The Rohingya crisis: The horror that ‘R’ beside women's names stands for

Sunday presenter Miriama Kamo visited a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. Here she describes some of the horrors she saw there.

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Refugees at a camp in Bangladesh spoke to Sunday about the tragedies they have witnessed. Source: Sunday

Our hotel was good, a midlevel establishment - my bed was astonishingly comfortable. 

The restaurant was good too, despite the big black rat that casually sniffed at the shoe of another diner. 

Paul was mesmerised by it before bringing it to my attention.  My hissed demand for him to film it is probably what caused it to lope off behind a wall. 

When we told the waiter, he laughed and agreed, “yes, a rat”.  So we shrugged and went back to eating our meals.

And anyway, we’d seen much worse.

Miriama’s full story is on TVNZ1 tonight at 7.30pm and then on TVNZ OnDemand.

Hasina’s shack is stifling.  

All the shacks are hot, but those set further down the hills miss any hope of breeze; it’s bone-melting as we sit in the bamboo and tarpaulin home.  

Hasina’s covered, all in black, her head shrouded in a beaded scarf.  But she isn’t thinking about the heat; Hasina is furious. 

She invokes the deepest insult she knows.  “If I could go back and had the power to punish the military, I would eat them alive.” 

Hasina Begum’s story started on August 27, 2017.

‘Last year, on the fourth day of the lunar calendar of Eid al-Adha, the military surrounded my village.

“The monks, military, police and local extremists started burning Rohingya houses. They started stabbing women and children with knives and threw them into the fires.”

Hasina's claims are so startling, so searingly inhumane, I feel numb. 

I have to dig deep to show my concern because I can’t quite comprehend what she’s telling me. 

I’m a mother of two.  How can anyone throw a child in a fire? But Hasina isn’t finished.

“They arrested about 50 women and took us away.”  It’s 2.30pm, Hasina says, when the women are led to the local school where soldiers tie their legs and hands. 

Hasina is tearful but composed, only her eyes give her away.  ‘They raped us until 1am. I was raped by five soldiers.’

As a journalist, you hear some harrowing, disturbing things.  Usually your response is human, instantaneous. 

It strikes me as I write this a week later that I’m only now feeling the true horror of that story. 

Partly it’s because things get lost in translation, but it’s also because of the setting, the shocking ubiquity of this story, the breadth of the atrocities that are alleged by so many different people. 

There, I focused on what needed to be done. Now, in the comfort of my Auckland home, I’m feeling what I couldn’t then.

Two days before Hasina’s village is attacked, a group of Rohingya Muslim militants target army and police outposts in Myanmar.  Twelve officers die. 

It’s retribution, they say, for repression of their fellow Muslims.  

The response by the Myanmar military is swift and brutal.  They launch a ‘clearing operation’ to rid Rakhine State of ‘terrorists’. 

They sweep through Rohingya villages and, according to refugees, they beat, rape, shoot, torture and hack to death men, women and children - they torch houses and throw live babies and children into the fires, they roll dead villagers into mass graves. 

The Rohingya flee. 

Among the hundreds of thousands who cross the watery border into Bangladesh is Ahmed Hussein.   

Ahmed is the baby-faced Magi, or leader, of his village.  

His ascension was abrupt, "all the educated people from my village were killed," he says.

"I’m the only one left, that’s why I’m so young.” 

Ahmed keeps a thick pile of handwritten papers.  They document, he claims, the dead and injured from his village. 

There’s an ‘R’ next to the women who say they were raped, it includes Hasina.  The lists are long.

Ahmed and Hasina are just two of the mass Myanmar exodus, over 700,000 people. 

They join the roughly 300,000 who, in previous decades, have left Myanmar for Bangladesh.  

In a matter of months Bangladesh’s refugee population swells to nearly a million. 

Imagine the population of Auckland cramming into 12 square kilometres.  That’s roughly half the size of Rangitoto Island. 

Add 36 degree heat, 98% humidity, dirty water and disease.  Then, think food aid, lack of meaningful work, no land, and trauma.  Deep and abiding trauma.

“I’m so devastated here, I wish my mother, brother, sisters and father were all still alive.  When I hear other kids calling for their mothers, my heart aches.” 

Abdul Salaam is 15 years old. 

He says he watched his family of eight, the youngest just one-year-old, being slaughtered from the shelter of a nearby pond. “I wish the earth had swallowed me up so I didn’t have to see that.” 

He’s not alone, roughly half the camp inhabitants are children; many of them are orphans who have seen things we couldn’t imagine. 

Abdul is leading us through the camp, a tangled labyrinth of seeping sandbag tracks, delicate bamboo bridges, never-ending tarp shelters, and people – so many people. 

It’s been raining.  The dirt has turned to mud. 

We’re at the end of the monsoon season, which is lucky, otherwise we’d have been on the lookout for landslides.  

Mind you, the cyclone season is about to start, a direct hit will take out up to 90 per cent of the structures here. 

Abdul scales a goat track towards the mosque.  It’s high on a hill looking out across the breathtaking expanse of the camp. 

A puff of air lazily breezes past; it’s heaven, a momentary reprieve from the hellish heat.  

Abdul washes for prayer.  This is his life now.  Abdul says he’ll train to be an Imam and dedicate his life to praying for his family. 

The next day we see Abdul again.  “Assalamu A’alaikum,” I say.  He doesn’t answer. 

Our fixer Kysar rattles out a command, which Abdul acknowledges with a curled lip.

“Wa’alaikum Wassalam,” he reluctantly returns. 

Abdul won’t look at me.  Later Kysar tells us that Abdul is offended by my headscarf, by my use of the language, “she’s not Muslim,” he complains.

As Kysar relates the story I inwardly shrink.  Yet it is Kysar who is insistent that I wear the scarf, that I use the local language.  And it is appreciated by most. 

But it’s a quick and harsh reminder that I’m walking a thin western line between respect and appropriation. 

And, for a traumatised young man training to be an Imam, that line is probably all the more fragile.   

But, for the refugees, it’s the tension between Muslim and Buddhist that’s the problem.

The Rohingya say they’ve been in Myanmar for centuries, but the predominantly Buddhist authorities says they’re illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.  Without citizenship, the Rohingya have been called one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. 

“The main purpose of the military is to cleanse all the Muslims from Myanmar”, claims magi Ahmed, “their purpose is ethnic cleansing, cleanse all our ethnic people and drive us out of that country.”  

The Nobel peace prizewinning Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s civilian leader, says ‘ethnic cleansing’ is too strong a term. 

But Ahmed is determined.  His lists of those ‘murdered and raped’ will one day be used, he hopes, in a case against the Myanmar military. 

That day may come.  The International Criminal Court has launched a preliminary examination, in the wake of the UN’s call for Myanmar’s top generals to be charged with war crimes. 

‘Where is your husband?’  I ask Hasina.

‘The military took away my husband and I do not know where he is.  I don’t know whether they killed him, whether they hacked him to death.” 

Hasina must fend for herself and her children in the unforgiving fever of the camp.  

This existence is most difficult for the women, Magi Ahmad says. ‘How hard and difficult refugee life is can only be understood by someone who’s been through refugee life.”

“The circumstances are so horrific here”, asserts teenage Abdul, “but we are thankful to the Bangladesh government.  If it had not given us shelter we would’ve drowned in the sea and died.”

Drowned in the sea and died. These words from a teenager; an orphan who has, nonetheless, chosen his life’s course to become an imam. 

A rat in our restaurant?  It means so little.

Sunday, TVNZ1 tonight at 7.30pm and then on TVNZ OnDemand.