Without a Home, and Without Hope

“Dance!” shouted the army officer, waving a gun at the trembling girl. Afifa, just 14 years old, was corralled in a rice paddy with dozens of girls and women—all members of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. The soldiers who invaded her village that morning last October said they were looking for militants who had carried out a surprise attack on three border posts, killing nine policemen. The village’s men and boys, fearing for their lives, had dashed into the forests to hide, and the soldiers began terrorizing the women and children.

After enduring an invasive body search, Afifa had watched soldiers drag two young women deep into the rice paddy before they turned their attention to her. “If you don’t dance at once,” the officer said, drawing his hand across his throat, “we will slaughter you.” Choking back tears, Afifa began to sway back and forth. The soldiers clapped rhythmically. A few pulled out mobile phones to shoot videos. The commanding officer slid his arm around Afifa’s waist.

Rohingya refugees queue outside Kutupalong camp near the town of Cox’s Bazar, waiting to receive staples from the World Food Programme. About half a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh.

“Now that’s better, isn’t it?” he said, flashing a smile.

The encounter marked only the beginning of the latest wave of violence against the estimated 1.1 million Rohingya who live, precariously, in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. The United Nations considers the Rohingya one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. Muslims in a nation dominated by Buddhists, the Rohingya claim that they are indigenous to Rakhine, and many are descended from settlers who came in the 19th and early 20th century. Despite their roots, a 1982 law stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship. They are now considered illegal immigrants in Myanmar as well as in neighboring Bangladesh, the country to which as many as half a million have fled.

Five years ago, clashes between Buddhist and Muslim communities left hundreds dead, mostly Rohingya. With their mosques and villages torched, 120,000 Rohingya were forced into makeshift camps inside Myanmar (also known as Burma). This time the assault was unleashed by the Burmese military, the feared Tatmadaw, which ruled over Myanmar for five decades before overseeing a transition that led last year to a quasi-civilian government.

Early in the morning, family members warm themselves around a fire in an alley in Kutupalong. Refugees construct their huts from branches, leaves, and black plastic sheeting. Many of these flimsy shelters were ruined in May by a cyclone.

What began ostensibly as a hunt for the culprits behind the border post attacks turned into a four-month assault on the Rohingya population as a whole. According to witnesses interviewed by the UN and international human-rights groups, as well as National Geographic, the army campaign included executions, mass detentions, the razing of villages, and the systematic rape of Rohingya women. Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, believes it’s “very likely” the army committed crimes against humanity.

The full extent of what happened in northern Rakhine state is not yet known because the government has not allowed independent investigators, journalists, or aid groups unfettered access to the affected areas. Satellite imagery at the time showed Rohingya villages destroyed by fire. Amateur video appeared to show charred bodies of adults and children lying on the ground in the torched villages. Rights groups say hundreds of Rohingya have been killed. One incontrovertible truth is that the army assault triggered the exodus of more than 75,000 Rohingya into overcrowded refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh. Nearly 60 percent are children. (An estimated 20,000 or more Rohingya have been displaced within Myanmar’s borders.)

With no access to Bangladesh’s health facilities, Rohingya women with a malnourished baby wait to be seen by medical professionals who work for international non-profits.

Before the soldiers left Afifa’s village that day, she says they set fire to the harvest-ready rice fields, looted houses, and shot or stole all of the cattle and goats. The devastation and fear compelled Afifa’s parents to split the family into two groups and escape in different directions—to improve their odds of survival. “We didn’t want to abandon our home,” Afifa’s father, Mohammed Islam, told me five months later, when five of the family’s 11 members staggered into Balukhali, a refugee camp in Bangladesh. “But the army has only one aim: to get rid of all Rohingya.”

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. More than a year ago, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi became Myanmar’s de facto leader, and international human-rights groups—as well as many Rohingya—hoped she would help move Rakhine toward peace and reconciliation. The daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero and martyr, General Aung San, she is celebrated for her fearless resistance to the country’s military dictatorship. After enduring more than 15 years under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi led her National League of Democracy to a sweeping electoral victory in 2015. (A clause in the military-drafted constitution prevented her from becoming president, so a loyal underling serves as president while she runs the government as “state counselor.”)

