Finding the Rohingya’s own voices lacking in coverage of the migration crisis, a photojournalist gathers handwritten letters from survivors.
We crouch, hidden in the dense vegetation. We are in no man’s land, a strip of neutral territory between Bangladesh and Myanmar. A small stream ahead of us marks the start of Burmese territory. I am with a Bangladeshi border guard, a monitor from Human Rights Watch, and my fixer. Our breath is heavy in the thick, humid air. We hear a series of loud bangs, and then the smell of burning hits us. The guard swings his AK-47 onto his back, crouches to our level, points across the stream, and says, “Look. That’s where they are… So close, again.” He is referring to the Burmese military.
As people start to run toward us, we run in the other direction to find out what’s happening. A thick plume of smoke billows out from behind a patch of trees across the stream. A Rohingya man running toward us tells us the military nearby has just set fire to the houses a few hundred yards away. When I express surprise at how this could be happening so close to the border, the guard just shrugs his shoulders. It’s become a common occurrence, he tells me.
I spent three weeks documenting events along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled into southern Bangladesh or become stranded in the 40-acre buffer zone between the two borders.
For decades the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority in Myanmar, have been effectively stateless in their ancestral land, formerly known as Arakan (what is now Rakhine state in western Myanmar). Some Rohingya trace their origins back to the eighth century, others to the 15th when thousands of Muslims came to what was then the Arakan Kingdom. Many more arrived in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Bengali laborers migrated to Arakan for work during British colonial rule. Because Britain administered the whole territory at the time, it was considered internal migration.
Since independence in 1948, successive Burmese governments have disputed the Rohingya’s historical ties to the land
Since independence in 1948, successive Burmese governments have disputed the Rohingya’s historical ties to the land, claiming that they are Bengalis who migrated illegally when Burma was a British colony. In 1982, when the Burmese government issued a list of 135 recognized minorities, the Rohingya were not included, which effectively stripped them of their citizenship. Decades of discriminatory policies and repression have denied them human rights, education, and freedom of movement.
The current exodus began in August 2017, around when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an insurgent armed group operating in northern Rakhine state, attacked police and army posts, killing 12 officers. But according to a report by the U.N. human rights office, the Burmese military had started what the U.N. calls “clearance operations” on Rohingya villages even before the attack on police posts. According to reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the military’s crackdown has included burning down scores of houses, extrajudicial killing, and rape. Around 500,000 Rohingya have been displaced in what the U.N.’s human-rights chief describes as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
As I reported along the border, making my way through camps, along roadsides, hospitals, and paddy fields, I felt that the Rohingya’s own voices were lacking in my coverage. Aware of the importance of firsthand accounts—not just for accuracy, but also as potential evidence for future investigations—I started collecting testimonies from survivors: audio clips and handwritten letters from children, women, and men who had been displaced and suffered violence. Many of the horrific accounts correspond with details from interviews conducted by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Reports of razed villages, indiscriminate shootings, rape, and mass graves appear again and again.
I asked the Rohingya I met what they wanted to say to the Burmese government or to the international community. This is what they said.
Name: Munwara Begum, 20
From: Boli Bazar, Myanmar
“I am Munwara Begum from Boli Bazar, Burma. I fled on Aug. 25 to Bangladesh fearing for my life and came with my young children.”
On Aug. 24, government forces and Buddhist militias came to Begum’s village. She heard bullets throughout the night in the jungle surrounding her village. The next day she saw a helicopter lowering soldiers into the fields outside her village. Her uncle was shot by one of the soldiers, who also raided the houses next to hers. Begum fled with her son and husband while the soldiers were raiding other homes.
Name: Mohammed, 34
“The Burmese military burnt my house down and then told me that Burma is not my country. They told me to get out of their land, but I don’t know anywhere else that is home. Now me and my family don’t know where else we can go.”
Mohammed and his family fled from Rathedaung, Myanmar. The journey—largely undertaken through dense jungles and paddy fields—took four whole days. They carried with them all their belongings and two babies—aged two and three—and fled after the Burmese army burned homes and shops in their village. They witnessed many of their neighbors being shot by indiscriminate gunfire and estimate around 200 people in the village were killed. Before arriving at the Bangladeshi border, the person who had given them a lift on his boat demanded payment. Having no money to offer, Mohammed gave the man his wife’s necklace, earrings, and rings.
