Hundreds of women stood in the river, held at gunpoint, ordered not to move. A pack of soldiers stepped toward a petite young woman with light brown eyes and delicate cheekbones. Her name was Rajuma, and she was standing chest-high in the water, clutching her baby son, while her village in Myanmar burned down behind her. “You,” the soldiers said, pointing at her. She froze. “You!” She squeezed her baby tighter. In the next violent blur of moments, the soldiers clubbed Rajuma in the face, tore her screaming child out of her arms and hurled him into a fire. She was then dragged into a house and gang-raped. By the time the day was over, she was running through a field naked and covered in blood. Alone, she had lost her son, her mother, her two sisters and her younger brother, all wiped out in front of her eyes, she says. Rajuma is a Rohingya Muslim, one of the most persecuted ethnic groups on earth, and she now spends her days drifting through a refugee camp in Bangladesh in a daze.
She relayed her story to me during a recent reporting trip I made to the camps, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya like her have rushed for safety. Her deeply disturbing account of what happened in her village, in late August, was corroborated by dozens of other survivors, whom I spoke with at length, and by human rights groups gathering evidence of atrocities. Survivors said they saw government soldiers stabbing babies, cutting off boys’ heads, gang-raping girls, shooting 40-millimeter grenades into houses, burning entire families to death, and rounding up dozens of unarmed male villagers and summarily executing them. Much of the violence was flamboyantly brutal, intimate and personal — the kind that is detonated by a long, bitter history of ethnic hatred. “People were holding the soldiers’ feet, begging for their lives,” Rajuma said. “But they didn’t stop, they just kicked them off and killed them. They chopped people, they shot people, they raped us, they left us senseless.”
Human rights investigators said that Myanmar’s military killed more than 1,000 civilians in the state of Rakhine, and possibly as many as 5,000, though it will be hard to ever know because Myanmar is not allowing the United Nations or anyone else into the affected areas. Peter Bouckaert, a veteran investigator with Human Rights Watch, said there was growing evidence of organized massacres, like the one Rajuma survived, in which government soldiers methodically slaughtered more than 100 civilians in a single location. He called them crimes against humanity. On Wednesday, the United Nations human rights office said that government troops had targeted “houses, fields, food-stocks, crops, livestock and even trees,” making it “almost impossible” for the Rohingya to return home. Satellite imagery has revealed 288 separate villages burned, some down to the last post. Human rights groups said the government troops had one goal: to erase entire Rohingya communities. The unsparing destruction drove more than half a million people into Bangladesh in recent weeks. United Nations officials called the campaign against the Rohingya a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing.