Rohingya Fleeing Myanmar Describe Military Tactic Of Systematic Rape

The Balukali refugee camp, located about an hour's drive south of the seaside tourist city of Cox's Bazar, is one of many informal camps in southern Bangladesh. An estimated 2,000 Rohingya families who fled neighboring Myanmar live in Balukali.

Michael Sullivan for NPR

With her 8-year-old son's head resting in her lap, Zubaida was sitting at home with some other women from her village in western Myanmar's Rakhine state when the military came — and the gunfire started.

"All the men from the village started running away, and my son ran with them," Zubaida, 25, says. He didn't get far: Myanmar soldiers shot him dead — in the back.

That evening, the soldiers came back.

"They didn't say anything," she says. "They just came with their guns into my house."

They raped her for almost an hour that time, Zubaida says. Two days later, the military returned and rounded up all the villagers. She says they separated the men from the women, beat the men and raped the women.

"Some tried to resist and got stabbed," she says. "That's why the rest of the women didn't hesitate, they didn't want to die."

Zubaida was one of those picked.

Her distraught father pleaded with the soldiers: "Why are you doing this?"

"We are not doing as much to you as we have been ordered to do in Oula Para," they replied, referring to a nearby village.

Both Zubaida's village, Naiyongsong, and Oula Para are in far west Rakhine near the border with Bangladesh.

The villagers in this story have chosen to use pseudonyms to protect family members in Myanmar from possible retribution.

The latest crackdown

Zubaida and her neighbors are Rohingya — a group the U.N. has described as one of the world's most persecuted people. The Muslim minority Rohingya have lived in mainly Buddhist Myanmar for centuries.

Even so, Myanmar's government doesn't consider the Rohingya to be citizens; it says they are immigrants from Bangladesh who are living in Myanmar illegally. About 1 million Rohingya live in Rakhine state, and they are almost entirely disenfranchised and need permission, for instance, to travel outside their own villages or to marry. Many are restricted to living in internment camps, segregated from the local Buddhist population.

An armed Myanmar border guard patrols the fence along the river dividing Myanmar and Bangladesh in Myanmar's Rakhine state, on Oct. 15, 2016. The government says Rohingya militants carried out border raids that month that killed nearly a dozen policemen.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

In October, a new Rohingya militant group attacked several border guard posts and killed nearly a dozen policemen. The militants led another series of attacks in November that left a Myanmar army officer dead.

The attacks shocked and infuriated Myanmar's military. And its response has been a brutal form of collective punishment that has not spared villagers, who are accused of aiding and abetting the militants.

What followed, witnesses and survivors say, was a campaign of murder, rape and arson. In the past six months, more than 70,000 Rohingya fled in terror across the border into neighboring Bangladesh — a Muslim-majority nation that has provided those who fled with refuge, but not acceptance.

This isn't the first time the Rohingya have made that journey. In the late 1970s and early '90s, hundreds of thousands fled violence in Myanmar. By some estimates, there are more than 500,000 Rohingya now living in Bangladesh — and more in Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries.

In Bangladesh, about 35,000 Rohingya live officially in two camps run by the government in tandem with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Hundreds of thousands more live, unofficially, in squatter camps like Balukali, where Zubaida lives now.

Home to some 17,000 people, Balukali is bleak. Small huts have been scraped out of the hillsides, with blue plastic sheeting for walls and roofs, held together by thin strips of bamboo. The homes sit amid pools of fetid water in a hilly area with little shade and lots of sand.

Zubaida's tiny hut is barely big enough to stand in. At midday, it is stiflingly hot.

Small huts have been scraped out of the hillsides of the Balukali camp. Homes have blue plastic sheeting for walls, and roofs that are held together by thin strips of bamboo.

Michael Sullivan for NPR

She recalls how the soldiers burned down a number of houses, as well as the mosque next to her house. After she was raped the second time, Zubaida says, she fled with her then-5-year-old daughter, her parents and a couple of siblings, furtively making their way through the jungle until they reached what they thought was a place of safety near the river.

They were wrong.

The military came there, too.

"The last rape took place in a school," Zubaida says. "The women were separated after the men were taken away," and then it all began again.

Zubaida, 25, is one of thousands of Rohingya to flee their homes during the latest crackdown on the Muslim minority group by the Myanmar Army.

Michael Sullivan for NPR

She and her family finally made it across the river about a week after starting their journey.

Six years earlier, Zubaida's husband, Mohammad, fled Myanmar by boat for Malaysia. The idea was to earn enough money to bring his family, too. Many others do the same, paying traffickers to make the often harrowing boat journey south to Thailand or Malaysia.