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Rohingya mother remembers her rapists every time she holds her baby

It’s a horrific byproduct of the Rohingya flight to Bangladesh: babies who are the product of rape, born to refugees who were assaulted by the Myanmar military. Compounding the trauma, their community views the women as dishonored. Special correspondent Tania Rashid reports on mothers living in hiding. Judy Woodruff talks about the crisis with David Ignatius from the Washington Post.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    We begin now with a strong warning.

    This story and interview, which lasts about 10 minutes, contain graphic descriptions of sexual violence that may upset viewers, especially children.

    Last Friday, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two people who fight the use of rape as a weapon of war, one a survivor, the other a physician who treats them.

    But this horrific tactic endures, nowhere more prevalent today than Myanmar, where the ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority has seen an explosion of rape.

    Judy Woodruff will explore some of the larger issues at stake here, but, first, from the refugee camps of Bangladesh, where the Rohingya have fled, special correspondent Tania Rashid reports.

  • Tania Rashid:

    This 4-month-old baby has no name. Her 18-year-old mother, whose name and face we conceal to protect her identity, doesn't know what to call her.

    Every time she holds this little girl, she says she is reminded of the violence that brought her daughter into being, of being brutally raped by members of the Myanmar military forces last year. The troops murdered her mother and sister in front of her, then kidnapped her and kept her for 10 days.

    Six men stole her virginity and gang-raped her repeatedly.

  • Woman (through translator):

    The military took us to a Buddhist village, threw us inside of a school, and kept us there. There were three of us. One night, they went out to dinner, and the wife of one of the soldiers helped us leave.

  • Tania Rashid:

    She managed to escape and fled to Bangladesh, along with 700,000 Rohingya Muslims, who made the same trek last year, walking through the jungle with no food or water.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I noticed some changes in my body. I wasn't getting my period. I realized I was pregnant.

  • Tania Rashid:

    She gave birth in a sweltering hot dark hut with the help of a Rohingya woman. Both she and her baby are malnourished.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I feel really weak and restless. I have lost the energy to hold my child. Since I have been here, I haven't been able to get a proper meal. I eat very little. I have no energy. I'm not happy with my life.

  • Tania Rashid:

    She says she feel deeply ashamed and has nothing to live for, except her child.

  • Woman (through translator):

    Who is going to look after me? Now I have this baby, nobody will marry me. If I was married off, I would have a child legitimately, not a baby out of rape, like I do now.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Cases like this are common throughout the Bangladeshi refugee camps. This woman is one of thousands who were sexually assaulted during a bloody military crackdown by the Myanmar military forces and armed vigilante groups last year. The U.N. says military leaders involved must face genocide charges.

    These overcrowded refugee camps are among the largest in the world, where close to a million Rohingya refugees seek shelter. Rape as a weapon of war and persecution is not a foreign concept for the Rohingya. The Myanmar military has used sexual violence for decades.

    Many are aware the women are victimized, but, in traditional Rohingya Muslim culture, rape is seen as bringing dishonor to households. Local health experts here say the survivors carry double the trauma, first from sexual assault in Myanmar, then in the camps, where they're isolated and excluded from society.

    They even face further sexual assaults from locals in the area. According to a U.N. Security Council report in March, humanitarian organizations have provided services to more than 2,700 survivors of sexual violence in the camps.

    The United Nations populations fund has set up women-friendly spaces to help survivors with psychosocial and medical support. But the reach has not been strong enough.

    Those cases of rape are coming at alarming rates to medical facilities in the area, it's hard to trace the actual number of women that have been impregnated. Many are afraid to come forward, due to shame and rejection in the family. They turn to community healers and leaders instead.

    Amy Garrett, who works as a midwife with Doctors Without Borders, has seen this firsthand.

  • Amy Garrett:

    Often, the women are given some blame for this happening, which is crazy to think. It's definitely the women have that, have the blame, it's their fault.

    And if they have been perpetrated by such violence, if they continue with the pregnancy, and they are unmarried, this can bring a lot of shame on their, and they will never be married. And then I — from my experience and from what women have told me, if you're an unmarried woman, then life sometimes isn't even worth living.

  • Tania Rashid:

    To avoid being disgraced and exiled from her community, this 15-year-old girl, whose face we concealed at her request, made a difficult choice. She aborted her pregnancy at four months while carrying her rapist's child.

