Myanmar military’s rape of Rohingya sweeping, methodical


The soldiers arrived, as they often did, long after sunset.

It was June, and the newlyweds were asleep in their home, surrounded by the fields of wheat they farmed in western Myanmar. Without warning, seven soldiers burst into the house and charged into their bedroom.

The woman, a Rohingya Muslim who agreed to be identified by her first initial, F, knew enough to be terrified. She knew the military had been attacking Rohingya villages, as part of what the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing in the mostly Buddhist nation. She heard just days before that soldiers had killed her parents, and that her brother was missing.

This time, F says, the soldiers had come for her.

The men bound her husband with rope. They ripped the scarf from her head and tied it around his mouth.

They yanked off her jewelry and tore off her clothes. They threw her to the floor.

And then the first soldier began to rape her.

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She struggled against him, but four men held her down and beat her with sticks. She stared in panic at her husband, who stared back helplessly. He finally wriggled the gag out of his mouth and screamed.

And then she watched as a soldier fired a bullet into the chest of the man she had married only one month before. Another soldier slit his throat.

Her mind grew fuzzy. When the soldiers were finished, they dragged her naked body outside and set her bamboo house ablaze.

It would be two months before she realized her misery was far from over: She was pregnant.

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The rape of Rohingya women by Myanmar's security forces has been sweeping and methodical, the Associated Press found in interviews with 29 women and girls who fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. These sexual assault survivors from several refugee camps were interviewed separately and extensively. They ranged in age from 13 to 35, came from a wide swath of villages in Myanmar's Rakhine state and described assaults between October 2016 and mid-September.

Foreign journalists are banned from the Rohingya region of Rakhine, making it nearly impossible to independently verify each woman's report. Yet there was a sickening sameness to their stories, with distinct patterns in their accounts, their assailants' uniforms and the details of the rapes themselves.

The testimonies bolster the U.N.'s contention that Myanmar's armed forces are systematically employing rape as a "calculated tool of terror" aimed at exterminating the Rohingya people. The Myanmar armed forces did not respond to multiple requests from the AP for comment, but an internal military investigation last month concluded that none of the assaults ever took place. And when journalists asked about rape allegations during a government-organized trip to Rakhine in September, Rakhine's minister for border affairs, Phone Tint, replied: "These women were claiming they were raped, but look at their appearances — do you think they are that attractive to be raped?"

Doctors and aid workers, however, say that they are stunned at the sheer volume of rapes, and suspect only a fraction of women have come forward. Medecins Sans Frontieres doctors have treated 113 sexual violence survivors since August, a third of them under 18. The youngest was 9.

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The Associated Press reported this story with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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The U.N. has called the Rohingya the most persecuted minority on earth, with Myanmar denying them citizenship and basic rights. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees now live in sweltering tents in Bangladesh, where the stifling air smells of excrement from a lack of latrines and of smoke from wood fires to cook what little food there is. The women and girls in this story gave the AP their names but agreed to be publicly identified only by their first initial, citing fears they or their families would be killed by Myanmar's military.

Each described attacks that involved groups of men from Myanmar's security forces, often coupled with other forms of extreme violence. Every woman except one said the assailants wore military-style uniforms, generally dark green or camouflage. The lone woman who described her attackers as wearing plain clothes said her neighbours recognized them from the local military outpost.

Many women said the uniforms bore various patches featuring stars or, in a couple cases, arrows. Such patches represent the different units of Myanmar's army.

The most common attack described went much like F's. In several other cases, women said, security forces surrounded a village, separated men from women, then took the women to a second location to gang rape them.

The women spoke of seeing their children slaughtered in front of them, their husbands beaten and shot. They spoke of burying their loved ones in the darkness and leaving the bodies of their babies behind. They spoke of the searing pain of rapes that felt as if they would never end, and of days-long journeys on foot to Bangladesh while still bleeding and hobbled.

They spoke and they spoke, the words erupting from many of them in frantic, tortured bursts.

N, who says she survived a rape but lost her husband, her country and her peace, speaks because there is little else she can do — and because she hopes that somebody will listen.

"I have nothing left," she says. "All I have left are my words."