Rohingya children in a "child-friendly space" in the Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh © Michael Schmidt 2018
While the international community’s diplomatic fencing over whether to name the “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingyas in Myanmar what it is – a genocide – the killing reportedly continues, and 700,000 refugees in Bangladesh batten down to face what could prove to be an equally deadly monsoon season.
The massacres, mass rapes, village-razing, forced famine and expulsions were recognised as bearing “the hallmarks of genocide” on March 12 by Yanghee Lee, the UN’s human rights rapporteur on Myanmar. Coming on the heels of a report by the Myanmar military that exonerated all but ten security force members of any crimes against the Rohingya, blaming a tiny Rohingya guerrilla group instead for the mass influx into Bangladesh, her statement was the strongest reaffirmation by the UN of the gravity of the crisis since its human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein warned days earlier that what he suspected were “acts of genocide” were ongoing in Rakhine state, albeit with lower intensity.
Most diplomats, such as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have preferred to describe the crisis as “ethnic cleansing.” But the term has no grounding in international law – unlike genocide and crimes against humanity. An official UN Security Council designation as genocide is critical as it would activate the 1948 Genocide Convention to which Myanmar is signatory, but the UN has only very rarely done so – as in Bosnia and Darfur – and with China a significant supplier of arms to Myanmar, would be very hard to secure.
The desire of most Rohingya to return to their ancestral lands is thwarted by the influence within the military of Myanmar’s ultra-right Buddhist monks, rendering Myanmar’s Mandela figure, State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, powerless – though some Myanmar experts, like Politico Magazine’s Nahal Toosi have powerfully argued that her inaction on the genocide, and flat refusal to even use the word “Rohingya” and so bedevil her ethnic support base, reveals her to be a Burman nationalist.
Near the Myanmar border and close to the epicentre of the genocide, Kutupalong is a vast ersatz settlement sprawled across bare-earth hillsides of 150,000 Rohingya refugees, distinguishable from local Bangladeshi Muslims by their dress, language and customs dating back to the mediaeval kingdom of Arakan which straddled contemporary Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Perched on a hillside overlooking a Red Crescent compound from which streams of refugees flow, Abdul Rahim is barely 18, but he carries a laminated card around his neck indicating he is a majhi, a Rohingya community leader, recognised by the camp authorities. How he and others like him came to leadership so young is painfully clear: most elders, too weak to escape, were slaughtered by Buddhist and Myanmar Army death-squads.
Rahim’s own 60-year-old father, Mohamed Ali, was among them: having returned from the local mosque one evening in late August, the man was “locked in his house by the army and a mob [acting] together, and the house was burned”; Rahim’s 23-year-old brother Osil Haman was shot; his mother, six other brothers and two sisters managed to escape.
“At the time of the attack, I was visiting Kulsumar Akter, a beautiful girl of 16 who I was friends with in a neighbouring village. The army raped her and killed her in front of me. Ten or twelve very beautiful girls were gathered in a house, raped and killed by the army.”
Another young majhi is Mohamed Islam, 22, from Maungdaw in Rakhine State, Myanmar, a town that was 80% Rohingya before some 120,000 Rohingyas were relocated between 2012 and 2016, supposedly for their protection from hostile neighbours, to de facto concentration camps. He tells of the assault on his community by a force of the Myanmar Army acting alongside a local vigilante group, describing the attack as coming without warning or mercy.
“It was four o’ clock in the afternoon on 25 August. Suddenly they attacked. The [vigilante militia] was wearing army uniforms. They were shooting everyone and burning the houses; these were the targets of the Myanmar government. I was running in the yard of my house from the army, but an army sniper shot me in the foot and I fell down; the army thought that I had died so they left me. When I opened my eyes, I saw lots of dead bodies; my friend Shokil who was 27 years old was killed.”
Moved by night by two fellow survivors who carried the wounded Islam on a wooden pole between them, he said they encountered village after village with corpses strewn about. A Bangladeshi journalist earlier showed me footage of burning villages, fleeing survivors, and what appeared to be collective graves. It took the escaping trio two terrifying days to cover the 70km to the Naf River which marks the border with Bangladesh and cross to safety.
On arrival in the forest reserve on the outskirts of the southern Bangladeshi town of Ukhia, the tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees initially had to live under the stars, taking their chances with snakes and elephants who killed several. Of the 700,000 survivors who settled in three big refugee camps like Kutupalong and ten smaller ones, UNICEF estimates 60% are children – an indicator of the terrible toll that the genocide has taken on the adult Rohingya population.
As a result, the camp is dotted with “child-friendly spaces”; I visit one, where perhaps 50 little children squat on the floor in clusters; among the scattered smiles, there are hard eyes and faraway stares; everyone in Kutupalong seems to have scarred hearts or bodies.
One of the few elders in the camp, Noor Bashir, 56, had a narrow escape: he lifts his bazu shirt and longyi to show me the machete-wounds on his legs and right hip. An August 2017 documentary by Al Jazeera correspondent Salam Hindawi, who managed to get inside one of the concentration camps in Rakhine state, shows a series of Rohingya women gang-rape survivors in tears as they recount witnessing their husbands taken away by the military to an uncertain fate.
Days earlier and 330km north-northwest, I had been sitting in the modest office of Bangladesh’s deputy director-general of Immigration. She was unhurried and gracious, eating her lunch out of a pink child’s lunchbox while plying me with tea and mishti sweetmeat as her minions took my visa extension application over its bureaucratic hurdles. Stacked high on the desks of offices below were applications from hundreds of Chinese and Indians as well as Belarussians and many other nationalities – but no Rohingyas, as though her department has biometrically registered the survivors, the better to host them, Bangladesh has not granted them refugee status. Even the pre-genocide community of 400,000 who fled repression two decades ago is unassimilated, disallowed from travelling far, schooling, or marrying Bengalis.
Now the monsoon storm season threatens the very lives of an estimated 100,000 survivors: though the aid organisations have built concrete stairs, water-tanks and woven-bamboo, plastic and zinc shelters for the Rohingya, the settlements are unlikely to withstand cyclone-force winds and mudslides.
That my interviews take place on the 70th anniversary of the still-unresolved dispossession of some 700,000 other Muslims, those of Palestine in 1948, make the appeals of majhis like Mohamed Islam for the full reinstatement of their people’s citizenship and homes that much more poignant – and desperate.
Noor Bashir, back, and Abdul Rahim, middle, listen as Mohamed Islam tells how a Myanmar Army sniper shot him, leaving him for dead amid burning villages and fields of corpses © Michael Schmidt 2018