NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Is This Genocide?


“Ethnic cleansing” and even “genocide” are antiseptic and abstract terms. What they mean in the flesh is a soldier grabbing a crying baby girl named Suhaifa by the leg and flinging her into a bonfire. Or troops locking a 15-year-old girl in a hut and setting it on fire.

The children who survive are left haunted: Noor Kalima, age 10, struggles in class in a makeshift refugee camp. Her mind drifts to her memory of seeing her father and little brother shot dead, her baby sister’s and infant brother’s throats cut, the machete coming down on her own head, her hut burning around her … and it’s difficult to focus on multiplication tables.

“Sometimes I can’t concentrate on my class,” Noor explained. “I want to throw up.”

In the past I’ve referred to Myanmar’s atrocities against its Rohingya Muslim minority as “ethnic cleansing,” but increasingly there are indications that the carnage may amount to genocide. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, backed by a Myanmar-focused human rights organization called Fortify Rights, argues that there is “growing evidence of genocide,” and Yale scholars made a similar argument even before the latest spasms of violence.

Romeo Dallaire, a legendary former United Nations general, describes it as “very deliberate genocide.” The U.N. human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, told me, “It would not surprise me at all if a court in the future were to judge that acts of genocide had taken place.”

You judge: Here’s what Noor and her mother, Dilbar Begum, say happened in their village, Tula Toli. First, the Myanmar Army separated the women and girls from the men and boys.

“Then they shot the men and boys,” Dilbar recalled. “I saw them kill my husband and son. I was screaming.”

I delicately tried to probe whether Noor had seen the murders of her father and brother, who was just 4 years old.

“I saw everything,” Noor said, biting her lip. In a rush of words, she added: “My father was the best man in the world. We were a good team.”

Rohingya women waiting for aid along the Teknaf Road in Bangladesh. Myanmar is visible beyond the Naf River. CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times

She began to cry, and soon my interpreter was wiping away tears, too. And so was I.

The Myanmar soldiers herded the women and girls into huts to be raped. Noor and Dilbar were taken into one hut, along with Noor’s 2-year-old sister, Rozia, and another brother, Muhammad Kashel, a baby still nursing.

“They took my baby and cut his throat,” Dilbar said in a trembling voice, adding that the soldiers then cut Rozia’s throat, too. Shortly afterward Noor remembers a machete blade smashing down repeatedly on her own head, her mother screaming in the background. Then she collapsed unconscious.

Dilbar said the soldiers then yanked an earring from her ear — she pointed to her torn lobe — and assaulted her beside the bodies of her children: “One soldier held me down, and another raped me.” When they were finished, she said, the soldiers chopped her on the head with the machete — she has the same angry scars on her scalp as her daughter — and left her for dead while setting fire to the hut.

The fire and smoke roused her, she said. She checked the bodies of her children and found that Noor was still breathing. Grabbing the girl, she ran into the woods. Dazed, they hiked for two days through the woods to get to the Bangladesh border.

The global and American responses have been feeble, so Myanmar is getting away with murder and rape intended to change the country’s demography. The lesson that the world’s complacency sends to other countries is that this is an ideal time to eradicate a vexing ethnic group.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, has become the apologist for these mass atrocities. Daw Suu does not control the Myanmar Army, but she has defended the military operation and mocked “a huge iceberg of misinformation.” Her Facebook page scoffed at a Rohingya woman’s report of sexual assault by soldiers as “fake rape.”

Daw Suu, if you’re reading this, I hope that for a moment you’ll open your heart and listen to the story of Hasina Begum, 21, and her 1-year-old daughter, Suhaifa. (Begum is a common honorific for women.)

Hasina Begum, right, with her sister-in-law, Asma Begum. CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times

Myanmar soldiers held Hasina and other village women at gunpoint, she said, while the troops executed the men and boys, doused the bodies with gasoline and turned the corpses into a bonfire. Then the troops led the women and girls, five at a time, toward a hut.