Since late August, Burmese security forces have been waging a systematic campaign of violence against the Rohingya population of Myanmar's westernmost state of Rakhine. By the latest count, more than 389,000 Rohingya Muslims—a ghettoized stateless minority denied citizenship and basic rights by the Myanmar government—have walked, swam, and crawled through jungles and hills and muddy ravines into neighboring Bangladesh. Most arrive with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Many haven't eaten for days. They report villages burned, possessions looted, women raped, and countless dead, included babies and small children. Around 30,000 Rohingya remain trapped in the mountains, hemmed in by security forces, without food or supplies.
For decades, the government has labeled Rohingya as illegal migrants from Bangladesh—despite evidence of their presence in western Myanmar since pre-colonial times—who violate the racial and religious purity of this Buddhist nation and scheme to establish Islamist rule. The government and its allies point to the emergence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)—which attacked police posts in August, killing 12 security personnel and prompting the massive military backlash—as evidence of this intent. ARSA claim theirs is a resistance born of self-defense, and that the officially sanctioned persecution and demonization of the Rohingya people—which includes restrictions on birth rates, marriages, and higher education—is nothing less than genocide.
The world is beginning to take note: On Monday, the UN high commissioner for human rights called the violence "a textbook case of ethnic cleansing." (The Burmese government continues to euphemistically term the killings "clearance operations.")
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the 72-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former political dissident, denies both the scale and nature of the violence, blaming a campaign of "misinformation." Her spokesman Zaw Htay hasclaimed that the Rohingya are burning their own villages in a ploy for international sympathy. Satellite images captured by Human Rights Watch show otherwise. This week, it was announced that Suu Kyi would not appear at the UN General Assembly.
We spoke to five Rohingya refugees who are among the victims of this most recent violence outside the camps of Kutupalong and Balukhali in Teknaf, in the southernmost point of Bangladesh. This is the the point of arrival for Rohingya crossing the Naf River from Myanmar.
Abu Ahmed is a 60-year-old farmer from the Maungdaw District. He crossed into Bangladesh 17 days ago, driven from his home by security forces who descended on his village with guns, bombs, and machetes.
"They grabbed my sister-in-law and her child," he said. "First they killed the child. Then they shot my sister-in-law, and set her on fire, in front of my brother. There was nothing we could do but run."
Abu Ahmed said he fled as army personnel, joined by local Buddhist mobs, raped women, slaughtered civilians, and torched houses. A bomb dropped from a military helicopter landed in a nearby pond. He and his remaining family hid, emerging the next day to find the smoldering remains of his village, bodies and buildings charred. They laid low until midnight, then fled to a neighboring village, taking only a few dishes and some cooking pots.
"We left the crops in the fields, the rice in the storehouse," he told me. "The goats, the cows, the fisheries. We couldn't bring anything. We left secretly, like thieves."
For four days, they sheltered in a neighboring village—until the red helicopters descended once more. Again the military swept through, killing and burning. Again Abu Ahmed and his family fled, seeking refuge in another village. Then, for the third time, the army arrived. The village was destroyed, and Abu Ahmed said they had no choice but to start walking toward Bangladesh.
"We walked for two days," he said. "Women, children, and the elderly. We had no food. When people fell on the road from hunger and weakness, we picked them up. Finally, we came to the shore."
He said several thousand Rohingya were already camped on the Ghat River waiting to be ferried across to Bangladesh. Wooden boats, rowed by Bangladeshis, plied a brisk trade. Abu Ahmed described how as one boat was about to touch soil on the Bangladesh side, a Burmese military boat arrived, ramming and sinking it. The only people who made it to shore from that boat were three children around ten or 12 years old, he said.
Eventually, Abu Ahmed made the crossing to Teknaf, joining the more than 34,000 official Rohingya refugees who had fled from previous crackdowns. These official camps are already at their saturation point. The makeshift settlements clogging the 12-mile road from Teknaf to Cox's Bazar are little more than shantytowns of tarps and blankets strung over ropes, meager protection against the season's torrential monsoon rains. Resources are scarce.
According to preliminary data from UNICEF, 60 percent of the refugees are children, totaling about 200,000. More than 1,000 have been separated from their parents. Adults and children alike are weak, hungry, sick, traumatized, and haven't slept for days. Everyone is barefoot. The lack of safe drinking water or basic sanitation means that dysentery, fever, and other diseases are on the rise.
Still, Abu Ahmed called the grim conditions in which he now finds himself a "paradise" compared to terror he left behind.
"We are praying that [the Bangladesh government] will give us land here," he said. "What is there for us in Burma now? If [the world] can guarantee our safety, we will return to our villages. Otherwise, I will never in my life speak of Burma again."
But return may not be an option. On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Myanmar government said that 40 percent of the 471 villages targeted have been successfully cleared. That is 176 burned and vacated villages, and at least 34 others partially abandoned. The spokesman said only "verified" Rohingya will be allowed to return, a cynical announcement when the government's policy is to deny the Rohingya citizenship papers. The government has announced a $1.6 million economic zone to be established in the newly emptied Maungdaw township.
Meanwhile, the influx continues, with an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 new refugees in Bangladesh daily, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). They come in an endless stream, each new arrival's story a fresh chapter in a hellish story.
Twenty-five-year-old Rahima told me how the security forces raped all the women in her family before torching their house and driving them away. Arefa, also 25, described the bullet that killed her sister and how her remaining family, including her two small children, walked for three days to reach the Kulutpong camp. They spent every last bit of money on food, and payment for the crossing.
Marium, 60, recounted how the security forces rounded up all the men in her village and took them away. She never saw them again. The 400 or 500 remaining villagers—the old and the very young—walked for eight days, as Buddhist vigilante groups pillaged and burned and chased them. At the camps, a whole generation of Rohingya men seems to be missing: They've either been killed or have stayed behind to protect their homes—or joined the ARSA to fight.
Syedul Amin, a 26-year-old shopkeeper, is one of the men who made it here. He lashed one child to his back and another to his belly and walked for 14 days without food. They foraged for what they could in the jungle. "We ate banana palms, and drank rainwater from the leaves," he said.
While there is at least food in Bangladesh thanks to organizations like the UN World Food Program and the charity of local villagers—who offer bananas, puffed rice, jaggery, and bread, despite their own poverty—Amin said his appetite is gone.
"Our bodies ache," he said. "We saw the military and the Magh [ethnic Arakanese Buddhists] kill our families. We saw them slit throats and bellies, shoot our men, and rape our women. They killed the older men, and then the men my age. They killed our doctors."
Then he described how, when they finally reached the border crossing on the muddy banks of the Naf River and believed the worst was behind them, four military choppers swooped overhead and began to strafe them. His two aunts died in the gunfire.
"We dug graves and buried them there," he said.
The long-term consequences of these atrocities and the resulting exodus are difficult to imagine. In 2014, Myanmar's Rohingya were estimated to number 1.1 million. At least 700,000 of them are now refugees in Bangladesh. By the end of the year, that number could climb to 1 million, according to the IOM. At a joint press conference with the UNHCR in Bangladesh's capital on Thursday, the IOM director of operations and security painted a bleak picture: "Unless a political solution is found, there is a possibility that the entire Rohingya community may come to Bangladesh."
Belal Uddin Joy contributed to this article.
Shahirah Majumdar is a New York–based journalist and writer.