Desperate Rohingya Flee Myanmar on Trail of Suffering. 'It Is All Gone.'

Tens of thousands escaped into Bangladesh, where they gave New York Times journalists accounts of massacres by security forces

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Rohin­gya refug­ees from Myanm­ar cross the borde­r into Amtol­i, Bangl­adesh­, after days of walki­ng to escap­e viole­nce in their villa­ges, Aug. 31, 2017.
Rohin­gya refug­ees from Myanm­ar cross the borde­r into Amtol­i, Bangl­adesh­, after days of walki­ng to escap­e viole­nce in their villa­ges, Aug. 31, 2017. Credit: Adam Dean/The New York Times

REZU AMTALI, Bangladesh — They stumble down muddy ravines and flooded creeks through miles of hills and jungle in Bangladesh, and thousands more come each day, in a line stretching to the monsoon-darkened horizon.

Some are gaunt and spent, starving and carrying listless and dehydrated babies, with many miles to go before they reach any refugee camp.

They are tens of thousands of Rohingya, who arrive bearing accounts of massacre at the hands of the Myanmar security forces and allied mobs that started on Aug. 25, after Rohingya militants staged attacks against government forces.

The retaliation that followed was carried out in methodical assaults on villages, with helicopters raining down fire on civilians and front-line troops cutting off families’ escape. The villagers’ accounts all portray indiscriminate attacks against fleeing noncombatants, adding to a death toll that even in early estimates is high into the hundreds, and is probably vastly worse.

“There are no more villages left, none at all,” said Rashed Ahmed, a 46-year-old farmer from a hamlet in Maungdaw Township in Myanmar. He had been walking for four days. “There are no more people left, either,” he said. “It is all gone.”

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority who live in Myanmar’s far western Rakhine state. Most were stripped of their citizenship by the military junta that used to rule Myanmar, and they have suffered decades of repression under the country’s Buddhist majority, including killings and mass rape, according to the United Nations. A new armed resistance is giving the military more reasons to oppress them.

But the past week’s exodus of civilians caught in the middle, which the United Nations said had reached nearly 76,000 Saturday, dwarfs previous outflows of refugees to Bangladesh in such a short time period. Friday’s influx alone was the single largest movement of Rohingya here in more than a generation, according to the U.N. office in Dhaka.

The dying is not yet done. Some of the Rohingya militants have persuaded or coerced men and boys to stay behind and keep up the fight. And civilians who have stayed on the trail are running toward conditions so grim that they constitute a second humanitarian catastrophe.

They face another round of gunfire from Myanmar’s border guards, and miles of treacherous hill trails and flood-swollen streams and mud fields ahead before they reach crowded camps without enough food or medical help. Dozens were killed when their boats overturned, leaving the bodies of women and children washed up on river banks.

Tens of thousands more Rohingya are waiting for the Bangladeshi border force to allow them to enter. Still more are moving north from the Rohingya-dominated districts of Rakhine state. And the violence there continues.

“It breaks all records of inhumanity,” said a member of the Border Guard Bangladesh named Anamul, stationed at the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp. “I have never seen anything like this.”

Here, in the forests of Rezu Amtali near the border with Myanmar, dozens of Rohingya told stories that were horrifying in their content and consistency.

After militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked police posts and an army base on Aug. 25, killing more than a dozen, the Myanmar military began torching entire villages with helicopters and petrol bombs, aided by Buddhist vigilantes from the ethnic Rakhine group, those fleeing the violence said.

Person after person along the trail into Bangladesh told of how the security forces cordoned off Rohingya villages as the fire rained down, and then shot and stabbed civilians. Children were not exempt.

Mizanur Rahman recalled how on Aug. 25 he had been working in a rice paddy in his village, known in Rohingya as Ton Bazar, in Buthidaung Township in Myanmar, when helicopters roared into the sky above him.

“Immediately, I had fear in my heart,” he said. His wife came running out of their house with their son, less than a month old.

They escaped to a nearby forest and watched as the choppers’ weapons engulfed the village in flames. Myanmar security forces descended, and the sound of gunfire reached the forest.

Rahman’s extended family fled the next day, but not before seeing his brother’s body lying on the ground, along with seven others. Three days later, as they climbed a hill near the border with Bangladesh, Rahman’s mother was shot dead by a Myanmar border guard.

“Now we are supposed to be safe in Bangladesh, but I do not feel safe,” Rahman said, as he wandered through a market in the Kutupalong refugee camp, with no money in his pocket.

His wife’s postpartum bleeding has increased so much that she can no longer walk or produce milk for their infant son. The baby, cradled in Rahman’s arms, looked skeletal, parched skin pinched at his joints. Other refugees took turns gently touching the baby’s feet to check if he was still alive.

The Myanmar military said Friday that nearly 400 people had been killed in the violence that has swept across northern Rakhine since Aug. 25. Of that death toll, 370 people were identified as Rohingya fighters. Fourteen civilians, including four ethnic Rakhine and seven Hindus, were also reported killed. Myanmar officials, however, have given no specific accounting of civilian Rohingya deaths.