‘Blood flowed in the streets’ in at­tack on Ro­hingya vil­lage

Refugees tell their story from a camp in Bangladesh

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY AN­NIE GOWEN

The sol­diers ar­rived in the vil­lage in western Burma just af­ter 8 a.m., the vil­lagers said, ready to fight a war.

They fired shots in the air, and then, the vil­lagers say, turned their guns on flee­ing res­i­dents, who fell dead or wounded in the mon­soon-green rice pad­dies. 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 that 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 Burmese mil­i­tary’s “clear­ance op­er­a­tion” in the ham­let of Maung Nu and dozens of other vil­lages pop­u­lated by Burma’s eth­nic Ro­hingya mi­nor­ity has trig­gered an ex­o­dus of an es­ti­mated 400,000 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. The new ar­rivals — dazed, clutch­ing their be­long­ings, some bare­foot in an­kle-deep mud — have over­flowed an ex­ist­ing camp and put up makeshift shel­ters. Oth­ers sim­ply sit on the road­ways, fight­ing crowds as vol­un­teers on large re­lief trucks fling down bags of rice or bot­tles of wa­ter.

Rights groups say it will take months or years to fully chron­i­cle the dev­as­ta­tion the refugees are flee­ing. Satel­lite photos show wide­spread burn­ing, wit­nesses re­count sol­diers killing civil­ians, and the Burmese gov­ern­ment has said that 176 Ro­hingya vil­lages stand empty. No to­tal death toll is yet avail­able be­cause the area re­mains sealed by the mil­i­tary.

Nearly a dozen vil­lagers from the Maung Nu ham­let who es­caped re­counted their last hours in their homes and the long jour­ney that fol­lowed. They were in­ter­viewed for two days in Ku­tupa-

long refugee camp near the Bangladesh bor­der, where they ar­rived last week. For­tify Rights, a South­east Asia-fo­cused hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tion, es­ti­mates the death toll in Maung Nu and three nearby vil­lages to be 150.

“I can’t count how many,” said Soe Win, a 10th-grade teacher. “We were all watch­ing what the mil­i­tary did. They slaugh­tered them one by one. And the blood flowed in the streets.”

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 sub­se­quent mil­i­tary crack­down has prompted hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees to leave Bud­dhist-ma­jor­ity Burma, a South­east Asian na­tion un­til re­cently ruled by a mil­i­tary junta and where Ro­hingya have long been de­nied ci­ti­zen­ship and other rights.

The In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee es­ti­mates that even­tu­ally 500,000 will flee to Bangladesh, half of Burma’s known Ro­hingya pop­u­la­tion, 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 are con­sid­ered by the gov­ern­ment to be il­le­gal im­mi­grants, “Ben­galis” from neigh­bor­ing Bangladesh.

The cri­sis has sparked wide­spread out­cry and con­dem­na­tion of Burma and its de facto leader, No­bel Peace lau­re­ate Aung San Suu Kyi. She and her gov­ern­ment have said lit­tle about the plight of the Ro­hingya, ex­cept to re­frame the sit­u­a­tion as a na­tional se­cu­rity mat­ter as the new mil­i­tancy has co­a­lesced. On Mon­day, the U.N. High Com- mis­sioner for Hu­man Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hus­sein, called the ex­o­dus “a text­book ex­am­ple of eth­nic cleans­ing.”

In Maung Nu, a 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, sip­ping tea with their Bud­dhist neigh­bors, vil­lagers say.

But their peace­ful co­ex­is­tence ended 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 that 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 the fam­ily that they had to leave im­me­di­ately.

“They said, ‘You Ben­galis come out from the house. You can go any­where you want, but you can’t live here,’ ” Show­ife re­called.

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 shoul­der­fired rocket launch­ers.

Many vil­lagers took refuge in the jungle, where the dense fo­liage, thick af­ter the mon­soon sea­son, pro­vided cover.

Once there, some of the women sat weep­ing silently. Other vil­lagers just looked at each other: What would they do now? They tried to at­tend to Rafique’s wound with boiled wa­ter and torn strips of cloth­ing.

The first night, an uneasy dark­ness set­tled in, the sky flick­er­ing with fire and shad­ows. They and the vil­lagers still in the ham­let did not know then that 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 the vil­lagers all knew and called Bajo, who had of­ten dined in the busi­ness­man’s home.

Bajo told Mo­hammed Zubair that the mil­i­tary was go­ing to be req­ui­si­tion­ing one of his pas­sen­ger boats. Given the cir­cum­stances, Zubair, 40, felt he had no choice but to give it to them. He sent the boat and its cap­tain to the jetty at the nearby army camp. The of­fi­cers ac­cepted the keys with a warn­ing for the cap­tain: “You will also be killed.” The cap­tain even­tu­ally es­caped un­harmed and fled 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 the boat with dead bod­ies, one af­ter an­other like lum­ber, in­clud­ing those of two 13-year-old boys he had known well.

“I fainted from see­ing this,” Zubair said. He be­lieves the corpses 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. She had raised them on her own on a tai­lor’s salary af­ter her hus­band died years ago, so she and the chil­dren are un­usu­ally close. They man­aged to make it to the jungle, where she saw Rafique ly­ing mo­tion­less be­neath a tree.

She ran to him and joy­fully cov­ered his face with kisses. At first he was so dis­ori­ented that he didn’t rec­og­nize her. But soon both were cry­ing.

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

They walked for eight days with few pro­vi­sions, eat­ing ba­nana leaves and drink­ing wa­ter from streams. The chil­dren whim­pered. Show­ife car­ried Rafique on his back, the teen drift­ing in and out of con­scious­ness. Af­ter a while, their legs be­gan to swell.

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 made from bam­boo poles cov­ered in black plas­tic sheet­ing.

The vil­lagers knew tough times lay ahead as they de­scended the hill, slip­ping in the mud. For days after­ward, when some of them closed their eyes, they could see the life­less bod­ies of their neigh­bors and hear the ring of gun­fire. But 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, her eyes filled with tears when she re­counted that mo­ment. It was the first time she had al­lowed her­self to be­lieve what the oth­ers who helped Rafique out of the vil­lage had hoped: that her son would live.

IS­MAIL FERDOU FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Sai­ful Rah­man, 30, walks to­ward the Tek­naf re­gion of Bangladesh’s main­land with his fam­ily af­ter cross­ing the Naf River from Burma.

AN­NIE GOWEN/THE WASHINGTON POST

Mo­hammed Rafique, cen­ter, was shot in a mil­i­tary at­tack on his vil­lage on Aug. 25. His mother, Khal­ida Begum, is to his left.

FROM TOP: Nur Uz­za­man fled his vil­lage and is stay­ing in Ku­tu­pa­long refugee camp near Bangladesh’s bor­der.

Ro­hingya refugees walk to­ward the Tek­naf re­gion of the Bangladeshi main­land.

Hamida is a Ro­hingya refugee in the Ku­tu­pa­long camp.

THE WASHINGTON POST

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