One by one, seven Myanmar soldiers raped Yasmin in her home, as she stifled her screams for fear of being murdered.
Sixteen days ago, the military attacked Mukhtar’s village, and now the elderly man sits in a small hut nursing shotgun wounds to his thigh.
Two fingers on two-year-old Anwar’s tiny hand are fused together at the base, after he suffered burns when soldiers set houses on fire.
These are a few of the stories shared with IRIN by members of Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority who have fled across the border into Bangladesh during the past couple months, as the military carried out “clearance operations” against insurgents.
Myanmar’s government and military would have you believe they are lies.
“Most of them are made-up stories, blown out of proportion,” said Aye Aye Soe, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman. “The things they are accusing us of didn’t happen at all.”
Her comments echo a steady stream of statements from the government since military operations began, following deadly attacks on border police posts in the frontier township of Maungdaw on 9 October. A 3 November article in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper went as far as accusing rights groups and media of reporting incidents that were “intentionally fabricated in collusion with terrorist groups”. Yet, the military refuses to allow journalists or investigators into the area to verify or disprove accounts of abuses.
Despite the lack of access, evidence of atrocities has continued to pile up. Organisations including the UN have collected accounts of rapes, killings, and disappearances. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have also published reports that include separate analyses of satellite imagery that strongly indicates villages were set on fire by the military – a direct challenge to government claims that Rohingya residents are burning down their own homes in order to “cast suspicion over security forces”.
On 20 December, the International Organization for Migration said at least 34,000 Rohingya had crossed into Bangladesh since October.
Aye Aye Soe raised doubt about such a large number.
“I am sure there are people going for the border, I accept that,” she said in a telephone interview. “But I don’t know if it could be 20 or 30 thousand. It’s blown out of proportion.”
Military operations have “been carried out with very much restraint”, said Aye Aye Soe.
“And regarding rape, ethnic cleansing – it’s completely false.”
Such denials are hard to square with testimonies provided to IRIN as well as groups like Fortify Rights, which just concluded a research trip to Bangladesh where team members interviewed scores of victims and triangulated eyewitness accounts. Some recent arrivals also bear physical injuries, including gunshot wounds and signs of rape.
“The government’s callous denials have reached the heights of absurdity,” Matt Smith, the group’s chief executive officer, told IRIN. “The government’s claim that these accounts might be fabricated is disgusting.”
Yasmin said soldiers arrived in her village just before dawn, firing shots in the air.
“The feeling of fright – I can’t explain,” she said in an interview in Hazibara, a village about 80 kilometres inside Bangladesh.
Like the other Rohingya quoted in this story, Yasmin is an alias. Using their real names could put them or their families in danger of retribution by Myanmar security forces.
The soldiers forced residents out onto the road and asked where the men were, as most of them had already fled. The soldiers finally left, but the villagers’ nightmare wasn’t over. They returned later in the day and some “had drunk a lot”, said Yasmin.
They took the women into their houses, demanded money and valuables, and then raped them, she said. After they raped her, they set her house on fire, along with the village mosque and other homes. They killed a religious leader and arrested several elderly men, including her father-in-law.
“They took him away and we still don’t know where he is,” Yasmin said.
The soldiers then herded about 400 women and children into a large yard between two houses where they kept them under guard, said Yasmin.
Dates and details of the attack recounted by Yasmin line up with statements provided by Rohingya village leaders to a commission formed by the government to investigate the violence, which were shared with IRIN. Accounts related to IRIN by Rohingya sheltering in a village and unofficial refugee camps in Bangladesh also matched up to testimonies gathered by rights groups. The cumulative evidence suggests a widespread pattern of military abuses.
Yasmin said the soldiers confiscated all mobile phones, but one “clever” woman had hidden hers. Yasmin’s husband, Mohammad, was already in Bangladesh, in the city of Chittagong, where he had found work as a day labourer. She knew his phone number by heart and she called to tell him about the attack, and that his father had been arrested.
“When I heard my wife’s voice, it was unbelievable” said Mohammad. “I was very sorrowful when I heard my father had been taken away by the army.”
He said he is now so consumed by worry that he is unable to look for work.
After three days under guard and without food, Yasmin saw her chance to escape. She fled into the countryside with her four children, and made her way to the Naf River, which forms the border.
Yasmin and her children spent three days on the Myanmar side of the river. The Bangladesh Border Guards were preventing Rohingya from entering the country, and she had no money to pay a smuggler. Finally, her husband was able to transfer money to the smuggler using “BKash”, a mobile phone service, and they crossed the river at night in a small boat.
In the meantime, Mohammad had travelled to Hazibara, the home village of a friend he met while working in Chittagong, and a woman there offered shelter to him and his family.
Nobody knows how many Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh so far, but the number definitely surpasses the IOM figure of 34,000, which includes only those in official and unofficial camps as well as two towns. Many more are in villages like Hazibara, where residents said Yasmin’s family was one of about 45 sheltering there. Fortify Rights found many Rohingya camped out in forests and fields along the border.
“We have no statistics at all,” said Ali Hossain, deputy commissioner of the border district of Cox’s Bazar.
His government’s reluctance to gather information on new arrivals reflects the tough position Bangladesh is in.
Even before the latest influx, the impoverished and densely-populated country was hosting 32,000 registered refugees and as many as 500,000 undocumented Rohingya who had surged across the border at various times since the 1970s, mainly during bouts of mob violence and military operations in Myanmar similar to those ongoing at the moment. Now, Bangladesh is reluctant to officially open its borders or to allow aid groups to scale up their response to the crisis, afraid that might encourage more Rohingya to come. At the same time, border guards have often turned a blind eye to those crossing over, while aid agencies have quietly increased their support.
But it’s not enough.
Rohingya in makeshift camps said new arrivals are begging from people who themselves have barely enough to survive. Others are suffering from illness or injury but cannot get medical care.
A doctor working in the camps told Fortify Rights that in the past two months alone he had treated 13 women who were victims of rape. One was gang-raped by soldiers and had been bleeding for two weeks.
Another woman told IRIN she was still bleeding after soldiers raped her, but she was afraid to go to government hospitals for fear of being sent back to Myanmar. There are five security checkpoints between her and a clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontiers, so she wouldn’t go there either. Her husband was arrested during the attack on her village, and she had no idea if he was still alive.
“I beg here and there for a living,” said the woman, who has three children. “I have no relatives here.”
Myanmar’s government appears unmoved by such testimonies, despite being headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her pro-democracy struggle against the former military junta.
Instead, the government continues to publish statements like a 19 December article posted on the Ministry of Information website, which accused the international community of unfairly “putting pressure on us” as a result of “false news”.
“Even though [we] have been the victim of violent attacks, Myanmar has handled this problem with full regard to humanitarian considers [sic] and looked upon these criminal acts in a lenient manner and acted in accordance with the law,” said the article.
Critics say the barrage of statements denying abuses provides cover for the military to carry out operations that Amnesty International warned “amount to collective punishment” of Rohingya communities.
The UN and others have called for an independent investigation into allegations of atrocities, and Amnesty has raised the possibility that they could amount to crimes against humanity.
(TOP PHOTO: A Rohingya woman and child in the Kutupalong informal settlement, Bangladesh, in June, 2014. CREDIT: Will Baxter)