“I remember my husband staring at me as the Myanmar Soldier put the gun towards his head and pulled the trigger,” recalled Mumtaz, a Rohingya refugee currently living in a settlement camp in Bangladesh with her only living child. In August of 2018, Myanmar soldiers killed her husband and sons in front of her before holding her down and raping her in front of her daughter. Mumtaz is only one of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya that have gone through excruciatingly tragic experiences in the past two years. She is also one of several refugees to whom Muhummad Mallick, a Chicago-based photographer working on the book “Muslims of the World,” spoke and whose story he documented. He closely listened to more of her horrific account; how after the soldiers raped her they put kerosene on her face and lit her on fire; how her house went up in flames while her daughter dragged her away; how they starved for three days before someone found them and took them to Bangladesh. Mumtaz, reflecting back on her story, said, “One day you are with your whole family laughing and smiling and then the next day your entire family is dead.”
The Rohingya people are an ethnic group from western Myanmar who have lived there since the 4th century. Islam embedded itself into the community around the 7th century when Muslims began to settle in the area. Rohingya continued to be accepted members of society until the late 20th century. First, it started with the Myanmar government discriminating against them by denying access to marriage protections, citizenship, employment, and education. The denial of citizenship hurts the Rohingya most significantly because they are not allowed to vote, and it leaves a large population essentially stateless. They also need approval from authorities to legally get married, which includes having to show photographs of the bride without a headscarf and the groom with a clean-cut face, both of which go against Islamic cultural beliefs and practices. The government provides little to no investment in the Rohingya community, resulting in poor infrastructure, high rates of poverty (currently at 78 percent, compared to the national average of 37.5 percent), and a severe lack of employment opportunities.
The recent mass exodus from Myanmar of Rohingya Muslims in August of 2017 was caused by the military destroying thousands of Rohingya villages, forcing nearly seven hundred thousand Rohingya–including Mumtaz–to flee Myanmar into neighboring countries. Government soldiers also planted landmines near the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh, opened fire on fleeing refugees, and raped women and girls. According to Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian medical organization, the first month of attacks alone caused at least 6,700 deaths, with tens of thousands more deaths to follow in subsequent years.
Mallick spoke to several more Rohingya refugees and learned about their experiences and what made each of them specifically flee Myanmar. Another woman, Roshida, was raped in front of her husband and six children. When her husband tried to stop the soldiers, they shot him and killed one of her children. She was then taken to the paddy fields by five men and was raped over and over again. She was left unconscious there for twelve days before her brother and children found her and took her to Bangladesh for refuge from the ongoing onslaught of violence and death. Although she appreciates the work that the hospitals in Bangladesh provided for her and the other stateless persecuted refugees, her whole life has already been changed forever. In Roshida’s own words, “The day the military came was the day my world went dark.”
Currently, Rohingya Muslims are dispersed in several South East Asian countries, number one being Bangladesh due to its close proximity to Myanmar. According to Bangladeshi authorities, there are more than 1.1 million refugees in the country who mostly live in crowded camps, conditions that only increase the risk of disease outbreaks such as measles and tetanus, potentially harming even more of the Rohingya community. On top of that, 60 percent of the water supply in these camps is contaminated with water-borne diseases, adding to the risk of refugees contracting illnesses. The inhumane conditions that the Rohingya people are subjected to are a travesty and cannot be overlooked by the global community. United Nations (UN) Secretary General António Guterres described the situation as “a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.”
Rohingya have also migrated to other countries, such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. According to the UN, 80,000 Rohingya refugees reside in Malaysia, while there are still tens of thousands in the country unregistered for. Rohingya have even fled nearly 6,000 kilometers to places as far as Indonesia; however, because they are treated as illegal immigrants there, their numbers are relatively small. Thailand is itself a human smuggling hub, so many Rohingya pass through there as a transit point, often traveling onwards to Malaysia or Indonesia by boat or even foot. In every one of these Asian countries, Rohingya have absolutely no legal status; therefore, they are unable to work, get an education, or have access to healthcare. Even the United States is taking in Rohingya refugees, with over 1,600 Rohingya currently based in Chicago. Most of them spent years in Malaysian camps after fleeing from persecution in Myanmar before resettling in America, oftentimes having to leave children or other family members behind, alive or dead.
What has been happening to the Rohingya people is nothing short of horrific and the fact that it is intensifying to this day is absolutely appalling. Those who manage to escape the slaughter and rape back home live in abhorrent conditions in a foreign land.
The United Nations has helped move Rohingya refugees to safer areas, repair damaged shelters and roads, and provide refugees with blankets, food, and lights. However, without the help of the international community and individuals like Mallick, it is unlikely the situation will improve. Going all the way to Bangladesh to help the refugees, just like Mallick did, might be a little too much for a lot of us, but small donations to the UN can help relocate refugees to new shelters, provide healthcare to the refugees, immunize children, and establish nutrition centers in the refugee camps.
If you would like to learn more about the efforts being made to help the Rohingya people, or if you would like to help yourself, visit Islamic Relief USA at http://irusa.org/