COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — “They beat me and slit my throat,” said Rashida, 25. She was sitting on a plastic chair, weak and waiting for an ambulance. We were a few feet from the border where she’d just crossed into Bangladesh after fleeing her village in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state eight days earlier.
“My baby is dead, my husband is dead,” she said. Her breath came in rasps that echoed from her throat. Two deep lacerations that cut across her neck appeared infected. She had not yet received medical attention since being brutally assaulted by a mob of armed men.
With their mass exodus into Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees like Rashida are bringing with them stories of murder, rape and torture at the hands of Myanmar’s security forces and ultranationalist buddhists. Myanmar’s military says it’s conducting a “clearance operation” against Rohingya insurgents behind a series of deadly attacks in late August, but accounts from survivors like Rashida tell a decidedly different story.
Rashida’s village, Tula Toli, was subject to one of the most gruesome military attacks to be recorded since Rohingya Muslims began flooding into Bangladesh by the tens of thousands two weeks ago.
“They struck us until we were lifeless”
Rashida was cradling her one-month-old boy when the attack began on August 30, she said. Armed with machetes and guns, security forces allegedly began a calculated assault that would last hours and leave an entire village wiped out.
The women and children were separated from the men first, Rashida said, then pushed to the river’s shore. They were trapped, as a mob of armed attackers began to shoot them relentlessly. Some tried to dash to the water and brave the currents, hoping they could swim to safety while bullets rained down on them. As victims fell dead around her, Rashida collapsed to the ground dodging the onslaught and hiding her baby between the folds of her head scarf. After a brief pause in shooting, the soldiers shouted for any survivors to stand up, then fired their guns again.
When they were finished, the attackers dug a hole that they filled with the bodies of the dead. Rashida was grabbed by a soldier and dragged away. When he realized she was still alive, he smashed her over the head with a machete and she lost consciousness.
When Rashida came round it was dark, and her baby was gone. She had given birth just one month before, and she hadn’t even decided upon a name for him.
The soldiers had brought her to a house, where along with seven other women, she was beaten and raped. Rashida does not know how many hours passed as she suffered at their hands. Finally, leaving them for dead, the men set fire to the house and moved on.
“They struck us until we were lifeless,” Rashida said, “but I lay there still and played dead so they would stop. When the house started to burn, I found the last of my energy and managed to crawl out.”
Rashida hid in the forest until all was quiet. Then returned to look for her lost child. Finding her village deserted and in ashes, and with her baby nowhere to be seen, she began the long journey by foot to the Bangladesh border.
An estimated 370,000 refugees have arrived in Bangladesh in 18 days. Most have nothing but the clothes they were wearing and the belongings they could quickly grab and carry on their backs. Now they face Bangladesh’s monsoon season, slicked with mud and soaked to the skin, waiting under tarpaulins with nowhere to go.
The United Nations issued an urgent call for $77 million to help cope with the unfolding crisis, stating an immediate need for more shelters, food, clean water and health services.
“I am so grateful for this small mercy”
Soon after we spoke, Rashida was taken to a nearby hospital to receive medical care from staff overwhelmed by those in need of urgent attention.
Nearby in a new refugee settlement in Balukhali, word of her arrival spread through the camp. It quickly reached 27-year-old Mohamed Hussein, the husband Rashida believed to have died in the attack on her village. He was alongside other newcomers building a shelter from plastic sheeting and bamboo. When he heard the news, he dropped everything and ran immediately to the clinic.
“I went seat to seat and bed to bed looking for her,” Mohamed said. “When I saw her and what they did to her, I could not stop the tears from falling.”
Mohamed spent the night at the hospital with Rashida, but returned to the camp in the morning to prepare a shelter for her when she is eventually discharged.
“I thought she was dead. She thought I was dead,” he said. “I am so grateful for this small mercy.”
Kathleen Prior is a reporter and photographer.