By James Bennett /ABC News
Amid mounting evidence Myanmar’s military used mass rape in its apparent ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, the ABC has met survivors of this trauma, who have detailed gang-rape and cruel violence by soldiers.
Now facing an indelible stigma, they are pleading for justice.
Warning, this report contains distressing details of sexual violence.
The dark niqab covering all but her eyes, 18-year-old Noor sits gingerly on the floor of a friend’s hut.
She has ventured across Bangladesh’s Kutupalong refugee camp, away from family and community to share a story she has kept secret, even from doctors.
It began when Myanmar’s military raided her village of Laungdun, at the height of its vicious response to Rohingya insurgent attacks in August.
“As the military started persecuting villagers, we [girls and women] fled and took shelter in a house,” she said.
The soldiers discovered them. Then left. Then returned.
“They started searching our bodies and removed our clothes forcefully,” Noor said.
Noor and several others were singled out, tied up and taken away.
When she resisted, soldiers choked her, then subjected her to a violent gang rape so prolonged she fainted.
“About 10 to 15 army men raped me, and left me there and went away,” she said.
“I had blood and urine all over my clothes.”
Revived by several village women, she later walked to Bangladesh in excruciating pain.
Weeks on, she is still suffering internal bleeding.
But the stigma of her violation is so powerful she has kept the full details of her ordeal secret, even from doctors, fearing her husband will find out and reject her.
“My husband even threatened to leave me if I do not recover from bleeding soon,” she said.
A pattern, village after village
Another 18-year-old, Shamshida, from a different village near Maungdaw, tells a chillingly similar story.
“The military came to the village; I, along with two other girls were taken to a school,” she said.
A knife was placed on her throat.
“Three military persons took us to three separate rooms. Then they raped us,” Shamshida said.
Unmarried, she fears the shame of her violation is indelible, and will render her unwanted, forever.
“I don’t know what will happen. Won’t it be a problem? Won’t people talk about it?” she said.
Other Rohingya women have been forced to confront more immediate consequences — pregnancies following rape.
Abortion is illegal in Bangladesh, but doctors can approve it in extreme circumstances.
Several aid workers, who asked to remain anonymous, have confirmed to the ABC a number of terminations have been carried out.
They said there is an urgent need for many more female counsellors to cope with an expected wave of traumatised victims.
“That is exactly why this [rape] is such an effective way to attack someone,” Human Rights Watch researcher Skye Wheeler said.
“Not only do you cause them injuries and fear, but you leave them in a state of deep sadness, injured.”
‘I want justice for me’
Ms Wheeler interviewed over 52 Rohingya women from 19 separate villages.
Twenty-nine had been raped, all but one gang-raped.
Ms Wheeler’s report adds to mounting evidence mass rape is a key component of the military’s persecution of the Rohingya, which the UN has branded “textbook” ethnic cleansing.
“This was one of the ways ethnic cleansing was being carried out,” she said, adding that often lasting traumatic memories make it hard for women to feel safe in places they have been assaulted, thus making repatriation harder.
Pramila Patten, the UN’s special rapporteur on sexual violence in conflict, said last week “sexual violence is being commanded, orchestrated and perpetrated by the Armed Forces of Myanmar”.
Ms Patten vowed to raise the matter with the International Criminal Court.
But Myanmar is not a signatory to the court’s treaty, so any investigation would need the unanimous support of the UN Security Council, considered unlikely.
Myanmar continues to deny any atrocities took place.
Although global condemnation has recently grown louder, the international community has been hesitant to reimpose sanctions or an arms embargo, fearing major supplier and investor China would back Myanmar, thus strengthening its influence and undoing years of western efforts to encourage democracy.
But that is impossible to explain to Shamshida.
“I want justice for me. I want the world community to punish them,” she said.