As the bus joined the main road, my interpreter pointed at the lone man talking on his handphone by the side of the road and shouted “my friend!” I pressed the bell and a few seconds later, we were shaking hands with this man. He smiles, but then looks around, mumbling something about a police car, and immediately crosses the road, walking fast.
He acts like a man being hunted. JJ scans both sides of the road, alternating between looking far ahead and then behind his shoulder. He does this continuously, and as we approach the bus stop on the other side of the road, he veers off into a laterite side road and hides in the palm oil plantation, refusing to wait for the bus at the shelter.
“The police car, the one with the lights on top and with the siren, they will stop me. If they are on the other side of the road, they will make a u-turn. They will ask for money”.
JJ lives in a rented house just a few stops away with 3 other fellow refugees from the Arakan State in Myanmar. The youngest is just 18, and I just couldn’t stop staring at his face – the face of an innocent young boy. I wonder what made this boy run away from his home country, but I don’t want to either scare him or give him false hope by interviewing him, and so I keep my mouth shut and listen to JJ tell his story.
“The police always stop me and ask me for money. It was OK back then but now I don’t have a job so I don’t have money to give them. They know we live here. They came to our house twice. Once, it was around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. They came in a 4WD and took all of our rent money of RM250 and my friend’s handphone”.
“The other time, it was 5 o’clock in the morning. They were wearing plain clothes but showed their ID, so I think they were policemen. They wanted to take our TV and radio. I had to beg them not to, telling them it’s the landlord’s, not ours. That morning they took RM500 from us”.
JJ and his housemates now live in fear. They jump at the noise of every car or motorcycle approaching their house. They are too afraid to sleep in the house – every night, they will sleep in the nearby oil palm plantation and post a guard.
JJ ran away from his country seven years ago. He was being forced by the military to carry stones from a quarry to a barge and transport it to a big city. One day, they got into a scuffle with one of the soldiers and threw his rifle into the river. After that, he jumped into the river and swam away, hiding at his uncle’s house for a few days. He then ran into Thailand and made his way eventually to Malaysia. JJ was married for only a month and a half when he had to run away from his village. What happened to your wife, I asked? “I don’t contact her, because it will be dangerous for her. I go my way, she goes her way”. He laughs as if it was a joke, but he looks away. And for a moment I see in his eyes the sadness he is masking.
JJ talks about many stories of forced labour in his village. About how two men from his village died of diarrhoea and were buried at the side of the road they were forced to build. Of how a mother of two children was raped when she was forced to be a porter for the military. Shamed, she committed suicide by hanging herself from a tree.
“I heard from other people that my brother ran away too. To Thailand”.
It seem, JJ too has not stopped running away.
“Operasi sini, lari sana, operasi sana, lari tempat lain. Lari lari macam tu…” (If there is a (police) raid here, I will run there, if there is a raid there, I will run to another place. I run here and there like that…)
And as I look into his eyes, I know now what it is like to be hunted down like an animal.