A mother’s wish: let Al­lah take him

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - AMANDA HODGE COX’S BAZAR, BANGLADESH

The age­ing hos­pi­tal ward echoes with the screams of a boy whose in­juries are so se­vere no amount of mor­phine can dull the pain.

“Al­lah!” Az­izul Haq cries out. Then, “Mama.”

The 15-year-old’s tor­tured mother leans over to stroke one ban­daged hand and anx­iously smooth his hair. There is noth­ing else she can do.

The fam­ily of eight fled their home in Myan­mar’s north­ern Rakhine State a fort­night ago af­ter the Myan­mar mil­i­tary and Burmese Bud­dhist mobs ram­paged through their vil­lage and or­dered them to run or die.

Four days later they were within sight of the Bangladesh border, her two el­dest sons walk­ing ahead of them, when Az­izul stepped on a land­mine that blew his legs off and also in­jured his 10year- old brother.

Bangladesh has ac­cused the Myan­mar army of lay­ing mines on its side of the border in what ap­pears to be a scorched-earth pol­icy de­signed to pre­vent the re­turn of about 389,000 Ro­hingya Mus­lims who have fled the coun­try in the past three weeks. The mil­i­tary has de­nied the charge, which For­eign Min­is­ter Julie Bishop warned this week would amount to a “gross vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional law” if proven cor­rect.

Yet ev­i­dence against Myan­mar is mount­ing in hos­pi­tal wards on the other side of the border. Af­ter the ex­plo­sion, Az­izul’s fa­ther car­ried his el­dest child in his arms and floated his ru­ined body across the river that di­vides the two coun­tries as bul­lets fired by Myan­mar sol­diers cracked the wa­ter around him.

Bangladesh border guards who heard the ex­plo­sion sent a car to trans­port the two wounded boys to hos­pi­tals here.

The doc­tors at the clinic where Az­izul is be­ing treated have al­ready per­formed sev­eral surg­eries on the ex­ten­sive in­juries to his legs, hands and chest. But the mine was so pow­er­ful that mud has com­pacted in his wounds and there is no more of his rare Oneg­a­tive blood avail­able for fur­ther op­er­a­tions.

“We had no wish to come to Bangladesh,” his mother Roshida tells The Week­end Aus­tralian at her son’s bed­side. “We don’t know why the mil­i­tary at­tacked us. They are push­ing us from our land.”

Her son’s suf­fer­ing is so great, she says, it would be bet­ter if Al­lah took him.

In a bed across the room another anx­ious par­ent sits with his lit­tle boy. Abu Tahir says the mil­i­tary came to their Maung­daw vil­lage in north­ern Rakhine two weeks ago and set fire to the houses as peo­ple ate their evening meal. His fam­ily was try­ing to ease their chil­dren through a hole in their fence to es­cape when sol­diers opened fire. His 17-year-old son was killed and his youngest boy, seven-year-old Su­fait, shot in the chest. Abu Tahir’s sis­ter was burned alive inside the house.

He scooped up his wounded boy and with the rest of his fam­ily headed to the border. “Twice we tried to cross the wa­ter but the Burmese navy stopped us from leav­ing,” Abu Tahir said. “The third time we hired a row boat”.

By the time they crossed the Bay of Ben­gal to the safety of Bangladesh it was a week since Su­fait was shot.

There are sim­i­lar sto­ries and in­juries through­out this crowded hos­pi­tal. It is treat­ing four land­mine vic­tims, in­clud­ing one woman, Sabequr Na­har, who also lost both legs. Her son said he saw Myan­mar sol­diers lay­ing more mines from his hid­ing spot in the hills above the vil­lage.

In a tent pitched in the hos­pi­tal grounds a 12-year-old girl is re­cov­er­ing af­ter be­ing shot in the eye by sol­diers who fired at vil­lagers as they emerged from houses to in­ves­ti­gate gun­fire. A five-yearold girl has a gun­shot wound to the hand. The bul­let that wounded her killed her fa­ther who was car­ry­ing her across the river.

The doc­tors here say they have seen many pa­tients with large exit wounds at the front of their body, sug­gest­ing they were shot from be­hind as they ran.

About 60 per cent of the refu- gees who have crossed the border since Au­gust 25, when at­tacks by Arakan Ro­hingya Sal­va­tion Army mil­i­tants on se­cu­rity posts sparked fe­ro­cious mil­i­tary reprisals, are chil­dren. Many have lost a par­ent. Some have lost both.

At a UNHCR-run tem­po­rary or­phans cen­tre set up in Ku­tu­pa­long, one of two long-es­tab­lished Ro­hingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Arifa, 15, tells of how the mil­i­tary came to her vil­lage of Kin­isi and or­dered all the chil­dren out of the build­ings. “The young adults, the men and women, had to stay in the houses,” she said. “They started burn­ing the houses and shoot­ing. Some of the chil­dren started to run so we ran too,” she says, ges­tur­ing to her eightyear-old brother and sis­ter, 10.

