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Photo story: ”A schoolbook example of ethnic cleansing”

In August 2017 the military in Burma started an offensive against the Muslim Rohingya. According to testimonies men and children have been slaughtered, women have been raped and hundreds of villages have been set on fire. DN:s Lotta Härdelin has met survivors of what UN describes as ”a schoolbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

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More: Torbjörn Peterssons story from the camps in Bangladesh

1. THE TESTIMONIES
The women tell their stories in short, quickly worded sentences. Between each sentence the space is filled with anxious breathing. Their gazes are empty. The tone is low. Some sentences are almost whispered. Ome of my questions is never asked, I can’t stand to put it into words. The question still echoes in my head.
Why are you not crying?
Maybe it’s because I can’t bear to hear the answer.


Montas, 30 years old. Tulatoli village.
Montas watched as her husband and three sons were killed with a knife.
Then she and her 7-year-old daughter were forced to take of their clothes. Montas was hit with a wooden cane over her head and chest. Raisa was stabbed in her head. Women and children were divided into groups and brought into a house. Montas was raped, hit unconscious and left in the house that was set on fire. Raisa woke her mother and they managed to get out of the burning house and leave. Montas was badly burned and was carried parts of the way.
In the refugee camp in Bangladesh she has no tent, no pots and asks us for food for her daughter Raisa. Her genitals are still hurting.


Roshida, 22 years old. Tulatoli village.
Roshida’s 28-day-old son was hit to death with a wooden cane, when she was holding him. Then she was taken to a house together with a few other women from her village. When the door had closed she was stabbed in her throat and stomach. She was raped and left unconscious in a pool of blood.


Shafika, 18 years old. Tulatoli village.
Soldiers forced her to undress. All the women were put into groups. She was shut in a house and tied up. Six men from the army were in the same house. There were six women and three children in the house.
”They did what they wanted to me. But I don’t want to tell you more than that,” Shafika says.


Senuwara, 35 years old. Dongbai village.
Buddhist extremists and soldiers from the army arrived in the village on August 29.
Senuwara was tied in three places. She was forced to watch her husband being tortured. She saw one of her sons being killed. In the house there were three militaries and six Buddhist extremists. She knows that three of the men raped her, then she can’t remember more Senuwara was eight months pregnant. When she woke after the rape she had lost her baby. The whole village, 1500 residential buildings, was set on fire.
Senuwara was not conscious during the escape, but she has been told that her uncle and one of her sons carried her all the way to Bangladesh. There is still blood in her urine, and her genitals hurt.

2. AT THE BORDER
The view over the rice field is beautiful. Light green straws sway in the wind. The Burmese border lies were the rice fileds end and the mountains start. Close to the border between Burma and Banglades 10.000 people have gathered, escaping from the military offensive. They are Rohingya, an unwanted Muslim ethnic group in Burma.


Some days the Bangladeshi army is ordered to ”hold back” the stream of refugees. ”Today there is a hold back-strategy,” an anonymous Bangladeshi military explains to us when we look our over an empty rice field one rainy day.





3. A MUDDY WALK TOWARDS AN UNKNOWN GOAL
A few days later the military has been ordered to temporarily open the border by Anjumanpara, and we walk out on one of the rice fields, and find ourselves in the middle of a stream of people. The muddy path is surrounded by knee-high water with a deep, muddy bed. The only way to move forward is to walk in a narrow line, one by one.

When we interview someone the whole line of people stop. Few have the strength to wade in the mud surrounding the path. They describe how long they have been starving in their village (often between one to two weeks), what has happened in the village (testimonies from hell) and how long they have been on the run (4-12 days). When we ask what they are escaping from and what awaits them in Bangladesh many of them shake their heads. They don’t know. Every discussion is ended by them pointing at their stomach, and at their mouth. They are asking for food.

4. NIGHT CAMP ON THE BEACH
The escape from Burma to Bangladesh goes either by land or across the sea. By Shah Porir Dwip there is a passage where boats sheltered by the darkness of the night transport people in need. To get the opportunity to describe the arrival of the boats to Bangladesh we decide to spend a night on the beach.
The beach is stunningly beautiful. Fishermen’s children play in the low tide. It looks idyllic, like a paradise beach. A few hours later this water will take more than thirty people’s lives.

We decide to sleep in shifts and to take turns watching the sea. My colleague Torbjjörn finds a shed where he falls asleep sitting in a plastic chair. I decide to sleep on the beach. I lie down on the sand, pull a poncho over me as a blanket and put a towel over my head to shelter it from the wind.
”Hello! Hello! HELLO!” I am woken up at 4 A.M. when two policemen from the coast guard lean over me with anxious eyes. ”Are you ok?” they ask in worried voices. ”How is your food situation?”
When I have explained who I am and what I am doing there they laugh with embarrassment. They thought I was an escaping Rohingya, left on the beach. They say that no boat will be coming tonight. ”Why not?” I ask.
”The boat sunk,” they say and turn their gaze towards the horizon.

5. THEY DIED WHILE ESCAPING
They were so happy when they went on board the boat, they say in monotone voices. They had been fleeing on foot for eight days and had nearly no food. The small amount of food that they have, they gave to their children. For two days they had been waiting on a beach to get a boat to Bangladesh. When the boat was filled with more and more people they became doubtful, but they were told to not worry.
Usually the boat takes 20 passengers. When the boat left Burma there were around 40 people onboard. After half an hour at sea the waves hit the low railing.


More than thirty people died this night in Shah Porir Dwip. It’s a tragedy that repeats itself. According to the coast guards around one refugee boat a week sinks. Sayed Hussein, to the right, is one of three survivors. He has swum around in the currents for more than three hours when the coast guards lift him into their boat and take him to the pier on Bangladeshi territory. Sayed’s wife and three children, two, three and seven years old, were also on the boat. All four of them are missing.

6. THE CAMP IN BANGLADESH
What was once a forest is now a huge muddy plain with simple tents built from black plastic sheets and bamboo.
There is no clean water. There is no food. There are no medicines.
Aid organisations that we meet are working frantically, putting up field hospitals, starting up vaccination programs against cholera and trying to stop diarrhoea.

In the Balukhali camp our car gets stuck in the middle of a loud crowd of waiting refugees. Aid workers are trying to calm the crowd to prevent panic from breaking out. They fail. When two boxes are seen the line dissolves and everyone runs up, climbing on each other to reach out.
When two packets of biscuits can be seen one small girl’s face is distorted to resemble a predator. After a few seconds the two boxes are torn and the biscuits are gone. Hundreds of hungry people are turning their gaze to the next truck.
The sound of hacks steer our steps towards the top of one of the hills in the Palongkhali camp. On the top of the muddy mountain we see a few men digging a base and trying to anchor some bamboo canes. Their mosque in Burma was burned down by the military. Now the prayers are held on top of a pile of mud. A week ago they started building a new mosque. When they pray and look out over the landscape they see refugee camps as far as the eye can see. Burma lies where the mountains start. They hope to be able to return there.

7. NEVER FORGETTING
Senuwara from Dongbai village, who lost her child after being rape, could neither bury the lost foetus or her son who was murdered in front of her. Her husband is crippled from the torture.
When we meet her in the Batukhali refugee camp she talks about life in Burma.

”We had a new two-floor house, we had cows and fields. Now we live in a shed which is worse than the house we had for keeping our animals.
”How are you now?” we ask.
”I think about what happened all the time: when I’m eating, when I go to the toilet. The worst part was seeing my son being killed. When my body hurts the memory of him comes back and I am reminded that I can never forget him.”

Text, film och photo Lotta Härdelin