Mayyu Ali, Rohingya poet: “When I write, I exist and my community too”

Mayyu Ali is one of some 700,000 Rohingyas who had to flee Burma in the summer of 2017 in the face of abuses committed by the Burmese army. Five years later, this 31-year-old poet continues to write to carry the voice of his people. “The Earth revolves around two very different worlds; hell and paradise. I left one to discover the other.” A year ago, in September 2021, Mayyu Ali wrote his few words while walking through the door of his new apartment in Ontario, Canada, with his wife and young daughter. The end of a long ordeal for this 31-year-old Rohingya poet after four years spent in the largest refugee camp in the world, that of Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. Chance of the calendar or wink of fate, next September 6, five years to the day after having left Burma – like 700,000 other Rohingyas – in order to flee persecution by the army, he will take the road to university to study committed literature. His goal is to pursue a mission he gave himself as a teenager: to be the spokesperson for his community and to tell his story. To his credit, he already has dozens of published poems and, more recently, an autobiography in French, “L’Effacement” (Éditions Grasset), co-written with journalist Émilie Lopes. “Discrimination, flight, violence… I have seen it all and experienced it all. It is my duty to tell it to the whole world”, he sums up simply. In her autobiography, “The Erasure”, Mayyu Ali is the voice of the Rohingya community. © DR “For the Burmese government, I don’t exist” Mayyu Ali was born in 1991 in Maungdaw, in Arakan, a Burmese region on the edge of the Indian Ocean. The son of a fisherman, the last of six siblings, he likes to remember “a joyful childhood”, rocked by swimming in the river and games with his Buddhist or Hindu friends. “But the joy quickly turned into fear,” he says. Since a citizenship law passed in 1982, the Rohingyas, who are predominantly Muslim, have been stateless, considered by Burma to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh. A status that makes it the target of abuses by the army and Buddhist religious extremists. “One day, when I was about ten years old, soldiers raided all the Rohingyas in my neighborhood. Including my home,” he says. “They had a gun in their hands, it was terrifying. That’s when I had the click: when I learned that they had not gone to my Buddhist or Hindu friends, I understood that we were discriminated against. In the years that followed, the list of injustices his family and friends faced seemed endless. “My brother was beaten and then thrown in jail because he allegedly had no paid a tax linked to the construction of his house, my grandfather’s land was confiscated. Around me, people were prevented from working for no reason”, he lists. In 2010, Mayyu Ali was banned from pursuing English studies at university because of his ethnicity. poetry by his high school English teacher, he fell in love with Shakespeare and the Indian author Rabindranath Tagore. to get down to it more seriously. “At the beginning, I wrote a lot about nature, friendship, family…”, he explains, immediately smiling again at the mention of his profession. , little by little, I understood that writing could be an act of rebellion. I am Rohingya. For the Burmese government, I don’t 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 Rohingyas increased in Arakan in 2012, the young man challenged himself to publish his texts, which he wrote in English or in Burmese. A few months later, it is the consecration: one of his poems appears in an English-language Burmese literary magazine. “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 objective of the authorities was to make us disappear”, he denounces. He remembers violent riots, deadly fires, the first villages destroyed and the first population fleeing towards neighboring Bangladesh. He stays, but decides to leave. engage with associations, in particular Action against Hunger, to help the population. Fundraising work Until the night 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 soldiers had set fire to the village. Everything was destroyed.” In the days that followed, he witnessed what he described as “ethnic cleansing”. “There was smoke everywhere, bullets were whistling, we heard screams, women were being raped”, he testifies, moved. Like 750,000 other Rohingyas, Mayyu Ali and his family resign themselves to fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. Three days of walking and a river to cross. “We had to swim among the corpses, in this river in which I played as a child”, he recalls. Even today, every August 25, the Rohingyas commemorate these days of violence. Refugee in what has become the largest refugee camp in the world, Cox’ Bazar, at the border between Burma and Bangladesh, Mayyu Ali continues to write. But his verses now take on another dimension. Beyond poetry, he wants to remember everything he sees. Thanks to his work with humanitarian associations and journalists whom he guides in the midst of makeshift shelters, he lists hundreds of testimonials. “I noted everything in notebooks. The raped little girls, the murders, the corruption, the hunger, the deplorable sanitary conditions”, he continues. “And I hope that one day it will serve to do justice.” Because of this commitment, the poet is threatened with death by the armed militias within the camp. “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.” 17:13 Reporters © France 24 Bringing the Rohingya culture to life at all costs A year later, if Mayyu Ali was able to reach Canada, he returns every day, through exchanges with his relatives, to the Cox’ Bazar camps. “My parents, my brothers and sisters stayed there,” he explains. “They tell me that the conditions are deteriorating month after month. There is more and more insecurity. With each bad weather, the shelters are destroyed. The diseases proliferate”, he denounces. According to Médecins sans frontières (MSF), cases of dysentery have increased by 50% compared to 2019 in the camps and cases of skin infections, such as scabies, are exploding. The Rohingya are also worried about the increase in crime. A hundred murders have been committed in five years, according to a count established by AFP. Among the victims, community leaders probably targeted by insurgent vendettas. Young people with no future prospects do not have the right to leave the camps or to work. For their part, to unclog the camps, the Bangladeshi authorities transferred some 30,000 refugees to Bhashan Char, an island off the Bay of Bengal. So the young writer remains mobilized to help. When he is not campaigning with the international community to have the “genocide” of his people recognized, he is working tirelessly to provide access to education for the children of Cox’ Bazar, who are sometimes born in the enclosure of these makeshift camps. “Some children have been there for five years, the same time during which they have been deprived of education. I refuse that this is a sacrificed generation”, he insists. With local associations, he managed to set up two schools where students study the Burmese curriculum. “If one day, by some miracle, they return to Burma, they can go back to school,” says Mayyu Ali. “When we talk about the massacre of the Rohingyas, we think of abuses and physical violence. But we are also attacking our culture and our language,” he denounces. “By being refugees, we lose our cultural anchorage. We have to fight against that. If our culture survives, our ethnicity too.” The rest of the time, Mayyu Ali continues to devote it to his passion and to blacken the 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 concludes. In March 2022, the United States was the first to recognize a Rohingya “genocide” perpetrated by the Burmese army. And for the poet to conclude with his verses: “A people, for decades, to be a Muslim minority, remains still and always under the blade and the bullets. Again and again oppressed, again and again raped and imprisoned. Again and again burned and terrified. Ah! What violence!”