Ro­hingya flee hor­ri­fy­ing fate

Army’s bru­tal­ity in Myan­mar to­ward mi­nor­ity group has forced es­ti­mated 389K into Bangladesh

Santa Fe New Mexican - - WORLD - By An­nie Gowen

UKHIA, Bangladesh — The sol­diers ar­rived in the Myan­mar vil­lage just after 8 a.m., the vil­lagers said, ready to fight a war.

They fired shots in the air, and then, the vil­lagers claim, turned their guns on flee­ing res­i­dents, who fell dead and wounded in the mon­soon-green rice paddy. The mil­i­tary’s ret­ri­bu­tion for a Ro­hingya mil­i­tant at­tack on po­lice posts ear­lier that day had be­gun.

Mo­hammed Roshid, a rice farmer, heard the gun­fire and fled with his wife and chil­dren, but his 80-year-old fa­ther, who walks with a stick, wasn’t as nim­ble. Roshid said he saw a sol­dier grab Yusuf Ali and slit his throat with such fe­roc­ity the old man was nearly de­cap­i­tated.

“I wanted to go back and save him, but some rel­a­tives stopped me be­cause there was so many mil­i­tary,” Roshid, 55, said. “It’s the sad­dest thing in my life that I could not do any­thing for my fa­ther.”

The Myan­mar mil­i­tary’s “clear­ance op­er­a­tion” in the Maung Nu ham­let and dozens of other vil­lages pop­u­lated by the coun­try’s eth­nic Ro­hingya mi­nor­ity trig­gered an ex­o­dus of an es­ti­mated 389,000 refugees into Bangladesh, an episode the United Na­tions hu­man rights chief has called “eth­nic cleans­ing.” The tide of refugees is ex­pected to grow in the com­ing days.

Rights groups say it will take months or years to chron­i­cle the dev­as­ta­tion they are leav­ing be­hind in the na­tion also known as Burma. Satel­lite photos show burn­ing, wit­nesses re­count sol­diers killing civil­ians, and the gov­ern­ment it­self said 176 Ro­hingya vil­lages stand empty. No to­tal death toll is yet avail­able be­cause the area re­mains sealed by the mil­i­tary.

The lat­est wave of vi­o­lence be­gan Aug. 25, when an emerg­ing group of Ro­hingya mil­i­tants, the Arakan Ro­hingya Sal­va­tion Army, at­tacked dozens of po­lice out­posts across Rakhine state, killing 12. The mil­i­tary crack­down has prompted hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees to leave Bud­dhist-ma­jor­ity Myan­mar, un­til re­cently ruled by a mil­i­tary junta where Ro­hingya have long faced de­nial of cit­i­zen­ship and other rights.

The In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee es­ti­mates that even­tu­ally 500,000 will flee to Bangladesh, half of the known Ro­hingya pop­u­la­tion in the coun­try, most of whom live in trou­bled Rakhine state. The area has long been riven by ten­sions be­tween Bud­dhist vil­lagers and the state­less Ro­hingya, who have been there for cen­turies but who are still con­sid­ered by the gov­ern­ment to be il­le­gal im­mi­grants, “Ben­galis” from neigh­bor­ing Bangladesh.

The cri­sis has prompted wide­spread out­cry and con­dem­na­tion of Burma and its de facto leader, No­bel lau­re­ate Aung San Suu Kyi. She and her gov­ern­ment have said lit­tle about the plight of the Ro­hingya. On Mon­day, the U.N. High Com­mis­sioner for Hu­man Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hus­sein, called the ex­o­dus “a text­book ex­am­ple of eth­nic cleans­ing.”

In Maung Nu, a tiny ham­let of about 750 houses that sits along a nar­row stretch of the slow-mov­ing Mayu River, the Ro­hingya had long lived in rel­a­tive calm.

But their co­ex­is­tence ended on when Ro­hingya in­sur­gents launched their at­tack on po­lice posts. The mil­i­tary crack­down has con­tin­ued un­abated since then, black smoke scud­ding across the sky­line vis­i­ble in south­ern Bangladesh even this past week.

Mo­hammed Show­ife, 23, an auto me­chanic, said on the first day of the assault he and his fam­ily had just fin­ished their morn­ing prayers and were pre­par­ing rice when three sol­diers ap­peared in the yard, an­nounc­ing their ar­rival with a strafe of ma­chine-gun fire and telling them they had to leave their homes im­me­di­ately.

He and his fam­ily mem­bers scat­tered, and he stopped to help his neigh­bor Mo­hammed Rafique, 17, whose right hip had been run clean through by a bul­let, back to front. They ran through a mob loot­ing homes and sol­diers set­ting fire to other dwellings with shoul­der-fired rocket launch­ers. Many took refuge in the jun­gle, where the dense fo­liage, thick after the mon­soon, pro­vided cover.

The first night came, an un­easy dark­ness set­tled in, the sky flick­er­ing with fire and shad­ows. They did not know then there would be five nights more.

On the sec­ond day, a busi­ness­man hid­ing in his house got a call from a tall, skinny Army sergeant they all knew and called “Bajo,” who had of­ten dined in his home.

Bajo said the mil­i­tary was go­ing to be req­ui­si­tion­ing one of his pas­sen­ger boats. Given the cir­cum­stances, Mo­hammed Zubair, 40, felt he had no choice but to give it to them. He sent the boat with the cap­tain to the jetty at the nearby army camp. The of­fi­cers ac­cepted the keys with the warn­ing for the cap­tain: “You will also be killed.” The boat driver even­tu­ally es­caped un­harmed with the oth­ers.

Zubair said he had fol­lowed to see what was to be­come of his ves­sel. He says he watched in hor­ror as the mil­i­tary be­gan stack­ing dead bod­ies on the boat, one after the other, like lum­ber, in­clud­ing two 13-year-old boys he knew well.

“I fainted from see­ing this,” Zubair said. He be­lieves they were dumped in the river.

On the third day, Rafique’s mother, Khal­ida Begum, 35, had grown tired of mov­ing from house to house with her four other chil­dren, des­per­ate for news of her son. They man­aged to make it to the jun­gle, where she saw Rafique ly­ing mo­tion­less un­derneath a tree.

She ran to him and cov­ered his face with kisses, joy­fully, as he emerged from his haze.

On the sixth day, the res­i­dents of Maung Nu de­cided as a group they would start walk­ing north to the bor­der with Bangladesh, fear­ing the dan­ger was grow­ing.

They walked for eight days with few pro­vi­sions, eat­ing ba­nana leaves and drink­ing wa­ter from streams.

Fi­nally, they reached a cross­ing high on a hill marked by a sim­ple pil­lar that they un­der­stood meant they had ar­rived in Bangladesh. It was 4:30 in the af­ter­noon. It was rain­ing. Be­fore them was a new city of refugees, thou­sands of tem­po­rary tents, bam­boo poles cov­ered in black plas­tic sheet­ing.

At the pil­lar, a lit­tle cheer went up. “I was very happy,” Khal­ida Begum said. “I was crazy, I was ex­cited, I thought — now we are safe.”

Days later, Khal­ida Begum’s eyes filled with tears when she re­counted this mo­ment. It was the first time she had al­lowed her­self to be­lieve what the oth­ers had hoped for: that her son would live.


A makeshift Ro­hingya refugee camp on the way to Tek­naf from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

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