It took more than an hour to paddle the old wooden boat across the River Naf, the remote mile-wide body of water that now lies between fear and freedom.
Its cargo: three water buffalo and three goats, plus half a dozen brutalized women and dozens of their half-naked children. At the same time, other boats in the refugee flotilla were putting similar wretched groups ashore near this isolated border crossing one recent afternoon.
As the refugees came ashore in the knee-deep mud of Bangladesh, nearing the end of a trail from one of the world’s most oppressed lands to one of its poorest, their stories poured out. These are among the world’s most traumatized refugees--tens of thousands of stateless Muslims from Myanmar who actually see Bangladesh as the promised land.
“Our husbands have been taken away as porters by the army; then we were repeatedly raped,” said Noor Jahan, cradling her 40-day-old daughter as she and a friend slogged ashore with their mud-caked sons and daughters in tow. “I just cannot sleep at night. The level of torture has increased. So out of fear I left, with nothing but these clothes and my children.”
“And what of your husband?” she was asked.
“If Allah saves him, perhaps I will see him again.”
Solema Khatun said she lost her husband and three sons to Myanmar’s army just as the family boarded the boat to freedom. “I was wailing and crying, ‘Please don’t take my kids.’ Then the soldiers raped me and beat me. I asked, ‘Why are you taking my husband and sons?’ The soldiers were laughing. They said, ‘We’ll just boil them and eat them up.’ ”
Such stories of beatings, executions, rape and psychological torture are repeated hundreds of times these days in what is fast becoming one of the world’s most intractable refugee crises--the mass exodus of Muslim refugees fleeing a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar’s northwestern Arakan state.
They are known as the Rohingyas, one of more than 100 ethnic minorities in the Southeast Asian nation that has officially changed its name from Burma. It is a deeply xenophobic land where the ruling military junta--most of whose members are ethnic Burmans--has launched an all-out campaign to “Burmanize” its 40 million people this year.
During parliamentary debate last week, the Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry estimated the refugee total so far at 42,000. Thousands more flee to this country each week.
And the Rohingyas’ saga is part of a larger story of political and social repression in Myanmar, where the renegade military regime crushed a democracy movement in 1988, rejected the results of a popular election in 1990 and last year refused to either acknowledge or release from house arrest the movement’s elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, after she won the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Rohingyas are hardly the only ethnic group fleeing Myanmar’s porous borders. The military offensive is dubbed Operation Land of Peace by Myanmar’s military leader, Gen. Saw Maung. Its aim is to “annihilate all insurgent movements.”
Besides the Rohingyas of Arakan, these include the Karen people and their armed rebels, who have been seeking refuge in Thailand, and the rebellious Nagas, who are beginning to stream northward as refugees into northeastern India.
But unlike the Nagas or the Karen, the Rohingyas, who number 1.2 million in Arakan, where they represent a narrow majority over the ruling Buddhists, have not been welcomed unreservedly by their new hosts. Cash-strapped Bangladesh, with a population of 112 million of the world’s poorest people, has said it can ill afford a repeat of 1978, when more than 300,000 Rohingyas fled an earlier military crackdown in their homeland.
Bangladesh’s cautious policy toward the growing refugee nightmare has meant death by starvation in the last few weeks for dozens of Rohingyas on this side of the river. Behind the caution is a deeper message, a stark illustration of the human casualties resulting from Third World alliances built more on pragmatism than on principle.
Since it became a nation in 1971, Bangladesh has been fearful of its powerful neighbor, India, which shares a 1,700-mile border that all but surrounds Bangladesh. And it has sought to maintain good relations with Myanmar, its only other neighbor, and ensure the stability of their rugged, 176-mile common frontier.
“We have to live with Myanmar--good or bad,” one senior Foreign Ministry official said in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. “We need to keep this border in peace and harmony.”
But already, the Rohingya refugee crisis has brought the two nations dangerously close to armed confrontation. In November, an attack by Rohingya rebels based in Bangladesh killed eight Myanmar border guards.
After a Myanmar retaliatory attack on a border post Dec. 21 killed one Bangladeshi soldier, Dhaka responded by mobilizing its 100,000-strong military force. It hurriedly installed antiaircraft gun emplacements, dug new bunker complexes and began lengthening the runway to accommodate a squadron of MIG fighter jets in the border town of Cox’s Bazar.
And last month, Myanmar authorities rushed tens of thousands of troops to the border.
Recent high-level military meetings between the two sides have eased the tensions for the moment. And the government of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, needing to remain friendly with Myanmar, took pains to play down the border raids.
Zia’s government decided against joining most of the world in congratulating Suu Kyi on her Nobel Prize last year and in condemning Myanmar’s continuing repression this year “because our communication channel with Myanmar would be snapped,” the Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry official said.
But in Bangladesh, newly democratized and overwhelmingly Muslim, the government’s decision to manage the crisis through what it calls “silent diplomacy” has touched off harsh criticism of Zia. She won election last year after her long campaign to restore human rights to a nation that was ruled for more than half its history by military regimes.
“The government has failed to solve the problem diplomatically,” Bangladeshi opposition leader Hasina Wajed said during a parliamentary debate on the refugee crisis last week.
The Rohingyas are “dying of starvation and lack of medical care,” Wajed said. “The present government has failed to save these refugees.”