“We saw a lot of dead bod­ies on the road and on the moun­tains and as we came to the Bangladesh border the mil­i­tary opened fire on us. We were very scared.”

Later, says Arifa, a woman from their vil­lage who es­caped found the three chil­dren among a group of refugees. “She told us she saw with her own eyes that our fa­ther and mother were killed.”

Ten-year-old Ayaz has also been or­phaned by the Myan­mar mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion and three days ago got his first job in a road­side tea shop near the Ku­tu­pa­long camp to help sup­port his two sis­ters, aged 12 and 15.

He watched as sol­diers shot his fa­ther, the chil­dren’s sole sur­viv­ing par­ent, in the head and then tried to rape his youngest sis­ter.

“My older sis­ter came and tried to fight them off. We broke free and ran for the moun­tains,” the boy says as he rushes around the stall, wash­ing dishes and clear­ing ta­bles. He starts work at 5.30am and fin­ishes af­ter 10pm. For that, his Ro­hingya boss has promised to pay him 1000 Taka ($15) a month.

“If I don’t sup­port my fam­ily, who will do it?” he asks. His sis­ters cry a lot but he is strong, he in­sists. “I only think about my fa­ther’s death at night. Then I re­ally miss him.”

The last time the Myan­mar mil­i­tary swept through Ro­hingya vil­lages, af­ter Oc­to­ber 9 at­tacks on se­cu­rity forces by the same rag­tag mil­i­tant force which says it is fight­ing back af­ter decades of per­se­cu­tion, a UN in­ves­ti­ga­tion found ev­i­dence of pos­si­ble crimes against hu­man­ity.

The key dif­fer­ence this time is scale. Three weeks af­ter the lat­est vi­o­lence broke out peo­ple are still stream­ing over the border, pil­ing into im­pov­er­ished, over­crowded Bangladesh seek­ing shel­ter.

At the An­ju­man cross­ing in Cox’s Bazar’s Ukhia district, al­most every fam­ily is car­ry­ing ba­bies and young tod­dlers. Ex­hausted chil­dren carry other ex­hausted chil­dren.

Some are hauled in buck­ets and nets looped over car­ry­ing poles borne by worn-out men. In a fi­nal test of their re­solve, they must all ne­go­ti­ate an im­pos­si­bly slip­pery, nar­row land bridge con- nect­ing Bangladesh’s wa­tery border area to the main­land.

A man eases his baby son down at our feet as he runs back to help his young wife, who is car­ry­ing her new­born and hold­ing the hand of a lit­tle girl. The boy is curled awk­wardly inside a net lined with sack­ing, glassy-eyed and un­re­spon­sive. He hasn’t eaten in four days, his fa­ther says.

As we wait for his fa­ther’s re­turn we give him wa­ter and mas­sage his legs, limp from be­ing folded in on each other af­ter a week of hang­ing from a pole as his fam­ily walked to safety.

The bot­tle of wa­ter is passed around half a dozen chil­dren and ba­bies, all in dis­tress. Many have been walk­ing for 10 days or more as the mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions move fur­ther south, and those flee­ing are forced to take longer, more cir­cuitous routes to avoid burn­ing vil­lages, mil­i­tary units and ram­pag­ing Bud­dhist mobs.

Peo­ple keep com­ing through­out the morn­ing. Be­hind them, col­umns of smoke rise from over the border where yet another Ro­hingya vil­lage is be­ing burned.

This week a Myan­mar gov­ern­ment-spon­sored me­dia trip into north­ern Rakhine back­fired af­ter videos cir­cu­lated to the group ap­par­ently show­ing Ro­hingya burn­ing their own vil­lages were dis­cred­ited by jour­nal­ists who iden­ti­fied the ar­son­ists in the videos from among Bud­dhist vil­lagers they met that day.

Amnesty In­ter­na­tional said yes­ter­day its anal­y­sis of satel­lite im­agery, ac­tive fire-de­tec­tion data, ground footage, and dozens of eye­wit­ness in­ter­views, showed an “or­ches­trated cam­paign of sys­tem­atic burn­ings” tar­get­ing Ro­hingya vil­lages across north­ern Rakhine. It has de­tected at least 80 large-scale fires in in­hab­ited ar­eas since the Myan­mar army’s lat­est op­er­a­tion be­gan.

In yet another ex­am­ple of how tone deaf the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment is to wide­spread con­dem­na­tion over its treat­ment of its 1.1 mil­lion Ro­hingya Mus­lims, a spokesman for No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate Aung San Suu Kyi’s ad­min­is­tra­tion this week an­nounced 176 Ro­hingya vil­lages tar­geted in the lat­est mil­i­tary “clear­ance op­er­a­tions” had been emp­tied. Suu Kyi’s rep­u­ta­tion as a hu­man rights cham­pion has been crushed by her re­fusal to speak out against mil­i­tary-per­pe­trated vi­o­lence, and in de­fence of a Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion seen as in­ter­lop­ers in Bud­dhist-ma­jor­ity Myan­mar.