  • Girl (through translator):

    The doctors gave me two injections and some medication. I took the medicine for three days. Then the fetus came out of my womb. The medicine increased my heart rate. I felt really sick. I felt like a dead person when it happened.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Months later, she says her whole body still aches from the pain of the abortion, but she doesn't regret the choice.

  • Girl (through translator):

    People don't like hearing about women who are raped and pregnant from it. They will not see us in a good light. If people find out I had a baby without a husband, people will harass me, and nobody will want to marry me. I will be seen as a whore.

  • Tania Rashid:

    But, in her community, she's still widely known to have been raped. She spends a lot of time alone, hiding in her hut, and risks sexual harassment from men and boys in the area.

    Nural Bashar is one of the few magis (ph), or camp leaders, in the area working to help survivors of sexual violence. He helped take six women to get abortions last year and continues to keep an eye on the girls.

    Nural Bashar (through translator) As a magi, I have to help these women. I hope men will not look at them in a bad way. I want to keep these women safe. It is the world's responsibility to help them. As a magi, I have to help them a lot.

  • Tania Rashid:

    He says women in the camps remain vulnerable, and their best protection is marriage. Even then, the risks remain.

  • Nural Bashar (through translator):

    Men will only marry rape survivors if the women have money. And if they can't give any more money, then the men will leave them for being raped.

  • Tania Rashid:

    With a community that views them as dishonored and unequal, survivors of sexual violence continue to live in hiding. Until those cultural stigmas around rape and sexual violence shift, thousands of girls will continue to suffer toward an uncertain future.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Tania Rashid in Cox Bazar, Bangladesh.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, for more on the Rohingya and related issues, including an award being given to those trying to stop such acts of inhumanity, we turn to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.

    David, thank you for talking with us.

    What we have seen is just unspeakable, unimaginable. And we knew that the Myanmar military was doing this, didn't we?

  •  David Ignatius:

    We did know.

    That's part of the shock here, is that these terrible things were happening, and nothing really was done to stop them.

    I was lucky enough to meet a Rohingya Muslim lawyer who, after spending 12 years in prison, devoted himself to trying to save as many of his people as he could last June. The lawyer's name is Kyaw Hla Aung.

    And it was an extraordinary meeting, and a person who is a real-life hero trying to save these desperate people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in fact, David, we know the reason you met him is because you were part of a — the process of awarding a prize to him. It's a prize that has been given every year to people who are speaking out and working to stop these sorts of terrible inhumanitarian things like we have seen in Myanmar.

    Why does — does shining a light on these things make a difference?

  •  David Ignatius:

    Judy, this prize, I hope, does shine a light and celebrate heroism in our time.

    It's called the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. It was created by an Armenian named Ruben Vardanyan and two other Armenians, Vartan Gregorian, who is the head of the Carnegie Foundation in New York, and Noubar Afeyan, who is a businessman here in America.

    My own family is Armenian originally. So this had meaning for me. The Armenians, as I hope people know, suffered from a terrible genocide themselves in 1915.

    And the idea of this prize was to honor those who in our time try to prevent horrors like this from happening. This is the third year that this prize has been given. This year's honoree, Mr. Kyaw, attempted to stop the genocide that's been taking place against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

    The idea of this prize, in a simple phrase, is gratitude in action, gratitude from those who have survived, whose family survived, gratitude to those today who are trying to save others.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, David, it's an uphill battle, isn't it?

  •  David Ignatius:


    These unspeakable crimes take place in our world. But I also have met the people who, with incredible bravery, are trying to stop these horrors,.

    To meet these people who are heroes does give you some hope, even as you are reminded of the horrors that go on around us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You're so right.

    I mean, we have to have hope, because it is — again, to watch what has happened, to watch these young women, the Rohingya young women who are faced with such a horrible choice, one has to be filled with despair.

    So knowing that there are people working to end this kind of thing has to give us hope.

  •  David Ignatius:

    Watching the story of the people in that camp, those women who have been victimized so much, you think of their bravery. You think of the people who are trying to help them, the midwife, the camp guide.

    And you think of all the people who, in this nightmare, illustrate this Aurora idea, gratitude in action.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David Ignatius with The Washington Post.

    And, again, our thanks to Tania Rashid for that remarkable reporting from Bangladesh.

    Thank you, David.

  •  David Ignatius:

    Thanks, Judy.

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