Nur’s life story does not go as simple as it first sounds. He had to literally cross seas and look death in the eye to finally settle down in this new occupation.
Nur Mohammad has found a booming business in the chaos, flurry and despair of the Kutupalong Rohingya camp.
But then he has always been an enterprising guy and has had his fair share of more failure than success. This time he thinks he has struck it right.
The Rohingya camp today is full of activities. Hundreds of SUVs and trucks loaded with relief goods roll in. Thousands of local and international NGO workers mill around, overseeing the world’s largest refugee operation. And any activity means generation of waste, tons of it every day.
For Nur Mohammad, it seemed as good an idea as any to make meaning out of the garbage.
Just bang opposing the camp gate he set up his recycling shack and has engaged small Rohingya kids to collect anything that is thrown away by the ‘shahibs’ – water bottles, plastic bags, tissue boxes, scrapes of tin, cans and what not.
“I was a tom-tom (battery-powered three-wheeler) driver,” Nur said. “It was all forest here. But when the Rohingyas came, the aid workers arrived. The shahibs are very wasteful. They throw away everything. Everything is one-time use for them. So I thought ‘wow, this is a great thing. Why not start my own vangari (waste) business here.”
It is surprising that he has to pay a rent of Tk 3,000 every month for a small piece of land where he has set up his ‘recycling shop’ covered with plastic sheet supported on bamboo poles. But that is how it is these days – everything has become costly after the Rohingyas arrived.
He pays the kids Tk 12 for a kilogram of plastic garbage and has already invested Tk 1.6 lakh in this business he started only about a month ago.
If Nur Mohammad was not here, this place of some four lakh Rohingyas would have turned into a living hell with garbage piling up into mounds.
But Nur’s life story does not go as simple as it first sounds. He had to literally cross seas and look death in the eye to finally settle down in this new occupation. Somehow, he almost went through the same ordeal as the Rohingyas, upon whose misery he now ekes out his living.
One day some four years ago when he was a small trader, someone approached him with an offer of a voyage to Malaysia where life would be ‘as good as it gets’. And it all came free, he could pay off only once he started earning money.
So one moonlit night at around 10, four years ago, he was standing on the Teknaf shore.
There were others too. And the boatmen. One by one they all boarded a small wooden boat, barely enough to hold the 30 of them together.
The whole night the boat sailed. Nur felt dizzy riding the waves. But he knew it would soon end and they would be on a big boat. Thereafter, it would all be fine.
The next morning around eight, they saw a small dot on the horizon, an object bobbing up and down. Visible this moment, gone the next.
The boat sped straight ahead towards it. Soon the dot materialized into a wooden fishing trawler, big, but not what he thought it would be.
There were Chinese looking men in charge of the trawler, who later turned out to be Thais.
Theirs was the last consignment – on the boat there were others, to be exact - they altogether made a group of 285 people crammed in like sardines.
As soon as they got on board, the trawler sailed with a big blast on its engine.
“We had no inkling that it would be like this,” Nur said. “We sat side by side. There was no room to even stretch our feet. We were tired and hungry and demanded breakfast as it was way after sunrise.”
But all they got was a nasty snarl from the Thai human smugglers. As the shady human cargo became too rebellious, the Thais brought out automatic weapons and said anyone creating any trouble would just be shot and thrown into the sea.
The passengers were then divided into two groups and one group was sent down into the cargo hold and the other one stayed on the deck. Every 12 hours, the group inside the cargo hold would be brought up and the group on the deck sent inside.
“It was terrible,” Nur said. “Imagine 140 people inside the cargo hold. There was no air, no window. Just darkness and heat. Terrible heat coming from 140 bodies. Many of us frequently slipped out of consciousness.”
But that may have saved them because any more exertion and pain would have killed them anyway.
Neither was it pleasant on the deck. The sun beat down on them mercilessly, peeling off their skin. All day long their ration was two cups of rice with either a chunk of molasses or just an onion and three cups of water – one cup in the morning, one at noon and one at night.
“We were hungry and thirsty, numb from sitting on our haunches because we were not allowed to stand up. We were so terribly dehydrated that we hardly peed even once a day. For 12 nights we sailed on like this. Often, the thought crept into my mind that I would not survive the day,” he said.
But strange is the human body and its spirit to survive. The 285 souls barely clung to the thin line that had become their physical existence. Dehydration and hunger numbed their minds and some of them were delirious. They talked of strange things, strange visions, strange memories of years of plenty.
“One day, a young boy suddenly stood up, ignoring the curses of the Thai crew,” Nur looked somber. “He had a blank look and in a moment before anybody could do anything he jumped into the sea. He could not take it any longer and so instead took his own life. We were terrified but sat silently, thinking of our own fate.”
In the next couple of days, two more jumped into the sea. Nur was at his fag end. All he thought all day long in his delirium was to hold on to the thin line that divided death from life because, as he reasoned, everything must come to an end.
Finally, the end came after 12 days when the boat moored by a deep forest on the borders of Thailand and Malaysia. The group was taken into the forest and then another ordeal started.
“We thought we would now get jobs. Instead they asked for money. They took the phone number of my brother, called him and told him that they were going to kill me unless my brother paid Tk 2 lakh to somebody in Teknaf.”
His family had no savings from which they could meet their demands. They sold off their cattle and some land to pool together the money, but were still short by one lakh taka. Finally, they took out loans.
By the time the money was cobbled together three months had elapsed and it was a hazardous stay in the forest for Nur.
Their daily ration hardly improved, only now they got more water to drink. But the food remained the same. There were many others like Nur Mohammad who were stranded hostages. Some of them died of diseases.
“I myself believed that I would not survive much longer,” he said. “But then I was walked to a vehicle and taken out of the forest. Later I came to know that my family had secured my freedom for Tk 1.7 lakh.”
He got a job in a fire fighting unit as a lumber. But it was still all illegal and the agent who got him the job would take a large cut of his salary. What was left did not go far in pay off his family’s debts.
Three years down the line he finally came back home, almost empty-handed with the kind of ordeal that the Rogingyas opposite his shop suffered.
“I was like one of them,” he pointed to the camp. “Nameless and without a country, at the mercy of others. So I know how the Rohingya suffer. I try to help their children by engaging them in waste collection.”