Rohingya Refugees: They Ripped My Baby Girl From My Arms.
The women were standing in a line along the riverbank, as the soldiers had ordered them when the next and worst round of killing began. Hasina clutched her squirming baby daughter close to her body as the soldiers moved down the line. She watched in horror as they ripped infants from their mothers’ arms and threw them into the fire. By the time they reached her, she had no doubt what was about to happen. Hasina tells her story in all its terrifying detail in the gloom of a bamboo and tarpaulin hut in the refugee camp in Bangladesh where she shelters from the holocaust engulfing her former home in Burma’s Rakhine State. Somehow she manages not to cry until the narrative is over, the story of not only how she lost her only child and almost all her family, but of the massacre of an entire village, Tula Toli, the Srebrenica of Burma’s campaign against the Rohingya people.
Tula Toli was a mixed village, populated not only by the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Burma, but also the ethnic Rakhine, who follow the majority Buddhist faith. The two groups lived mostly separate lives, occupying distinct neighbourhoods of the village for generations. It is only in the past four decades that the marginalisation of the Rohingya became formalised, first in a new law denying them citizenship, then in creeping discrimination culminating five years ago in a full-blown system of apartheid. At 20, Hasina is far too young to have known a time when the Rohingya were Burmese citizens. She grew up shunned and marginalised by her Buddhist neighbours, denied schooling, free movement and access to healthcare. For most of her life, however, she knew relative peace in the confines of her community on the banks of the Purma River. All that changed in the final days of August this year, when years of oppression erupted in a series of attacks by Rohingya insurgents on Burmese security posts.
Rohingya communities had been subjected for years to attacks by Buddhist militia groups, the worst of which drove 50,000 people from their homes in October last year. Yet on August 25, when coordinated attacks by Rohingya insurgents killed 12 Burmese security officers, the Burmese military joined in with an apparently planned, sustained purge that would cause more than half of Burma’s Rohingya population to flee across the border to Bangladesh. Tula Toli was one of the earliest targets. The military says it is rooting out “terrorists.” Two days after those attacks soldiers arrived at Tula Toli and ordered all its Rohingya residents to gather at an area east of the village known as “the sands.” The commander told the villagers that a “clearance” operation was underway across Rakhine State, but that they had nothing to fear and should continue their ordinary lives of farming and fishing. When they returned home, however, many found that their valuables were missing. Hasina remembers feeling unnerved, but among the Rohingya looting by their Buddhist neighbours and the military was hardly uncommon. There was certainly nothing to make her discourage a visit by her pregnant sister-in-law, Asma, who arrived to stay with her family a day later, on August 28. The next day, however, an exodus began from the village across the river, Dual Toli. Villagers waded into the river and swam towards them to escape an army attack. Ten drowned as the villagers from Tula Toli rushed to the riverbank to help them. Meanwhile, Dual Toli burnt down before their eyes.
It was eight o’clock in the morning on August 30 when the soldiers arrived at Tula Toli, which had been swelled by the influx of refugees from across the river sheltering in village homes. Hasina and Asma, 18, were chatting and preparing food as Hasina’s baby daughter, Souhaifa, toddled around them, clasping at their legs. Hasina panicked as they heard gunshots and, grabbing Souhaifa, they ran outside, straight into the soldiers. The soldiers caught them, along with Asma’s mother, father, sister and three brothers, and marched them to the riverbank where the villagers were assembling. Villagers said the Buddhist chairman of Tula Toli, known in Burmese as Min Gyi Ywa, told them that their lives would be spared, but their homes were to be burnt. Moments later the killing began. “They started shooting and there was panic,” Hasina recalls. “People tried to jump in the river to get away and we saw them drown.” Shouting, the soldiers separated the men from the women at gunpoint, excepting only the elderly. The men were the first to be killed. “We lay down as they ordered us,” Hasina says. “They began cutting the men. They shot them, they hacked them, they stamped on them.” Souhaifa, lying beneath her mother, struggled and cried. Hasina and Asma looked around in desperation for their husbands, but could not see them. Asma’s parents, Fatima and Shabir, her sister, Asmatara, and her young brothers, Hassan, six, Sirazul, eight, and Shahidal, twelve, lay on the riverbank next to them.
