While the international community fences over whether to name the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas in Myanmar a genocide, the killing reportedly continues — and 700 000 refugees in Bangladesh batten down to face what could prove to be an equally deadly monsoon season.
The massacres, mass rapes, village-razing, forced famine and expulsions were recognised as bearing “the hallmarks of genocide” on March 12 by Yanghee Lee, the United Nation’s human rights rapporteur on Myanmar. This came on the heels of a report by the Myanmar military that exonerated all but 10 security force members of any crimes against the Rohingya. Yanghee’s statement is the strongest affirmation by the UN of the gravity of the crisis since its human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, warned days earlier that what he suspected were “acts of genocide” were ongoing in Rakhine State, albeit with lower intensity.
Most diplomats such as former United States secretary of state Rex Tillerson have referred to the crisis as “ethnic cleansing”. But the term has no grounding in international law — unlike “genocide” and “crimes against humanity”. An official UN Security Council designation such as genocide is critical to activate the 1948 Genocide Convention to which Myanmar is a signatory, but the UN has very rarely done so, as in Bosnia and Darfur — and as China is a significant supplier of arms to Myanmar, it would be hard to secure.
The desire of most Rohingya to return to their ancestral lands is thwarted by the influence in the military of Myanmar’s ultra-right Buddhist monks, rendering Myanmar’s Nelson Mandela figure, Aung San Suu Kyi, powerless. Some Myanmar experts, such as Politico magazine’s Nahal Toosi, have argued that her inaction on the genocide, and flat refusal to use the word “Rohingya”, and in so doing risk alienating her ethnic support base, reveals her to be a Burman nationalist.
Near the Myanmar border and close to the epicentre of the genocide, Kutupalong is a vast, ersatz camp of 150 000 Rohingya refugees, distinguishable from Bangladeshi Muslims by their dress, language and customs dating back to the mediaeval kingdom of Arakan, which straddled contemporary Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Perched on a hillside overlooking a Red Crescent compound, Abdul Rahim is barely 18, but he carries a laminated card around his neck indicating he is a majhi, a Rohingya community leader, recognised by the camp authorities. Most elders, too weak to escape, were slaughtered by Buddhist and Myanmar army deathsquads.
Rahim’s 60-year-old father, Mohamed Ali, was among them: the man was “locked in his house by the army and a mob [acting] together, and the house was burned”; Rahim’s 23-year-old brother Osil Haman was shot; his mother, six other brothers and two sisters managed to escape.
“At the time of the attack, I was visiting Kulsumar Akter, a beautiful girl of 16 who I was friends with in a neighbouring village. The army raped her and killed her in front of me. Ten or 12 very beautiful girls were gathered in a house, raped and killed by the army.”
Another young majhi is Mohamed Islam (22) from Maungdaw in Rakhine State, a town that was 80% Rohingya before 120 000 Rohingyas were relocated between 2012 and 2016, supposedly for their protection from hostile neighbours, to de facto concentration camps. He tells of the assault on his community by a force of the Myanmar army acting alongside a local vigilante group.
“It was four o’clock in the afternoon on 25 August. Suddenly they attacked. The [vigilante militia] was wearing army uniforms. They were shooting everyone and burning the houses; these were the targets of the Myanmar government. I was running in the yard of my house from the army but an army sniper shot me in the foot and I fell down; the army thought that I had died so they left me. When I opened my eyes, I saw lots of dead bodies; my friend Shokil, who was 27 years old, was killed.”
Moved during the night by two fellow survivors, who carried the wounded Islam on a wooden pole between them, he said they encountered village after village where corpses were strewn about. It took the trio two terrifying days to cover the 70km to the Naf River, which marks the border with Bangladesh, and cross to safety.
On arrival in the forest reserve on the outskirts of the southern Bangladeshi town of Ukhia, the tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees initially had to live under the stars, taking their chances with snakes and elephants that killed several. Of the 700 000 survivors who settled in three big refugee camps such as Kutupalong and 10 smaller ones, Unicef estimates that 60% are children.
The camp is dotted with “child-friendly spaces”. I visit one, where perhaps 50 children squat on the floor in clusters. Among the scattered smiles there are hard eyes and faraway stares. Everyone here seems to have scarred hearts or bodies.
One of the few elders in the camp, Noor Bashir (56) had a narrow escape: he lifts his bazu shirt and longyi to show me the machete wounds on his legs and right hip.
An August 2017 documentary by Al Jazeera correspondent Salam Hindawi, who managed to get inside one of the concentration camps in Rakhine State, shows Rohingya women gang-rape survivors in tears as they recount witnessing their husbands being taken away by the military to an uncertain fate.
Days earlier and 330km north-northwest, I had been sitting in the modest office of Bangladesh’s deputy director general of immigration. She plied me with tea and mishti sweetmeats as her minions processed my visa extension application. Stacked high on the desks of offices below were applications from hundreds of Chinese and Indians as well as Belarussians and many other nationalities, but no Rohingyas. Bangladesh has not granted them refugee status. Even the pre-genocide community of 400 000 who fled repression two decades ago is unassimilated, disallowed from travelling, schooling or marrying Bengalis.
Now the monsoon season threatens the lives of an estimated 100 000 survivors: though the aid organisations have built concrete stairs, water tanks and woven-bamboo, plastic and corrugated iron shelters for the Rohingya, these are unlikely to withstand cyclone-force winds and mudslides.
That my interviews take place on the 70th anniversary of the still unresolved dispossession of 700 000 other Muslims — those of Palestine in 1948 — make the Rohingyas’ appeals for the full reinstatement of their citizenship and homes that much more poignant — and desperate.