Supported by rusty legs, stiff against the shimmering blue sky, an elephant-shaped wooden board blocks the sun from beating down on Nur’s face. He is collecting his pay-check from an Oxfam booth right beside the structure. Behind him, Hamid is waiting to collect his. They are two of the many guardians appointed to keep an eye on the elephants from their watchtowers, alert people, and keep both elephants and people safe and reduce the number of souls drifting away from the earth below. After all, as the wooden board reads, “Elephants are friends of nature”—In Bangla, in English, in Burmese.
For Hamid, especially, and Nur, the job is rather personal.
The azan can be heard, its rhythm drifting in the air. It’s the waqt of Zuhr. Nur accompanies Hamid to the bamboo watchtower he is in charge of, treading through the uneven grassland that leads to it. At the foot of the tower, they unroll their prayer mats towards the direction of Kaaba. When they prostrate, in submission to God, the sun rests its fiery rays on their bodies. During the prayer waqts, the air above Kutupalong is suffused with humble and desperate requests of refugees zigzagging through the sky, on their way to God.
Around them, the rugged hills that were once alive with vegetation lie amputated. It’s evident that the hills’ days of glory are over. They boast dusty air, huts, settlements, and people, instead of a crisp breeze, evergreen forests and wild animals. Day by day, their terrains grow more levelled and less rugged for the helplessly intruding inhabitants to walk on, and their height shrinks, as though inversely proportional to the number of refugees in them.
Hamid and Nur were not supposed to be here. Neither were any calls to prayer, any settlement at all. But they were all here. In the hills and with its trapped elephants, being here was an act of defiance from the refugees’ ends. But for the refugees, it was really an act of helplessness. After all, breaking nature’s law was something they had to do to escape persecution.
Moon on the ocean
“They took Sayeda away. There’s no point in staying here. She’s probably dead. You must come with us,” pleads Kashem Chacha.
He knows because he saw what had happened to Sayeda.
Kashem was at Imam Matin’s place as he needed the Imam’s permission to cultivate paddy in his field in order to climb his way back to solvency and clear his debts. The discussion over hot tea and snacks treaded slowly and ended fatally. Kashem Chacha never got the permission. The Imam was dead, the field burnt down. And a big, heavy question mark hung in the air.
It was when Kashem Chacha was about to flaunt his skills as a farmer to the Imam that the rat-a-tat of the gunfire was heard. Kashem was the only one to have gotten into hiding safely, unscathed. While in hiding, his eyes took in everything that unfolded before him. The Imam, his son, brother, and wife had been shot in the back of their heads, which squirted gory offerings that had escaped the confines of their skulls.
His 17-year-old daughter, Salma, and her friend—best friend—of the same age, Sayeda, were forced into the military jeep, dragged by their hair, their face bloodied from the beating.
Kashem’s words gnaw at Hamid’s and Fatima’s hearts like famished animals. They both drown in a river of disbelief.
Sayeda—Fatima’s twin, Hamid’s daughter—in reasonable calculation, was….gone. The thought torments them.
A cloud of regret hovers above them as they both feel they should have taken Sayeda to the paddy field to reap the harvests instead of letting her go to Salma’s place. But what was done couldn’t be undone. At the end of the day, time follows a strict law—a law with no holes or cracks for manipulation, a law inhaling and exhaling both cruelty and joy at the cost of it being obeyed.
Still, Hamid and Fatima beseech time to bend its laws for them, just a little, but in vain. Tears flood their eyes and trickle down their cheeks, their voices tremble, and their words implode and explode, but time doesn’t give a damn.
“Hurry up! Get on the boat, Hamid Bhai!” Kashem screams, a boat full of people waiting behind him. The breeze blows smoothly through them, as if trying to ease their pain like an ointment.
“Let’s go, Abba,” Fatima says, her heart sinking with the weight of grief. She knows the cost of her words. She knows she’ll reach safety without Sayeda.
