddhist monks. Now they await the political deal to allow a return to their homeland in Myanmar's Rakhine State. But will it happen?

    Tonight, from Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, and in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, special correspondent Tania Rashid and videographer Phillip Caller bring us the first of three reports.

    And a warning, images and accounts in this story will disturb many viewers.

  • Tania Rashid:

    These Rohingya refugees came out to show how tired they are of living in uncertainty. It's been seven months since they fled for their lives from Myanmar into Bangladesh. They are fed up and have come out to protest for their safe return to Myanmar.

  • Man (through translator):

    Everyone stand in a circle. Come join the protest. You, stand over there.

  • Man:

    Before we go back to Rakhine State, we demand to be recognized as Myanmar citizens.

  • Tania Rashid:

    It's rare to see protests like this, with many camp leaders fearing backlash from the Bangladeshi authorities.

  • Man (through translator):

    We want justice for our sisters and mothers who have been raped. We want justice.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Salahuddin is a schoolteacher. He fled Rakhine State with his family six months ago after his village was attacked.

  • Salahuddin (through translator):

    It is our country, and we have been living there for more than 1,000 years. And after years of slow genocide, we were finally forced to flee.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Close to 700,000 Rohingyas fled into Bangladesh from Rakhine State to escape a bloody campaign of murder and rape by the Myanmar military and Buddhist vigilantes that followed attacks by Muslim Rohingya militants.

  • Salahuddin (through translator):

    We don't want to stay here longer. This is not our home. Our home is Rakhine, and we want to go back, but before we return, we must get our rights.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Now more than 1.2 million Rohingya live in the world's largest refugee camp in cramped and squalid conditions on the edge of Cox's Bazar. The repatriation was meant begin two months ago after a deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

    And the Bangladeshi government is keen to speed things up, as they fear the upcoming monsoon could devastate the camps.

    Abul Kalam, Bangladesh's refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner, is responsible for coordinating the repatriation.

  • Abul Kalam:

    Repatriation process will certainly happen, based on the agreement reached two governments late last year. And preparatory works are ongoing now. I believe, as we are doing our part, they also are certainly doing their part.

  • Tania Rashid:

    But he couldn't say when it will actually start.

  • Abul Kalam:

    It's very difficult to mention or give any time as of now. But, yes, we hope that it will begin sooner or later.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Recently, Myanmar's social welfare minister, Win Myat Aye, visited the Kutupalong refugee camps.

    He told a group of new arrivals that he wants to start the repatriation process as soon as possible if the returnees agree to be registered as Bangladesh migrants, a term the Rohingyas reject. They want to be recognized as citizens of Myanmar before the repatriation starts.

    His visit sparked protests when demonstrators tried to block his motorcade entering the camp. This was the first visit by a Myanmar minister to the camps since the crackdown last year.

    Although the talks on the repatriation are continuing between Myanmar and Bangladesh, the Rohingya refugees themselves do not have any sort of formal representative.

    Mohi Bolluah, a community leader, used to have a well-paid job as school teacher in Myanmar. Now he lives in the Kutupalong camp, where he organizes meetings with block leaders and activists to discuss the latest updates on the repatriation.

    He's also been gathering evidence on the number of people raped, killed, and property damage.

    So, when the Rohingyas fled Myanmar, they carried whatever valuables they could find on their backs, but what Mohi Bolluah, a community leader in the Kutupalong camp, is telling me is that he collected all these documents to discredit the Myanmar authorities' claims that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

    The Rohingya community have drawn up 13 demands that they want to be met before they agree to return.

  • Mohi Bolluah:

    For the repatriations to go ahead, the first thing we need is for U.N. peacekeepers to come with us.

    Secondly, the Myanmar government must give us back our citizenship rights. We are not asking for a new nationality. We have tons of proofs that we used to have Myanmar nationality. The Myanmar government must compensate us for everything we lost. We cultivated our land and built our homes with love, with our own hands. So we must be allowed go back to our own homes and villages.

  • Tania Rashid:

    But the prospects of Rohingyas returning back to their villages and homes is looking increasingly unlikely. The Myanmar military is bulldozing Rohingya villages to make way for more military bases, helipads, fences and roads, according to satellite images released by rights groups.

    And the Myanmar government is setting up temporary repatriation housing camps in Rakhine State that Human Rights Watch has condemned as open air prisons. All of this makes the prospect of return less a less likely.

    In the meantime, Bangladesh has been submitting lists of Rohingya they say have agreed to be repatriated. To get aid handouts, every refugee is fingerprinted and photographed by the Bangladeshi authorities and issued with an I.D. card.

    As more refugees continue to arrive, this database is regularly updated with the help of local camp leaders. It is also being used to draw up the names for repatriation. Many in the camp worry they will be placed on a list and forced to return.

    Camp leaders like pharmacist Mohammad Yusuf was killed after being suspected of putting people's names on the repatriation list. He left behind his wife, Jamila Khatun.

    What happened the night your husband was murdered?

  • Jamila Khatun (through translator):

    A group of around 20 masked men with guns came looking for him.

  • Tania Rashid:

    The gunmen force their way into the house, easily overpowering Jamila.

  • Jamila Khatun (through translator):

    One of them pointed his gun at my husband, ready to shoot. I tried to grab the gun, but he fired. The bullet passed between my fingers and hit my husband in the forehead.

    As he was shot, my husband shouted, "Oh, Allah." Then they shot him again in the mouth and he fell to the ground.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Who do you think did it?

  • Jamila Khatun (through translator):

    They are ARSA from Myanmar. They kill educated people and people they think are close to the Myanmar government.

  • Tania Rashid:

    ARSA is the Islamist militant group responsible for last year's attacks in Myanmar that sparked the bloody counterinsurgency clamp down.

    Who did they say they were when they came to your house?

  • Jamila Khatun (through translator):

    My husband asked them, "What you want? Why are you doing this to me?"

    They said, "Why did you make a list of people for the repatriation for the Bangladesh army?"

    But, actually, the list wasn't for the purpose of repatriation. Camp leaders made lists in every camp.

  • Tania Rashid:

    But the future looks bleak. The two countries are yet to reach a deal on the repatriation. At this stage, it's looking increasingly unlikely that the Rohingya will go home any time soon.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Tania Rashid in Balukhali camp, Bangladesh.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tomorrow, Tania will report on the epidemic of forced child marriage among the Rohingya.

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