Foreign Minister Mustafizur Rahman responded by citing “some success” in approaching the problem through “silent diplomacy.”
Zia’s government hopes its quiet diplomacy will lead to a bilateral agreement similar to one signed by Zia’s late husband, then-President Ziaur Rahman, in 1979, which ended the last Rohingya refugee crisis. But this time such a solution may prove far more difficult.
Among the Rohingya refugees flooding into makeshift camps--which still have no government sanction or official access to U.N. refugee officials--there are tens of thousands who had fled Arakan in 1978. These refugees, given no choice at the time, were returned under the agreement signed by the Rangoon (now Yangon) and Dhaka governments the following year. Now, all those interviewed said they will not return to Arakan until the military regime is removed from power in their country.
Kala Mia, a frail man with a long, black beard, is among those two-time refugees. He told his story while shivering under a lean-to of twigs and leaves in the unsanctioned Moricha refugee camp on a hill near the border. He said his 2-year-old son, Badi Alam, had died of starvation and fever just hours earlier.
“I was a farmer before I came here in 1978,” Mia said as his remaining children, several of them huddling naked near a few burning embers in the mud, shook with fever. “But my land was taken away by the Burmese army. When I returned, I had nothing.
“True, we have nothing here either now. My boy was without food for six days before he died. But I cannot go back there--never.”
Mia fell silent, and Sirajul Alam Chawdhury, an elderly man with a white beard and notebook standing nearby, spoke.
“Last night, four people died in this camp, and if some of the others weren’t given biscuits, 50 more would have died by now,” said Chawdhury, a Rohingya and former refugee who now works for a Bangladesh-based volunteer group called the Rohingya Muslim Welfare Assn.
“Now, all the mothers are putting pots on the fire filled only with water and telling their children, ‘I am cooking rice for you.’ Of course, it’s a lie. There is no rice. But it helps to lie sometimes.”
Chawdhury is a former schoolteacher who fled Arakan in 1978 and, like many others who had the resources, managed to remain in Bangladesh and blend into a local population that resembles the Rohingyas both in looks and language. Despite the emotional response of two-time refugees such as Mia, Chawdhury said, “If they get some real guarantees, even these refugees will go back to Burma.” But, he added, it will not be as simple this time.
As Rafiqur Islam, the welfare association’s Bangladeshi founder, later put it, the current military crackdown in Arakan is even harsher than that of a decade ago. The army’s goal, he said, is to extend and consolidate control throughout the ancient kingdom of Arakan, a 20,000-square-mile region that was ruled as an independent monarchy by Hindu kings and Muslim Mogul emperors until it was conquered by invading Burman armies in 1748.
Ever since Burma’s independence from Britain, the welfare association asserts in its printed literature, about 1.2 million Rohingyas have been expelled from the country “through planned extermination by the successive Burmese regimes.”
Islam said military commanders are seizing the Rohingyas’ land for new military garrisons and bunkers, which they are building with the labor of thousands of forcibly conscripted Rohingya men. He also accused the Myanmar military of destroying mosques. “These are the methods they are using . . . to push the Rohingyas out,” he said.
A Burmese boatman who made three refugee trips in one day last week across the River Naf confirmed that he meets little interference from patrolling Myanmar gunboats. And in an interview at a hotel in the border town of Teknaf, where there is a legal border crossing between the two countries, a commander of the Rohingyas’ small and obscure rebel group asserted that Operation Land of Peace is a deliberate campaign to force all the Rohingyas into Bangladesh.
“We want to live in Arakan as a part of the federated states of Burma, but with the right of self-determination,” said the commander, who asked not to be named, in explaining the mission of his Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front, a rebel group that claims a strength of 2,000 poorly armed fighters. As if to underscore the ineffectiveness of the group, its publicity brochure includes a chart of “Armed Operations in Arakan” that lists just 17 assaults between 1948 and 1991.
A tour of the makeshift refugee camp in Moricha provided ample evidence of the Rohingyas’ experience. There, an estimated 10,000 people were living in lean-tos and shacks made of thin plastic sheets, dried leaves and straw behind a row of handwritten signs saying, “Help Us” and “Stop Killing Us.”
Gul Shesher’s story was typical. A young woman shivering in the rain beneath a soiled white head scarf, Shesher estimated her age at “maybe 21" and said she left her Arakan village five days before, after five soldiers raped her for several days. More than two months ago, the army had burst into her hut one night and taken her husband at gunpoint, “and I haven’t seen him since,” she said.
Nurul Alam, a young man standing nearby, said his father had been a shopkeeper in an Arakan village, which the army was converting into a garrison town. “The soldiers pulled him out of the shop. He was made to get down on all fours, and the soldiers sat on his back and rode him like a motorcycle. When he could no longer carry them, they shot him.”
Given the combination of such horror stories and the absence of any strong resistance or international intervention, the Rohingya rebel commander was asked whether his group’s cause was not a lost one.
“We think this is our midnight,” the 42-year-old commander said. “The dawn will come. The sun will rise. Help will come from democratic loving people.”
But as he spoke, the exodus of fellow Rohingyas continued a few miles away aboard old boats on the River Naf heading for a muddy shore and a land with little to offer them.