Thousands of Rohingya refugees have marked the second anniversary of their exodus into Bangladesh by rallying and praying as they demand Myanmar grant them citizenship and other rights before they agree to return.
Almost 200,000 Rohingya participated in a peaceful gathering, which was attended by UN officials, at the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh‘s Cox’s Bazar on Sunday, police officer Zakir Hassan told AFP news agency.
Children, hijab-wearing women, and men wearing long lungis shouted: “God is great, long live Rohingya” as they marched in the heart of the world’s largest refugee camp to commemorate what they described as “Genocide Day”.
Some carried placards and banners, reading “Never again! Rohingya genocide remembrance day” and “Restore our citizenship”.
On August 25, 2017, nearly 740,000 Muslim-majority Rohingya fled Rakhine State for Bangladesh – joining 200,000 already there – after Myanmar’s armed forces launched a brutal crackdown following attacks on security posts.
Sunday’s rally came days after a second failed attempt to repatriate the refugees, which saw not a single Rohingya turn up to return across the border.
“We want to tell the world that we want our rights back, we want citizenship, we want our homes and land back,” Mohib Ullah, one of the organisers of Sunday’s protest, told the Associated Press news agency. “Myanmar is our country. We are Rohingya.”
“I have come here to seek justice for the murder of my two sons. I will continue to seek justice till my last breath,” 50-year-old Tayaba Khatun told AFP as tears rolled down her cheeks.
On Saturday, Bangladesh police said they shot dead two refugees during a gunfight in a camp after the pair were accused of killing a ruling party official.
Nearly a million Rohingya live in squalid camps in southeast Bangladesh.
Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from the Kutupalong refugee camp, said: “The scale of this camp is like nothing you have ever seen. It has roughly the same population as Islamabad or Oslo.”
“A city of refugees, but without the infrastructure needed to cope,” she added.
The Rohingya, a mainly Muslim minority, are not recognised as an ethnic group in Myanmar, despite having lived there for generations. They have been denied citizenship and are rendered stateless.
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation deal in November 2017, with a plan to return the refugees within two years.
Bangladesh, with the help of the UN refugee agency, attempted to start the repatriation of 3,450 Rohingya on Thursday for a second time after the last attempt in November, but none agreed to go back voluntarily.
“They asked if we wanted to go back to Myanmar, I said no. They asked me why. I told them that our homes were burned, our family members were raped and killed. This is why we suffered to come here. How can we go back without knowing that we will be safe?” Noor Hossain told Al Jazeera.
Rohingya leader Mohib Ullah said the stateless minority wanted to return home, but only after they were granted citizenship, their security was ensured and they were allowed to settle back in their villages.
“We have asked the Burmese government for dialogue. But we haven’t got any response from them yet,” Ullah told the rally.
Al Jazeera’s Dekker said many were too “terrified and traumatised” to go back.
Rohingya refugees hesitant to return to Myanmar
“There are reports that most of the homes of these people have been razed to the ground by the authorities, that other structures have been put up in their place, so where will they be going back to?” she said.
“These are the issues that haven’t been addressed and I think many people tell you realistically that this is going to be a long-term problem for Bangladesh and potentially the region.”
A UN-established investigation last year recommended the prosecution of Myanmar’s top military commanders on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for the crackdown on the Rohingya.
Myanmar dismissed the allegations.
On Thursday, the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar released a new report concluding that rapes of Rohingya women by Myanmar’s security forces were systemic and demonstrated an intent to commit genocide.
The report said the discrimination Myanmar practised against the Rohingya in peacetime aggravated the sexual violence towards them during times of conflict.
The UN has called the Rohingya crisis a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
“The Rohingya genocide is the last step in the continuity of persecution and a deliberate campaign of terror, violence, killings and rape waged against our people that began decades ago,” the UK-based Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO) said in a statement on Sunday.
“Today, we remember and honour all those who were killed as heroes and martyrs. We will remember them forever.”