Desperate Rohingya Flee Myanmar on Trail of Suffering. ‘It Is All Gone.’
REZU AMTALI, Bangladesh — They stumble down muddy ravines and flooded creeks through miles of hills and jungle in Bangladesh, and thousands more come each day, in a line stretching to the monsoon-darkened horizon.
Some are gaunt and spent, already starving and carrying listless and dehydrated babies, with many miles to go before they reach any refugee camp.
They are tens of thousands of Rohingya, who arrive bearing accounts of massacre at the hands of the Myanmar security forces and allied mobs that started on Aug. 25, after Rohingya militants staged attacks against government forces.
The retaliation that followed was carried out in methodical assaults on villages, with helicopters raining down fire on civilians and front-line troops cutting off families’ escape. The villagers’ accounts all portray indiscriminate attacks against fleeing noncombatants, adding to a death toll that even in early estimates is high into the hundreds, and is probably vastly worse.
“There are no more villages left, none at all,” said Rashed Ahmed, a 46-year-old farmer from a hamlet in Maungdaw Township in Myanmar. He had already been walking for four days. “There are no more people left, either,” he said. “It is all gone.”
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority who live in Myanmar’s far western Rakhine State. Most were stripped of their citizenship by the military junta that used to rule Myanmar, and they have suffered decades of repression under the country’s Buddhist majority, including killings and mass rape, according to the United Nations. A new armed resistance is giving the military more reasons to oppress them.
But the past week’s exodus of civilians caught in the middle, which the United Nations said had reached nearly 76,000 on Saturday, dwarfs previous outflows of refugees to Bangladesh in such a short time period. Friday’s influx alone was the single largest movement of Rohingya here in more than a generation, according to the United Nations office in Dhaka.
The dying is not yet done. Some of the Rohingya militants have persuaded or coerced men and boys to stay behind and keep up the fight. And civilians who have stayed on the trail are running toward conditions so grim that they constitute a second humanitarian catastrophe.
They face another round of gunfire from Myanmar’s border guards, and miles of treacherous hill trails and flood-swollen streams and mud fields ahead before they reach crowded camps without enough food or medical help. Dozens were killed when their boats overturned, leaving the bodies of women and children washed up on river banks.
Tens of thousands more Rohingya are waiting for the Bangladeshi border force to allow them to enter. Still more are moving north from the Rohingya-dominated districts of Rakhine State. And the violence there continues.
“It breaks all records of inhumanity,” said a member of the Border Guard Bangladesh named Anamul, stationed at the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp. “I have never seen anything like this.”
Here, in the forests of Rezu Amtali near the border with Myanmar, dozens of Rohingya told stories that were horrifying in their content and consistency.
After militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked police posts and an army base on Aug. 25, killing more than a dozen, the Myanmar military began torching entire villages with helicopters and petrol bombs, aided by Buddhist vigilantes from the ethnic Rakhine group, those fleeing the violence said.
Person after person along the trail into Bangladesh told of how the security forces cordoned off Rohingya villages as the fire rained down, and then shot and stabbed civilians. Children were not exempt.
Mizanur Rahman recalled how on Aug. 25 he had been working in a rice paddy in his village, known in Rohingya as Ton Bazar, in Buthidaung Township in Myanmar, when helicopters roared into the sky above him.
“Immediately, I had fear in my heart,” he said. His wife came running out of their house with their son, less than a month old.
They escaped to a nearby forest and watched as the choppers’ weapons engulfed the village in flames. Myanmar security forces descended, and the sound of gunfire reached the forest.
Mr. Rahman’s extended family fled the next day, but not before seeing his brother’s body lying on the ground, along with seven others. Three days later, as they climbed a hill near the border with Bangladesh, Mr. Rahman’s mother was shot dead by a Myanmar border guard.
“Now we are supposed to be safe in Bangladesh, but I do not feel safe,” Mr. Rahman said, as he wandered through a market in the Kutupalong refugee camp, with no money in his pocket.
His wife’s postpartum bleeding has increased so much that she can no longer walk or produce milk for their infant son. The baby, cradled in Mr. Rahman’s arms, looked skeletal, parched skin pinched at his joints. Other refugees took turns gently touching the baby’s feet to check if he was still alive.
The Myanmar military said on Friday that nearly 400 people had been killed in the violence that has swept across northern Rakhine since Aug. 25. Of that death toll, 370 people were identified as Rohingya fighters. Fourteen civilians, including four ethnic Rakhine and seven Hindus, were also reported killed. Myanmar officials, however, have given no specific accounting of civilian Rohingya deaths.
