The Schoolteacher and Genocide

He dreamed of educating the children in his village. But soon he learned that it was dangerous for the Rohingya to dream.

Futhu in the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. He covered his face for fear of being targeted by the authorities in Myanmar.CreditCreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

When he was in primary school, Futhu read a story about a girl who named her flowers. She wrote their names in a diary, logged when she planted and watered them and charted how they grew. The story was in a book Futhu’s uncle brought to their village in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State from across the border in Bangladesh — the words in English and in Bengali. Futhu was the first in his extended family to attend school — the first of 22 uncles, countless aunts and cousins — and though he excelled at Burmese and English class, he could not really understand the book on his own. His father was himself illiterate, as were most people in their community. So Futhu asked a village trader who often visited their home to read him the stories in the book, one by one.

Futhu followed along, practicing his English. Over time, the pages of the book tattered, until Futhu was able to read it himself. He thought the girl had a good idea and started keeping a diary of his own daily chores. He could not write in Rohingya, the language of his community, because it has had no written form, so he wrote in a mixture of English and Burmese.

The book told another story, too: The girl who kept the flower diary lived through a period in history known as World War II, when, as Futhu understood it, there was a fight between Hitler and the Jews. The girl’s entries about flowers became a diary of what was happening at that time. When Futhu looked around his village, he thought there were many similarities between this story and what he saw in his own Muslim community. He decided he should write the incidents of Rohingya oppression, because maybe someday, in the future, people might want to know about what happened.

Ever since Futhu was small, he knew that the government did not consider Rohingya to be of this place but instead thought of them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. As far as Futhu knew, none of his family had migrated from Bangladesh. They’d only been driven there as refugees after one of the many armed operations against the Rohingya — of which there have been roughly a dozen since 1948, though Futhu did not know the exact number. Futhu had learned that there were 135 recognized ethnic groups in Myanmar, called taing-yin-tha, which is often translated as “national race” but literally means something like “offspring of the land,” or indigenous. Those 135 groups, including the neighboring Rakhine and the country’s main ethnic group, the Bamar, had the rights and citizenship that went along with official recognition, but the more than one million Rohingya did not.

Futhu began to write down some of the things he saw around him. The Rohingya, he noted, had to register all their livestock with the government. They required government permission to repair their homes. They needed permission from the government to marry, often paying hefty bribes and waiting for as long as two years to do so. They were unable to enroll in certain majors in college — they could not study to be lawyers or doctors. They could not join the army or the police, or serve as heads of governing bodies or run for public office. They were not allowed to have more than two children. Women were forced to take birth control or seek illegal abortions. Families paid bribes to register additional children or hid them from the authorities. Over time, almost every Rohingya had their nationality cards taken from them. They had to give the authorities their chickens and cows, to lend them their motorcycle or their bodies for forced labor when it was demanded, and received no compensation. Many doctors refused to treat them. Getting to a hospital would require so many travel permissions and so much time that Rohingya often arrived half dead and eventually did die. Families cast the blame on the hospitals themselves — they were sure the doctors intended to kill them. Many stopped going. More died of preventable causes.

Futhu did not know why the government focused on the Rohingya with such ferocity, only that they were unwanted. While the Burmese government maintained that the Rohingya were Bangladeshi and the government of Bangladesh said they were Burmese, a question hung over the community: How could we not be offspring of this land? Did we fall from the sky?

When Futhu set about writing down the story of his village back in the late 1990s, he did not have grand ambitions. He wanted to know about his community, about his family and his neighbors, to understand their own roots in this tiny sliver of earth. Dunse Para, as they called it — Koe Tan Kauk in Burmese — was nestled on a narrow stretch of flat, verdant land with the gray Bay of Bengal on one side and the rocky Mayu Mountains looming on the other. Each morning, the men of the village would wake in the darkness, walk to the shoreline and climb into boats, setting off for their daily catch. The boats — small wooden rowboats and 22 larger vessels with motors — belonged to a few wealthy villagers who employed shift workers to go far out to sea. When men weren’t fishing, they were farming their rice paddies or growing chiles. They tended to their animals — chickens, water buffaloes, cows and goats. The community was deeply conservative. Women stayed at home, far from the lingering eyes and hands of the Burmese security services, who often harassed them.

