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Rohingya Families Flee Persecution And Suffering In Myanmar For Bangladesh

Apr 12, 2017
Originally published on April 12, 2017 8:13 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'll be spending the next few days with the Rohingya, a group the United Nations has called the most persecuted people in the world. A Muslim minority in mainly Buddhist Myanmar, also known as Burma, the Rohingya have lived there for generations. Myanmar's government still treats them as less than equal. They have been fleeing for a better life elsewhere for years.

Late last year, though, things took a turn for the worse. A group of Rohingya attacked a Myanmar police outpost. The military's response was swift, and it was brutal. Tens of thousands of Rohingya fearing for their lives fled to neighboring Bangladesh, another desperately poor country that doesn't want them either. From Bangladesh, reporter Michael Sullivan has more.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: I'm standing in the Balukhali refugee camp. It's about an hour's drive south of the seaside city of Cox's Bazar. This camp is only a few months old, and it's bleak - small huts scraped out of the hillside, blue plastic sheets for walls and roofs, all held together by thin scraps of bamboo. The camp's leader says there are about 2,200 families here, about 17,000 men, women and children. And this is just one of many informal camps in the area. If misery had an address, this would be it.

We walked up a hill, down a gully, past some rail-thin kids drawing water from a pump built next to a toilet. It takes us a good 10 minutes, winding through the camp, until we reach our destination.

ZUBAIDA: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: We're here to meet Zubaida. That's not her real name but one she's chosen to call herself to protect her privacy and the identities of family members back home in Myanmar. She offers a warm smile as she invites us into her tiny, dark hut barely big enough to stand up in. Thank you.

She smiles again as we sit on mats on the floor. Zubaida is 25 years old from Naiyongsong, near the Myanmar town of Maungdaw. She says soldiers came to her village a few days after they started their campaign in October. She can't recall the date. That isn't the part she remembers.

ZUBAIDA: (Through interpreter) When soldiers came, I was in the house with my son in my lap. All the men from the village started running away, and my son ran with them. The soldiers shot him in the back.

SULLIVAN: And killed him. In the chaos, says Zubaida, she didn't even have time to give her 8-year-old son a proper burial. She buried him in her own backyard with just a couple of neighbors as witnesses. Later in the evening, she says, the soldiers came back.

ZUBAIDA: (Through interpreter) They didn't say anything. They came with their guns into my house.

SULLIVAN: And then, she says, the military raped her for almost an hour before leaving. Two days later, they were back again. The soldiers rounded up everyone, separating the men from the women. The men, they beat on. The women...

ZUBAIDA: (Through interpreter) They chose the beautiful ladies and raped three or four of them. Some tried to resist. They got stabbed. That's why the rest of the women didn't hesitate. They didn't want to die.

SULLIVAN: She was one of them. Her father pleaded with the soldiers. Why are you doing this, he asked.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) They said, we are not doing as much to you as we have been ordered to do in Oula Para.

SULLIVAN: That's another village nearby. In Zubaida's village, he says, they burned the mosque next to her house and a number of other homes before leaving. The family didn't wait for them to come back again. They headed towards the border. They thought they'd found safety when they reached a village close to the river separating Myanmar from Bangladesh. They were wrong. The military came there, too, and followed the same script.

ZUBAIDA: (Through interpreter) The last rape took place in a school. The women were separated after the men were taken away. After that, we came here. It took us seven days walking until we reached Tumbru on the border and made it across.

SULLIVAN: Her husband escaped all of this. Her husband escaped six years ago, fleeing Myanmar by boat, hoping to make it to Malaysia. The idea was to earn enough to bring his family too. This is what many young Rohingya men do, paying traffickers to make the often harrowing boat journey south to Thailand or Malaysia.

ZUBAIDA: (Through interpreter) If he stayed, he would have been put in jail. He had no choice. That's why he had to leave. We begged Allah to allow him to reach there safely.

SULLIVAN: But he didn't. His boat broke down. They were rescued by an Indonesian fishing boat. Now he's stuck in a United Nations facility in Indonesia, waiting to be processed to a third country. Zubaida says she called him after her ordeal, and she told him all of it.

ZUBAIDA: (Through interpreter) Yes, I told him everything. I told him about how I was raped. And I told him what happened to our son. He cried a lot.

SULLIVAN: We reached her husband, Mohammad, at that facility in Medan, Indonesia. He was feeling guilty and powerless.

MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) I keep thinking if I had brought my wife and my son, I would not have lost my son. And my wife would not have been raped.

SULLIVAN: He says he's been told he'll be resettled in the U.S. And that process has begun for others from his camp, but not him. He doesn't know what the holdup is. And he misses his family, Zubaida and their 5-year-old daughter.

MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) Yes, I love my wife. It would be best if we could all be settled together somewhere else.

SULLIVAN: Almost anywhere else, but not Myanmar, not after what happened there. NPR could not independently verify Zubaida's story, though, we did talk to other women from other villages whose stories were depressingly similar. A few days before we arrived, she and more than a dozen others had to retell their stories to a fact-finding delegation from Myanmar. A screen separated the visitors from the victims to protect their identities.

ZUBAIDA: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: "I didn't want to do it," Zubaida says, "but the camp leaders told me, the Myanmar government says your stories are all lies. You have to testify. You have to tell them the truth." So she did. But she didn't believe for a minute those on the other side of the screen were interested in justice.

ZUBAIDA: (Through interpreter) Why would we believe them? They did this. Why do they need to ask what happened? They were there. They're the ones who made us homeless.

SULLIVAN: Myanmar's military has now suspended their offensive against the Rohingya. So far, few have dared to return home. Zubaida says she never will. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAD SISLER FEAT. ANDREW FRAGA JR.'S SONG, "GANGES RIVER EXPEDITION - BANGLADESH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.