The thought hangs like a stone in her throat, tough to swallow. But she gulps it down anyway, knowing there’s no point in staying here, no point in being unreasonable.
Hamid glances at the burning landscape for one last time. The houses, the mosque, the coconut trees, the hay, all are now in flight, in the form of thick smoke, on their way to the sky. Then he holds Fatima’s hands tightly and scans her eyes as though attempting to find Sayeda swimming inside Fatima’s moon-borne eyes. For a moment, he tries to imagine Sayeda inside Fatima, a twin within a twin, but fails to do so. Even though they’re the same from head to toe, there’s an inexpressible void. A void which can’t be filled unless he sees both of them in two separate bodies, rather than in just one.
They both get on the half-moon shaped boat as the saline waves caress its charcoal wood.
Its engine sputters, as it drifts away from the bank.
In the background, the village keeps burning, and from a skeletal Garjan tree, a gray langur secretly bids the boat goodbye, sighing in relief.
“Goodbye, Moon on the ocean.”
The Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) soldiers are stationed in Shah Porir Dwip. Polished rifles are slung over their shoulders, sunglasses rest on the bridges of their noses and olive helmets cover the tips of their heads as if big turtles, ready to welcome new refugees.
Thanks to the mercy of physical geography, the journey from Myanmar to Bangladesh through the Bay of Bengal takes only twenty minutes.
As people get off the boat and step on the wet, cool, squashy sand, they can still see their village burning behind them—thick plumes of smoke billowing and contracting, mixing into the bulbous clouds. It’s hard to tell where the smoke ends and where the clouds form.
On their way to Bangladesh, Hamid kept chanting prayers for the dead (especially for Sayeda, if she were to be dead already), holding Fatima close. He begged God to let the dead find peace. Beyond the blue of the sky, whether God nodded in agreement or calmly slept, only the dead knew.
Sayeda’s status perplexed Hamid and Fatima. One moment they felt like being unreasonable and believe that Sayeda had somehow survived. The next, they questioned the point of being unreasonable and inhaling false gratification.
The Black Sheep
The olive jeep whooshes down the narrow road that snakes through the endless greenery. On both sides of this concrete snake, settlements keep burning, as though a fiery carnival where trees, fields, gardens, houses, and people are all aflame.
The jeep abruptly jerks to a halt before a mosque. The soldiers kick Sayeda and Salma out of the vehicle, dragging them inside the mosque.
Inside, there are a dozen women or so—some stark naked, some clinging to torn garments, all seemingly wounded badly.
The mosaic floor is littered with blood. It’s not a prayer room anymore, but a slaughter house.
Sayeda and Salma slide across the floor, smeared in the blood, as soldiers push them roughly to one side.
The sunlight permeating through the giant rectangular window renders the blood bloodier. The rusty grillwork throws shapes of flowers on it, as if it offers flowers to those who have died, and those who have shed pools of blood.
Sayida and Salma can’t recognise any of the women. Perhaps they have all been gathered from nearby villages. They sit alongside those women in silence, shivering as the wires of imminent cruelty trouble their hearts, even as the putrid stench of blood colonise their sense.
What will happen to them? They wonder. Will they too be stripped of their clothes soon? Will they have to keep sitting there stark naked before being hacked to death?
“You terrorist cunts! We’re going to make sure you suffer. This is the price you have to pay for turning against us, you Rohingya cockroaches!” shouts a soldier, rage and fury swirling across his eyes.
From the knot of women, they pull Salma and another girl, probably fourteen, out. As her mother protests, a soldier rams his bayonet into her belly. She falls down and writhes in pain.
One by one, the soldiers keep bayoneting her breasts and genitals to ensure a cruel death, in front of everyone present.
Her body now bears uncountable holes; blood spills out from them like ribbons of stream running down hills.
They take Salma and the 14-year-old girl out the secondary exit to the backyard. Salma shares a glance with Sayeda, the uncertainty of meeting again evident in their eyes.
10 more soldiers follow them.
