Heartbreaking stories of atrocity are coming out of Myanmar -- here's what Rohingya refugees say is happening on the ground

Rohingya women (small)Paula Bronstein/Stringer via GettyRohingya refugees in Balukhali, Bangladesh. The Rohingya have been called the most persecuted minority in the world
  • Thousands of Rohingya have fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar to Bangladesh.
  • Many of the stories are horrifying and heartbreaking.
  • The persecution of Rohingya Muslims dates back to the end of World War II.

Stories of rape, murder, and scorched earth have emerged from Rakhine state in Myanmar this week as the Burmese military continues clashing with the Rohingya people.

While the Myanmar army has officially launched an internal investigation into what the UN has labelled “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” the suffering of the minority Muslim group is showing no signs of abating.

Although Myanmar has at times cracked down on journalists covering the Rohingya crisis, accounts of the brutality taking places have steadily trickled out of northern Rakhine state. Here are the victims’ stories.

Crimes against humanity

Rajuma is a 20-year-old refugee who, like many of her fellow Rohingya, fled from northern Rakhine state in Mynanmar to Bangladesh after her village of Tula Toli was destroyed and liquidated by Burmese forces. She told The New York Times her story.

On August 30, according to Times reporter Jeffery Gettleman, soldiers stormed into Tula Toli, set homes on fire, and led villagers down to a river where they separated women from men. The men begged the soldiers to spare their lives, but were all executed. It was then that the soldiers turned their attention to Rajuma, who had brought her infant boy with her.

“These men grabbed her baby out of her arms and she said that she fought as hard as she could but she … was quickly overpowered,” Gettleman said on an episode of the Times’ podcast The Daily. “She said she watched these soldiers throw her baby son into a fire, and he burned to death.”

Rajuma was then hit in the face with a club, and the soldiers gang-raped her in her home along with her two sisters, Gettleman said. She said all of her relatives were murdered.

Rajuma told Gettleman that she fled her village naked and bloodied in order to join other Rohingya who were making their way to safety in Bangladesh.

“This was organised,” Gettleman said on The Daily. “There was no effort to disguise it or keep it secret; these soldiers had come into her village to wipe everybody out.”

Another woman in the refugee camp told Al Jazeera that 12 soldiers raped her in early September, and they kicked her baby “like a football.”

“I felt like they would kill me,” Ayesha told reporter Annette Akin. “I was afraid my child was dead.” He survived, and she brought him with her to the refugee camp.

In the nearby district of Cox’s Bazaar, Rohingya women were almost too exhausted from their abuse to speak.

“I don’t remember how many of them raped me, but at one stage I had lost consciousness from my fading screams,” Yasmin of Hpaung Taw Pyin village told reporter Naimal Haq for The Wire.

Another refugee in Balukhali, Muhamedul Hassan, told Gettleman that he witnessed executions in his village of Monu Para, where 400 men and boys were gathered next to a river. Dozens of people had their heads sawed off, and others were shot. Hassan said he survived because none of the three bullets shot at him punctured vital organs.

Rohingya drawingAllison Joyce/Stringer via GettyA drawing made by 11-year-old Rohingya refugee Manzur Ali in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, depicting what happened in his village in Myanmar

Gettleman, Akin, and Haq spoke to Rohingya refugees who witnessed babies getting stabbed, girls getting raped, boys being beheaded, men getting executed, people getting sliced up with long knives, and soldiers killing entire families by burning their homes with them inside.

Dozens of villages were targeted this way after a group of Rohingya militants staged an attack on police and military stations in the area in August. The UN Human Rights Commission put out a report October 11 outlining similar atrocities from interviews with more than 65 people.

An estimated 500,000 of the 1.2 million Rohingya have now relocated to Bangladesh, where they have been fleeing since 2012. It’s the fastest mass exodus the International Rescue Committee has seen since Rwanda.

“When I was in Bangladesh, there were boats washing up with hundreds of people escaping,” Gettleman said. “And then there were bodies washing up of people who had drowned in these tropical storms trying to cross a 2-mile body of water.”

A history of dispossession

The latest assaults against Rohingya communities in Mynamar are the most recent in a long line of persecution by the Burmese state dating back to the end of the World War II, when the country gained independence from the British Empire after ousting Japanese invaders.

Because the Rohingya are Muslim, they had hoped to be included in Muslim-majority Bangladesh rather than Myanmar, and tensions steadily rose between them and Burmese officials.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, the Rohingya faced increasing restrictions on public life in Myanmar, and today are neither recognised as an ethnic group, nor as citizens, but as “resident foreigners.” Because they are stateless, the Rohingya do not have freedom of movement, access to higher education, or the ability to hold public office.

In response, the Rohingya insurgency group ARSA has been active in the country for decades, but at a low level until recently. They staged attacks in 2016 and in August 2017, which the military has used as justification for the violence.

Myanmar’s tepid response

Myanmar’s response to accusations that it is conducting ethnic cleansing in Rakhine have been mixed. Initially, the country’s ambassador to Japan denied that ethnic cleansing or persecution was occurring, and Myanmar’s top general said the media’s claims were exaggerated.

But after increased international pressure, the military announced on Friday that it would conduct an internal probe into its soldiers’ conduct.

Though she stayed quiet at first, Myanmar’s “unofficial” elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi said she is “appalled” at the violence in Rakhine against the Rohingya, and appears to be committed to a plan to reduce the violence. Since she has limited power over the military, Kyi can only do so much in the nascent democracy.

What happens next for the Rohingya is unclear.

“They’re not recognised as citizens in their own country, and they’re not even recognised as refugees when they flee this brutality. So it’s hard to think of a more abandoned people in the world,” Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera. “It’s their very identity which is being destroyed.”

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