On the Narrow Road
You catch yourself slipping and falling
on the narrow road,
a black water jug—cracked on a dark night.
—Lovesong (Jani Alam)
Every sunset, I watched the women whose husbands were detained in Rakhine spread their grief on our balcony to find solace in the songs mama sang. These women whose eyes were dimmed by sadness were the only visitors we had after papa’s death. It was one of them who had suggested to mama I school in Rakhine, “It’s high time your little boy join the other kids in school.”
But there were no schools in my village, and just like some lucky few, I was sent to Rakhine, a few miles away from our village.
The children in my new school were fun at first; we played football on the beach, and sometimes Mooldar. But they didn’t understand Rohingya, and we were taught in a language I did not understand.
But one day, Mr. Naindha—our arithmetic teacher—pulled me out of the field during soccer, “You can’t join them,” he said, but I ignored him and ran towards the ball, while the other kids stood there staring at him. ‘You!’ he grabbed my Zaali, leaving me almost naked as it unfurled in his hand. ‘Go away, you don’t belong here Kalar.’ And the kids burst into laughter.
I picked up my Zaali, went home in shame, and feigned a fever so that mama would never send me to school again, but mama wouldn’t listen; neither did the women who found solace in Mama’s song. “You must go to school,” they insisted. “Education is our only hope, and you’re the hope of Rohingya.”
“I can’t, they will laugh at me, and call me Kalar,” I said.
“Do you think I’m happy scrubbing the floor for Mr. Janu every weekend?” Mama yelled, “If I went to school, our lives would have been much better.”
And so the next morning, the women showered me with gifts, and Baator Musa, and Bini Suna. They danced around me, fiddling with my hair, “Go to school son, you’re not a Kalar, Noyapara is your home.”
Noyapara wasn’t Rakhine, life here was different, and most of my teachers weren’t friendly except a few. My tikka wasn’t allowed in school, and whenever I introduced myself as Ahmed, there was always an accompanying murmur, a stare, laughter with a glint of hatred.
“Ahmed, is that even a name?” Mr. Naindha, my arithmetic teacher would snarl at me after that incident. “Are you even permitted to school here?”
“Yes sir,” I stuttered, and showed him a written permit from Mr. Janu, mama’s boss who worked for the Junta government—It was quite common among my tribe, to need a load of such permits: to go to school, to leave our village, or to use a phone.
“And who is your father?” He asked, not in a kind way, Mr. Janu had asked me on the evening papa was murdered by the Myanmar military, but in the most derogatory way.
‘’I don’t know,” I said because I was angry that I knew nothing about my father except that he was taken away from us and detained in Yangon a few years after I was born. Mama barely talked about him except to the women whose husbands were detained in Rakhine, and it was strange in the way these women found comfort in mama’s story.
I told Mama about Mr. Naindha. She chuckled, but I didn’t find it funny. She held my hands as we walked down the path that unwound to Ngapali. “Don’t mind him; he is just frustrated, but you must be careful, the people here aren’t happy about us.” She said. I knew. I have heard the women complain to mama about it: the harassment at the market, the spiteful comments from the people in Rakhine, and their inability to get a better job.
As we approached the water, a cold breeze wrapped around us, she sighed and turned to me, “I’m scared, I don’t know what will be our fate after today, but don’t let them break you.”
Mama was right, we woke up the following week to the sound of gunshots, and the women stopped coming to our house. It made mama worried, and she spent the whole day waiting, but they never showed up. And days later, rumors had it that some of the women had fled to Cos Bazaar, and the others butchered like cows and thrown into the river. I didn’t know if it was true, and it all seemed to be a rumor until one fateful evening after supper, some men in khaki pants, banged into our house with rifles and torches, ransacking and looting everything in our living room.
Mama ran into my room wrapped up in her zaali. She pushed my dresser against the door. She was panting so hard. “Shi! Are you okay son.” she held me to her blossom. I wanted to burst into tears, but I was too shocked to utter a word. I was scared, I was scared of dying so soon.
“Mama, I don’t want to die.” I clung to her, her eyes were soaked in tears.
“It’s okay, nothing will happen to you.” she broke into tears, and at that moment, I knew we had lost all hope, I knew she was scared and uncertain of what our fates were.
The noise in our living room grew near, and then gunshots.
“Insha Allah!” she cried and kissed me on my forehead. “You’ve to run son, please.”
I couldn’t let go of mama, I couldn’t let go of her, she was the only family I had. “Mama, please come with me.” I held unto her, but I couldn’t breathe, our room was clouded with smoke, and our roof was on fire. The smoke grew so thick, that we coughed and scrambled for the window.
“You’ve to go, son, please. I can’t lose you, you’re my hope, you’re the hope of Rohingya.” mama pulled me away from her.
There were more gunshots, and then they smashed the door open with their boots, and took hold of mama, yanking her legs apart, and stripping her of her clothes.
“Run!” Mama screamed, her voice fading into the night.
They ignored me and hit mama with their riffles, her face was shrouded in blood. There was nothing I could do to save mama.
“Help!” I scaled through the window, but the night was silent. It was as if the world had never been so cruel.
Written By: Jude Chukwu Nonso
Nigeria, Delta state