COX’S BAZAR, BANGLADESH – The Myanmar soldiers came in the morning, the young mother says. They set fire to the concrete-and-thatch homes, forcing the villagers to cluster together. When some of her neighbors tried to escape into the fields, they were shot. After that, she says, most people stopped running away.
“They drove us out of our houses, men and women in separate lines, ordering us to keep our hands folded on the back of our heads,” says 20-year-old Mohsena Begum, her voice choking as she described what happened to the little village of Caira Fara, which had long been home to hundreds of members of Myanmar’s minority Rohingya community. She said that when about 50 people had been gathered together, the soldiers, along with a group of local men, pulled four village leaders from the crowd and slit their throats.
Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, the Rohingya have long faced persecution in Myanmar, where most are denied citizenship. The latest outbreak of violence was triggered by October attacks on guard posts near the Bangladesh border that killed nine police officers. While the attackers’ identities and motives are unclear, the government launched a massive counterinsurgency sweep through Rohingya areas in western Rakhine state. Most Rohingya live in Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh.
The government, which has implied the attacks were carried out by Rohingya sympathizers, has acknowledged using helicopter gunships in support of ground troops in the sweep. While survivors and human rights groups have tracked waves of anti-Rohingya violence in recent weeks, the Myanmar government insists that stories like Begum’s are exaggerations.
Myanmar’s leader, the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has accused the international community of stoking unrest.
“It doesn’t help if everybody is just concentrating on the negative side of the situation, in spite of the fact that there were attacks on police outposts,” she said in a recent interview on Singapore’s Channel News Asia.
Suu Kyi, whose party took power in March after decades of military-backed rule, has been accused of not acting strongly enough to curb the violence against the more than 1 million Rohingya believed to be in the country. Although many have lived in Rakhine for generations, they are widely seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“It helps if people recognize the difficulty and are more focused on resolving these difficulties rather than exaggerating them, so that everything seems worse than it really is,” she said in the interview.
But Begum says she has no need to exaggerate what happened in Caira Fara.
She said that after the four leaders were killed, violence churned through the village in chaotic scenes of horror. Begum’s husband, a poor, illiterate farm laborer, was beaten and then murdered by having his throat slit, along with an unknown number of other villagers, she said. Their bodies were eventually driven away in a truck.
She said attackers knocked her young son knocked from her grasp, then raped her.
Finally, when the soldiers weren’t paying attention, she grabbed her son and ran into the nearby hills. After hiding for two days, her brother gave her enough money — about $38 — to pay smugglers to get her and her son into Bangladesh.
When Bangladeshi border guards stopped them, she began to weep.
“I told them I have no one to protect me there,” she says, and told them: “‘Look at my baby! He will die if I go back there.’” After that, they let her pass.
Much of Rakhine has been closed to outsiders, including journalists, since the violence began. However, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, leader of a commission formed to investigate the situation in Rakhine state, was allowed to visit in recent days. He is expected to hold a press conference Tuesday in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city.
Along the banks of the Naf River, which marks the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, it’s not difficult to find people who can talk about what is happening.
Some 15,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh over past month, often brought in by smugglers, according to police and intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the government refuses to release numbers publicly. They have joined up to 500,000 undocumented Rohingya who have been living in Bangladesh after arriving from Myanmar in waves since the 1970s. Some 33,000 registered Rohingya refugees live the Cox’s Bazar district. Bangladesh does not welcome Rohingya — its maritime patrols sometimes turn back refugee boats full of them — but it is seen as a haven compared to Myanmar.
The U.N. says up 30,000 Rohingya Muslims have abandoned their homes amid the recent violence. Satellite images analyzed by the rights group Human Rights Watch show 1,250 structures destroyed in November in Rohingya villages.
Osman Gani, a thin, fast-talking Arabic teacher, fled after his village, Gouzo Bil, was attacked Nov. 11.
“They came and killed mercilessly. They burned our homes,” says Gani, standing near the Naf River over the weekend. “No one was there to save us.”
He hid with his family for about a week near the village. But when searches intensified, and with soldiers targeting men, he was forced to leave Myanmar without his family.
“I had no other choice but to leave them behind. I came to the bank of the river and started swimming,” he says. His family was able to join him in Bangladesh a few days later.
As he fled north, he used his mobile phone to film destruction in other Rohingya villages he passed through. In some, the blackened remains of what appear to be children can be seen amid the wreckage of homes. Gani’s voice can be heard in some of the videos but The Associated Press could not confirm their authenticity.
“I have shot videos!” he says, holding out his mobile phone to a reporter. “Don’t you see the charred bodies?”
While he was initially in hiding after the attack, Osmani said he also managed to slip back into his village and film what remained of his home.
As he walks through the village, a child can be heard talking to him.
“Where are you coming from?” the boy asks.
Gani doesn’t answer, instead asking, “Where’s my cow?”
Then he pans through the ashes and broken concrete. “This is my land, my home,” he says. “This is Puitta’s. This is Uncle Yunus.”