Horrifying stories from Rohingya refugee camp
“The Burmese military cut off her breast. Then they stabbed her in the abdomen so many times her nari bhoori (intestines) could be seen. Then they stabbed her over and over again in the vagina,” the woman said quietly, as tears silently streamed down her face, referring to her neighbour.
She was a Rohingya refugee in her early 40s who had just arrived in Bangladesh. Her tent was at the base of the hill I was about to climb to do house calls. I came in to her tent expecting I might be able to offer some rehydration salts, maybe some antibiotics.
Instead, I heard about her incredible ordeal, spending seven nights in the jungle eating leaves, with a neighbour whom she helplessly watched being mutilated. Somehow, both she and her neighbour survived.
In the three weeks that I worked in the Rohingya refugee camps with the Hope Foundation, I heard stories like this over and over again.
Let me tell you how it all began. Better yet, let me tell you how it did not begin.
In the Burmese government’s rendition, the Burmese military-led murders, gang rapings, and village burnings — which have led to more than 600,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh — were simply a retaliation for ARSA’s (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) attacks on military outposts on Aug. 25.
This is a diverting tactic that is meant to turn the international community’s attention away from the fact the Rohingya have been facing genocide for decades. Denied citizenship since 1982 in a land they have called home for centuries, the Rohingya have had little to no access to basic human rights, such as education and health care.
Of those who remain in Burma, tens of thousands have been forced into subhuman internment camps designed as part of an apartheid system, whose evident goal is to destroy the community’s will to live.
Though other ethnic minority groups’ rebellions have proven far more violent than ARSA’s, only ARSA is labelled a “terrorist” organization by the Burmese government. How convenient this is in an era where calling a group of Muslims fighting for basic human rights “terrorists” guarantees Burma support in the form of armoured vehicles, artillery, and missiles from allies, including Russia, China, and India.
It is within this context that we began our work to provide free health care to Rohingya refugees. While working alongside this historically oppressed minority group, the concept of cultural safety became all the more important.
A favourite tactic of the Burmese military and the civilians who back them is to strip Rohingya women naked in front of their entire villages, and then gang rape them. Many women told me they were uncomfortable leaving their tents in the refugee camps without the hijabs and burkas that had often been forcibly removed from their bodies.
We had a cordoned off area in each of the health camps where we did exams requiring greater privacy, such as vaginal exams. Some health care providers (and journalists) would take women into these cordoned-off areas and take pictures of them with their pregnant bellies exposed, or in other such compromised positions, without obtaining consent, thus victimizing them again, and perpetuating a form of oppression we should be fighting against.
How do we bring ourselves to bear, how do we respond to another genocide in the 21st century?
First, we witness. Then, we act in solidarity. Solidarity requires our government to recognize this as genocide and push for an arms embargo, sanctions, and a safe zone within Burma guarded by UN peacekeepers with the ability to defend civilians.
The return of the Rohingya can and should only occur when their safety can be guaranteed. This can only happen when and if the Burmese government is willing to put its apartheid system to death.
As a Rohingya father, cradling the severely burnt body of his 2-year-old son told me when asked what he wanted the world to know: “The Burmese military and the civilians who backed them must be tried in an international court of law.”
After treating hundreds of Rohingya patients, it is clear to me that none have the lustful desire for revenge that propelled invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11. Yet we have failed repeatedly to provide the world’s most persecuted minority with its most basic request — justice.
Dr. Nabiha Islam is a final year resident physician in the four-year general internal medicine program at the University of Toronto.