ROHINGYA REFUGEE CAMPS, Bangladesh
The first thing Nurul Huq said to me was, “There is no Rohingya left in Tula Toli.”
Huq, a gaunt, 65-year-old Rohingya refugee, fled that remote village, his hometown in northwestern Myanmar, along with thousands of others. Now I was speaking with him just across the border in neighboring Bangladesh. He collapsed in a heap over a sack of his belongings.
“I saw my son shot dead with my own eyes and the dead bodies of two of my daughters,” he said weeping. “Five other daughters of mine remain missing.”
He is one of about 60 Rohingya villagers I have met from Tula Toli and the nearby village of Onsiprang, both in Rakhine state. This handful of survivors described what may be one of the worst massacres in the current state-directed ethnic cleansing of Rohingya, a Burmese Muslim population historically persecuted by Buddhist nationalists. Witnesses say that in the night before Aug. 30 and throughout the day, hundreds—perhaps as many as 1,700—villagers of Tula Toli were executed.
If confirmed, this bloodshed would be one in a string of recent mass killings perpetrated by the Myanmar Army with support from the local Rakhine population, forcing 620,000 Rohingya people to seek refuge in Bangladesh. It has been among the most devastating offensives against Rohingya in decades.
The Myanmar government insists its operations in Rakhine are in response to an Aug. 25 attack by ARSA, a Rohingya terrorist organization, against police and military outposts. But my reporting suggests the army, working with local Buddhist authorities, had been planning an attack on Tula Toli even before the ARSA strike.
Soldiers increased their presence in and around Tula Toli nearly a year before the massacre. Starting in May, the military imposed new restrictions, blocking Rohingya from visiting non-Rohingya areas, and began a brutal intimidation campaign, including extortion and, in neighboring villages, rape and killing.
Months later, on Aug. 16, township authorities called a meeting of residents to announce an upcoming distribution of national verification cards, supposedly intended to suss out “good Rohingya” from members of ARSA. Villagers were told, “You need to be at home.” On Aug. 18, the Tula Toli village chairman, a Buddhist named Aung Ko Sein, convened a second meeting to reinforce the message.
“None of you should move,” Aung Ko Sein said, according to a Rohingya member of the village administration, Sultan Ahmed, who spoke with me at the refugee camp. “If the army comes, it is my responsibility. I will save you.”
“Yet he is the one who phones the army to surround us and kill us,” Ahmed alleges.
Several of the villagers I spoke with said the same thing: The attack was planned even before the Aug. 25 ARSA attack and the village chairman was in on the plot. (Aung Ko Sein could not be reached for comment.)
Mohammed Nasir arrived in Bangladesh from the wilderness in pitch darkness, having walked for three days with his family and struggling with a heavy sack on his head. The story he told was similar to the chilling accounts of the massacre recounted to me by fellow villagers.
“After the military had surrounded the village and cut off all exit points, the Rakhine [Buddhist] chairman of the village assured the villagers that the military would not harm them but that their homes would be torched. He told the villagers to assemble in one place where they would be safe.”
Nasir said the homes were set ablaze in the morning. But the assurances they would not be harmed proved hollow. The survivors all described the same methods of killing: maiming children with swords and knives, people burned alive, crowds mowed down by machine guns, and even the use of rocket launchers.
Nasir escaped into the forest with his family. From his vantage point on a hill, before he left for Bangladesh later that day, he could see how “bodies were thrown into large pits near the river, covered in straw, doused in petrol and torched.”
Other survivors were much closer to the violence. When I met Zahid and his 10-year-old nephew, Osman, they were wondering where to pitch their tent near the Balukhali camp. Osman watched his parents die as he hid behind a bush. Zahid, 20 years older, choked up as he tallied their dead:
“I have lost nine family members, including my wife, two sons, two young sisters, and my brother’s wife and son.”
According to Zahid’s account, the soldiers seemed to vacillate about how exactly to kill the women. “Many of the women were near the river,” he said. “After the military had torched the homes, they told the women to get out of the river and sit down on the bank. Then they changed their minds and ordered them to stand up. Then they again ordered them to sit down. Finally, they said stand up and form a line. They then shouted at the women to run. As they ran, they sprayed them with bullets.
“After the shooting, around 30 women survived. They told these women to wait in the water again. And from this group of 30, they would take five women at a time into huts to rape them.” After raping them, they were robbed of their jewellery and beaten. The soldiers left them lying there unconscious as they set the huts on fire.
Some of these women survived the ordeal and are now in a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) clinic in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, with burns and other injuries. Shofika is one of the victims receiving care at the MSF clinic. Her uncle, Nurul Amin, simply cannot believe she is alive.
“You can see her brain,” he said. “Such is the size of the fracture in her skull. And she has another wound down one side of her body. I do not know how she is still with us.” Two Rohingya carried Shofika to the MSF clinic, a torturous three-day journey through thick mountain forests and along mud-slicked paddy trails.
Equally challenging was the journey undertaken by Rehana, a mother of five. I found her crying on a plot of bare earth in a makeshift encampment. I asked her what she had seen in Tula Toli. “With my own eyes, I saw the dead bodies of not less than 300 small kids and about 200 women of my age.”
It was uncertain whether she would make it out of Tula Toli herself. Believing her husband to be dead, she gathered up her children and fled. The river current was too fast to manage alone, but her brothers discovered her and helped them to cross.
As she made her escape, she saw children scampering into the paddies to hide. Soldiers stormed after them. They did not waste bullets.
“The military caught these children, put them flat on the ground and drove long knives into their chests and their stomachs,” Rehana said. “The lifeless bodies were thrown in the river.”
During their flight, she and her brothers split up, and she made her way to Bangladesh with villagers from neighboring areas.
Now in Balukhali, the Bangladeshi man who owns a lease over the land has asked her to pay 1,000 taka (about $12) for a spot to pitch a tent. She doesn’t have the money. Disoriented, she muttered that maybe it would have been better if she had burned to death. “There is no one to buy me tarpaulin and no one to construct a hut for me,” she said. “And I don’t know how I can feed my children.”
More recently I found Rehana again. Four weeks after I interviewed her the first time, her husband appeared. He’d survived the massacre and spent a month hiding in the woods, slowly making his way out of Rakhine.