Although Sayeda watches her best-friend being walked to the gallows, she chooses to remain silent. The theatre of cruelty has made her throat grow dry and thorny. She isn’t ready to face the same fate as the 14-year-old girl’s mother and thinks it’s okay to act a little selfish out of helplessness.
She gazes at the woman’s corpse, a fresh discharger of its soul, a dead whale in a blood river. The woman’s eyes are pointed at the ceiling, her expression glassy. Perhaps she’s facing the God who lives in the skies, beyond the ceiling.
She remains unaware of the merciless happenings in the backyard. The room is so wide that sounds born of mercilessness can’t permeate the interior. But she, like everyone else, knows what is most likely to happen out there.
For people like Aung, manoeuvring their destiny as per their desires is tough. At 20, despite his unwillingness, he had joined the Burmese army as a soldier to keep his family afloat. His existence soon became solitary since his family perished in a flood the year he joined the army, rendering the purpose of joining the force fruitless.
He’s now 22 and a witness to utmost cruelty. He knows what his superiors and peers are doing is condemnable. In the face of inhumane massacre, from the life-changing options presented before him, he chooses the one that his humane heart nudges him to choose.
He chooses to go against his workforce, although secretly. And if he gets caught? He flashes a big ‘Fuck you’ at the thought. He isn’t someone to budge even a little from what he has vowed to do. It fits him easily. He hosts it with confidence and bravery.
“Aung, take Bou Thin with you and set the mosque on fire. Make sure those cunts inside can’t escape,” says a senior soldier as he struggles to light his cigarettes, three at a time.
The order rests inside Aung uneasily. He nods in agreement and disappears from the senior soldier’s view.
He doesn’t take Bou Thin with him.
When Aung enters the mosque, the women start cowering at his sight, as if a fresh new wave of fear has gripped them. They think he’s just another soldier who has come to sexually assault them, but, for once they are lucky; their assumptions turn out to be wrong.
“Follow me. I’m going to take all of you out of here,” says Aung peremptorily, the sunlight casting a heliographic glow on his face and olive uniform.
The women are appalled at the unexpected kindness from someone who is part of that ruthless force.
They don’t seem to be bothered that some of them are stark naked. After all, they have found a sliver of hope.
“What about my friend? She was taken by some soldiers, but I don’t know if she’s dead,” says Sayeda, foolishly and unreasonably, trying to swim closer to the idea that Salma could still be alive.
“I’m sorry, but I really don’t know. And if I investigate all this, you all could end up losing your chance of leaving,” Aung replies.
They decide to leave.
Aung empties the kerosene bottles and gun powder on the ground around the mosque. Then he lets a matchstick do the rest.
Momentarily, fire engulfs the mosque. Then Aung and the captive women escape through the backyard.
As the fire spreads, twisting and turning, and forming billowy fiery petals around the mosque, the other soldiers laugh satisfyingly.
Clearly, they are unaware of what the black sheep has done.
The group thinks it’s alone against all odds in the forest. But that’s not entirely true. The stars—eyes of the dark sky—hovering above, watch them like guardians.
On their way out of the mosque, they had found the corpses of Salma and the 14-year-old girl. Salma was suspended from the branch of a Banyan tree, the girl was lying on the ground in a pool of blood, her breasts hacked off.
When Sayeda came across Salma’s corpse, she grew motionless and wanted to grieve her best friend’s cruel fate. But they had a long way to go and would have to grieve while walking.
Those women who didn’t have any clothes to wear covered themselves with the garments of the dead (including Salma’s and the girl’s bloodied clothes), which they kept finding on their way every now and then. Surely, there had been many runaways before, treading the same path.
“So why did you save us?” Sayeda asks Aung, as they all sit by a creek to rest for the night.
He washes his face in the clear water running down the creek.
“I didn’t like what they were doing. It’s against my principles,” he answers.
