'Abu Hassan (name changed). This is your home. Look at how it is now. Look at the state of it. You can’t recognise it. Have a good look and get angry'
Amateur video footage captured on mobile phones by Rohingya refugees show a desolate Tula Toli, a village in northern Rakhine state, so different from what it looked like two years ago when the Myanmar military launched a bloody crackdown against Rohingya Muslims in August 2017.
The mobile phone footage from two Rohingya refugees who now live in the camps of Bangladesh, provides the world a first glimpse of what Tula Toli looks liketwo years after the massacre on 30 August 2017.
In a series of thirty-four video clips, ranging from a few seconds to one minute twenty-seven seconds, totalling 16 minutes, the men walked around Tula Toli and filmed the remains of their village where 4500 people once lived.
In August 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya started fleeing the violence and persecution unleashed by Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, and other Burmese security forces in Rakhine state.
On the 1st and 2nd of September 2017, hundreds of survivors from Tula Toli started entering Bangladesh. These refugees described the torching of their village and the cold-blooded massacre of hundreds of people.
Soon news of the atrocities reached all the major media and news outlets. Women victims, in particular, recounted the savagery they experienced and witnessed - mass rapes, killings, and infants burned to death.
In 2018, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission unequivocally stated that massacres like Tula Toli and Chut Pyin “involved planned and deliberately executed mass killing.”
The videos depict an area of great natural beauty. As the men trudge through vegetation, they point out burnt bamboo poles where homes once stood. Their voices betray fear as they hyperventilate during their narration.
The entire area has become overgrown and wooded according to the men. As they locate their old homes, mainly based on the location of large trees which remain standing, they address members of the community back in the Rohingya camps of Bangladesh directly by name.
“Abu Hassan (name changed). This is your home. Look at how it is now. Look at the state of it. You can’t recognise it. Have a good look and get angry. “
The men located their own homes and the remains of the homes of other family members. Their tone decidedly becomes enraged.
One of the men addresses the family of his dead wife and says: “This is your home. So many people were killed here. I couldn’t video this earlier in the day because we saw the military dogs.”
Most of the killings in Tula Toli took place in Char Fara, the hamlet closest to the river. The men located the home of a person they called Putiya. In a chilling reminder of the ground they were standing on, one of the men says: “This is Putiya’s place. They finished his family. And in this area, they killed over 500 people. They killed everyone here. You can’t see the holes they dug here for the bodies, because it is dark.”
The men report that of the six hamlets in Tula Toli, all the Rohingya hamlets are uninhabited, wooded and overgrown. Of the two Rakhine hamlets, one has been abandoned. The hamlet where the Kwi people live remains inhabited and it is where the military base is located.
The images of this one rural community represent a partial picture of what happened and is happening in the rest of northern Rakhine state. Elsewhere, the Myanmar government has ordered the flattening of destroyed villages with bulldozers and the erection of new buildings.
Some of these are being used to house non-Rohingya from other parts of Rakhine. The removal of Rohingya villages prompted Human Rights Watch to comment: “Bulldozing these areas threatens to erase both the memory and the legal claims of the Rohingya who lived there.”
A key demand of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is that they be allowed to go back to their former villages. The alternative, they fear, is to be herded into what the Rohingya call “open-air prisons” - the existing IDP camps. A fuller picture of the changes on the ground is impossible, given the Myanmar government’s refusal to lift travel restrictions for the region.