UN hu­man rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hus­sein has ac­cused Myan­mar of what ap­pears to be a “text­book case of eth­nic cleans­ing”. Days later Suu Kyi can­celled her at­ten­dance at this month’s UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly. Fol­low­ing an emer­gency meet­ing of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to dis­cuss the is­sue this week, UN Sec­re­tary­Gen­eral An­to­nio Guter­res de­scribed the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis as “cat­a­strophic” and called on all coun­tries to send as­sis­tance.

Aus­tralia has pledged $5 mil­lion in emer­gency re­lief, bring­ing its to­tal as­sis­tance to Ro­hingya refugees since 2012 to $50m. Aus­tralian food aid was al­ready fil­ter­ing into the camps this week.

About 34 tonnes of food, cloth­ing, wa­ter pu­ri­fiers and tents from In­done­sia is sched­uled to ar­rive to­day in Cox’s Bazar.

A UNHCR air­lift of sup­plies has also be­gun with the aim of de­liv­er­ing emer­gency aid to about 120,000 refugees — an am­bi­tious tar­get that still pro­vides for less than a third of those es­ti­mated to have crossed into Bangladesh since Au­gust 25.

On the one grid­locked ser­vice road be­tween Cox’s Bazar and the border, tent vil­lages have sprung up on every rise and every road­side, erected by peo­ple who have no choice but to put their trau­mas aside and deal with the more present threat of dis­ease and star­va­tion. Many more can­not af­ford the tar­pau­lin and bam­boo for tents. Prices have sky­rock­eted in line with the ur­gent need.

In new Ba­likhali refugee camp, a des­per­ate set­tle­ment of shel­ters cling­ing to muddy slopes around a paddy field that now serves as mass la­trine, one man says he had to bor­row 7000 Taka ($106) to build his shel­ter.

But the most wretched are the new ar­rivals. Thou­sands have sim­ply dropped their be­long­ings on muddy land strips stretch­ing from the border at Pa­longkhali, and fash­ioned shel­ters from what can be scav­enged as they wait for space to be al­lo­cated to them.

Un­der one such tent a young mother tries weakly to pacify a 16month-old boy whim­per­ing from hunger and pain.

Her six-week-old baby girl lies unat­tended on sack­ing and clothes laid out over the muddy ridge.

Her hus­band has gone to find medicine for the tod­dler who is suf­fer­ing from se­vere di­ar­rhoea. It is a com­mon com­plaint among wor­ried par­ents ar­riv­ing daily in their thou­sands with sick chil­dren.

Medicines Sans Fron­tieres emer­gency co-or­di­na­tor Robert Unos says its Ku­tu­pa­long clinic is “com­pletely over­run”.

In ad­di­tion to all the trauma cases “we are start­ing to get a lot of pres­sure from di­ar­rhoeal cases” as peo­ple drink wa­ter from the same canals and pad­dies where thou­sands are forced to defe­cate.

Wa­ter is be­ing trucked in, wells are be­ing dug and la­trines built, but the scale of need is over­whelm­ing and lo­gis­ti­cal prob­lems im­mense. “It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to de­scribe to some­one who hasn’t seen the con­di­tions how dire it is,” says Onus.

At in­ter­vals along the road from Pa­longkhali, ur­gent crowds gather around trucks as Bangladeshis dole out food aid, clothes and cash col­lected by their own com­mu­ni­ties.

Af­ter years of pur­su­ing poli­cies meant to dis­suade the tides of Ro­hingya refugees that flow across the border with every new Myan­mar state pogrom, this lat­est vi­o­lence has shocked the Bangladesh gov­ern­ment and its peo­ple into giv­ing. More re­lief is on its way. For 15-year-old Az­izul, it came four hours af­ter his mother wished aloud for his tor­ment to end. His cries ebbed into si­lence and his breath­ing slowed to a stop. He died of his ter­ri­ble wounds about mid­night on Wed­nes­day.

The next evening, on a muddy hill­side within view of a home­land that has so vi­o­lently re­jected them, his fam­ily said fu­neral prayers over his poor, mu­ti­lated body by the light of a mo­bile phone. Az­izul’s suf­fer­ing is over at least, though for many more thou­sands of Ro­hingya refugees there is no end in sight.

PARVEZ AH­MAD RONY

A Ro­hingya refugee comes ashore at Shah Porir Dip

GETTY IM­AGES

Some of the about 389,000 Ro­hingya to have fled Myan­mar in the past three weeks ar­rive in Bangladesh at Shah Porir Dip on Thurs­day

pre­pare the 15-year-old for burial on a muddy hill­side in

PIC­TURES: PARVEZ AH­MAD RONY

sight of the home­land that re­jected them

Roshida Haq with dy­ing son Az­izul; his fam­ily

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