Dozens of people I spoke to on the refugee trail said they had seen multiple people shot dead in at least 15 different villages. Others spoke of families burned alive in their homes. Human rights groups, while sifting through survivors’ testimonies, have begun to make estimates that could add up to hundreds of Rohingya killed over the past week.
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based watchdog, documented 17 sites where satellite imagery showed extensive fire damage, including one village where 700 buildings had burned.
The Myanmar government claims Rohingya militants have torched their own homes in a bid for international sympathy. And the military maintains its current operations in Rakhine are designed at rooting out “extremist terrorists.”
There are, clearly, combatants on the Rohingya side. The state news media have reported that more than 50 clashes have broken out between the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, known by the acronym ARSA, and Myanmar security forces over the past week.
That has further complicated life for civilians trying to flee.
Fortify Rights, a human-rights group based in Bangkok, interviewed villagers remaining in Maungdaw township who said that ARSA was forcing men and boys to stay and fight. The refugees flowing into Bangladesh have been predominantly women and children, leading to speculation as to where the men are.
Mr. Ahmed, the farmer, said that he was too old to fight, but that 20 others from his village, Renuaz, had remained. “They have nothing to lose,” he said. “The Myanmar government wants to eradicate an entire ethnic group.”
What the survivors are fleeing into is no haven. Bangladesh is itself poor, overcrowded and waterlogged, and has been reluctant to take on more displaced Rohingya. Around 400,000 already lived here before the exodus, according to government figures.
An urgent humanitarian disaster is brewing here in a country hard-pressed to feed itself, much less a new influx of refugees that one Bangladeshi official estimated could soon surpass 100,000 people.
For now, the Border Guard Bangladesh is mostly turning a blind eye and allowing the Rohingya to stream across the border.
But there is little help for them here, as they push on in hopes of reaching some of the grim refugee camps further in.
A week after Myanmar’s military crackdown began, volunteers for the World Food Program in Bangladesh worried that they had not been able to offer rice to the new arrivals at the camps.
“We are waiting for an order but it has not come yet,” said Mohamed Yasin, a Rohingya who hands out food for the United Nations organization.
The luckiest of the Rohingya leaving the violence by trekking through the Chittagong Hills hefted bamboo poles laden with their most treasured belongings: sacks of rice, umbrellas, solar panels, water pots and grass mats.
Others, though, carried nothing at all because they had no time to organize anything before their flight. Toddlers marched naked. Not a single person wore shoes, which would have been ripped off by the sucking mud.
One woman staggered down a ravine in the downpour, an infant clutched in one arm and a live chicken in a bag held in her other. Tripping on a root or a rock, she suddenly fell backward into deep mud. Both she and the baby were so weak that there was no cry as they fell.
I reached out my hand to pull her up, and our eyes met, but she was too exhausted to form any other reaction. She immediately turned her gaze forward to the trail, and I watched her as she made her way down the gully and began trudging up a creek.
An international response to the crisis has started. On Wednesday, Britain arranged for a closed-door meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the Rohingya emergency. The civilian government of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has faced mounting global criticism for refusing to acknowledge the magnitude of the military offensive on civilian Rohingya populations.
On Tuesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, rejected allegations from Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration that international aid organizations were somehow complicit in aiding Rohingya militants.
Earlier this year, the United Nations set up a special commission to investigate another military onslaught that caused 85,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh over the course of the following months, following an ARSA attack on police posts in October. But Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has barred the United Nations team from Myanmar.
In an open letter to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, nearly a dozen of her fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates labeled last October’s military offensive “a human tragedy amounting to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”
“Some international experts have warned of the potential for genocide,” said the letter, signed by Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai, among others. “It has all the hallmarks of recent past tragedies: Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, Kosovo.”
On Thursday and Friday, when thousands of refugees finally reached the village of Rezu Amtali, a five-hour trek through the hills from the border, there were no aid groups to meet them.
Sympathetic villagers offered some drinking water and packets of snacks, while autorickshaw drivers ferried families to the sprawl of makeshift settlements that surround the Kutupalong camp. Most had to walk hours more, through torrential downpours, to reach the refugee shantytown.
Standing at the edge of a muddy path to Rezu Amtali, after a five-day journey with only a few handfuls of ruined rice to sustain them, a 6-year-old girl named Roufaja tugged at her mother’s sleeve. “Are we in Bangladesh yet?” she asked.
Her mother, Fatima Khatun — whose husband was presumed dead and sister had been raped by the security forces who had besieged their village — replied that they were.
“What are we going to do now?” her daughter asked, pulling at her sleeve again. “I’m hungry.”