22 April 2018

How the families of 10 massacred Rohingya fled Myanmar

KONFRONTASI-Rehana Khatun dreamed her husband came home. He appeared without warning in their village in western Myanmar, outside their handsome wooden house shaded by mango trees. “He didn’t say anything,” she said. “He was only there for a few seconds, and then he was gone.” Then Rehana Khatun woke up.

She woke up in a shack of ragged tarpaulin on a dusty hillside in Bangladesh. Her husband, Nur Mohammed, is never coming home. He was one of 10 Rohingya Muslim men massacred last September by Myanmar soldiers and Rakhine Buddhists at the coastal village of Inn Din.

Rehana Khatun’s handsome wooden house is gone, too. So is everything in it. The Rohingya homes in Inn Din were burned to the ground, and what was once a close-knit community, with generations of history in Myanmar, is now scattered across the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh.

A Reuters investigation in February revealed what happened to the 10 Rohingya men. On September 1, soldiers snatched them from a large group of Rohingya villagers detained by a beach near Inn Din. The next morning, according to eyewitnesses, the men were shot by the soldiers or hacked to death by their Rakhine Buddhist neighbors. Their bodies were dumped in a shallow grave.

The relatives the 10 men left behind that afternoon wouldn’t learn of the killings for many months - in some cases, not until Reuters reporters tracked them down in the refugee camps and told them what had happened. The survivors waited by the beach with rising anxiety and dread as the sun set and the men didn’t return.

This is their story. Three of them fled Inn Din while heavily pregnant. All trekked north in monsoon rain through forests and fields. Drenched and terrified, they dodged military patrols and saw villages abandoned or burning. Some saw dead bodies. They walked for days with little food or water.

They were not alone. Inn Din’s families joined nearly 700,000 Rohingya escaping a crackdown by the Myanmar military, launched after attacks by Rohingya militants on August 25. The United Nations called it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” which Myanmar has denied.

On Tuesday, the military said it had sentenced seven soldiers to long prison terms for their role in the Inn Din massacre. Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay told Reuters the move was a “very positive step” that showed the military “won’t give impunity for those who have violated the rules of engagement.” Myanmar, he said, doesn’t allow systematic human rights abuses.

Reuters was able to corroborate many but not all details of the personal accounts in this story.

The Rohingya streamed north until they reached the banks of the Naf River. On its far shore lay Bangladesh, and safety. Many Inn Din women gave boatmen their jewelry to pay for the crossing; others begged and fought their way on board. They made the perilous crossing at night, vomiting with sickness and fear.

Now in Bangladesh, they struggle to piece together their lives without husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. Seven months have passed since the massacre, but the grief of Inn Din’s survivors remains raw. One mother told Reuters her story, then fainted.

Like Rehana Khatun, they all say they dream constantly about the dead. Some dreams are bittersweet - a husband coming home, a son praying in the mosque - and some are nightmares. One woman says she sees her husband clutching a stomach wound, blood oozing through his fingers.

Daytime brings little relief. They all remember, with tormenting clarity, the day the soldiers took their men away.

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