In the moonlight, his watery eyes shine like the moon, his wet hair and his bulging muscles glisten. She wasn’t aware of his build until he took off his shirt to cover one of the naked women. She gazes at him for a while, as if an attempt to figure out the mystery of his defiant self. Although his face is similar to those cruel soldiers, she sees kindness in his.
“So what’s your name?” he asks.
They both smile and keep talking. They exchange small details about each other, lying on the ground, using a big rock as their headrest.
The other women talk among themselves. They don’t disturb the blooming friendship.
The fresh morning sun heralds the end of their resting period as it sends its bright rays into the forest through the canopy. Wary of snakes, they start off from their hideout, plucking as many fruits as they can find from their surroundings to stay energised throughout the journey. They feel lucky that no fox or leopard has pounced on them and no snake had bitten them while they had been asleep. It was a risk they had to take as they lacked the materials and the strength to build a makeshift shelter.
Perhaps, the stars—their guardians—had warded off the animals.
“How long do we have to keep walking through the forests?” asks one of the women.
“Two more days,” Aung replies.
En route, they realise that many had died on their journey to Bangladesh on foot. Some bodies lay on the ground rotten, flies buzzing over them; some lay with their skeletons, guts and flesh out, probably clawed and eaten by leopards and wild boars.
They come across a makeshift shelter, probably built by a group that crossed into Bangladesh before them. Thank goodness they can spend the night here, without any fear of venomous snakes.
The night is loud; crickets chirp. The stars, as usual, are scattered about the sky, the moon having spilled its merciful light.
Sayeda sits beside Aung as he polishes his gun with a leaf. His white vest has turned dark. It looks unpleasant on his sandalwood skin.
“Do you have anything to say?” he asks.
“No,” she replies.
He doesn’t mind that she is sitting there aimlessly. He is well aware that she loves his company. And he too loves hers.
Sayeda rests her head on Aung’s shoulder.
“You know, I can’t believe Salma is dead. I don’t know where my father and my sister Fatima are. I miss them so much,” she says, unable to hold back her tears.
He cups her lovely face in his hands and wipes them away.
“Let’s hope for the best,” he says, planting a kiss on her cheek.
She runs her hand across his neck, caresses his ear and abruptly kisses his lips. When she feels his lips respond, she shuts her eyes. He slides his tongue gently into her mouth, in an attempt to taste hers—a reflexive act that turns into a passionate kiss.
The next moment, they are both on the ground, on top of each other, inseparable, making love under the watch of the guardian stars.
At Kutupalong Refugee camp, Hamid and Fatima are united with Nur and many other familiar faces. Their hearts throb joyfully, although temporarily, because it stops when at one point or another, people ask about Sayeda.
“Where’s the other one?”
In response, they repeatedly convey the bad news. It’s as if they have to relive the pain whenever someone inquires about Sayeda.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. Thank Allah that you at least have one of the twins,” the inquirers say—a futile attempt at consoling.
“I never thought I’d find you,” Fatima says, her gaze resting on Nur. She hugs him tightly as if to make up for Sayeda’s share as well.
“I thought so too,” says Nur, and the corners of his face wrinkle with a smile of relief.
“Where are Hasan, Maya, Rahnuma, Kabir, and the rest?” she asks.
“I haven’t seen them. They’re probably in some other camp or…I don’t know,” he replies.
Fatima doesn’t ask him about his family. She knows they have perished in Rakhine and how painful it would be for him to narrate the tragedy. After all, she knew the pain better than anyone else.
Nur’s parents always treated the twins with love and affection. And the twins reciprocated affectionately as well. They were loving and caring neighbours who were more than neighbours, more than family friends. The sweetness that tied them together was something worth holding onto.
As if losing her twin wasn’t enough, she had to keep losing more people she loved as well.
Nur too doesn’t ask about Sayeda in detail, although he wants to, since Sayeda was his dear friend as well. He had noticed how gloomy Hamid and Fatima would get whenever they asked about Sayeda.