Futhu peppered his grandfather and village elders with questions about Dunse Para’s founding. His grandfather explained that their forefathers lived on a nearby hill where the community now grazed buffaloes. Futhu’s great-great-grandfather donated part of the family’s land there to make a cemetery, but after its construction, people started getting sick, and so they fled down the hill, to a village they called the Village by the Mountain. When it got too crowded there, people migrated, slowly moving closer to the surf. They set up the Big Village, then the Village by the Sea and then the Big Village Transferred by the Sea, where Futhu and his family lived. Dunse Para was composed of these four smaller villages, the roughly 1,000 homes arranged around straight, neatly plotted footpaths running through groves of trees. Dunse Para sat about a mile away from the nearest Rakhine settlement of about 100 households, also called Koe Tan Kauk, with a security checkpost stationed between. As far as Futhu had been able to verify, the land they lived on had been theirs for generations.

Once Futhu was satisfied with his documentation of the land, he turned to the stories of the people themselves. He went back to his grandfather and the elders in order to diagram the village’s family trees. He listed names and birth villages: a mother’s village, a father’s village and the children they had, the siblings of the mother and the father, backward and forward in time, until his chart sprawled across several villages. He found that in some cases, people who lived in the same village were actually related to one another through blood, though they did not know it. Or in others, that people were related by blood, but not in the way they thought. This was true in his own family. A girl whom Futhu had grown up calling his sister was in fact his cousin. Her father’s grandmother and Futhu’s mother’s grandmother were sisters, and then she was married off to another family. Futhu also found people who had relatives in different villages whom they had never met. Futhu would follow one little family’s bloodline until it grew like vines across the mountains.

The residents of Dunse Para did not always understand the value of Futhu’s inquiries. They asked him why he was always writing things down — was it perhaps for some kind of sorcery? But when they needed a question answered, about who was related to whom and how and when, they came to ask him, and he would explain. Slowly, as Futhu’s notebooks filled, then multiplied, these small proofs wove a larger web of authenticity — a document of roots in this earth, of offspring, ownership and belonging.

Dunse Para had no books that could have explained to Futhu that outsiders had documented the presence of the Rohingya community as far back as the 18th century. In 1799, Francis Buchanan, a Scottish physician living in India, visited what was then called Arakan and wrote that two groups populated the area — the “Yakein” and the “Rooinga.” (This record is crucial, and as such highly contested in the debate over who was or wasn’t in Burma before the British arrived, and thus, who is and who isn’t “offspring of this land.”)

Futhu knew that the British began to wrest control over Rakhine State’s present territory in 1824, but he did not know that it would take them six decades to take the rest of Burma, which became a province of India, with open borders between the two. The British encouraged migration from India, which at that time included present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, rewarding Muslim arrivals with high posts that drew the envy and ire of locals. Still, everyone in the community talked about life under the colonizers as a time of prosperity and peace.

A Burmese language class being taught by a former student of Futhu’s in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

Futhu’s grandfather explained that when the Japanese invaded Arakan in 1942 during World War II and battled the British in the mountains, the fighting did not touch the people of Dunse Para. His grandfather never told him that when the war broke out, the Rohingya and Rakhine took opposing sides. These communal strains would reverberate through generations. The Buddhist Rakhine backed the invading Japanese, who promised independence from the British, while the Muslim Rohingya supported the British colonizers, who treated them well. His grandfather said only that at that time of the great war, both communities took long knives and rocks and massacred each other.

Many Rohingya, like Futhu’s family, fled to the north of the state for safety, while the Rakhine congregated in the south to protect their own lives. Futhu knew that his grandfather’s grandmother, who was very old at the time, could not run fast enough and died in those battles, cut down with a knife. His grandfather told him that the family stayed in the north for a month, and when they returned, they found their houses smashed, their cows vanished. It was the first of what would be several violent upheavals in recent history, all distinct in origin yet all following a grim pattern of displacement and return.

