In the courtyard of a simple mosque bordered by recently dug graves Mohammad recounts in a low monotone how he lost his daughter.“She was vomiting and had diarrhoea, but I could not take her to the hospital,” he says. “There was no doctor that could visit her, so she died here.” Pormin Vibi was just 18 years old.Malaysia tells thousands of Rohingya refugees to ‘go back to your country’Read moreShe was among about 4,000 Muslims of the Rohingya minority living in what amounts to a ghetto known as Aung Ming Lar, a cramped quarter of Buddhist-dominated Sittwe in Burma’s northwest state of Rakhine.For three years the community has been virtually closed off from the outside world by police checkpoints and barbed wire.Living under what are described as apartheid-like conditions – the UN calls it a “clear case of segregation” – some are allowed to leave under escort just twice a week to access the market where they used to trade.
The hospital where Pormin Vibi could have been treated is within walking distance. Her father points towards it. But it is considered off limits by the inhabitants of this open-air prison.
“If we go there they inject poison to kill us,” says a 14-year-old who calls himself James, sharing the perceived fear of many in the ghetto.
Trapped in such squalor and surrounded by hostility, it is from such places as Aung Ming Lar that tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled, handing their fate to paid traffickers to take them by sea to Thailand and Malaysia.
In recent days nearly 2,000 boat people from Myanmar and Bangladesh have been rescued off the coast of Thailand or been forced to swim ashore in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Thousands more are believed to be drifting in small boats, without fuel or supplies. Driving monsoon rains – and the end of the trafficking season – are expected within days.
Traffickers, said by human rights activists to work with local officials and even police, regularly hold their captives to ransom, detaining and torturing them in jungle camps in southern Thailand where authorities have recently uncovered dozens of shallow graves.
But despite the evident dangers there are no shortage of those who attempt to escape.
“Many of us try to leave,” says James. A visit by the Guardian to Aung Ming Lar gives an insight into why.
At the fringes of the camp police checkpoints abound, turning away most visitors. Just inside, children labour hard to prepare storm ditches for the coming rains, digging out the stinking mud, watched by a sullen adult and a young girl with no expression on her face beyond that shaped by her skinny cheekbones.
Many children living in the ghetto are too young to remember life before the eruption of the 2012 clashes triggered by reports three Muslim men had raped a local Rakhine Buddhist.
Sporadic violence over several months left villages burning and claimed nearly 200 lives, mostly Rohingya, although around 10,000 Rakhine Buddhists have also ended up in separate camps.
The Rohingya, who were estimated to number around one million, or about one third of the state’s population, have been described by the UN as one of the “most persecuted” ethnic minorities in the world, from a conflict that dates back decades.
In 1982 the military junta under Ne Win stripped them of their citizenship. A succession of post-colonial regimes has refused to recognise their claim to be identified as Rohingya – a term of relatively recent political coinage adopted by an astute leadership, mostly in exile.
Instead the government insists most are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and classifies them as Bengalis, even though some claim roots before the colonial era – when thousands did arrive – to as far back as the 15th century when the Arakan kingdom was famed for its cosmopolitan openness.
The ghetto, however, is a chapter of its own.
Houses made of wood and bamboo provide some semblance of normality. A primary school donated by Japan before the latest troubles is being fixed , but there is no education beyond that.
A few stalls in the lanes sell basics, at inflated prices because of the cost of bribing their guardians. Non government organisations fear to work there because of the danger of retaliation from the surrounding population.
“Nobody comes here. The state gives us bags of rice, but it’s not enough, I am old and I am hungry,” says a skinny man in his 70s, holding a hen in his hand.
Only a few minutes later appears James: “The world needs to know, we have been abandoned, there is no hope for us.”
He is visiting some relatives. “I had to pay bribes to come here from my camp. To go out, we have to pay. But this is not fair: I want to study, I want to improve my English, but I can’t. I want to become a doctor, but Rohingya are not allowed to study medicine,” says James.
Soon after a group of men gather in the mosque courtyard, eager to relate their plight to foreign strangers.
“A doctor comes from time to time, but it’s not enough. We have no access to health services and there’s only a primary school here,” says one of the men, before going outside and showing the way to the graves of 20 residents they say were killed during the 2012 violence.
A 14-year-old boy who says his name is Sharif says he would like to study English and go to university, but he can’t.
His conclusion is clear: “We ask the government to recognise our rights: if they don’t grant them to us, we will offer ourselves to the cause and we will attack.”
Al Qaida and Islamic State have threatened to extend their cause to the Muslim population in Myanmar which did launch a short-lived “jihad” after the second world war.
According to the International Crisis Group, the extreme conditions endured by the Rohingya could radicalise elements, although it saw that risk as limited by the hope of the Muslim minority to obtain the support of western governments in their campaign to be accepted as citizens of Myanmar with full rights.
A decision in February by president Thein Sein’s reformist government to revoke their “temporary” identity cards has disenfranchised the community ahead of parliamentary elections due to be held in November. In the meantime they have been told to apply again for citizenship.
“They are not letting us vote,” says the father of Pormin Vibi. “They will give us citizenship only if we define ourselves as Bengali, but we are not, we are from Myanmar. We want to stay here, where should we go? We are from here,” he says.
Just outside the ghetto, the owner of a small transport company looks at his clapped-out buses parked by the barbed wire, next to a policeman with a gun. He seems to bear no ill-will towards the Muslims living inside, and he blames extremist “outsiders” for stirring up conflict.
“I’ve got friends who live in the ghetto, but now I don’t go there anymore. The neighbours would start talking,” he says.
“But before we used to go to each other’s houses and the kids played together. A long time will go by before the situation changes, a few generations. At least 20 years.”