Name: Mohammed Yahya, 22, and Mohammed Anas, 13
From: Mirullha, Myanmar
Translation of audio: “My name is Mohammed Yahya. We want our rights back. Aung San Suu Kyi and the Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing have forced us to leave our country. We are not Bangladeshi like they say…. we were born in Arakan. Our parents were also born in Arakan. We want to go back to our land. The military, police, and other authorities have the power to grant us our basic rights. We want to work and live in Rathedaung, Buthidaung, and Maungdaw like ordinary citizens. We want to live in our way just like the other ethnic groups can do in Burma.”
Yahya left his village with his nephew, Mohammed Anas, 13, on Sep. 3. They both fled by boat following attacks on their village by the Myanmar military and Buddhist militias, who torched their house and killed their livestock. The fishing boat on which they escaped that night was carrying 33 people, 10 of whom were young children. Yahya watched from the trees as he saw the Buddhist militia members slit the throats of elderly men and disabled people who were tied up on shore. The soldiers used AK-47s and had RPGs. The soldiers from the military also laid mines along the perimeter of the village. Yahya saw his first cousin killed. He tells me that the Burmese military would call him “Bengali” and tell him to get out of Burma.
Name: Nur Mohammed, 75
From: Kor Khali, Maungdaw, Myanmar
“A while back, the Burmese government gave us assurances that they would give us citizenship rights, but they lied. We demanded that the citizenship rights should be granted to our Rohingya identity but they denied it and they tortured us cruelly for it. We cannot have our Rohingya identity in Burma, but others outside accept us as Rohingya. Burma has always been our home. And now as we ask for the right to our identity again, the government launches attacks on us again. They burn our villages, they force us to leave our land, even Aung San Suu Kyi does not accept us our rights despite supporting her in previous years.”
When the army attacked Nur’s village on Aug. 30, he was fishing. He headed back to shore and began running for the forest when bullets were fired from nearby houses. While running, he heard a helicopter hovering above him. It began circling the village before flying directly over him. He saw grenades being tossed out of it. One of the grenades exploded near him, ripping apart the sides of his legs. His wife also managed to escape, but fractured one of her hands during the commotion. His daughter was injured during the attack and he doesn’t know where she is, or if she survived the attack. The rest of his family is in the Kutapalong refugee camp, a few miles away from the hospital he is in.
Name: Nur, 6
From: Maungdaw District, Myanmar
Audio translated by father: “The Burmese military and Buddhists burnt our house with mortar fire. The rockets fired into the house by the military burned her leg. I feel upset from living in unrest as they burnt everything we have, and we don’t even have the expenses to pay for our medical treatment. We don’t want anything, but just to return to our country. I just want the world to know that I want to go back home and that the Burmese government is responsible for burning down everything in our lives. I cannot even cry anymore as my eyes no longer have the tears to fill them now. We have lost our family members and I don’t know where many others are. My brother is also lost… they have destroyed everything, how will it be possible to go back? This is what I am concerned about now. We are suffering here (in Bangladesh) a lot…suffering from a lack of food and clean water. The hospital here is lacking equipment. The message I have is to tell the world I want to go back home [to Myanmar] and that I want the same for my fellow brothers and sisters.”
Nur has been hospitalized in the Cox’s Bazar General Hospital since October 2016, when the Burmese military last launched attacks on Rohingya villages. I visited her two days in a row and the second day she was less shy and became curious, letting me take her portrait. With her hand swollen from complications from her injury, she could not hold a pen to write. She let her father tell her account of what happened.
Name: Sanwara Begum, 26.
From: Boli Bazar, Myanmar
“I am Sanwara Begum from Boli Bazar, Burma. I have two children and a husband and fled from the Mogh (Buddhist militias) who came to our villages and started shooting.”