Before Burma’s independence in 1948, the country was rocked by anti-Indian and anti-Muslim riots. The rioters demanded that those who had come with the British leave with them. Many people fled, making their way to what was then East Pakistan, now called Bangladesh. In the 1950s, Burma’s first elected government under Prime Minister U Nu announced that anyone who lived within Burma’s borders before the British colonizers arrived would be granted citizenship. Many Rohingya, like Futhu’s family, were issued papers. There were promises of future autonomy and more rights.

But the coup of Gen. Ne Win in 1962 put an end to these plans. Ne Win believed that the identity of the state should be Buddhist and that all ethnic minorities agitating for rights should be suppressed in favor of national consolidation. His ire focused particularly on Muslims, whom he saw as transplants and feared would have more children, shifting demographics in their favor. In Rakhine State, the junta imposed travel restrictions on the Rohingya and tasked the Buddhist Rakhine with enforcing the new orders. More Rohingya fled — including Futhu’s grandfather, who took refuge in Bangladesh in 1963. He seldom spoke about those years, but Futhu knew that in exile he learned to read Bengali. When Futhu was very small, after evening prayer, he watched his grandfather read long Bengali poems, almost like music; people from the village would come, listen and make requests.

Beginning in 1977, the Burmese military, known as the Tatmadaw, carried out a major operation called Naga Min, or Dragon King, designed to drive “illegal immigrants” out of Burma. The army descended on Rohingya villages, corralling people — including Futhu’s mother and father — and forcing them to roll up their sleeves to show if they had received vaccinations, claiming Bangladeshis had scars on their right arms while Burmese citizens had them on their left. During this campaign of intimidation, Rohingya had their citizenship papers confiscated. The soldiers burned villages, destroyed mosques and herded people into fenced stockades. They raped and murdered. More than 200,000 Rohingya refugees were crowded into ramshackle camps on the Bangladeshi side of the Naf River, which separates the two countries. The Bangladeshi authorities, who also didn’t want them, withheld food rations in an attempt to force the Rohingya back. Less than six months after they fled, the Rohingya were forcibly repatriated. Three years later, the military government passed the 1982 Citizenship Law. The act would be used to effectively bar Rohingya from citizenship. The Rohingya became the largest stateless population within a country in the world.

Futhu had just started primary school when his older sister and the family joined thousands of Rohingya walking to Bangladesh in 1992, all of them trying to escape a new drive to conscript the Rohingya, including his father, into forced labor. The family fled, trekking six days along paths already worn by earlier exoduses. That wave was made up of 270,000 people. They lived in the Bangladeshi refugee camps for four years. During that time, unknown to them, the Burmese government started a program of building “model” Buddhist villages on their soil. They lured poor Rakhine or Bamar prisoners from other parts of the country to repopulate the state, offering tempting deals of ample land, a pair of oxen and a house.

In the camps, Futhu’s father did not give up on his son’s education. Futhu attended private classes in an unused shack, where he learned English and Burmese in a small group taught by another Rohingya refugee. One morning, the family was informed that the next day they had to go back to Myanmar. They had no choice. Refugees who protested were beaten. Some were killed. The family boarded a speedboat that deposited them back to the land that did not want them. When Futhu’s mother stepped onto the shore, she saw the Tatmadaw and the Rakhine people and grew sick to her stomach. Nothing of their house remained. They would have to start from scratch, collecting timber from the hills.

Futhu walked to the Rakhine village to finish primary school, then boarded in a nearby Rakhine town for middle school. But the fear never left. It asserted itself in a variety of ways. His father was terrified every time he saw the military. He shook and worried, even if Futhu did not see the danger. The trauma carried over to the next generation even if history’s dates and details did not. Children absorbed it through their mother’s embrace or their father’s anger. It was present in the way their fathers flinched when they saw an approaching patrol, or the way the men of the village sometimes ran away, spending nights in the hills, thinking the security services were after them. It was erasure without eradication, the inability to conceive of a peaceful future. Some refused to build nice houses. Others made do and continued to invest in a land that did not want them. All of them, one by one, generation by generation, had no choice but to survive. They grew up to live their parents’ traumas themselves. They never knew the origins or when something might come again to throw them violently off the earth.

