‘They threw my baby into a fire’

Ro­hingya sur­vivors de­scribe atroc­i­ties in Myan­mar.

Dayton Daily News - - WORLD - Jef­frey Gettleman

COX’S BAZAR, BANGLADESH

Hun­dreds of women stood — in the river, held at gun­point, or­dered not to move.

A pack of sol­diers stepped to­ward 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 un­wanted eth­nic groups on earth, and she now spends her days drift­ing through a refugee camp in Bangladesh in a daze.

She re­layed her story to me dur­ing a re­cent re­port­ing trip I made to 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, whom I spoke with at length, 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 40-mil­lime­ter grenades into houses, burn­ing en­tire fam­i­lies to death, 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.

On Wed­nes­day, the United Na­tions re­ported that in ad­di­tion to the mil­i­tary’s use of rape and other trau­matic tac­tics to drive sur­vivors out, the na­ture of the broader vi­o­lence — homes burned, crops and live­stock de­stroyed, the land­scaped lev­eled — “ren­der the pos­si­bil­ity of the Ro­hingya re­turn­ing to nor­mal lives and liveli­hoods in the fu­ture in north­ern Rakhine al­most im­pos­si­ble.”

Peter Bouck­aert, a veteran in­ves­ti­ga­tor with Hu­man Rights Watch, said there was grow­ing ev­i­dence of or­ga­nized 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.

Myan­mar’s army has claimed it was re­spond­ing to an at­tack by Ro­hingya mil­i­tants on Aug. 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 en­tire Ro­hingya com­mu­ni­ties. The un­spar­ing de­struc­tion drove more than half a million peo­ple into Bangladesh in re­cent weeks. U.N. 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, in the western state of Rakhine in Myan­mar, 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 book on the Ro­hingya, 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 de­mo­nized,” Ibrahim said.

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

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

From her vil­lage, Ra­juma said, she heard ex­plo­sions from one of those at­tacks — or at least from the gov­ern­ment re­sponse to it.

Over the next few days, Ra­juma watched huge fires burn on the hori­zon. The mil­i­tary was be­gin­ning what it called “clear­ance op­er­a­tions.” Ro­hingya vil­lages all around Tula Toli were burned to the ground, and on the night of Aug. 29, an el­der came from the mosque to Ra­juma’s house to de­liver a mes­sage: The Bud­dhists say we should go to the river, for our safety.

Her fam­ily de­cided to stay put. “No­body trusts a Bud­dhist,” Ra­juma said.

The next morn­ing, Ra­juma was busy mak­ing potato curry. As she sprin­kled gin­ger and chiles into a big pot, she sensed some­thing and stopped.

She crept to the win­dow and peeked out: sol­diers, dozens of them, jog­ging to­ward Tula Toli.

Ra­juma and her fam­ily tried to run but were quickly cap­tured and marched to a river­bank where hun­dreds of other ter­ri­fied vil­lagers had been taken pris­oner.

The sol­diers sep­a­rated the men from the women. The vil­lagers pleaded for their lives and dropped to their knees, hug­ging the sol­diers’ boots. The sol­diers kicked them off and me­thod­i­cally killed all the men, said Ra­juma and sev­eral other sur­vivors from Tula Toli, all in­ter­viewed sep­a­rately.

The women and young chil­dren were sent into the wa­ter and told to wait.

In terms of the tac­tics used, the weapons fired, the open­ness of the killings, the gang rapes and the level of mil­i­tary or­ga­ni­za­tion, 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 a hospi­tal bed near Cox’s Bazar, the big­gest town in this part of Bangladesh, Muhamedul Has­san, a Ro­hingya shop­keeper from a vil­lage called Monu Para, lies on a clean white sheet. Doc­tors say the fact he is still alive is a mir­a­cle.

On Aug. 27, Has­san said, around 20 sol­diers from a nearby army base stormed into Monu Para and or­dered all the men and any boys older than 10 to re­port to the house of a prom­i­nent Ro­hingya cat­tle trader.

The sol­diers tied ev­ery­one’s hands be­hind their backs. They made them sit in the yard, heads down.

Around 400 men and boys were hunched over, Has­san said. They were sweat­ing through their shirts. An army sergeant whom the vil­lagers knew then pulled out a long, thin knife.

“Peo­ple were call­ing for help,” Has­san said. “The boys were scream­ing out their mother’s name, their fa­ther’s name.”

Has­san said that in front of his eyes, dozens of peo­ple were de­cap­i­tated or shot. He was shot three times — twice in the back and once in the chest — but all the bul­lets missed vi­tal or­gans.

Af­ter the sol­diers left, Has­san said, he stum­bled away to his house, where his sis­ter stuffed turmeric pow­der, the best they could do for an an­ti­sep­tic, into his wounds.

Hu­man rights in­ves­ti­ga­tors said the gravest atroc­i­ties they have doc­u­mented were com­mit­ted from Aug. 25 to Sept. 1, the pe­riod right af­ter the mil­i­tant at­tacks. Many wit­nesses de­scribed gov­ern­ment troops wan­tonly killing any­one they could get their hands on.

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.

Ra­juma said two sol­diers then pulled her into a house, tore off her veil and dress and raped her. She said that her two sis­ters were raped and killed in the same room, and that in the next room, her mother and 10-year-old brother were shot.

At some point, Ra­juma thought she had died. She lost con­scious­ness. When she woke, the sol­diers were gone, but the house was on fire.

She sprinted out naked, past her fam­ily’s bod­ies, past burn­ing homes, and hid in a for­est. Night fell, but she did not sleep.

In the morn­ing she found an old T-shirt to wear and kept run­ning.

Many peo­ple in the refugee camps have been eerily stoic — seem­ingly trau­ma­tized 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.”

SERGEY PONOMAREV / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ro­hingya refugees have fled to rough camps in Bangladesh. United Na­tions of­fi­cials have called the cam­paign against the Ro­hingya in Myan­mar a “text­book ex­am­ple” of eth­nic cleans­ing. A Ro­hingya fam­ily at the newly erected Balukhali refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in Septem­ber.

Ro­hingya refugees from Myan­mar ar­rive in Shah Porir Dip, Bangladesh af­ter cross­ing the Naf River on Oct. 1.

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