Rohingya refugee Sawyeddollah was stunned when he heard the news: for the first time ever, soldiers from Myanmar’s military admitted to massacring his neighbors.
In late 2017, the teenager fled an army onslaught in Taung Bazar, a village in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State where one of two soldiers in newly released videotaped confessions says he "shot Muslim men in the forehead" and "kicked them into a grave".
The brutal crackdown on the Muslim minority three years ago forced 740,000 Rohingya men, women and children across the border to Bangladesh, where they told horrific stories of abuse to journalists, human rights investigators, and anybody who would listen.
But Myanmar largely denied atrocities that the United Nations said were carried out with genocidal intent. The military said it was targeting Rohingya insurgents, or that Rohingya burned their own homes, or that they made things up to gain sympathy from the media.
"This is a success for us," said Sawyeddollah, who lost many loved ones in the campaign of violence and is now working as an activist in one of the packed camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district.
The bombshell video confessions, which were filmed by an ethnic Rakhine armed group, drew Rohingya refugees to mosques, tea shops and Rohingya YouTube channels to learn more.
But it took time for accessible versions to become widely available as existence of the tapes were first reported in English news outlets the New York Times and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
The two former soldiers have reportedly been brought to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where they could serve as witnesses in future trials. The court’s Office of the Prosecutor, which opened an investigation into atrocities against the Rohingya last year, did not comment on the soldiers or even confirm they were in The Hague when asked by VICE News.
Experts say the insider testimony could also aid a separate case against Myanmar filed by The Gambia at the International Court of Justice.
But for now details matter little, as Rohingya refugees enjoy a rare moment of vindication after years of denials and victim-blaming from Myanmar.
"Before, I felt bad when people didn't believe us," Rohingya teacher Mohammed Faisal told VICE News. He added that there could be no stronger confirmation of what happened than accounts from perpetrators.
The Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), a civil society group, praised the two former soldiers for coming forward and “beginning to repair the relationship between Rohingya and Burmese people in Rakhine State."
On Tuesday, Myanmar's military acknowledged there may have been a wider pattern of violations within their ranks. They promised to investigate.
But it is unclear how far the testimony has resonated in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where public opinion against the Rohingya remains strong. In December, when leader and former human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi appeared at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to defend the military against allegations of genocide, her supporters rallied in the streets to show solidarity.
In an earlier wave of violence against the Rohingya in 2016, Suu Kyi's office contributed to an atmosphere of denial over atrocities by posting a banner on Facebook that read "fake rape" as allegations of sexual assault piled up. One minister also told the BBC that Rohingya women were too “dirty” to rape.
In the new videotapes, however, military deserter Myo Win Tun said that in 2017 there were “corporals, sergeants and officers who raped Muslim women,” and he did it as well. The other man who appeared on the tapes, named Zaw Naing Tun, said he stood sentry while his superiors raped Rohingya women.
"The women who are victims of rape are especially happy that the truth is finally out," said Minara, a spokesperson from Rohingya Women's Education Initiative, a camp-based group working for female empowerment.
But she added that the news also stirred up traumatic memories for survivors as they remembered “how they raped our women, how they burned our houses and how we made the journey leaving our dear country.”
The military has tried to discredit the confessions by claiming they might have been made under duress, but rights groups say they align with their own documentation of abuses.
This picture taken on November 29, 2017, shows a general view of the Balukhali refugee camp at Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. Photo: Ed Jones / AFP
Some survivors struck a more cautious tone about the impact the confessions will have, even as rights groups hailed the testimony and the possible cooperation of former military men in legal cases as game-changing.
"Some of our people ask: If Myanmar ignores the confessions, what will the international community do?" said Rohingya youth activist Mohammed Arfaat, whose faith in the power of international accountability efforts has waned over the years.
While the wheels of justice grind on far from Myanmar and Bangladesh, Rohingya face more immediate challenges. There are the deteriorating living conditions in the densely populated refugee camps, where the first coronavirus infections appeared in May. At home, Rohingya still in Rakhine State are caught in a conflict between rebels from the Arakan Army (AA) and the military.
UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday warned that abuses against Rohingya in Myanmar were continuing despite an International Court of Justice order to protect the community in January.
Three years after the crackdown, conditions in Rakhine State are not safe enough for Rohingya to return, and Myanmar shows no signs of giving Rohingya back basic citizenship rights that will be essential for any repatriation effort.
But for Shahida Win, a 24-year-old Rohingya woman in the camps, the video testimony is still cause for hope:
"With their confession, I hope that we will get justice and doors will open soon for us to go back home," she said. "I hope that the soldiers’ testimony will finally make a difference for us."
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