“I Feel No Peace: Rohingya Fleeing Over Seas and Rivers” by Kaamil Ahmed

rohingya

In this remarkable debut, Kaamil Ahmed tells the story of the displacement of the Rohingya from their home in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state and their ongoing search for refuge. This is not a new story, but Ahmed puts the spotlight firmly on the Rohingya perspective and allows them to tell their own story in their own words. The book is an impressive mix of history, political analysis and extensive reportage from Myanmar, Bangladesh and Malaysia. 

Ahmed charts the Rohingya struggle in Myanmar from the dawn of independence in 1948 to the present day. The book provides a detailed background to how Rohingya navigated repression and disenfranchisement in Myanmar, the abuse they suffered at the hands of the military and their decision to leave Myanmar.

 

I Feel No Peace: Rohingya Fleeing Over Seas and Rivers, Kaamil Ahmed (Hurst, February 2023)
I Feel No Peace: Rohingya Fleeing Over Seas and Rivers, Kaamil Ahmed (Hurst, February 2023)

Ahmed interviews refugees who tell him  their most prized possessions are copies of their fathers’ or grandfathers’ 1955 citizenship documents, even if such documents are no longer considered valid and offer no legal protection. While now legally worthless, they are a reminder of a past when they were citizens of Myanmar, until the 1982 citizenship law ripped that up and made most Rohingya stateless in their own home. He details the first mass displacement into Bangladesh starting in 1978, and the years of abuse for those who stayed in Myanmar, culminating in the massacre of Tula Toli in 2017, as part of what the United States has declared a genocide, which sent hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into Bangladesh.

In charting Rohingya lives in Bangladesh, Ahmed provides a detailed portrayal of life inside the two large refugee camps, Kutupalong and Nayapara, and interviews many of the Rohingya refugees who grew up there. These Rohingya lives are endured, Ahmed says, “as if suspended in time”. As many who were born in camps in Bangladesh have never been able to travel to their homeland, Ahmed explains how their ideas of home are informed by the memories and recollections passed down by parents. In his interviews, he talks to those who vividly recount their treacherous journey to Bangladesh.

Moreover, he explains how many who risked so much to arrive in Bangladesh are willing to take on yet more risk, to flee the squalor of camp life and take a boat to distant shores and wider horizons. Here Ahmed provides a vivid tale of how the human trafficking industries which have grown around the Rohingya offer an incredibly dangerous journey to Malaysia. Ahmed interviews those who have made this journey and they describe how many of these boats are pushed back out to sea by the navies of neighboring nations, how those on board are stuck without food, water or medicine; many die, their bodies are thrown overboard. Ahmed reports that some on these boats were kidnapped from camp, sent out on boats and held in crude camps on the Thai-Malaysian border, to be released only if family back in Bangladesh could pay a ransom.

Even those who stay behind in camp struggle to avoid the high levels of violence, while other refugees are forced into the drug trade, or fall victim to an increasing number of organized crime syndicates in camp. Ahmed explains how such activity only fuels anti-refugee rhetoric in Bangladesh and talks about the attitudes of Bangladeshi authorities, the media and their misconceptions.
 

The book is exceptionally well-written and Ahmed’s skills as a journalist are much on show. While not Rohingya, Ahmed nevertheless provides a crucial and often powerful local perspective.

The scale of  Rohingya suffering is hard to comprehend as it’s so vast. Here Ahmed breaks the crisis down into individual experiences. Importantly, the Rohingya are presented as defiant in the face of extreme adversity. The book gives a human angle to the refugee crisis and Ahmed’s often tender portrayal, combined with a rightful anger for their treatment, is a must read.


Maximillian Morch is a researcher and author of Plains of Discontent: A Political History of Nepal’s Tarai (1743-2019) (2023)