'I didn't want this baby': Rohingya rape survivors face a harrowing choice

A Rohingya child is treated at a Doctors Without Borders clinic in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh in April. (Munir Uz Zaman / AFP/Getty Images)

The 3-month-old boy has no name.

His mother, Uma Suleiman, cradles him during the sweltering nights when he can’t sleep, patting his bare back with her palm. She had done the same for her other children, all of whose names arrived easily to her, all of whom she loved without hesitation.

But when she sees the boy lying in her arms, she relives a nightmare.

He is an innocent reminder of the day last year when soldiers burst into her village in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state and chased her into a rice paddy. There, she said, two men in army uniforms raped her and left her bleeding in the dirt.

She is one of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who were sexually assaulted during a systematic campaign of brutality by Myanmar security forces that international investigators and human rights groups have described as crimes against humanity. The army has denied committing atrocities.

In the overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh where more than 900,000 Rohingya have sought shelter — many having watched their homes burned, children mutilated and family members shot — the mass rapes have produced untold numbers of unwanted pregnancies and confronted survivors with a terrible choice.

Many women and girls have quietly terminated their pregnancies in relief clinics or by ingesting cheap drugs, sometimes resulting in medical complications, doctors say.

Others have weighed the stigma of bearing a child out of wedlock in a deeply conservative society — and of caring for one in the midst of a humanitarian emergency where families live on handouts — and opted to give birth despite the uncertainty.

Uma Suleiman’s decision was all the more wrenching because she is a widow, having lost her husband to an illness several years ago, and at age 30 had already borne five children.

After marrying off her eldest daughter at 16, she was raising the others alone in the sprawling Balukhali refugee camp, in a shed of bamboo sticks and plastic sheets propped on a rocky hillside by sandbags.

Her older children were adamant: The child growing in her belly was not one of them.

“I didn’t want this baby,” she said. To name him, she thought, would be to accept what happened to her, to make it normal.

Rohingya refugees walk through rice fields after crossing into Bangladesh in September 2017. (Bernat Armangue / Associated Press)

Sexual violence has been a devastating hallmark of Myanmar’s long persecution of the Rohingya, forced by the Buddhist majority to live under an apartheid system in their native land. Authorities in Myanmar have denied the Rohingya basic rights, including regular access to medical care, meaning many rape survivors remain unaware of treatment options even when they reach the relative safety of the refugee camps.

The United Nations and humanitarian agencies recorded more than 6,000 incidents of gender-based violence against Rohingya Muslims in a seven-month periods beginning in late August 2017. That was the month the Myanmar army, responding to Rohingya militant attacks against police posts, launched deadly “clearance operations” that drove nearly 700,000 people from their homes, one of the greatest exoduses in modern times.

“Rape with impunity has been characteristic of the attack on Rohingya women and girls for years,” said Matthew Smith, co-founder of Fortify Rights, an advocacy group that has extensively studied Myanmar.

“Soldiers used rape as a tool in a larger attack aimed at destroying at least part of the Rohingya population. In legal terms we’re in the landscape of genocide.”

According to Human Rights Watch, Myanmar forces also raided several Rohingya villages in June 2017, the month Uma Suleiman said she was raped. Like other women interviewed for this story, she spoke on condition that her photo and the name of her village not be published.

Uma Suleiman said that soldiers, recognizable in their green uniforms with red patches, stormed the village one afternoon, scattering residents into the surrounding fields. When two soldiers caught up to her and drew a knife, no one was around to hear her cries.

Villagers didn’t find her until after nightfall.

There was no doctor or clinic nearby, so she never sought treatment, not even after she and her children reached Bangladesh last September. She learned she was pregnant the way she always had: in her fifth month, when the bump began to appear around her middle.

Other refugee women told her she could buy pills for about $20 that would induce premature labor. The owner of a dispensary in the camp at first refused to sell to her, saying her pregnancy was too advanced.

But she begged.

“I said I did not want to have a fatherless child. Finally, he agreed,” she said. “He told me that if the medication worked, it would be my good fortune. So I swallowed the pills for four days.”

The pills just made her vomit.

Midwives attend a meeting to discuss gender-based violence at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. (Munir Uz Zaman / AFP/Getty Images)

Bangladeshi laws permit abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and after that only when the mother’s life is in danger. Relief workers say that many women in the camps have attempted risky late-term abortions on their own, without medical supervision.

Daniela Sofia Cassio, a midwife with the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, said its clinics have routinely treated women who had experienced incomplete abortions.

“By the time they come to seek help, they’re almost about to die — they’re bleeding heavily or suffering severe infections,” Cassio said, adding that some patients died of septic shock.

From August through April, Doctors Without Borders counseled or treated 377 survivors of sexual violence — including girls as young as 7 — at its hospitals and health posts across the camps. The group believes this is a fraction of the total number of victims.

Among them was Majida Begum, 23, who said she was raped by soldiers in the woods outside her village in August. Unmarried with no siblings, she had an anguished conversation with her parents after they escaped to Bangladesh.

But there was no doubt about what she would do. She visited a clinic during her third month and took the pills, ending her pregnancy.

“My parents will die soon, and I don’t have anyone to support me. I need to get married,” she said. “If people hear that I was raped then I will not find a husband.”

In early May — nearly nine months after the Myanmar army launched its offensive — humanitarian workers raced through the camps trying to identify expectant mothers before they abandoned newborns or died without receiving care.

By month’s end, aid agencies had not recorded a significant rise in births, leading relief officials to believe that many women and girls had delivered babies in their huts, where they usually go unrecorded, or ended their pregnancies.