Sanwara decided to escape her village with her two boys, Mohammed Yusuf, aged 1 and a half (pictured), and Saiful Islam, aged 10. Her husband fled with her and together they reside in the Kutapalong camp in Cox’s Bazar. Sanwara used to be a shopkeeper selling mobile phone credit and other goods before the Buddhist militia and the Myanmar army arrived in her village on Aug. 25. Since last October, soldiers had harassed the villagers, setting up military outposts on the perimeter of their village, and often beating people in the markets. They were often called “Bengalis” by soldiers, meant to imply they weren’t Burmese nationals, but illegal workers from Bangladesh.
Sanwara witnessed her niece’s husband get shot in the leg by soldiers and also saw three of her neighbors shot or stabbed by the Buddhist militia. When the army raided her village, she fled for the hills and trekked for four days through the thick jungle.
Name: Noor, 32
“We are citizens of Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi can save our citizenship and keep us in our land but she gave power to the hands of Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing, and in doing so gave him the power to kill us. When the military find us in the open, they shoot brush [indiscriminate] fire at us, old people, children, women, everyone gets hit by the bullets. They raped them. They raped the women. They burnt our villages to the ground. The villages are gone. We are Rohingya, our home is Arakan. We will only go back if they (the Burmese government) can accept us as Rohingya.”
Noor has 6-month-old twins. Her husband, Dildar, worked as a shopkeeper in their village in the Maungdaw District, Myanmar. Her husband wrote her message for her.
Name: Mohammed Sayed, 50
From: Tomru Village, Myanmar
Translation of audio: “I don’t want to stay here in Bangladesh permanently without ever being able to return to my original home (in Myanmar). We never had Burmese nationality rights because the government there did not recognize us. We still don’t have it after all these years. With all this violence how can we eat? How can we live? The military have burnt down and destroyed my house and vehicles. How can I go back to doing what I’ve always done? I want justice, yes. I want justice from the world.”
Sayed’s house is literally burning behind him as I take his portrait. The blackish smoke can be seen billowing faintly behind his head in the shot, yet he insists on an interview. He worked as a driver just across the small stream behind him in his village.
He left his house 16 days earlier as, like many people interviewed, he fled the threat of Buddhist militias and the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military). As he hid on a nearby hill he saw the events unfold. “They [shot] brush fire [indiscriminate burst shots)] and burnt the houses…they burnt three of my cars.” From what he saw, “the army shot two women and five men they had lined up in a field and took their bodies into the Burmese Border Guard camp.” There were around 40-50 soldiers. These events purportedly took place around 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 30.
Name: Mohammed Shofi, 20.
From: Buthidaung, Myanmar
“My name is Mohammed Shofi, I am 20 years old from Buthidaung, Burma. The Burmese military came into my village and started to round up and shoot many men and women. I want the world to call for justice for what happened and for action to be taken for the people that died.”
Shofi crossed the border into Bangladesh via the Tomuru border, where mines have injured and killed several refugees fleeing Myanmar. The night before Aug. 25, he heard firing and clashes with the military for about two hours. The next day, the military arrived at his village and shot into it before dumping gas over the houses. The soldiers and militiamen were armed with long knives and rifles (G3s and AK-47s). They rounded up a group of people from the village and forced them into a nearby field, separating the men from the women. The women were taken inside a large house and began to start screaming. Outside, the men were lined up and shot in the back of the head. Those that survived the initial shootings were executed by the Buddhist militia. Afterwards, the house— which he estimates contained a few hundred women from the village—was shot into and then set on fire.
Later, around six army trucks arrived to take the bodies to a nearby military outpost. Around 300 men from the village were captured. 100 escaped into the nearby jungle, and 200 died in the fields after being rounded up and shot or executed. Shofi watched this as he hid, paralyzed in fear, among trees overlooking his village.
Name: Nesaru, 38
From: Gur Khali, Maungdaw, Myanmar
“I never want to go back (to Burma). Aung San Suu Kyi promised we would be safe the last time the violence broke out and she failed to stop it. I never want to go back.”
Nesaru’s village was attacked on Sep. 1, on the day of Eid. She witnessed men from her village being sliced across the throat and legs by the Buddhist militias. Her nephew was one of those killed during the attack, as well as her daughter’s husband. She used to take care of the animals on her farm before the atrocities and was forced to leave them all behind as she escaped to Bangladesh, where she resides in the Kutapalong refugee camp.