Futhu’s father did not have the funds to send him to university. Education was expensive — between 1.8 million and 2 million kyat ($1,250) to put a child through one year of high school. Families usually could afford to educate only one son while his brothers worked.

After he finished high school, Futhu began keeping another journal, a special smaller red notebook, where he documented incidents in which the government’s brutal frontier force, the NaSaKa, came to the village from their nearby outpost — bribes, extortion, beatings, fines, arrests. Futhu’s father offered to loan him money to start a small shop, but he wanted something more. A friend of his, who taught Quranic school in the morning and afternoon at the mosque, suggested that Futhu hold a small class teaching children English and Burmese during the day. There were so many children who wanted to learn, the friend said. Together they collected two dozen students. Futhu visited parents to explain that they needed to try to save money for textbooks. When some families couldn’t find the funds, Futhu asked wealthier people for donations. If those weren’t enough, he paid for the students’ books himself.

Futhu made deals with traveling traders to bring him the weekly newspaper from Maungdaw to better understand the world. He loved history and languages. He was obsessed with writing down the lyrics to English songs. He collected books. He read about World War I, Winston Churchill and Bill Clinton. From the start, he loved to teach. He sang his students songs and read them poems so they would better remember. He translated the Burmese curriculum into Rohingya, so it was easier to understand. Like the history in his notebooks, he started every explanation at the very, very beginning.

Within a few months, his students were reading and writing. Within two years, they started passing exams for middle-school placement. The teachers at the nearby primary school in the Rakhine village were surprised when Rohingya started scoring better than their Rakhine peers. How did you do it? they asked.

The Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. Many Rohingya say they will refuse to be repatriated to Myanmar if their ethnicity does not receive official recognition and the accompanying rights.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

In the country’s 2010 elections, when the Rohingya still had the right to vote, the candidate from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (U.S.D.P.), known for its ties to the military, held a campaign event in Dunse Para. The junta was loosening its reins after the “saffron revolution” — a series of antigovernment protests in 2007 led by Buddhist monks calling for political reforms. The election was boycotted by the party led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and international observers would slam the vote as unfair, but in Dunse Para, the U.S.D.P. promised the Rohingya rights for votes. They offered seven million kyat for local development. Instead of dividing it among the residents, which would net each family enough to buy a cup of tea, Futhu thought they should establish an official school. Until that point, Rohingya students who wanted to attend a registered government primary school had to walk to the one Futhu himself attended in the Rakhine village. For middle school and high school, they had to board in larger villages, as Futhu had.

The village chief, Foyaz Ullah, agreed with Futhu, but the community took some persuading. For weeks, Futhu went door to door. He met with parents. He held community meetings. He noticed differences between his community and the taing-yin-thagroups. They might say: “My son has a B.A.” or even “My son has a master’s,” but in Futhu’s community, people said things like “I have seven kani of land,” or “I have two cows and a goat.” He thought the Rohingya should measure the value of their lives differently.

Not everyone was convinced. If we send our children to Burmese schools, will they forget their culture? they asked. Will they ignore the values we taught them? Will they start to drink beer like the Rakhine people? And even if a child could pass primary school, middle school and secondary school, what was the point? They could not go to college or get good-paying government jobs, or join the police or the army. Children were needed for labor and errands. Why spend money on bribes, books and exams when the future was already predetermined?

But, Futhu argued, if the Rohingya were educated, they could put an end to these rules. More of their community could run for Parliament. If they had a dozen members of Parliament, even if the authorities killed one or two of them, the rest would remain, and they could come up with new ideas for how to cast light into their darkness.

Together with prominent members of the community, Futhu eventually persuaded the town. He organized the school’s registration with the government. He tabulated and retabulated the budget in his diary. He realized that the promised money wasn’t nearly enough: A properly built school would cost 10 times the U.S.D.P. contribution. He put together a committee to figure out how to build it more cheaply. To avoid paying laborers for construction, they collected 25 volunteers. They needed coconut trees for wall beams, but to buy a whole coconut tree and carry it from the hills would cost a huge sum. Futhu had another idea: Many people in the village had coconut trees on their land that had not given fruit in years. He mapped those trees and went to their owners. Could they not buy their useless trees for a reduced price? Within a week, all barren coconut trees of the village became stumps.

