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..."