Peter Bouckaert is emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.
COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh – In Bangladesh’s overflowing and squalid camps for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing the Burmese army’s campaign of ethnic cleansing, I met three remarkable women who told me their stories of horror and survival in the village of Tu Lar To Li.
Rashida, 25, spoke so softly that she was often hard to hear because Burmese soldiers had cut her throat and left her for dead in a burning house. (I refer to Rashida and others mentioned in this article solely by their first names in order to ensure their security.)
She said the soldiers trapped her and fellow villagers at the river’s edge, separated men from women and children, and made the women and children stand in waist-deep water as the soldiers gunned down their husbands, fathers and brothers. The river that runs alongside Rashida’s village — the villagers’ only hope for an escape route from gunfire pouring in on them from security forces — was too deep to cross.
Then, as some soldiers collected and burned the men’s bodies, others began taking away the women and children in small groups.
Four soldiers took Rashida and four other women to a house. Rashida said that at the house, a soldier grabbed her 28-day-old baby, Mohammed Eukhan, from her arms and smashed him on the floor, killing him instantly. Two other women’s young infants were killed in the same way. The soldiers then began slashing at the terrified women with knives and machetes, and cut their throats.
Rashida woke up in a burning, locked house, and the first thing she saw was her dead baby next to her. She managed to crawl through a burning bamboo wall and escaped. She was the only survivor from the group of five women and their children. Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch shows the entire village razed by fire.
Human Rights Watch has since 2012 found that the Burmese government has committed crimes against humanity against the Rohingya population in Rakhine State. Since Aug. 25, when an armed group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked about 30 police outposts in northern Rakhine State, Burmese security forces have carried out mass arson, killing, rape and looting, destroying hundreds of villages and forcing more than 400,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Given the scale and overall context of these latest atrocities, together with evidence of intent on the part of the Burmese military, Human Rights Watch believes that these more recent crimes also constitute crimes against humanity. The fact that the powerful military is behind these acts means that there is almost no chance that the government will bring key perpetrators to justice.
Two days before I spoke with Rashida, I had met Hassina, 20, and her sister-in-law Asma, 18, who had been with the same group during the massacre. They had also witnessed the killing of the men as they were forced to stand in the water and had suffered similar horrors.
Hassina said that while the soldiers were burning the bodies of the men they had killed, one of them noticed that she was trying to hide her year-old daughter, Sohaifa, under her robes. The soldier came over and ripped Sohaifa from Hassina’s arms, and tossed the infant alive on the fire burning the men’s bodies.
Hours later, the soldiers took Hassina, Asma, Hassina’s mother-in-law, Fatima, 35, and three of Fatima’s young children to a nearby house. They tried to rape the women, knifing Fatima to death when she resisted, and then beating Hassina and Asma unconscious. The three children were beaten to death with spades, Hassina and Asma said.
When Hassina and Asma regained consciousness, they found themselves in a burning, locked house. They managed to escape the flames, but with serious burns. Asma showed me the big gash on the back of her head from when she had been beaten unconscious. A doctor had stitched it up.
Such graphic accounts of the horrors unfolding in Burma seem too terrible to be true, but these are what Human Rights Watch researchers are hearing day after day, and they are too consistent and credible to be dismissed as fabrications or exaggerations.
Let there be no doubt: The Burmese army is engaged in horrific atrocities in its ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. When soldiers shoot men in their custody, hack women and children to death, and burn their homes, the world needs to pay attention and act together to stop these crimes.
And although the surging river waters near Tu Lar To Li may wash away the blood and ashes of the people brutally killed and burned by the army, the nations of the world should not ignore these crimes. The U.N. Security Council and concerned governments need to take immediate action by imposing an arms embargo and targeted sanctions on military leaders and pursue all avenues to hold those responsible to account. More specifically, the council should refer the situation in Burma to the International Criminal Court. Victims such as Rashida, Hassina and Asma, who have lost almost everything, at least deserve justice.