Rohingya left with 'nothing' as soldiers lay waste to their homes
In more than a dozen interviews along the Myanmar border, The Globe hears stories of the military attacking Muslims as they flee, setting land mines and torching villages – a tactic that will dissuade them from returning
Sakhina Begum looked in horror through the tall fence that marks the edge of Bangladesh. On the other side lies Myanmar, and the building that was until days ago her home. But as she watched Thursday afternoon, five Myanmar soldiers approached, she said. They fanned out to the corners of the house, flaming torches in hand. To feed the fire more quickly, they added gasoline, too.
Soon, black smoke began to billow into the sky. It was followed by flames that rose above the palm trees, feasting on what were once her life's possessions. The air echoed with booms and cracks.
When the house was nearly consumed and the inferno began to subside, Ms. Begum slowly walked along the border and fell to her knees, head in her hands. Tears streamed down her face.
"I have nothing. Not even my rice pot," she said moments later. As she spoke, ash fluttered out of the sky, remnants of her home landing on her yellow shawl.
Global leaders have condemned the violence gripping Myanmar's western Rakhine state, much of it aimed at the largely Muslim Rohingya minority, which is fleeing in large numbers to Bangladesh. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – echoed by the UN Secretary-General – called it "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing." The UN Security Council "expressed concern about reports of excessive violence."
Critics have called for Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy icon and Nobel winner, to be stripped of her peace laureate. And, in Canada, more than 21,000 have signed a petition for Ottawa to revoke the honorary citizenship granted to Ms. Suu Kyi by the previous Conservative government.
But the sound and fury from around the world have done little to quell the violence. The fires inside Myanmar have not died out. Instead, more are being set every day, in a campaign that has now continued for three weeks. Of 471 Rakhine villages selected for "clearance operations" by the military, 176 have been emptied, according to the Myanmar government, which has said it needs to clear out extremists.
But those observing the atrocities from the border have grown bitter about the inability, or unwillingness, of the international community to intervene.
"They are just watching what's happening, collecting data – but doing nothing," said a Bangladeshi border guard in Tombru, where Ms. Begum is now staying with fellow displaced villagers in a small tarp city. "What's the good of all this monitoring if they can't do anything to the Myanmar government to stop this?" he said.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying local border guards, since they are not authorized to speak to the media.
But in more than a dozen interviews on the border with Myanmar, The Globe learned that Myanmar soldiers continue to set fire to Rohingya homes and to attack those attempting to flee. Numerous plumes of smokes punctuate the horizon; in Ms. Begum's home of Taungpyoletwea alone, escaped villagers said they counted nearly 30 houses torched on Thursday. Footage obtained by The Globe shows land mines installed along the same stretch of border, a threat that will remain well into the future.
The persistent violence is propelling large numbers of Rohingya to join those who have already left. Aid workers are preparing for the number in Bangladesh to keep growing, perhaps reaching as high as one million from estimates of just less than 400,000 today. It's believed about 1.1 million Rohingya lived in Rakhine state before Muslim militants attacked two dozen police and military outposts on Aug. 25, a co-ordinated assault that, Myanmar's military said, has necessitated a severe response.
Myanmar has barred independent reporting from inside the area.
Large numbers of soldiers continue to patrol Rakhine, said Mohammad Enayatullah, 31, who walked across the border into Bangladesh on Thursday with his cousin, both gleaming with sweat as they carried their elderly uncle slung under a bamboo pole.
The two cousins had already fled Myanmar. But when they returned on Tuesday to retrieve their uncle, they found scenes of devastation.
"If a village had 50 houses, more than 40 have been burned down," Mr. Enayatullah said.
"We saw rivers of blood," his cousin, Abdur Sabur, said. "There are many people dead, bodies in the roads."
The two had been "very scared to go back. But what can we do? We can't leave our relatives."
Their fears were well-founded. When they set out with their uncle on Thursday to cross the Naf River back onto Bangladeshi soil, Myanmar soldiers fired three shots at them. The bullets missed.
But others will soon tempt the same fate, Mr. Enayatullah said. He saw "many people waiting to leave. Five hundred in some places. A thousand in others."
They may be in danger even before they begin their crossing. On Thursday morning, Myanmar soldiers attacked a group of Rohingya waiting on shore, according to several Bangladeshi border guards.
"They killed many people," one said, citing reports from Rohingya. It was, he said, an "ambush."
Still, people keep coming. Many hid for days, sometimes weeks, in forests and mountains near their villages after the military initially opened fire on Aug. 25. They waited, hoping to return home – until those homes were lit on fire.
Now their exodus is reinforcing worry that the number of newly arrived Rohingya in Bangladesh, already equal to the population of Halifax, could swell further.
"The number may rise to 600,000, 700,000, even one million if the situation in Myanmar does not improve," Mohammed Abdiker, director of operations and emergencies for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said on Thursday.
Aid agencies have called for an outpouring of international support to help the great droves of Rohingya now clustered in muddy camps and along roadways, swarming trucks where workers toss out clothes, food and cash. Many have erected bamboo-framed tents with thin tarp walls as their only shelter. Others are sleeping by roadsides.
An Inter Sector Coordination Group estimated that $77-million (U.S.) would be needed, but that number was calculated based on helping 300,000 Rohingya until the end of December. "But as you know, that number keeps growing," said Joseph Tripura, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
"We need funding to respond to such a need."
Rohingya leaving Myanmar often arrive in Bangladesh weakened by their journey and in need of food and water. But sanitation and shelter are also urgent requirements, said Peppi Siddiq, a Dakha-based project manager with the IOM.
In the current environment, "it won't take long for waterborne diseases to start spreading like wildfire," she said.
What's happening in Bangladesh "is unprecedented in terms of the volumes of people coming over in such a short period of time. I don't think we've ever seen something like this before."
The Myanmar government has faulted Rohingya for the violence, saying those fleeing either have ties to a group of extremist militants, or are fleeing the conflict those militants have stoked. It said 45 places have been burned.
But satellite imagery shows at least 80 major fires in inhabited areas, Amnesty International reported.
The Myanmar government has blamed the militants, a group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, for torching homes, and said its security forces have sought to intervene.
But Rohingya say the continuing burning of houses is part of an effort by authorities to ensure that they cannot return. Crops have also been destroyed, they said.
In Tombru, villagers say the military has placed land mines along the border to prevent anyone from coming back. Footage obtained by The Globe from villagers shows two land mines unearthed with long bamboo sticks from the mud along the Myanmar side of the border in the last week, not far from where Ms. Begum's house burned down.
Two other videos show girls being carried away after triggering a land line. The legs of one are reduced to strings of flesh.
Another video played by a villager shows fresh mud packed near the front entrance of a door to a house. Villagers believe a mine was placed there to keep the owner from returning.
Ms. Begum's house, meanwhile, was so close to the border that there was little doubt she would return. Now it's gone, and with it any certainty about her future.
Besides, she added, the Myanmar military remains on active patrol to ensure she does not have the chance to go back.
Any time soldiers catch sight of a person looking through the border fence at the place that was home until just days ago, "they wave big machetes at us, to show that they would chop us like butchers," she said.
"I can't understand why they are so violent against us."
With reporting by Amirul Rajiv