During construction, to attract more free labor, they put up speakers at the site and loudly played Hindi and English pop songs. When people gathered, drawn by the commotion, they asked: Can you help us? Students made fires and tended stoves; they fetched water from the well and made tea for the laboring guests. They built fences to block the school grounds from the nearby stream, so the kids wouldn’t stumble and fall in. They strung up tarpaulins for walls, taking care to make sure fresh air could come in to the classrooms. They blocked the view of the road, so children would not be distracted.

In 2010, when they were done, the first official government school in Dunse Para had space for four classes, blackboards and 260 pupils. Starting one village school, which may seem so simple, was actually so difficult, and so monumental, it was like changing the course of a deep river.

In 2013, Futhu married his wife in a big ceremony attended by many people from the village. She was beautiful, with soft round features, sparkling eyes, olive skin and a laugh that sounded like little bells chiming. Futhu had loved her since they were children and had won her heart secretly over time. When Futhu’s parents came to her house to officially arrange the match, her mother and brothers were keen: Futhu was educated, and he spoke English. Her mother blessed the union.

By then, Futhu’s red logbook was full of short entries about the punishments meted out by the NaSaKa, which he wrote in Rohingya but spelled in a mixture of English and Burmese — a code only he could decipher. He also kept his daily diary, writing in it every night in the bed he now shared with his wife. Sometimes she grew angry with him for keeping their kerosene lantern on long into the darkness. The Rohingya were not allowed to have the lights on late at night. About this, their conversations grew heated and sometimes verged on fights. Futhu explained to her that the information he was writing was more valuable than money; if something happened to him and he died, the knowledge he was collecting would live on forever.

By the time Futhu and his wife had their own sons, he had more than 40 diaries. He lived in the house he shared with his parents and three brothers, and he kept the diaries in a wooden chest he’d paid a small fortune to build. They were mixed in together with other schoolbooks and papers like camouflage.

Two years after the school’s founding, the structure needed repairs, and Futhu organized a soccer tournament to raise the money. In early June 2012, after the final match, the villagers saw many Rakhine people passing along the road. Futhu thought they were going to a nearby mountain, where they held a yearly festival to celebrate the end of the Rakhine year with songs and dramas. But that evening, as the people of Dunse Para were deconstructing the field and stands, they heard rumors that Rohingya houses in nearby towns were being burned.

Over the next few days, Rohingya began showing up in Dunse Para with stories of fires swallowing their villages and Rakhine mobs out to kill them with sticks and knives. The communal violence eventually led to the deaths of several hundred people, including dozens of children who were hacked apart, as the security services either looked the other way or joined in the bloodletting on the Rakhine side. Futhu had heard about times like these, the interethnic riots of the past, though he had never witnessed them himself. Only later did he learn that it began when a Buddhist woman had been raped and killed, and there was a rumor that Muslim men had committed the assault. The story had spread online, and in retaliation a bus of Muslim men was set upon by a Rakhine mob numbering hundreds. Ten Muslim men were killed in revenge.

Rohingya refugees collecting sand to make concrete in the camps near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

Though Dunse Para was far from the violence, it was not immune to the fallout. Villagers’ land was commandeered to house those displaced. After running over the mountains in hordes to Dunse Para and a nearby village called Chein Khar Li, the newly homeless never left. The villagers heard that in Sittwe, the state capital, Rohingya were herded into a few city blocks, ensnared by barbed wire and couldn’t leave. They had been living in a ghetto ever since.

As the Rohingya were stripped of their rights, the outside world didn’t seem to notice. In 2012, President Barack Obama eased sanctions on Myanmar after by-elections netted Aung San Suu Kyi a majority of the seats in Parliament. The first sitting United States president ever to set foot in Myanmar, Obama arrived shortly after the 2012 communal violence. He only briefly mentioned the Rohingya in a glowing speech that focused on the nation’s new democratic future.