“We had a very big hope that Suu Kyi and democracy would be good for us,” says Moulabi Jaffar, a 40-year-old Islamic cleric and shop owner from a village north of Maungdaw, sitting in his shack in Balukhali camp. “But the violence only got worse. That came as a big surprise.”

Men pray at a mosque being built from bamboo at Balukhali, a refugee camp in Bangladesh. The Rohingya are Muslims, while Buddhism is the dominant religion in Myanmar. Buddhist firebrands have stirred up hatred for the minority Rohingya.

Despite her reputation as a human-rights icon, Aung San Suu Kyi has seemed unwilling or unable to speak about the violence against the Rohingya, much less bring perpetrators to justice. When reports of army atrocities emerged late last year, she broke her silence—not to rein in abusive soldiers but to scold the United Nations and human-rights groups for stoking “bigger fires of resentment” by dwelling on the testimonies of Rohingya who had fled to Bangladesh. It doesn’t help, she said, “if everybody is just concentrating on the negative side of the situation.” Aung San Suu Kyi has yet to visit northern Rakhine. But in a BBC interview in April, she said, “I don’t think there is ethnic cleansing going on.”

Aung San Suu Kyi remains an immensely popular figure in Myanmar, where 90 percent of the population is Buddhist and the military still wields enormous power. But her role in shielding the army from scrutiny in Rakhine has tarnished her global reputation, even prompting a letter from 13 Nobel laureates upbraiding her for failing to protect the rights of the Rohingya. “Like many in the international community, we expected more of Suu Kyi,” says Matthew Smith, co-founder of Fortify Rights, a Bangkok-based human-rights group. “She is operating in a delicate situation politically, but that doesn’t justify silence or wholesale denials in the face of mountains of evidence. The army launched an attack on a civilian population, and nobody has been held accountable.”

Myanmar set up three commissions to look into the turmoil in Rakhine state, but none is independent. The army’s report, released in May, proclaimed its innocence—except for two minor incidents, including one in which a soldier borrowed a motorbike without asking. A member of the main government inquiry dismissed reports of atrocities and contended that Burmese soldiers couldn’t have raped Rohingya women because they are “too dirty.” That commission’s final report, issued in early August, was another blanket denial, contending that “there is no evidence of crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing.” Aung San Suu Kyi says her government will accept outside guidance only from an international commission chaired by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. Its report is also due this month, but its mandate is to make policy recommendations—not to investigate human-rights abuses.

Young boys study the Quran inside a madrassa in one of the older parts of the Kutupalong camp. Most Rohingya children in Bangladesh do not have access to formal schooling because they are unregistered refugees. Most attend the many madrassas found throughout the camps.

In June, when a newly formed UN fact-finding mission sought to investigate human-rights violations in Myanmar, including Rakhine, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government refused to grant visas to the team members. “We don’t accept it,” she said, arguing that the mission could exacerbate divisions between Buddhists and Muslims. When Lee, the UN special rapporteur, returned to Myanmar in July, she and Aung San Suu Kyi shared a warm embrace—before Lee excoriated the government for blocking her access and intimidating witnesses, the same tactics used by the military junta. “In previous times, human rights defenders, journalists, and civilians were followed, monitored, and surveyed, and questioned—that’s still going on."

Afia, her father, and siblings spent five months on the run inside Myanmar, sticking mostly to the forests to avoid the military, often going days without food. On their first attempt to cross the Naf River, which separates Myanmar and Bangladesh, a Burmese patrol boat opened fire, capsizing their boat and killing several refugees. It would be three months before they risked the crossing again.

I met Afifa in March on the day that half of her family finally reached Balukhali camp, where more than 11,000 new arrivals have turned the forested hills into a dusty hive of bamboo huts and black tarpaulins. Afifa wore the same soiled brown shirt she wore the day she danced for the soldiers five months before. “It’s all I have,” she says. Another family from their home village of Maung Hnama offered food to eat and a safe place to sleep, but Islam wept quietly. His wife and their five other children were still in hiding in Myanmar.