“There is no Rohingya left in Tulatoli”. These were the first words uttered to me by Nurul Huq, a gaunt 65-year-old Rohingya refugee who has fled the ongoing conflict in Rakhine state in northwest Myanmar.
Collapsing in a heap over a sack containing his belongings, he said: “I saw my son shot dead with my own eyes and the dead bodies of two of my daughters. Five other daughters of mine remain missing.”
He is one of a dozen or so Rohingya villagers I have met from Min Gyi or Tulatoli (as referred to by Rohingya) and the neighbouring village of Onsiprang. They have been describing what could prove to be one of the worst large-scale massacres in the continuing military operation against Rohingya villages immediately east of Bangladesh’s border. Eyewitnesses have claimed that over a period of three days beginning Wednesday 30th August, virtually all the villagers of Min Gyi were put to death.
If confirmed, this bloodshed would be one in a string of alleged mass killings perpetrated by the Myanmar army with support from the local Rakhine population, propelling 270,000 Rohingya people to seek refuge in Bangladesh.
Mohammed Nasir arrived in Bangladesh from No Man’s land in pitch darkness, having walked for three days with his family and struggling with a heavy sack on his head. What he told me matches the chilling accounts of the massacre recounted to me by other fellow villagers.
“After the military had surrounded the village and cut off all exit points, the Rakhine chairman of the village assured the villagers that the military would not harm them but that their homes would be torched. He told the villagers to assemble in one place where they would be safe.”
Nasir described how the destruction began in the morning with homes being torched. However soon the assurances that no physical harm would come to the villagers proved to be empty. All the eyewitnesses described the same killing methods - long swords, burning alive in torched homes, rifle shots, or “brush fire” by auto and semiautomatic weapons as well as a weapon the villagers called “launcher”.
Nasir himself had escaped to a nearby hillock with his family. From his vantage point and before he left for Bangladesh later that day, he recounted how “bodies were thrown into large pits near the river, covered in straw, doused in petrol and torched.”
I also met villagers who were much closer to the scene of violence. I came across Zahid and his 10-year-old nephew Osman near Balukhali makeshift camp. They were yet to pitch their tent, and wondering where to do so. Osman had witnessed the killing of both his parents as he hid in a bush and peeped out. Zahid, 20 years older, was emotional when he recalled what happened:
“I have lost nine family members including my wife, two sons, two young sisters, my brother’s wife and son”.
Zahid described in disturbing detail how many of the women villagers lost their lives. It is a gruesome scenario which suggests the military were vacillating about how exactly to kill the women. “Many of the women were near the river. After the military had torched the homes, they told the women to get out of the river and sit down on the bank. Then they changed their minds and ordered them to stand up. Then they again ordered them to sit down. Finally they said stand up and form a line. They then shouted at the women to run.
As they ran, they brush fired them. After the shooting, around 30 women survived. They told these women to wait in the water again. And from this group of 30, they would take 5 women at a time into huts to rape them. After raping them, they were robbed off their jewellery, and then beaten to death and the huts set on fire.”
Four women survived this ordeal according to Nasir. These women are now in Kutupalong MSF clinic with burns and other injuries. Nurul Amin’s niece, Shofika, is one of the victims receiving care at the MSF clinic. He simply cannot believe that she is alive.
He told me “you can see her brain such is the size of the fracture in her skull, and she has another wound down one side of her body. I do not know how she is still with us”. Shofika was transported to the MSF clinic in Kutupalong over a period of three days and through the very difficult terrain that characterises the border areas of Bangladesh.
Equally challenging was the journey undertaken by a mother of five. I found her crying in a makeshift encampment. I asked her what she had seen with her own eyes in Tulatoli. “With my own eyes, I saw the dead bodies of not less than 300 small kids and about 200 women of my age”.
It was touch and go whether she would make it out of Tulatoli herself. Her husband and son had both been killed in the army assault. When she tried to escape, she found that the river’s current was too fast and too high for
her to manage with her small children.
Thankfully her brothers were there to help. As she made her escape, she saw children hiding in the paddy fields. She said “The military caught these children, put them flat on the floor and drove long knives into their chests and their stomachs. The lifeless bodies were thrown in the river.”
She got separated from her brothers and made her way with her children with villagers from neighbouring villages. Now in Balukhali, she has been asked by the Bangladeshi who has a lease over that land to pay 1000 taka to have a spot for her to pitch a tent. She was muttering that maybe it would have been better if she had been burnt to death. “There is no one to buy me terpal (plastic sheeting) and no one to construct a hut for me. And I don’t know how I can feed my children”.
Shafiur Rahman is a documentary filmmaker engaged in making a documentary about Rohingya women.