As Ramadan begins, rescued Rohingya grateful to be in Aceh
KUALA CANGKOI, Indonesia – Muhammad Yunus came ashore in Indonesia by accident after a harrowing boat journey – but he and hundreds of other Rohingya migrants are delighted to be spending Islam's holiest month in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country.
The boat people in Aceh province are among thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants who arrived in countries across Southeast Asia in May after a Thai crackdown threw the people-smuggling trade into chaos and sparked a regional crisis.
Yunus had hoped to reach relatively affluent Malaysia, like many of the region's migrants, but after a months-long voyage was dumped in shallow waters off Aceh.
He is nevertheless relieved to have washed up in Indonesia – particularly in time for Ramadan, which starts on Thursday, June 18 – and be far from his native Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country where the Rohingya have long faced discrimination and are denied citizenship.
"Praise be to God, we were saved and brought to a Muslim country," said the 35-year-old religious education teacher, who was rescued off the coast of Aceh on May 10 with around 580 other migrants.
"The people here are very kind and have helped us, they see Rohingya refugees as their brothers."
Others, such as 16-year-old Muhammad Shorif, who fled a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh where he had lived with his family, echoed his sentiments.
"I miss mother's cooking in the refugee camp," he said, but added he was "very happy" to be in Aceh for Ramadan, when Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset.
Ramadan will be a busy time for Yunus, who left Myanmar in 2012 when his Islamic school was destroyed during fierce communal violence between local Buddhists and Rohingya, as he acts as prayer leader for the Rohingya in the camps.
He said that at the time he fled, it was impossible for Muslims to worship in peace, with mosques being razed to the ground and security forces stopping them from performing prayers.
Yunus spent several years at a camp in Bangladesh but got on a boat earlier this year in an attempt to escape the pitiful conditions there.
Acehnese also suffered
A resident of Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar's Rakhine state where persecuted Rohingya have fled in droves, told AFP there were no restrictions imposed by local authorities this year during Ramadan, and local Muslims could worship in mosques.
Nevertheless, the situation has long been tense, with many Muslims in the city living segregated under armed guard. (READ: Rescued Rohingya in Aceh: 'We do not have a home')
It is a starkly different picture in Aceh, where people have flocked to give donations of food and money to the new arrivals and are planning to bring them delicacies to break fast during Ramadan, which ends with the Muslim holiday of Idul Fitri.
Many in the area sympathize with the Rohingya's plight because of their own painful recent history – Aceh was left in ruins by a decades-long separatist conflict, which only ended when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit the province, leaving more than 170,000 dead in Indonesia alone.
"During the conflict in the past, we endured suffering. But there are Rohingya who have had worse experiences than people in Aceh," said Syamsuddin Muhammad, a 55-year-old fisherman who came to the migrant camp to donate money collected by his village.
The Acehnese are also trying to improve the migrants' living conditions.
At first they were given shelter in a sports center before being moved to shabby buildings in the fishing town of Kuala Cangkoi, and this week they were taken to a village inland, where they are being housed in better buildings.
Since coming ashore emaciated and filthy after months at sea, many of the migrants appear to be recovering swiftly.
Images of one desperate group in a green wooden boat off Thailand shocked the world – but AFP tracked some of them down last month at a camp in another part of Aceh, where they had eventually arrived, and found many relaxed, dressed in fresh clothes and less gaunt and emaciated.
Despite the migrants' immediate relief at having made it to a welcoming nation, they are likely to be living in limbo for years as few countries are willing to resettle migrants, including those who have genuine refugee status, and there are a huge number waiting for resettlement.
Many end up living a half-life in the shadows, eking out a living in the informal sector, far from their loved ones.
Even Yunus, who is happy to have ended up in Aceh, longs for his family back in Myanmar during Islam's holiest month.
"I miss my wife and children," he said, struggling to hold back tears. – Rappler.com