Mayyu Ali is one of some 700,000 Rohingyas who had to flee Myanmar in the summer of 2017 following abuses by the Burmese army. Five years later, the 31-year-old poet continues to give voice to his people through his writings.
“The earth revolves around two different worlds, hell and heaven. I left one to discover the other.” A year ago, in September 2021, Mayyu Ali wrote these words as he walked through the door of his new apartment in Ontario, Canada, with his wife and young daughter. It marked the end of a long ordeal for the 31-year-old Rohingya poet, who had spent four years in the world’s largest refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
Coincidence or fate, he will go to university to study committed literature (committed literature) on September 6, five years to the day since he left Myanmar – like 700,000 other Rohingyas – to flee persecution by the army. Since adolescence, he has dreamed of becoming a spokesperson for his community and telling his story. He has already published dozens of poems and, more recently, an autobiography in French, “L’Effacement” (Editions Grasset), which he co-wrote with journalist Émilie Lopes. “Discrimination, flight, violence… I’ve seen it all and experienced it all. It’s my duty to tell the world about it,” Ali told FRANCE 24 from Canada.
“For the Burmese government, I do not exist”
Ali was born in 1991 in Maungdaw, Arakan, a Burmese region in the Indian Ocean. Son of a fisherman and youngest of six children, he remembers “a joyful childhood” spent bathing in the river and playing with his Buddhist and Hindu friends.
“But the joy quickly turned into fear,” he says. Since a 1982 citizenship law, the Rohingya, who are mostly Muslims, have been stateless because Myanmar considers them illegal migrants from Bangladesh. This status led them to be targeted by the military and Buddhist religious extremists. “One day, when I was about 10 years old, the soldiers raided the houses of all the Rohingyas in my neighborhood. Including my house,” he said. “They had a gun in their hands, it was terrifying. That’s when it hit me: when I learned that they hadn’t been to my Buddhist or Hindu friends, I realized that we were discriminated against.”
In the years that followed, the list of injustices suffered by his family and friends seemed endless. “My brother was beaten and then thrown in jail for allegedly not paying tax on his house, my grandfather’s land was confiscated. People around me were stopped from working for no reason,” says- he.
In 2010, Ali was banned from studying English at university due to his ethnicity. Introduced to poetry by his English teacher in high school, he had developed a passion for Shakespeare and the Indian author Rabindranath Tagore. The teenager, who wrote in secret and for fun, then began to take his writing more seriously.
“At the beginning, I wrote a lot about nature, friendship, family…”, he explains, smiling immediately again at the mention of his job. “And then, little by little, I understood that writing could be an act of rebellion. I am Rohingya. For the Burmese government, I do not exist. I am a human being without citizenship, without rights. But when I write, I exist and my community too.”
At a time when abuses against the Rohingya are increasing in Arakan in 2012, this young man takes up the challenge of publishing his texts, which he writes in English and Burmese. A few months later, one of his poems appeared in an English-language Burmese literary journal. “I experienced it as a rebirth. All of a sudden, I became a recognized person with a name.”
“That year was a turning point,” he explains. “The Rohingyas have always been discriminated against, but now the aim of the authorities was to make us disappear,” he says. He remembers violent riots, deadly fires, the first villages destroyed and the first people to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. He decides to stay and get involved in associations, notably Action Contre la Faim, to help the local population.
A collection of works
Things changed on the evening of August 25, 2017. “I was living in Maungdaw at the time, two hours by bus from my parents’ house. I was sleeping when my mother called me,” he says. “Crying on the phone, she explained to me that the soldiers had set fire to the village. Everything was destroyed.” In the days that followed, he witnessed what he describes as “ethnic cleansing”. “There was smoke everywhere, bullets were flying, screams were heard, women were being raped,” he says, his voice full of emotion.
Like 700,000 other Rohingyas, Ali and his family have resigned themselves to fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. They had to cross a river and walk for three days. “We had to swim among the dead bodies in the river I used to play in as a child,” he recalls. Even today, every August 25, the Rohingyas commemorate these days of violence.
A refugee in Cox’s Bazar, Ali continued to write. But his verses began to take on another dimension, as he also wanted to remember everything he saw. Through his work with humanitarian organizations and journalists, whom he guided through the makeshift shelters, he collected hundreds of testimonies. “I wrote everything down in notebooks. Little girls raped, murders, corruption, hunger, deplorable sanitary conditions,” he says. “And I hope that one day it will serve to bring justice.”
Due to these actions, armed militias stationed in the camp threatened to kill him. “I had to hide for several months,” he says. “But it is also thanks to this that I was able to leave Bangladesh. The associations mobilized to offer me a way out.”
Keep Rohingya culture alive at all costs
Even though Ali was able to reach Canada a year ago, he still remembers Cox’s Bazar whenever he talks to his loved ones. “My parents and siblings are still there,” he says. “They tell me that the conditions are getting worse month after month. There is more and more insecurity. Every time the weather is bad, shelters are destroyed. Diseases proliferate,” he said.
According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), cases of dysentery have increased by 50% compared to 2019 in the camps and skin infections, such as scabies, are exploding. The Rohingyas are also worried about the increase in crime, since around 100 murders have been committed in five years, according to an AFP tally. Some of the victims include community leaders who are likely the target of blood feuds by insurgents. Young people with no prospects are not allowed to leave the camps or work. To relieve the camps, Bangladeshi authorities transferred some 30,000 refugees to Bhashan Char, an island off the Bay of Bengal.
The young writer remains eager to help. When he’s not pressuring the international community to recognize the “genocide” of his people, he works hard to provide access to education for the children of Cox’s Bazar, some of whom were born inside the makeshift camps. “Some of the children have been there for five years, during which time they were deprived of education. I refuse to allow this generation to be sacrificed,” he says. He managed to create two schools, with the help of local associations, where students study the Burmese curriculum. “If one day, by some miracle, they return to Burma [Myanmar]they can go back to school,” Ali said.
“When we talk about the Rohingya massacre, we think of physical abuse and violence. But our culture and our language are also under attack,” he said. “Being refugees, we lose our cultural roots. We have to fight against that. If our culture survives, so does our ethnicity.”
Ali continues to devote the rest of his time to his passion: filling pages. “I want to continue to write, to be published in several countries, to continue to fight for my people and to encourage the international community to act,” he says. In March 2022, the United States was the first country to recognize the “genocide” perpetrated by the Burmese army against the Rohingya. The poet concludes: “A people, for decades, to be a Muslim minority, always under knife and bullets. Always in hostile oppression, always in rape and incarceration. Always in fire and fear. Ah, what violence!”
This article is a translation of the original in French.