With Myanmar's Fleeing Rohingyas, A Cruel Portrait Of Ethnic Cleansing

Rohingya refugees walk through the mud
Rohingya refugees walk through the mud
Rémy Ourdan

TEKNAF — They ran, they walked, they stumbled, then they ran again. They're exhausted, starving, some are wounded. They fled with fear and death chasing from behind. They are also carrying with them the memory of those who have died and an endless list of the missing. There is, in the forced exodus of Myanmar's Rohingyas, an end-of-the-world feeling.

Two weeks after the Rohingyas started to arrive in southern Bangladesh, on the other bank of the Naf river — which runs along the border with Myanmar — there can be no more doubt about it: the Rohingyas aren't facing yet another persecution, part of an ongoing series of deadly cataclysms to have marred the tragic history of this Muslim community from the Arakan (the Rakhine state, for the Burmese authorities). This time, the Myanmar Rohingyas are the target of a systematic deportation campaign, the goal of which seems to be its totality and finality. An end of their world indeed.

Traveling along Bangladesh's N1 road between Cox's Bazar and Teknaf each day at dawn, venturing in the paths east of the road, walking in the hills around Gundam and in the rice fields, heading south, following the banks of the Naf river until the Bay of Bengal, gives you an idea of what's unfolding on the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar. All witness accounts concur: Only the dead, the badly wounded, the missing — men hiding in the jungle or children lost on the way — and a few old people too weak for the journey aren't fleeing Myanmar.

"Leave!" "You've got one minute to leave the village!" "You must all go!" "Go or you'll all be dead!" These are the orders Burmese troops gave to the luckiest among the Rohingyas, those who were allowed a few words before the shooting began. And they confirm what the United Nations recently described as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing." The deportation of the Rohingyas isn't new: with peaks of violence that have been intensifying for 25 years, the damned souls of Myanmar, whose citizenship was never recognized, were already long considered the largest stateless community in the world (they were stripped of their Burmese nationality in 1982).

What seems new this time is the apparent Burmese ambition to settle the Rohingya question once and for all. The accounts by men who hid in the forest, on the outskirts of villages, confirm this brutal commitment to eliminate the group from the land: those who stay behind are executed, the villages systemically torched.

The first days, when some, hidden in the jungle, were still torn between setting out to Bangladesh and potentially returning to their homes, they were hunted down either by Burmese soldiers or by their auxiliaries in the Buddhist militias. A terror policy was rolled out in the hills, the forests, and the rice fields. But on most occasions, the Rohingyas weren't given any warnings. The units that reached the villages immediately opened fire on the houses while the militiamen, armed with machetes and knives, hounded those who were fleeing. No need for orders or explanations, the communities got the message loud and clear: They had to flee without looking back.

One morning, at dawn, Shilkhali and the surrounding villages were torched. The columns of smoke were perfectly visible from the Bangladeshi side of the Naf river. Three hours later, Sayedul Amin and Mohammed Tayeb were the first to reach Kanchrapara.

"The soldiers came four days ago, and they started to burn houses on a regular basis the last night," says Sayedul Amin. "We had taken shelter on the riverbank. We left some elderly behind in Shilkhali, they must have been killed by now. This morning, they burnt everything behind us and we were finally able to find a fisherman's boat to cross the river."

After that, they had to walk with mud up to their waists, then walk along the rice fields for five kilometers. The men were exhausted. In Kanchrapara, they waited for the others. "Only two boats have crossed, because of a naval patrol. The fishermen are scared. Sometimes the army confiscates boats or sinks them. So the others are waiting on the riverbank for the patrol to leave."

The priority is to burn down all the villages.

Many have drowned, as they attempted to cross the Naf river, witnesses testify, as a new column of smoke rises on the horizon, then a second, and a third. The villages are burning, methodically set ablaze, one after the other.

Given the uninterrupted flow of refugees reaching Bangladesh, the ethnic cleansing underway seems relentless. The main task of Myanmar's military units deployed in the Arakan state, reinforced by the 33rd and 99th light infantry divisions, known for their brutality (and whose presence has been confirmed by refugees able to identify the badge on their uniforms, according to an international investigator), is to spread terror and carry out a scorched-earth policy. For instance, the troops don't systematically pursue those who flee to the riverbanks. The priority instead seems to be most of all to burn the villages and reduce to ashes all hope of returning.

About 370,000 Rohingyas have left Myanmar since August 25, according to the United Nations' Refugee Agency. Humanitarian organizations in the port city of Cox's Bazar are starting to believe that one million Myanmar Rohingyas could reach Bangladesh. The terror spread by the executions and rapes and geographical breadth of the military operations, the systematic destruction of villages and the order to "flee or die" make the scale of this ethnic cleansing unprecedented. The question lingering now is whether the authorities of Myanmar intend to pursue this policy down to the very last remaining Rohingya.

After the August 25 attack on more than 20 border posts by rebels from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) — which led to fights that killed, according to the Burmese government, about 100 people, including some 10 police officers — the Arakan state was set ablaze. The first days, killings and executions were widespread.

August 26 was a bloodbath. The days that followed weren't much different. Combat units were sometimes preceded by just one minute by troops posted in the neighboring villages, whom the Rohingyas knew and didn't expect to open fire without warning. Hence the surprise effect.

Mohammed Siddiqi says the troops arrived in Soapran early on August 26 with armed Buddhist militants. "They opened fire on the houses, then on the people who were fleeing," he recalls coldly. "I was outside and I ran into the jungle. My 15-year-old son, my 21-year-old daughter-in-law and her two-month-old daughter were killed."

Once they reached the hills, the villagers regrouped and set off for a grueling seven-day journey. "For the time being, 284 of our people are missing. Some might still be on the road, but I think most of them were killed," says Siddiqi, waiting in the makeshift refugee camp of Unchiparang for another son to return from the hospital, a nine-year-old who'd been shot in the leg.

A newborn without a name.

Mohammed Jobair lost his wife and children. "Without warning, without a word, the soldiers fired shots at the houses. My wife was holding our daughter against her when a bullet went through her shoulder and killed them both. I ran towards the rice field. The troops came after us. I pretended to be dead in the mud. One soldier gave me a kick, then they left. Two hours later, I saw that the village was burning."

Hasina Begum, who's also from Merullah, can be considered lucky. She lost her two parents, but although eight-months pregnant, she managed to flee and to give birth on August 26. After the panic and the frantic running through the forest, she started to feel contractions. "I gave birth in a cabin by the river," she says. It took her, her husband Abdul Hamid and their now three children, two weeks to reach Bangladesh. Lying down on the grass near a rice field north of Unchiparang, they're exhausted and starving. Hasina looks feverish. Her husband, meanwhile, is happy to have saved the children. The newborn doesn't have a name yet.

"We're never going back home, that's out of the question," Abdul Kashim calmly explains. "There's nothing left for us there. Nothing." Kashim is from Hassorata and has reached Teknaf during the night. "My son Ibrahim was hit by a bullet as we were running and we never saw him again. The troops finish off the wounded, and we don't know where they're burying them. And they burn the houses." His voice trails off: "There's nothing left..."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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