It was probably the longest and most treacherous walk Nizamuddin had ever taken in his life, but he was fleeing death and somehow the distance became inconsequential.
Walking westwards over mountains and through jungles was his only chance at survival.
Like all Rohingyas Muslims, he comes from Rakhine, Myanmar's western coastal state. The violence being meted out to his community in the Buddhist majority country left him with no option but to escape, leaving behind his wife and children, to first save his life.
"I walked for one night and one day through?mountains,?jungle and?paddy fields. Then I rode in a small paddle boat to reach Bangladesh. It was the first time I had set foot in another country. I did not know the language, I had no passport, no legal documents. I was scared,” recalls Nizamuddin, chairman of the Delhi-based Rohingya Refugees' Committee.
After reaching Bangladesh in 2012, he lived for five months in a small hut in the seaport city of Chittagong, surviving one day at a time.
Nizamuddin did not feel safe there, he was an illegal immigrant, and he could be arrested any time.
“I tried to return to Myanmar. I was worried because my three small children and my wife were still there and their lives were in danger. They wanted to join me in Bangladesh, but I myself was unsafe. How could I bring my children there? I thought it would be better if they died in Myanmar. At least there they could get a proper burial. Nobody would even help bury them if they died in Bangladesh.”
India emerged as an option while speaking to other Rohingyas stranded in Bangladesh. That seemed the only way out of the precarious lives they were leading. Once in India, he could apply for the refugee card issued by the United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). A document that would end his status of being an illegal immigrant. That opened up the possibility of applying for a long-term visa.
Nizamuddin decided to take his chance -- he left his hut and reached the border.
"There?were?some agents there and we had to pay them. I paid 7,000?Takas?(roughly $90) to reach India. Later, I told my wife how to join me. I hired an agent and my family also came to India."
Nizamuddin has been officially recognised as a refugee now and holds an UNHCR card.
His is not a one-off story. A majority of the 36,000 Rohingyas currently living on Indian soil followed a similar route.
In 2012, they fled Myanmar to reach Bangladesh, and after living hand-to-mouth for a while, they took their chance to cross the Indian border. At every crossing point they paid money that added to the fortunes of an underworld of agents profiting from their crisis.
"Everybody?had to pay,"?says Ali Khan, 29, a refugee also living in Delhi.
He was among the one million Rohingyas who fled Myanmar after the outbreak of violent anti-Muslim riots in the country in 2012.
“I had to leave and there were only two ways for me. One was to Malaysia by boat and the other to India over land. I chose India as trying to cross by boat is very dangerous,” he recalls.
Cross-border smuggling, be it of humans or goods, has always been a lucrative activity, and so it has been during the Rohingya exodus.
Sometimes the price quoted for a crossing into India went up to $500 like in the case of Naseen Akhtar, a rice farmer from Myanmar.
Akhtar had to sell-off some family gold to afford the crossing.
As per personal testimonies recorded by this correspondent, the majority had to pay between $100 and $140 for the trip to India. A rough calculation points to a black-money circuit worth more than $3.5 million, a part of which has definitely ended up in the pockets of the personnel guarding the checkpoints at the international border between India and Bangladesh.
A hundred dollars may not seem like a prohibitive amount to some, but it is a matter of perspective. For someone without a steady source of income for months, putting together this money can become a struggle – one marking the difference between life and death.
In South Asian countries, often, even a salary is not enough and millions of working households survive with less than $2 a day.
In Bangladesh, a filling meal in a good restaurant with air conditioning costs about $3. A meal on the roadside, comprising rice, vegetables and daal (lentil soup) can be had for roughly $1. A kilogram of average quality rice is priced at nearly 50 cents.
The exodus of Rohingyas from Myanmar took place in 2012, a point of no return for the Muslim citizens of the Rakhine region.
Violence broke out following rumours that some Muslim men had allegedly raped a Buddhist woman.
In the first four days, 21 were killed and as many as 1,500 houses burnt.
Then president Thein Sein declared a state of emergency.
In the following months, more than 90,000 fled their homes and 2,000 buildings, including mosques and temples, were destroyed. The wave of inter-religious clashes devastated the social fabric of the region, bringing to an end the rather pacific?coexistence?between the Buddhist majority and the?Muslim?minority.?
Myanmar president declared that Rohingya Muslims were not welcome any more in the country, stating that “the only solution is to hand them over to the UNHCR or resettle them in third countries that are willing to take them”.