The darkness in our hearts
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - August 24, 2019 - 12:00am

LONDON, England – Mohammed Sulaiman said he was 35, but that his feelings made him feel much older. His wife Leila Begum and five of their six children were slaughtered at close range before his eyes on 30 August 2017. He named each of them to us, in that dark shelter in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, his voice breaking, rising and falling, each word raw with pain. Their absence a ruin, his naming of them the only evidence they ever existed.

Early that morning, the village chairman called the Rohingya villagers together and explained military would come to the place and open fire but that if they stayed in their homes they would not be harmed. Believing him, they stayed but the soldiers started launching rockets and as soon as the first hit one home and set it on fire, they fled their homes. Rakhine and Khami (mostly Buddhists, whereas Rohingya are mostly Muslim) people stood in long line at the other end of the village with long swords, preventing people from leaving so they were herded to the river. Sulaiman reckoned there were 150 soldiers and around 100 Rakhine and Khami civilians, while some went around burning houses, others started just shooting people.

Sulaiman said about 1000 Rohingya villagers, standing on the sandy shore of the river, were divided into three groups as soldiers armed with machine guns stood on the bank above them: men in one, older women in another close to each other and younger women who were taken a short distance away and forced to wait on their knees, with their heads bowed. He was with a small group of around 10 to 15 villagers who crossed to the other side of the river and hid among trees watching what happened.

His voice remained steady despite what he described. He said the soldiers opened fire at close range firing continuously for 10 to 15 minutes into the group of men. The other villagers screamed in horror crying for help. He said he watched the soldiers yelling at Rohingya villagers, jeering and insulting them. No one tried to protest or stop the massacre. After a five minute break, they proceeded to kill all the older women in the same way. Sulaiman said after the shooting, the soldiers checked the pile of corpses and if anyone moved they stabbed them with knives. Now his voice failed him. After this orgy of violence, with his entire community lying dead, Sulaiman described how the soldiers covered the bodies with blankets, poured petrol on them and set them on fire. He said the soldiers then threw young children who had been hiding with their mothers alive on the fire.

Meanwhile some soldiers roamed the village, looting homes. The commander stood nearby with the younger women of whom there were about 100, watching the proceedings. Then soldiers in teams of four, forced 5 to 6 women at a time to go with them to around a dozen nearby houses which hadn’t been burned down. All was quiet for some three hours. Then those homes were also set alight, Sulaiman said he heard women screaming from inside though he said 7 women did manage to escape and were also in the camps in Bangladesh where we were. They were in hospitals with burns, injuries from having been beaten and raped.

Sulaiman was a broken man. He asked if we would like to know the names of his family who’d been killed. He sobbed as he named them. It felt like an act of raw grief for the loved ones he could not save and mourn properly.

He recounted this story about 6 weeks after it happened, on 15 October 2017 in a place that is now the biggest refugee camp in the world.

His is the story of only one village, but every single one of the 911,000 have similar stories of horror. Most affecting for me have been the stories of gender-based violence, meeting women who were gang-raped, and brutalised, made pregnant by their rapists. One woman barely survived and showed me where a soldier had literally bitten away a chunk of flesh from her breast.

Fundamentally, nothing for Rohingya has changed despite the broad coverage of their ethnic cleansing and possible genocide perpetrated by the Myanmar/Burma military. Rohingya on both sides of the border and indeed all over the world are still deprived of legal identity. In fact more countries such as Saudi Arabia and India are deporting them to Bangladesh. Not a single Rohingya has returned to Myanmar/Burma. More continue to arrive in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. There are now 911,566 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, of whom more than half are children.

The aid agencies’ joint request for donations is underfunded so hundreds of thousands of people who have all suffered in the same way that Sulaiman has do not have access to life-saving basic services.

Bangladesh has been extraordinary generous in some ways but some policy restrictions impact refugee rights, such as freedom of movement, civil documentation, education and access to justice.

No one has been brought to account for the thousands who were killed, raped and brutalised. More Rohingya live outside Myanmar/Burma than inside. As the situation stands, and the longer it continues, the stronger the argument gets that the international community is doing the Myanmar/Burma military’s job of ethnic cleansing for it.

Rohingya in the camps in Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf have no idea what will become of them. Criminal gangs operate among them, hundreds of thousands of children are not getting any schooling. Those who do speak proudly of what they’ve learned, but it’s hardly adequate. I started to feel queasy after listening to too many children of 10 and older speak proudly that they could simply write their names and sing “We Shall Overcome.”

This weekend marks two years since these atrocities took place in the heart of south east Asia. I will spend it remembering and asking myself what it means that it happened, because I fear that if it can happen in one place, then we live in a world where it can happen anywhere and to anyone.

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