‘They threw my baby into the fire’

The Phnom Penh Post - - WORLD - Jef­frey Get­tle­man

HUN­DREDS of women stood in the river, held at gun­point, or­dered not to move. A pack of sol­diers stepped to­wards a pe­tite young wo­man with light brown eyes and del­i­cate cheek­bones. Her name was Ra­juma, and she was stand­ing chest-high in the water, clutch­ing her baby son, while her vil­lage in Myan­mar burned down be­hind her.

“You,” the sol­diers said, point­ing at her.

She froze.

“You!”

She squeezed her baby tighter. In the next vi­o­lent blur of mo­ments, the sol­diers clubbed Ra­juma in the face, tore her scream­ing child out of her arms and hurled him into a fire. She was then dragged into a house and gang-raped.

By the time the day was over, she was run­ning through a field naked and cov­ered in blood. Alone, she had lost her son, her mother, her two sis­ters and her younger brother, all wiped out in front of her eyes, she says.

Ra­juma is a Ro­hingya Mus­lim, one of the most per­se­cuted eth­nic groups on earth, and she now spends her days drift­ing through a refugee camp in Bangladesh in a daze.

She re­layed her story at one of the camps, where hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ro­hingya like her have rushed for safety. Her deeply dis­turb­ing ac­count of what hap­pened in her vil­lage, in late Au­gust, was cor­rob­o­rated by dozens of other sur­vivors, and by hu­man rights groups gath­er­ing ev­i­dence of atroc­i­ties.

Sur­vivors said they saw govern­ment sol­diers stab­bing ba­bies, cut­ting off boys’ heads, gang-rap­ing girls, shoot­ing 40mil­lime­tre grenades into houses, burn­ing en­tire fam­i­lies to death, and round­ing up dozens of un­armed male vil­lagers and sum­mar­ily ex­e­cut­ing them.

Much of the vi­o­lence was flam­boy­antly bru­tal, in­ti­mate and per­sonal – the kind that is det­o­nated by a long, bit­ter his­tory of eth­nic ha­tred.

“Peo­ple were hold­ing the sol­diers’ feet, beg­ging for their lives,” Ra­juma said. “But they didn’t stop, they just kicked them off and killed them, they chopped peo­ple, they shot peo­ple, they raped us, they left us sense­less.”

Hu­man rights in­ves­ti­ga­tors said that Myan­mar’s mil­i­tary killed more than 1,000 civil­ians in the state of Rakhine, and pos­si­bly as many as 5,000, though it will be hard to ever know be­cause Myan­mar is not al­low­ing the United Na­tions or any­one else into the af­fected ar­eas.

Peter Bouck­aert, a vet­eran in­ves­ti­ga­tor with Hu­man Rights Watch, said there was grow­ing ev­i­dence of or­gan­ised mas­sacres, like the one Ra­juma sur­vived, in which govern­ment sol­diers me­thod­i­cally slaugh­tered more than 100 civil­ians in a sin­gle lo­ca­tion. He called them crimes against hu­man­ity.

On Wed­nes­day, the United Na­tions hu­man rights of­fice said that govern­ment troops had tar­geted “houses, fields, food-stocks, crops, live­stock and even trees”, mak­ing it “al­most im­pos­si­ble” for the Ro­hingya to re­turn home.

Myan­mar’s army has claimed it was re­spond­ing to an at­tack by Ro­hingya mil­i­tants on Au­gust 25 and tar­get­ing only the in­sur­gents. But ac­cord­ing to dozens of wit­nesses, al­most all of the peo­ple killed were un­armed vil­lagers, and many had their hands bound.

Satel­lite im­agery has re­vealed 288 sep­a­rate vil­lages burned, some down to the last post.

Hu­man rights groups said the govern­ment troops had one goal: to erase Ro­hingya com­mu­ni­ties. The un­spar­ing de­struc­tion drove more than half a mil­lion peo­ple into Bangladesh in re­cent weeks. UN of­fi­cials called the cam­paign against the Ro­hingya a “text­book ex­am­ple” of eth­nic cleans­ing.

Nearly each night here in coastal Bangladesh, up the Bay of Ben­gal from Myan­mar, bodies wash up in the foamy brown tide – chil­dren, men, old women who tried to es­cape on leak­ing boats, their faces bloated from sea­wa­ter.

