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Rohingya who fled ethnic cleansing face effects of trauma

Now that more than half a million Rohingya, a Muslim minority, have fled Myanmar from rape, murder and other forms of ethnic cleansing to bordering Bangladesh, humanitarian aids are trying to assess the psychological tolls among the survivors. From depression and anxiety to PTSD and suicidal thoughts, NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Martin Seemungal reports on what they are finding.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In the last five months alone, more than 650,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority, have faced a systematic campaign of attacks, rapes, murders and the burning of their villages at the hands of the Myanmar military. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has said the crisis appears to be a textbook example of ethnic cleansing and should be investigated as a genocide. For those who manage to survive, there is a meager existence in a crowded refugee camp where they rely on international aid to salvage what is left of their lives. And as you’ll see, in this report from special correspondent Martin Seemungal, the healing process has only just begun. A warning, the images and accounts in this story may be disturbing to some viewers.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    The scale of the crisis is overwhelming, a city of huts built by Rohingya refugees in just 3 months, carved out of the forests of Bangladesh along the Myanmar border. They fled quickly, carrying little, driven by attacks on their home villages inside Myanmar. They came by the thousands day after day, week after week to this sprawling refugee camp. Now over half a million Rohingya are here. They live with overcrowding, many rely on food handouts, struggling to stay healthy, living with terrible memories.

  • HALIMA:

    I am still afraid. I am afraid they will come across the border and attack us.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Halima says her husband and 2 children were shot and killed by the Myanmar Army. She managed to escape with her remaining children.

  • HALIMA:

    I have no more tears left to cry. I am just trying to survive every day.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    There are stories like that in virtually every hut in the camp. The sudden massive influx of Rohingya was met by a huge relief operation focusing on the basics, shelter food, water, medicine…the physical needs…and lately more and more emphasis on mental health to address the enormous psychological impact on the Rohingya refugees.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Mahmuda Mahmuda is a psychologist with UNHCR the UN refugee agency. She has been counselling the refugees since the beginning. This 16 year old did not want her identity revealed but she told her story to Mahmuda. She says government soldiers attacked her village and killed her mother with a machete. She says the soldiers caught her and took her away. She says she was raped.

  • MAHMUDA:

    They try to normally do many things like self-blaming and guilt and shame as we just try to help them in this way so that they can realize it’s not their fault.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Initially Mahmuda was the only UNHCR psychologist here, but she is building a team, training women like Sumi.

  • SUMI:

    As a psychologist I, we try to build a relationship with the person because the blame is not her.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Pieter Ventevogel is UNHCR’s Senior Mental Health Officer and he says more people like Mahmuda are needed because it’s important to deal with the Rohingya in their own language in terms they understand.

  • PIETER VENTEVOGEL:

    Much of the language of psychology is not understood by refugees. We need to bring it down to simple things. So like the word for depression. The word for depression for example or the word for PTSD doesn’t exist as such in the Rohingya language.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Ventevogel says severe post-traumatic stress disorder is prevalent given what the refugees endured. These are the people who are easily frightened and often unable to function at all. Rashida’s scars are seen, slash wounds on her throat and neck, and unseen. The memory of the attack by Myanmar soldiers. She also saw both her children murdered.

  • RASHIDA:

    My 2 year old was thrown into the river and drowned. My infant was thrown and smashed on the ground.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Rashida spends most of her time inside her hut and has difficulty doing the simplest tasks.

  • PIETER VENTEVOGEL:

    Some people are not able to go on with their lives. Because they keep being haunted by the events that happened to them in the past, they keep being stressed and the stress is still in their body.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Momtaj and her daughter Rozia also endured a terrible ordeal. The burns on Momtaj’s face are still painful, weeks after the attack. It began with a raid on their village of Tula Toli. She says the soldiers killed her husband and son, then came for her, another story of rape…they seem countless here. Mother and daughter are inseparable.

  • ROZIA:

    I saw the soldiers killed my father and were attacking my mother. I screamed. The soldiers beat me on my head and then I can’t remember anything.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Momtaj says the soldiers locked them in the warehouse with other women and children and set it on fire. She says they escaped when one of the walls collapsed. That’s how she suffered the burns.

  • ROZIA:

    I was very afraid, but my mother was with me.

  • PIETER VENTEVOGEL:

    Everyone is emotionally affected to some extent by what happened. But that’s different from saying everyone is traumatized. Why? Because the actions that you take are different. If I say someone is traumatized, my action will be to find a trauma therapy or something. If I say a person is grieving, what I will do is I will facilitate him in the grief process. In his bereavement.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Health officials here say Rashida would likely benefit from specialized trauma counselling and she says she would welcome that.

  • RASHIDA:

    If a psychologist could come and help I would be happy because I have to live with this every day.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Psychologists here say Momtaj and Rozia are ideal candidates for group therapy. Mahmouda regularly conducts sessions like this, mostly with women. They can talk among people with shared experiences with a counsellor to listen. Group therapy, mental health services in general, are not something they had access to in Myanmar.

  • MAHMUDA:

    They can sleep here without fear so it is a very important thing because in Myanmar they couldn’t sleep well in night. They were all the time in torture in pressure, so it is horrible for the women and ladies. Now they have safe life.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Hasina says she often feels tense and anxious. But she says the sessions help.

  • HASINA:

    When we speak to the counsellors we feel happy because nobody else asks.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    There are other ways UNHCR and the other agencies are providing psychological support, ways you wouldn’t expect, like helping refugees help themselves. Supplying bamboo and blankets to let them go and build their own huts is one way.

  • PIETER VENTEVOGEL:

    If you build your own place, it becomes your own. Your own space. And it is a sense of belonging that you get back.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    There are also specific initiatives to address children’s needs. It is estimated over half the camp population is made up of children many of whom have witnessed the same horrors as the adults. The relief agency Save The Children has built a number of what it calls ‘Child Friendly Spaces.’ These centers are usually managed by refugees themselves.

  • CLARE BACK:

    We’re providing that basic level of routine normality and stability and then through that we identify children who are more distressed or who are showing signs that they need to be referred for more specialized support.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    These centers are a glimpse of what can be achieved, but much more is needed amid all the hardship and pain in the camps.  

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