Flooding into Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees flee harrowing violence


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In the past few weeks, the crackdown on Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar has triggered a mass exodus.

The United Nations estimates that 390,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh after suffering what they say are violent attacks by government troops and others.

The fighting is driven in part by an ongoing, years-long conflict between Rohingya militants and the government of Myanmar.

NewsHour special correspondent Tania Rashid has this report from along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.

TANIA RASHID, Special correspondent: It's a mass exodus, with no end in sight.

They can barely walk or speak, desperate and starving. Close to half-a-million Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh in the past three weeks, escaping violent attacks carried out by Myanmar troops and Buddhist vigilantes.

Hundreds of people are making their way into Bangladesh right now. And it's through terrible conditions of mud and rain and immense flooding. It's very slippery, the mud, to walk through this.

You feel like you can fall down at any moment.

WOMAN (through interpreter): I can't move.

WOMAN (through interpreter): Take this.

MAN (through interpreter): Get on my shoulders.

TANIA RASHID: Her leg is broken.

MAN (through interpreter): Get on my back.

WOMAN (through interpreter): Really? Won't it be too muddy and hard?

MAN (through interpreter): There is no other way. Get on my shoulders.

TANIA RASHID: The military, the Myanmar military, one of the members broke her leg with a stick. And a relative is having to carry her through this muddied rice paddy field to the road.

MAN (through interpreter): Give me your other foot.

WOMAN (through interpreter): I'm going to fall. I don't have the energy.

TANIA RASHID: Anuara Khatun has been walking with her two children and husband for eight days, with little food or water.

ANUARA KHATUN, Rohingya Refugee (through interpreter): They took us out of our home and lined us up at a school and set our houses on fire. They tortured us. That's why we're here.

They didn't care whether they were shooting cows or people. They just kept shooting. They slaughtered old people. They tortured us, and that's why we left. They stormed in and burned our homes. The military surrounded us and killed any young men they could find. They killed four to five people in front of me in Lambagouna.

TANIA RASHID: So, this is the border. This is where Bangladesh ends. And across the Naf River is where Myanmar begins. For the past hour, I have been seeing boat after boat filled with Rohingya refugees coming in.

The conflict was triggered by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, known as ARSA, an insurgency group. Its fighters attacked dozens of police and army posts across Myanmar's Rakhine State on August 25.

Funded partially by private donors in Saudi Arabia, ARSA accuses the Myanmar military of acts of extreme violence against Rohingya Muslims. In response, the Myanmar military launched a major counterinsurgency campaign. The U.N. human rights chief has called it a textbook ethnic cleansing.

The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority group who have faced persecution in Myanmar. They are denied citizenship and freedom of movement. For the past three weeks, Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has come under immense international criticism for remaining silent in the face of this violence.

Last week, the Nobel laureate canceled her trip to the U.N. General Assembly in New York to deal with the Rohingya crisis. The Rohingyas arrive in Bangladesh hungry and tired and into utter chaos.

Every scrap of land is being used by the refugees to make shelter. Since many of the refugee camps are overcrowded and such a large influx of people are coming in, in such a short period of time, people are doing what they can to make space for a home.

Hasina Begum fled her home five days ago.

HASINA BEGUM, Rohingya Refugee (through interpreter): The Buddhists burnt my village to ash. They shot my father dead in front of me. I traveled here through the forest with my family.

TANIA RASHID: She told me she was helped by two armed men from ARSA as she crossed the border.

HASINA BEGUM (through interpreter): The Buddhists were killing us one by one before August 25 attacks. That's why ARSA launched their attacks, because they are killing us. We couldn't take it anymore. That's why we are fighting. ARSA is fighting for all the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

TANIA RASHID: Bengali locals and religious charities have stepped up to provide aid. But distribution has been chaotic.

Bangladesh's prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has asked the international community to put pressure on the Myanmar government to let the Rohingya return. The immense scale of the crisis means that international aid agencies are the only ones equipped to respond.

The World Food Program is giving each refugee a 55-pound sack of rice. That has to last them and their family at least two weeks.

BIMOL CHANDRA DAY SARKER, Chief Executive of WFP Subsidiary: There are so many people so many households, so many people, they are not getting rice, because the support is not adequate for them. So, more food, more wash facilities, more shelter, they need.

TANIA RASHID: I spoke to women queuing for rice who told me harrowing stories of violence.

WOMAN (through interpreter): I can't sleep at night. They take women like us to be raped. The military made a woman give birth in front of them without any help. While she was giving birth, they stomped on her belly. Nobody could help her.

WOMAN (through interpreter): The military took a child from me and killed her in front of my eyes. I couldn't stop them. They beat me with a gun and still feel pain all over my body. They take women into the jungle to rape and murder them. I heard them screaming, which was horrible.

They tie the men to a chair, pour gasoline over their head, and burn them alive. The army calls the children over to give them biscuits. Then they kill them and dump their bodies in the jungle.

TANIA RASHID: Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest and most densely populated countries. I met with Mohammad Ershadul Haque, the local council secretary for the area near the one of the largest refugee camps.

He expressed concern that many local Bengalis share about the sudden influx of the Rohingya.

What has been the impact of the Rohingyas coming in?

MOHAMMAD ERSHADUL HAQUE, Local Government Official in Bangladesh (through interpreter): The Rohingyas aren't developed. Their character is uncivilized. We are different from them. If they continue coming like this, it will lead to destruction.

TANIA RASHID: Do you see the large influx of the Rohingyas coming in being a threat?

MOHAMMAD ERSHADUL HAQUE (through interpreter): With this influx of Rohingya, us Bengalis will become the minority. They will influence all the sectors of society. They might claim Bangladesh to be Rohingya territory. They built a makeshift camp on my land. They cut the trees from my garden to make their own homes. We aren't able to say anything right now. It could be that they will rule over us here.

TANIA RASHID: Do you see the influx of Rohingyas coming in being a breeding ground for terrorism?

MOHAMMAD ERSHADUL HAQUE (through interpreter): Attacks have already taken place in the official refugee camps. The Rohingyas attacked the local security forces.

TANIA RASHID: Next to one of the largest camps, I met two Rohingya refugees who are members of the ARSA insurgency group, and plan to go back to Myanmar to fight. They agreed to speak to us under the condition that we concealed their identities.

MAN: The other Rohingya people support the ARSA because they think that if ARSA stand and take back the right of the Rohingya, they will be able to move freely from town to town, from village to village.

TANIA RASHID: So, what do you think of the August 25 attacks? Hasn't that sparked all this violence that's happening right now and this mass displacement of the Rohingya people?

MAN: The other superpower countries and the whole world, they still have not responded with any kind of responses. ARSA themselves thought that there is no one for us in the world to help. It's better for us to stand for ourselves, to protect ourselves, to save our people from the inhumane persecution of the Myanmar government.

MAN (through interpreter): We love ARSA. We are willing to go to war for our rights. Rohingyas have rights. this is why we will fight with the Myanmar government until we get rights. We don't want to live without our citizenship, and us Rohingyas understand this. We are all united with ARSA. We will fight for our rights, or we will die trying.

TANIA RASHID: Are you willing to die?

MAN: Of course I'm willing to die. Of course. ARSA don't afraid of dying, because the Rohingya people already have died.

TANIA RASHID: As the violence continues in Myanmar, the future for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh looks bleak. Stateless and displaced, the sense of desperation is increasing day by day, making the perfect conditions for insurgency groups like ARSA to grow.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Tania Rashid in Teknaf, Bangladesh.

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