Fatima and Nur are of the same age. They were best friends, went to the same madrasa, ventured on the same adventures and took part in the same mischievous acts. Most portions of their memory include the existence of one another. Through thick and thin, they had always been together.
They stand atop a dusty hillock, gazing into the distance, holding hands, speaking no words, taking in the seemingly undisturbed air in silence as the camp sprawls around them with its red-blue-green settlements, rugged terrain. The skyline hosts a thin ribbon of orange, as if to herald the moment—the reunion of two best friends, beyond genocide.
Sayeda can’t get enough of Aung. They’re always glued to one another. At times, she climbs on his back. At times, he carries her in his arms like a baby.
The rest of the women can sense that the ‘friendship’ has developed into something else. None of them seem bothered by the fact that Aung is of a different race and religion. What mattered most was that he had shown the religion of humanity and saved them when the odds were against them.
“Be careful of land-mines. The border is only a few minutes away,” Aung warns them as he leads the line and sees a dead, blood-soaked elephant with its feet severed, lying on the ground a few metres away.
When they come closer to Bangladesh, they see belongings floating on a canal that separates the two countries.
“We have to be careful while we run. There are many landmines hidden here,” says Aung as they listen, with pounding hearts.
They settle themselves inside a clump of thick vegetation. From the thickets, they can see BGB soldiers guarding the Bangladesh border and attending to swarms of refugees.
“Okay, let’s do this,” Aung says, firmly.
Sayeda clasps his hand, looks him in the eye, and shares an intimate moment of affection, in case they are blown up by landmines. They huddle together, say a prayer, and thank Aung. The air around them is thick with fear and hope. They could either cross over or get blown up into smithereens.
“Bismillah,” whispers Sayeda. They all run for the border.
Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom.
Four landmines go off.
Three of the twelve women die; their lower portions blow up in to the air before landing unmercifully on the ground. One is injured, the splinters lodged inside her leg, flesh and bones glaringly visible.
BGB soldiers take the injured woman to a nearby hospital, making her their utmost priority. Those who have made it alive wipe tears of happiness as well as sadness. They say a prayer for those three who have died, facing the Myanmar border. The sound of the blasts still rings in their ears.
Aung hugs Sayeda tightly, like someone who has just been reunited with their child. Sayeda rests her face on his chest. She wants to keep the moment paused.
A huge commotion ensues when the refugees notice Aung. They wield sticks and gear up to beat him.
“What is this cunt doing here? Isn’t he one of the soldiers?” they say, hatred and fury rising in their eyes.
A mob surrounds Aung and Sayeda. Sayeda shouts at the top of her lungs to explain the truth to them, but their loud voices render hers inaudible. The rest of the seven women, with the help of a few BGB personnel, dismiss the mob. They convince the mob about how Aung had helped them reach here safe and sound. Taken aback with the account of such unexpected help from a Burmese army soldier, the mob retreats.
It’s as if their eyes have been opened to the existence of humanity—rediscovered humanity which has risen from the ashes of genocide.
The contingent from the border is transferred to the southern part of Kutupalong Camp. Sayeda gazes at the enormity of a place bustling with people of her kind. There are too many people, too many faces. Her mind flounders as to how she would find her family members or known ones (if they were alive, that is).
Sayeda, Aung, and the other women from their group are led to their shelters. Surprised faces stare at Aung. The last thing they expected was a Burmese soldier among Rohingya refugees. But in fact, he is there, an alien, an outcast—both from the Burmese military and his status as a “refugee”.
Aung and Sayeda aren’t allowed to stay in one hut because as per the instructions of the Rohingya Chief who supervised a cluster of huts in that specific area, unmarried people can’t stay together. It becomes clear to Sayeda that the patriarchal, superstitious norms which used to be deeply rooted back in Rakhine are also practiced here.
When it’s daytime, Aung and Sayeda walk aimlessly and lose themselves in the nooks and crannies of the camp, in an attempt to reunite with her known ones and inquire about her family. But she sees no one she recognises. The camp is an endless sea. A sea only whose beginning is known to her, and not its end.
