In October, 1971, The Testimony of Sixty on the Crisis in Bengal was published by Oxfam in the United States Congressional Record – a collection of eyewitness accounts of the tragedy unfolding in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) at the time.
Forty-six years later, in October 2017, a team of researchers from the Center for the Study of Genocide and Justice of the Liberation War Museum went to the Rohingya camps in Ukhiya, Teknaf to collect eyewitness narratives of the forcibly displaced Rohingya population. Since August 25, 2017, thousands of Rohingya refugees have crossed the border and settled in makeshifts camps in Ukhiya.
The accounts we collected, which makes up The Testimony of Sixty on the Crisis of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, depicts a harrowing tale of the systematic and targeted attacks on the ethnic community.
Disturbing parallels to the genocide of 1971
It is obvious that the groundwork for genocide was laid long before the waves of refugees began to embark on their perilous journeys to Bangladesh. The community has been slowly pushed into isolation, starting with the loss of their official identities as Myanmar nationals, and the deprivation of their rights to education, health, freedom of movement and free practice of religion.
Segregated schools for the Rohingya community were shut down and turned into army camps. Market places were moved away, leaving them to purchase goods with the aid of a ‘Registration Card’ that identifies them as ‘Bengalis’ and needs to be paid for to renew annually. All mosques and Hindu temples were burnt to ashes, along with religious books. Leaflets were circulated by local ‘Mogs’ (Buddhist monks) prohibiting any religious practices at home or in public. Every act performed by the Myanmar army with the help of radical Buddhist monks and faciliated by the silence of its government, were aimed to isolate and eliminate the Rohingyas.
There have already been documented cases of mass attacks, rapes and murder of the Rohingya population in previous years. In early 2017, the Myanmar army once again began its ‘clearance operation’ through sudden arson attacks, brush-fire and extreme means of torture. With the use of ‘launchers’, most Rohingya villages in Rakhine were burned down, driving the Rohingya’s to hide in the nearby mountains and jungles for days without food.
“Before fleeing to Bangladesh, a few of us were hiding in jungles for two to three days, suspecting sudden attacks. We saw a helicopter pouring patrol over the houses with people inside. After a while, the military burnt the entire village down. Later, the military came back to see if anyone survived. They piled the dead bodies on their trucks and made a ditch. They threw the bodies in, covered them with sand and then drove over the mass grave,” said Rahmat Ullah from Maungdaw, now in Bangladesh.
Myanmar is clearly on the path to genocide
The use of rape as a tool of genocide by the Myanmar army has also been widely documented, as was obvious in this Testimony of Sixty as well.
“Rohingya women were always scared to go to the markets. Soldiers would abduct them, even from their houses as well. The level of torture of women was inhumane. The army men, along with the local Mogs, would harass women on the streets, undress them and would ask them to stare at the sun. They would rape women and abandon them in the jungle. Some women survived, some didn’t. If they were taken to hospital, the doctors would deny treatment,” said Rafiqa from Khingchong, Boli Bazar.
A lesser known aspect of the genocide against the Rohingya are intellectual killings - respected teachers, local Rohingya chairmen and any educated Rohingya capable of dissenting and organising protests have all been targeted by the army.
Now, a large portion of one of the most persecuted minorities on earth are languishing in camps in Bangladesh, but those who survived speak only of their anguish and the trauma of their journeys.
“My right hand still has splinters from land-mines and I also got shot on my right leg. My father dragged me from the place and ran. Later, he tied me up with a stick and carried me. We walked towards the Bangladeshi border for almost eight days, living on leafy greens and some herbal medicine. It is only after reaching Bangladesh that I first received medical assistance,” said Sabbir Hossain (20) from Buchidawng.
The camps are also filled with children, many of them orphans in extremely vulnerable situations. One of the testimonies collected is from 10 year old Anwara.
“I am from Kyamong, Myanmar. I have a 20 year old disabled brother and an eight year old brother. My mother died during child birth. One day, the Myanmar military attacked our village and started shooting and stabbing. Soon, the houses were on fire and we ran towards the jungle. We crossed the border with our neighbours and reached Bangladesh. It is only after coming here that we heard our father had passed away. We didn’t even get to see him one last time. It is only after crossing the border that we have been recognised as orphans, now our first identity.”
Back in 1971, these 60 testimonies held up to the world the brutal persecution of Bengalis by the Pakistani military. The 60 testimonies of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are now doing the same - making obvious the systemic destruction of this community at the hands of Myanmar. We have already been on their side of history. If we don’t speak up for them now, who will?
The author is a LL.B graduate working at BRAC. She was recently part of the team that worked with the Center of Genocide and Justice Studies of the Liberation War Museum to publish the Testimony of Sixty.