Reprisals, Rape, and Children Burned Alive: Burma’s Rohingya Speak of Genocidal Terror

Mohammad Ponir Hossain—REUTERSA Rohingya Muslim woman and her son cry after being caught by Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) while illegally crossing at a border check point in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Nov. 21, 2016

Around 21,000 Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh over the past two months, as Burmese forces launched what one U.N official says is “getting very close to what we would all agree are crimes against humanity.” TIME reports from the Bangladesh border, where the full horror is only just emerging

If the Naf River could talk, which horror story would it tell first?

The narrow waterway marks the border between Burma and Bangladesh. On its western bank is the Bangladeshi province of Chittagong. To the east, Burma’s Arakan state, also known as Rakhine, home to the Buddhist-majority country’s Rohingya people, a Muslim minority described over the years as stateless, friendless and forgotten.

But if the river could remember their stories, it might speak, for example, of the night in late November when Arafa, a 25-year-old Rohingya woman, entered its waters with her five children.

She used to have six. As she talks, sitting on the threshold of a hut in a makeshift refugee camp on the Bangladeshi side of the Naf, she is surrounded by her son and four young daughters. They are a lively bunch, noisy, restless, yet shy, hiding behind their mother’s back or running in and out of the hut, as she recounts what happened to her second son.

He was 8 years old. Sometime around Nov. 22, Arafa says her village was attacked by Burmese security forces. Viewed as illegal immigrants and denied citizenship rights by the Burmese state, the Rohingya have long faced intimidation, oppression and violence at the hands of both Buddhist extremists and the country’s security forces. The last major sectarian spasm was in 2012, when clashes between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims displaced some 125,000 people. Rights activists accused security forces of either standing aside as the violence spread, or actively participating in it.

This time, Arafa says, the army’s assault felt different. The security men seemed more determined, more driven, to punish the Rohingya. Their weapon of choice was fire.

Arafa says that the military torched her village. As the flames engulfed her home, she just about managed to escape with her six children. That was when the family was confronted by a Burmese soldier. He snatched the fleeing 8-year-old, separating him from his brother and sisters, and flung him into the blaze.

In the chaos, Arafa lost sight of her husband. But she could not turn back; she had to leave him behind, leave her son’s charred body behind, and mourn on the move.

“I had to save my other children. We had to escape [from Burma],” she tells TIME. “They burned everything.”

For two days, Arafa and her children hid in the forests that skirt the riverbank on the Burmese side, laying low to avoid detection by troops, before boarding a rickety boat that took them to safety across the Naf.

Anik Rahman/NurPhoto/Sipa USAA patrol of Bangladeshi Border Guards attempts to prevent Rohingya refugees from crossing into Bangladesh from Burma, on the banks of the Naf River, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on Nov. 22, 2016

They are not alone. Arafa’s family are among the estimated 21,000Rohingya who have sought refuge in Bangladesh over the past two months, as Burmese forces launched what testimony from refugees, satellite imagery compiled by rights groups and leaked photos and videos from inside Arakan indicate is a horrifyingly bloody crackdown against the million-strong Muslim minority.

The latest troubles began in early October, when police said three border guard posts were attacked by Islamist militants. Nine policemen were killed, with the government saying the attackers belonged to an extremist group called Aqa Mul Mujahidin. A statement from the Burmese President’s office linked them to the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, a militant group long thought to be defunct. The only proof for these claims was the government’s word.

What followed has been described by Burmese authorities as “clearance operations.” Amnesty International, the rights group, calls it “collective punishment”: a ferocious campaign of violent reprisals against an entire people. In addition to arson attacks on Rohingya villages, the military has been accused of raping Rohingya women and conducting extrajudicial killings of Muslims. Helicopter gunships have been used to fire on Rohingya villages.

Satellite imagery released by Human Rights Watch show that more than 800 buildings were destroyed in five different Rohingya villages between Nov. 10 and 18. An earlier set of high-resolution images showed the destruction of more than 400 homes in three villages between Oct. 22 and Nov. 10. The actual number of destroyed buildings could be higher, given the dense tree cover in the area, the rights group says.

Verifying the picture on the ground is impossible, as Burma has sealed off the affected areas. But the news that is coming out suggests that the situation is “getting very close to what we would all agree are crimes against humanity,” says Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, as the country is officially known.

“I am getting reports from inside the country and from neighboring places too that things are not as th