MAUNGDAW, Myanmar – The 10-year-old struggles up the hill, carrying buckets filled with rocks. Though he tries to keep a brave face in front of his friends, his eyes brim with tears. Every inch of his body aches, he says, and he feels sick and dizzy from the weight.
I hate it, whispers Anwar Sardad. He has to help support his family, but he wishes there was a way other than working for the government construction agency.
He adds, I wouldnt have to live this life if I wasnt a Muslim.
The lives of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children like Anwar are growing more hopeless in Myanmar, even as the predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million wins praise for ending decades of dictatorship.
The Muslim ethnic group has long suffered from discrimination that rights groups call among the worst in the world. But here in northern Rakhine state, home to 80 percent of the countrys 1 million Rohingya, it is more difficult now for children to get adequate education, food or medical care than it had been in the days of the junta. They have few options beyond hard labor, for a dollar a day.
The Associated Press visit to the area was a first for foreign reporters. Local officials responded with deep suspicion, bristling when Rohingya were interviewed. Police meetings were called, journalists were followed and people were intimidated after being interviewed, including children.
In a country torn by ethnic violence over the past 15 months, this is the one region where Muslim mobs killed Buddhists, rather than the other way around. And although only 10 of the 240 deaths occurred here, this is the only region where an entire population has been punished, through travel restrictions and other exclusionary policies.
Muslim schools known as madrassas have been shut down, leading to crowding in government schools, where Rohingya, who make up 90 percent of the population in this corner of the country, are taught by Buddhist teachers in a language many dont understand.
In the village of Ba Gone Nar, where a monk was killed in last years violence, enrollment at a small public school has soared to 1,250. Kids ranging from preschoolers to eighth-graders are crammed so tightly on the floor its nearly impossible to walk between them.
Our teachers write a lot of things on the blackboard, but dont teach us how to read them, 8-year-old Anwar Sjak says. Its very difficult to learn anything in this school.
There are only 11 government-appointed teachers – one for every 114 students. On a day reporters visit, they fail to show up – a common occurrence.
Rohingya volunteers try to maintain order. One man circles the room with a rattan cane, silencing the chatter by whacking the trash-strewn concrete floor.
Few kids have chairs or desks. Many are coughing. Others talk among themselves, flipping through empty notebooks. They look up at newcomers with dazed stares.
If I could be anything, Id be doctor when I grow up, Anwar says. Because whenever someone in my family gets sick and we go to the hospital, the staff never takes care of us. I feel so bad about that.
But I know that will never happen, the third-grader adds. The government wouldnt allow it.
Rohingya are not allowed to study medicine in Myanmar. There are no universities in northern Rakhine, and Rohingya there have been barred from leaving the area for more than a decade. An exception that allowed a few Rohingya to study in Sittwe, the state capital, ended after last years bloodshed.
They dont want to teach us, says Soyed Alum, a 25-year-old from the coastal village of Myinn Hlut who holds private classes in his home for Rohingya kids.
They call us kalar (a derogatory word for Muslim). They say, Youre not even citizens. Why do you need an education?
A government minder assigned by the central government to facilitate the APs trip asks why they are so eager to interview dogs.
When young Rohingya girls peer into the open windows of the crews vehicle, the minder bitterly mumbles crude sexual insults at them.
One thing the government does offer Rohingya kids is work, even if they are as young as 10. The Ministry of Construction, one of the bigger employers, offers them 1,000 kyat – a dollar – for eight hours of collecting and carrying rocks under the tropical sun.
Early in the morning, giant pickup trucks swing by villages to pick up dozens of sleepy-eyed boys – all of them Rohingya – and deliver them to riverbeds.
See? They want to work, says U Hla Moe, the administrator of Lay Maing.
Later that day, he will summon children who were interviewed by reporters into his office – for the APs security, he says. The children say he frightens them as he demands to know the questions they were asked and their answers.
Among the kids called in is Anwar Sardad, the 10-year-old stone carrier.
Though the work is grueling, it will help the children and their families eat.
If Rohingya children get critically ill, they might never make it to a hospital, either because their families cannot afford bribes demanded at checkpoints or because of the Sittwe travel ban.
Mohamad Toyoob, a 10-year-old Rohingya, has received medical care but not the surgery that doctors have recommended.
He lifts up his shirt, pressing on the right side of his stomach, where he has felt sharp pain for the past three years. I dont know whats wrong, he says. It feels like there is something inside.
The doctors Mohamad saw at a limited-capacity public hospital are unable to perform the potentially life-saving surgery they recommended.
To get it, he would have to go to Sittwe, which is off-limits, or Bangladesh. The latter is possible, if his family pays hefty bribes, but he may not be able to get back home.
Money is another obstacle: His family cant even afford his medication, let alone surgery.
He digs into a pocket and pulls out two little plastic bags filled with red, pink, yellow and light blue pills. They cost 20 cents a day.
To get the money, Mohamad works with other village kids at the riverbank, struggling to lift rocks. Sometimes it makes the pain worse.
My father lost his job after the violence, he says. When he was working, we could afford it. But now we have nothing.
I have to take care of myself.