Several reports of ethnic cleansing in the Asian country of Burma provoked my journalistic senses to immerse myself into the crisis. I set myself to visit this country and give a first-hand account of the events as they unfold in this country. Rohingya Muslims came to Burma about 190 years ago. They entered the country as laborers for British enterprises from the neighboring country of Bangladesh. After Burma gained its independence from Britain, it made austere laws that relegated the Rohingyas to mere associate citizens. Their identity as Muslims exacerbated their rejection in a country dominated by Buddhists. Over time the Rohingyas have faced several threats to their existence. The most disturbing thing is that the apparent ethnic cleansing has been carried out by the Burmese government with the help of the national army. When the news of these inhuman acts surfaced in the international media, I was moved by the stories of women and children coming face to face with the wrath of ethnic hatred. I hereby present some of the experiences I gathered during my 3 months stay in the country.
I arrived to the country armed with my tools of trade: a camera, a yellow hijab, and of course money. I anticipated harshness in bounty, so I had to brace myself for the journey ahead. I proceeded straight to one of the Rohingya village of Tula Toli. This village has more than 1000 people living in it. They engage in small scale farming and businesses meant for their sustenance. I quickly made friends with Gyli Sen, a young man who had recently graduated from college with a degree in social work. I introduced myself as a concerned global citizen who wanted to display to the world the woes that his community was facing. The man took me through a tour of the village to appreciate the dilapidated houses and sewerage systems in which the Rohingyas were living in. He agreed to assist me in my endeavors, and to make my life bearable as I was doing my observations.
The next day after my arrival, I attended the meeting in which the village elders were telling the villagers to be alert of their surroundings. The village elders had formed a council to discuss several matters that included the security of children and the women. They also discussed matters to do with cohabitation of the homeless people whose dwellings had been burned. The meeting also served as the avenue for testimonials from affected village members. One woman from the neighboring village stood up to recount how they were attacked by the police at night. They had just finished their supper when they heard gunshots from a distance. The gunshots were followed by loud cries of people under distress. On getting outside their houses, they saw the cloudless skies filled with smoke. It was not long after the villagers came running on their direction, children not knowing where their parents were. The woman explained how the attack was well planned and orchestrated by the government forces. The people torching the houses lit about 13 household in one night. The villagers were clobbered and dozens of youthful men were put into police Lorries. The villagers whose houses were burned gathered together in a church for the night. The woman gave other accounts of police brutality against the women and children. The meeting ended at six oclock in the evening. People dispersed to their homes with a message to alert their neighbors in case suspicious people were spotted in the village.
The following morning, I visited the hospital where hundreds of Rohingyas were admitted with different ailments. Some of these ailments were infections emanating from infected bullet wounds. There were any people with burns of very high degrees. The facility that contained these patients was obviously small for the high number of patients. More patients streamed in on a daily basis with the hope of getting medical attention. Unfortunately, there were no comprehensive medical services that the facility could offer. The facility was more of a community dispensary with an in-patient wing having 17 beds. The nurse in-charge was a Rohingya woman who had been deployed there by the government. My interview with her revealed that the facility was neglected by the government many years ago. It had not received its quarterly supply of drugs. Additionally, the government had since stopped to dispatch medical specialists in the dispensary for specialized treatment of patients. The dispensary was also ejected out of the list of hospitals covered by the national health insurance scheme. What unfolded before my eyes was blatant systematic exclusion of one part of the country where the Rohingyas lived. The government had denied the community critical services like health, and was now undertaking an annihilation process for the same people. The nurse in-charge at the facility told me that only 30 per cent of the patents admitted in the dispensary recovered from their illnesses. The rest of the patients died due to lack of adequate medical care, although many of them come to the hospital in near-death conditions.
I spent the better part of that week visiting homes and listening to distressed people. In one of the homes where I visited, I met Lyong Suu, a senile man who had lived in this village for over seven decades. He was one of the living old men who had persevered mistreatment and tons of historical injustices. He had a lengthy story that he had always given to anybody who was interested in listening to it. His eyes were sunken in their orbits and his voice tapered off as he spoke. He used the local dialect to converse, so I asked Gyli Sen to accompany me to the home the following morning. We sat around the hearth in a small hut in the corner of the homestead. He recalled an incident in 1964 when the Burmeses government completely screened off Tula Toli from the rest of the country. The people in this village and other Rohingyas occupied villages could not get any government services including electricity. The government also accompanied the assault with police brutality in a move to annihilate the tribe. Lyong Suu could only relate the current situation with the 1964 experience, and he was hopeful that the community will stand strong despite all odds. He said that the current refugee crisis is less hostile that the one he experienced in the years back. He also invited the international community to address their long standing identity problem as citizens of Myanmar.
In another hospital were women and girls who had been sexually assaulted by the police. Girls as young as 11 years had been molested by the people who were supposed to protect them. I sought to enquire about how and when these incidents occurred. A mother of one whose husband had died one year ago recalled how the police attacked her in her house. It was 2 oclock in the afternoon when the police entered her compound. She was doing chores around the home when two men in police uniform approached her. Due to the prevailing alert on police harassment, she hurriedly entered her house in fear of being assaulted. On seeing this, the police followed her and forced her to open the door. When she declined their demand, they kicked the door open and asked her for a variety of documents. They first asked her the documents to prove that the land on which she built the house was indeed hers. Secondly, they forced her to produce her identity card. After looking at the card, they identified her as a Rohingya and that is when the sexual assault began. The woman recounted how she was gang raped and left to die. Her daughter was in another village visiting her friends, and so she did not experience what her mother went through. This story was one among many that explain just how the women in Tula Toli and other villages are molested in the hands of security forces.
My journey was not complete without getting the opinion of the Imams in the villages where the Rohingyas lived. The root cause of all the injustices meted against this community is their religious affiliation. I donned my hijab to observe the custom because I wanted to hear what the religious leaders had to say. I called Glyi Sen to ask him about the protocols of meeting an Imam. He directed me to Ali Kung who was the Imam of a local mosque. My interview with the Imam gave astonishing revelations of what religious bigotry can do to the society. The Buddhists living in Myanmar have intense hatred towards other religious groups, and specifically the Rohingya Muslims. The lack of support and recognition by the government offers a platform for religious profiling of Rohingya Muslims. The Imam said that many Rohingyas have since converted to other religions to escape the problems associated with being a Muslim. However, this move did not yield much success. The conversion of religion did not come with an automatic change in culture, which meant that converts retained their Islamic tag, and therefore prone to attacks.
I spent the rest of my time moving with the masses as they sought for refuge in India and Bangladesh. There were many children and women with tattered clothes and tired faces. We walked thousands of kilometers en route Bangladesh. Most of the fleeing refugees cited hunger and constant attacks by Buddhist mobs in Myanmar. The journey to the border was not easy. It is long and tiresome. There are many hills that refugees have to climb and equally countless valleys and steep slopes. The road to the border passes through open plains and sometimes through thickets. The refugees have to withstand cold and other extreme weather elements. In the journey, I interviewed various people who gave stories similar to those given by the people in the villages. The crisis in Myanmar, therefore, calls for more intervention by the international community for the sake of thousands of Rohingyas facing ethnic cleansing in this country.
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