Ra­juma barely made it to Bangladesh, es­cap­ing on a small wooden boat a few weeks ago. She can­not read or write. She does not have a sin­gle piece of pa­per to prove who she is or that she was born in Myan­mar. This may be a prob­lem if she ap­plies for refugee sta­tus in Bangladesh, which has been re­luc­tant to give it, or ever tries to go home to Myan­mar. She thinks she is around 20, but she could pass for 14 – painfully thin, with wrists that look as if they could eas­ily break.

She grew up in a rice farm­ing ham­let called Tula Toli, and she said the place had never known peace.

The two main eth­nic groups in her vil­lage, the Bud­dhist Rakhines and the Mus­lim Ro­hingya, were like two planes drawn to never touch. They fol­lowed dif­fer­ent re­li­gions, spoke dif­fer­ent languages, ate dif­fer­ent foods and have al­ways dis­trusted each other.

A com­mu­nity of Bud­dhists lived just a few min­utes from Ra­juma’s house, but she had never spo­ken with any of them. “They hate us,” she said. Azeem Ibrahim, a Scot­tish aca­demic who re­cently wrote a bookon­theRo­hingya,ex­plained that much of the an­i­mos­ity could be traced to World War II, when the Ro­hingya fought on the Bri­tish side and many Bud­dhists in Rakhine fought for the oc­cu­py­ing Ja­panese. Both sides mas­sa­cred civil­ians.

Af­ter the Al­lies won, the Ro­hingya hoped to win in­de­pen­dence or join East Pak­istan (to­day’s Bangladesh), which was also ma­jor­ity Mus­lim and eth­ni­cally sim­i­lar to the Ro­hingya. But the Bri­tish, ea­ger to ap­pease Myan­mar’s Bud­dhist ma­jor­ity, de­creed that the Ro­hingya ar­eas would be­come part of newly in­de­pen­dent Myan­mar (then called Burma), set­ting the Ro­hingya up for decades of dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Myan­mar’s lead­ers soon be­gan strip­ping their rights and blam­ing them for the coun­try’s short­com­ings, claim­ing the Ro­hingya were il­le­gal mi­grants from Bangladesh who had stolen good land.

“Year af­ter year, they were de­monised,” Ibrahim said.

Some in­flu­en­tial Bud­dhist monks said the Ro­hingya were the rein­car­na­tion of snakes and in­sects and should be ex­ter­mi­nated, like ver­min.

The per­se­cu­tion fu­elled a new Ro­hingya mil­i­tant move­ment, which staged at­tacks against Myan­mar se­cu­rity out­posts on Au­gust 25.

In terms of the tac­tics used, the weapons fired, the open­ness of the killings, the gang rapes and the level of mil­i­tary or­gan­i­sa­tion, the ac­counts from many dif­fer­ent Ro­hingya ar­eas present a dis­tress­ing har­mony.

“Sto­ries of atroc­i­ties are uni­ver­sal,” said An­thony Lake, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Unicef.

He said he was deeply trou­bled by what Ro­hingya chil­dren had been draw­ing in the camps – guns, fires, ma­chetes and peo­ple on the ground with red stream­ing out of them.

In Tula Toli, Ra­juma fought as hard as she could to hold onto her baby, Muham­mad Sad­eque, about 18 months old.

But one sol­dier grabbed her hands, an­other grabbed her body, and an­other slugged her in the face with a club. A jagged scar now runs along her jaw.

The child was lifted away from her, his legs wig­gling in the air.

“They threw my baby into a fire – they just flung him,” she said.

Many peo­ple in the refugee camps have been eerily stoic – seem­ingly trau­ma­tised past the abil­ity to feel. In dozens of in­ter­views with sur­vivors who said their loved ones had been killed in front of them, not a sin­gle tear was shed.

But as she reached the end of her hor­ri­ble tes­ti­mony, Ra­juma broke down.

“I can’t ex­plain how hard it hurts,” she said, tears rolling off her cheeks, “to no longer hear my son call me ma”.

[T]hey didn’t stop, they just . . . killed them, they chopped peo­ple, they shot peo­ple, they raped us, they left us sense­less

SERGEY PONOMAREV/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Af­ter cross­ing the Naf River by boat, Ro­hingya refugees from Myan­mar ar­rive near the the vil­lage of Shah Porir Dwip, in Bangladesh, on Septem­ber 27.

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