The killing went on all morning as Buddhist villagers, their neighbours began to arrive. Under orders from the soldiers, they began digging a mass grave. A helicopter arrived, disgorging more soldiers, carrying cans of petrol. The men’s bodies were pushed into the trench and the survivors lined up alongside. The bodies were doused with petrol and set alight. The soldiers began moving down the line of women standing, trembling, by the grave. One by one they ripped the children from their arms and threw them into the flames. Tears were running down Hasina’s face as Souhaifa was pulled from her embrace. “They grabbed her from me, ripped her out of my arms,” she recalls. “She was my only child. They threw her into the fire.” Their children taken, the soldiers began marching the mothers off to be raped. Hasina tried to hide with Asma and the others. “I pretended I hadn’t had a child,” she says. It didn’t matter. The women were marched off to Asma’s home, along with her parents and brothers. Asmatara, 16, was raped by the riverbank and killed with a machete blow to the head. In the house, the soldiers ripped and tore off the women’s clothes as others beat and clubbed the children. “They raped my mother-in-law,” Hasina says. Neither she or Asma, who was eight months pregnant at the time, will talk about their own assault. “I feel shame,” Asma says.
Hasina remembers the blow of a steel rod on her head. When she came to, naked, the house was on fire. “There were cinders falling from the roof,” she says. Everyone but Asma was dead. As she pushed through the burning bamboo wall to escape, Asma’s brother Sirazul’s hand suddenly grasped hers. “He tried to hold my hand, but he couldn’t get out,” she says. Hasina ran into the long grass, with Asma following. Nobody knows for sure how many people died at Tula Toli that day. The best estimates stand at about 500, making it the single worst massacre in what the United Nations said seems “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Asma and Hasina stayed crouched in the long grass until morning, finding a discarded sarong that they tore in two to cover their nakedness. As they crept out in the morning light, they saw the bodies of villagers floating in the river.
They walked along the river until they reached Asma’s husband’s village, but found the house empty and looted. The next morning a man came looking for his missing family. “We cried, ‘Don’t look at us, we are naked. If you have some clothes please bring them,’ ” Hasina says. They set off with the man, Tahir, to Mraw Kyuang, where there was a doctor to tend to their injuries. “The doctor asked, ‘Is anyone in your family left alive?’ ” Hasina says. “I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ” There was. Her husband, Saidullah, Asma’s brother, was at his cousin’s village when Tula Toli was attacked. “He thought we were all dead,” she says. The doctor took a photograph of the two women and posted it on a Facebook page that was seen by an uncle of Hasina over the border in Bangladesh, where Saidullah was too. “Your sister and your wife are alive,” the uncle said. “Go and get them.” Asma’s husband had not survived the massacre. Miraculously, despite the rape and beating, her unborn child did. She was born a month later in Balu Khali, one of the refugee camps in Bangladesh where more than 620,000 Rohingya have sought sanctuary from the slaughter.
These traumatised children and others like them are the reason why Children on the Edge, the charity that The Times is supporting in its Christmas appeal, has been working to support Rohingya refugees in makeshift camps for the past seven years. The charity provides education, safe spaces and, more recently, humanitarian relief. Asma weeps repeatedly as Hasina tells their story, covering her face and leaving when Hasina speaks even glancingly of rape. She returns with the baby in her arms, her face lit with a smile for the first time. The four-week-old infant, a girl, does not yet have a name. A flicker of pain shoots across Hasina’s face at the sight of the child, before she continues with their story: Tahir’s heroism in helping them; Saidullah’s dangerous return to Burma to rescue them; the week they spent in a hospital in Bangladesh recovering from their injuries. Bowing her head, she shows the white scar through her black hair where the steel rod had struck and, lifting her clothes, the deep burns on her arms and legs where the cinders had fallen. Only then, her story told, her lost child remembered, does she let her tears fall in long, slow sobs of pain.
Credit: Catherine Philp for The Times, 5 December 2017.
Children on the Edge is one of three charities supported by this year’s Times Christmas appeal. You can donate online at thetimes.co.uk/timesappeal or call 0151 284 2336.