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Alif, a long-time Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh, had hoped — for the first time in three decades — to be reunited with his family.
Instead, he was only allowed to bury them.
At least 14 Rohingya fleeing neighbouring Myanmar died Sunday night and dozens are reported missing after their boat sank in the Bay of Bengal.
They were among hundreds of thousands of people from the Muslim minority community to flee a campaign of violence in mainly Buddhist Myanmar which the UN and others have described as ethnic cleansing.
The bodies of seven of the shipwreck victims, wobbling in the back of a pickup truck on a rutted road from Shah Porir Dwip at the southeastern tip of Bangladesh, were brought for burial Monday in a land they never managed to reach during their lifetimes.
The washed bodies, wrapped in white or purple sheets, arrived at the overgrown cemetery.
Volunteers from a local Koranic school carefully unloaded the remains of the children, cradling them delicately in their arms.
The people of Shah Porir Dwip know the procedure. Their district is where boatloads of Rohingya arrive from Myanmar’s Rakhine state via the Bay of Bengal and shipwrecks are common.
Jashim Uddin, a professor at the Koranic school, was woken at 5 am by a call to his cellphone from the coastguard.
They asked him to send a team to collect the bodies fished from the water.
For Jashim, it was a tragedy all too reminiscent of three weeks ago when he collected the decomposed bodies of earlier drowning victims.
“No one was looking after them, giving them a dignified funeral. I felt so bad: they are also Muslims, my brothers and sisters,” he told AFP.
– Praying on the beach –
Under a leaden sun, the gravediggers Monday dug three holes: one per adult — Alif’s father and mother — and one for the children.
A man scooped out water disgorged by the earth which is battered daily by torrential rain.
As the midday call for prayer rose from the surrounding minarets, the remains were lowered one by one into the graves.
A quick prayer was said in a low voice for each of the dead.
Normally a bamboo shield would be placed over the bodies before they were covered up. This time, wild grass torn up at the cemetery had to serve its turn.
On his knees, Alif used his bare hands to heap earth on the shrouds of his parents whom he had not seen for nearly 30 years.
In the face of the latest repression by the Myanmar military, the family fled their village last week for the coast.
“Yesterday they called me at 4 pm, telling me that they were in a very difficult situation, that they had no food, that they did not know how to survive,” a sobbing Alif told AFP.
“I told them to try to cross into Bangladesh and that I would take care of the rest.”
Thirteen members of Alif’s family were on board the boat and only four are known to have survived.
“I feel so helpless, just going to the shore and praying to God that I can find the bodies of my sisters, brothers-in-law and the rest of the family so that at least I can see them last time,” he said.
After just half an hour the burials were over. Suddenly, as mourners began to leave, Alif collapsed on the grass, his face distorted with grief and tears coursing down his cheeks.
The makeshift hearse pulled away but Alif’s cries could still be heard for a long time.
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