Although the pang born of the failure to find her known people settles inside her heart painfully, her days are spent in good company, thanks to the women from their own little ‘runaway’ group. Aung also seems to spend most of his time with them, especially with Sayeda. Here, no one else accepts Aung as a refugee. They look at him somewhat spitefully.
It doesn’t seem to affect his spirits though. After all, his love for Sayeda is profound. And he’s happy as long as she is with him.
Monsoon rains have destroyed around 10 huts pitched into slopes. They now lie in ruins, soaked in tea puddles, bamboos snapped in half, tarpaulins bearing wide cuts, flailing about like blue flags suspended from broken poles like wounded bamboo animals.
The people sheltered there previously are soon moved to the southern part of the camp when the terrain is perceived to be risky; even repairing couldn’t apparently help.
Hamid, Fatima, Nur are among those people.
Sodium lights illuminate the (former) hills like countless mechanical eyes. They bounce as the hot air whooshes its way through them. It makes the inhabitants sweat and they grow tired from having to wave hand fans over themselves to fight against the warm humid air seeping into them.
The night-sky is cloudy—an ocean of celestial bodies covered in sheets of vapour. Despite the invisibility of the stars, Sayeda and Aung keep staring at the sky, trying to fathom its depths. How endless it seems! How near yet so far!
Aung places his chin on Sayeda’s shoulder, his hands coiled with hers. At such moments, silent yet filled with emotions, they cherish each other. It’s quiet where they are standing, giving them enough privacy to share such intimacy. There is only thick uncut vegetation around them, which has been spared by the need for space. The camp and its commotion are a little behind.
Their privacy is suddenly invaded, not by any refugee, but by a juggernaut Asian elephant. It appears out of the vegetation without any warning and screeches like a siren as it runs wild into the camp, flinging Aung and Sayeda, its pointy tusks now drenched in Sayeda’s and Aung’s blood. As they’re flung, they traverse a few metres mid-air and hit the trunk of a Garjan tree. Like the elephant’s tusks, the white wood of the tree turns red. It’s as if both the elephant and the tree have signed a pact. As if they both wanted revenge from the people who have helplessly but surely invaded the elephants’ home.
Although the elephant wreaks havoc in the camp, there are no casualties there, for it has already claimed its victims and given them warning—a warning decent enough to alarm people to keep themselves safe.
After the inhabitants, during a prolonged and noisy assault, manage to kill the elephant with sharp rods, they form a circle around Sayeda and Aung’s bodies, focusing their flashlights unmercifully on their corpses, since that area around the vegetation has no lights.
One of the women from their little ‘runaway’ group rushes to the scene, like everyone else, out of sheer curiosity. From the cluster of people appalled at the violent deaths, only she screams out their names, as she falls on her knees, wailing like a baby.
She cries and cries, repeating their names.
Fatima, Hamid, and Nur have settled in the southern part just a few hours ago. As curiosity drives them, like everyone else from the farthest corners of the camp, to the scene, they too, join the wailing woman. It takes them 15 minutes to walk from their huts to the scene. Just because they don’t have anything better to do, they take the fifteen-minute-long walk to see what the commotion is about.
A fifteen-minute-long walk to re-shatter their hearts.
The only positive thing about the whole unfortunate occurrence is that the number of wailers has grown from one to four from the circle around the corpses.
At this, Sayeda smiles a little. She is satisfied that her family is alive and healthy. She hovers above the scene for a while, planting kisses on Hamid, Nur, Fatima, and the woman from their ‘runaway’ group.
“Shall we proceed?” Aung says.
She smiles and flies towards him, clutching him in a hug. They settle themselves on the back of an elephant.
It screeches and shoots towards the sky, running on air, disappearing into sheets of vapour.
It rains only a little later, as if to herald the departure of Sayeda’s, Aung’s, and the elephant’s phantoms.