The Rohingya are an ethnic minority group in Myanmar. Mostly muslim, the Rohingya have a turbulent history of marginalization in majority Buddhist Myanmar, especially because the then Military Junta mixed Burmese nationalism and Theravada Buddhism to strengthen their hold on power. Though they have lived in the Burmese state of Rakhine for centuries, the government does not acknowledge them as one of their 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law also effectively made the Rohingya stateless. Various Rohingya insurgency movements have taken place over the years as a result of communal conflict in the Rakhine state, and the Burmese government has used these as pretext to pursue heavy use of force on Rohingya civilian populations. After attacks on Burmese outposts by Rohingya insurgents in October of 2016, a crackdown has been taking place against the Rohingya in Myanmar, manifesting as both mob violence against them and state led armed campaigns. As a result of this, the Rohingya have been fleeing into neighboring countries, with Bangladesh having the highest numbers (800,000). The target of ethnic cleansing and systematic rape and sexual violence, Rohingya are among the most persecuted people in the world, with their current rate of refugee exodus higher than the Rwandan Genocide. Despite the intense human rights violations suffered by the Rohingya, the global response has been direly limited. ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member, has remained neutral, Australia refused to back an international investigation into the Rohingya crisis, while India plans to deport 40,000 Rohingya refugees. Various world governments have brought out words of condemnation for the Burmese government and offered token grants for the refugees, but a substantial international plan of action for resolving the massive Rohingya humanitarian crisis has yet to materialize.
I met Saleema (feature photo) on the Arakan Road. She was sitting cross-legged on the sunburned grass by the roadside. There were others, but none had the same hapless harrowing look which was stamped on her underfed face.
The sun above was beating down on the dusty road that meandered towards the end of mainland Bangladesh. Unlike parts of the Southern highway crowded with camps on both sides—such as Kutupalong, Balukhali, Thaingkhali and many more—where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have been gazing up at the traffic of aid workers, that particular stretch of the old Arakan Road was quiet. The placidness was punctured only by passing vehicles and the intermittent sound of sobbing of some famished Rohingya children, who too were sitting by the roadside with Saleema.
I was on my way to Shah Pori, an island at the end of Bangladesh’s southern border which had lately become a gateway to the Bangladeshi sanctuaries for the fleeing Rohingya refugees, stopping there only to have an unfiltered view of the beautiful Naf River. I was gasping for an open place like that to breathe.
It had been a long unnerving day for me, hopping from camp to camp, documenting tales of horror, brutality and madness that had taken place in the swampy Maungdaw district of the Rakhaine state of Myanmar after a group of Rohingya insurgents, who styled themselves as ‘freedom fighters’, attacked the Myanmar national army posts on August 25. In retaliation, or simply as a part of a planned pogrom against the Rohingya, a ruthless attack by the Myanmar armed forces was launched. Entire townships inhabited by the Rohingyas across the Mangdaw region went up in flames, and since then, they have been showing up in Bangladesh with horror stories.
The men, very few in numbers in comparison to women and children, spoke of merciless killings and destruction of their homes. But the women had far darker stories to tell. Saleema’s one was one of such tales. And when I found her along with five or six odd children and few other women by the side of Arakan Road, she was on her way to the refugee camps. As of September 26, more than half a million refugees have already entered Bangladesh. Many others like Saleema are now on their way to be added to that number, compelled to become a statistic. Before meeting Saleema, I had heard stories of rape and abuse from a number of women in different camps. A lot gets lost in translation among Rohingya, Chatgaiya (a dialect of Bangladesh’s southern region), Bengali and major international languages, but, words like “rape” and “murder” have become so familiar that people at the camp need no translation.
I talked with Yasmin in Kutupalong, a malnourished woman cradling a six-day old baby boy. She had been raped by a group of Myanmar soldiers while she was carrying her unborn child. She gave birth to her son Abdullah inside that fragile shelter of blue tarp and bamboo, shared with 12 other refugees in the Kutupalong camp. Her husband was killed by the military on September 4.
In Balukhali, I found Muhsena who arrived there with her brother Mujibullah. She was one of the very few unmarried Rohingya women who were being able to come out from the hell alive—but not unharmed. Muhsena was tied to a pole and a group of four soldiers took turns raping her. Her brother intervened, only to be beaten to near-death. “There are very few unmarried [women] here in the camp. I am lucky to be alive. [The army] raped and then killed the unmarried ones,” she said.
A United Nations (UN) report in February described many incidents of rape perpetrated by the Myanmar army. The report contained gruesome, harrowing details such as an incident where Burmese soldiers beat a pregnant woman on the stomach with rifle butts, and another one where five soldiers gang raped a woman, and killed her eight-month-old baby with a knife when the infant began to cry. Roughly half of all female Rohingya refugees interviewed by the UN have said they were raped or sexually assaulted by Myanmar’s army.
The Myanmar government officials have mostly dismissed allegations of sex abuse by soldiers as militant propaganda, despite the facts that there are firsthand statements given to both the UN and countless media by the violated Rohingya women. However, it is not merely anecdotal evidence that we can get to know that such events have been taking place. The physical state of many such refugees stands testament to their words.
Saleema was feverish, bleeding badly from the lower abdomen and, forced to stop by the side of the road as she was incapable of moving further. After being raped by a group of soldiers, she had slogged through the jungles and paddy fields in the dark for four days. On the boat for Shah Pori, she had met the others who were now there on the road with her.
Saleema was right there on the Arakan road in flesh and blood-hoping to make it to the safe sanctuary of refugee camps. Many others like her like her are living examples of incidents across the border that the Myanmar government tries to deny. Though Rohingyas at the camps have become familiar with the presence of journalists and aid workers, they are quickly becoming an overlooked people, with the Myanmar government not even acknowledging the issue, and international criticism of Suu Ki’s administration doing little to ease their plight.