Two years later, Futhu used a mobile phone with internet access for the first time, and it changed everything. He was struck by the wealth of information this tiny object held — the weather in Delhi or diseases in other parts of the world. When he opened Facebook, he saw something else: posts disparaging his community, calling them kalar (a derogatory term for foreigners), dogs and rapists, and agitating for them to leave Myanmar. Muslim-owned shops burned in other parts of the country. Muslims were killed in the street. A group of fanatic monks, who called their organization 969, and then MaBaTha, had been preaching violence for years. Though Futhu knew about these incidents, they did not form any kind of early warning pattern in his mind. In 2015, he began teaching at the first official middle school in Chein Khar Li, shared by the two Rohingya communities. His focus remained on his students.

On Oct. 9, 2016, in the early morning hours, when Futhu was sleeping in the middle-school dormitory in Chein Khar Li, the sound of bullets ripped across the paddy fields and through the thatched houses of Dunse Para. Men rushed outside to try to figure out what was going on. Robbers? Thieves? A gang? They trampled the dirt paths to ask their village chief, Ayub, for surely he would know. Ayub had been in the position for two years, serving under the head chief from the Rakhine village, who was often referred to as Chairman. Ayub, short and stocky, was a wealthy businessman. He had a good relationship with the authorities and had been doting on them for far longer than his current term. His house was made of tin, and the door was locked from the inside. The villagers pounded until he answered. “What is happening?” they demanded. He had no idea.

The men stayed together until dawn broke. The gunfire had subsided, and the anxious crowd shifted from Ayub’s house to tea stalls next to the Big Village’s main mosque. By the time Futhu returned, Dunse Para was undulating with fear. Ayub and his deputy chiefs, who headed the smaller villages, had been called to the checkpost by the Myanmar Border Guard Police, known as the B.G.P. A security-service detachment had surrounded the village. Women were told to stay indoors, while men clustered here and there, trying to figure out what was going on.

At the post, Ayub was taken inside to see the B.G.P. sector commander, who showed him a captured militant, presumably among those responsible for the violence.

“Do you know him?” he asked.

Ayub said he did not.

They showed him a dead militant’s body.

“Do you know him?”

Ayub swore he did not. The imprisoned man seconded Ayub’s claim under interrogation. The militant said that the men had come to attack the checkpost, with no help from the local community.

In the afternoon, the sector commander told Ayub to bury the dead body in secret. The man had a beard; he was obviously a Muslim. “It’ll be better if you bury the dead body in a Muslim graveyard. Take three people. Make sure nobody sees it.”

When Ayub returned to the village, he informed two town criers — saingom — that the authorities had handed down additional rules. The men walked the dirt paths of the villages, calling out the orders: Curfew from dusk to sunrise! No more call to prayer! Men cannot gather in groups greater than four! Quranic school is suspended! Fishing and going to the mountains for timber are forbidden! All house fences must be torn down!

In an instant, the men’s livelihoods were taken. No one understood what had happened. Two days later, a video was posted online by a group claiming responsibility for the Oct. 9 attack. They called themselves Harakah al-Yaqin, the Faith Movement, and would later take the name the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, ARSA. Suddenly, everyone in Dunse Para was talking about them, even the small children. They wondered who these people were and which village they had come from. The group, led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia, used their language. In the video, they explained that they were spurred to act after the 2012 oppressions. They had launched simultaneous strikes on two B.G.P. checkposts and the B.G.P. headquarters in Maungdaw township. It was not a major offensive, but it had come as a surprise. In total, nine policemen and eight militants were killed. ARSA fled with 62 firearms and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition. The government estimated that the total attackers numbered 400 and accused the local community of helping.

As the ARSA video circulated online, the security services returned to Dunse Para. Officers fanned out through the village on patrol. A cluster approached Futhu’s house. They told everyone to come outside and bring their household list, an official record of every member of their family. Anyone missing during a security check could be crossed off the list and banned from ever returning.

The family came down into their yard. Other than Futhu’s older brother, who had fled more than a decade before and eventually settled in Malaysia, braving the risky sea journey in which thousands of Rohingya have died over the years, everyone was present. Seemingly satisfied, the officers said they could go back inside. They were at the edge of the family’s property when the commander turned back and called for Futhu.