‘I watched it from behind a tree, but there was nothing I could do’ — eyewitness
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Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh: As bullets and rocket propelled grenades ripped through a muggy early afternoon, Molovi Mubarak caught a glimpse of the attackers before he fled: a mixture of uniformed soldiers and vigilantes in civilian clothes armed with sticks and knives.
But amid the chaos, one face in particular stood out: the local chairman, or mayor, who had promised the ethnic Rohingya villagers of Tum Bazar safety just the previous day. He was carrying a machete.
“They had attacked Sangana, another village three kilometres away, the day before. We watched them drop bombs on it from helicopters,” a dazed Mr Mubarak, 33, said in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph beneath the tarpaulin stretched between two trees that now houses his family. “So we were afraid, but the military and the chairman told us we shouldn’t run away from areas where the terrorists were, that we would be safe if we stayed at home,” he said. “I suppose it was a trap.”
It was August 26; the second day of what Aung San Suu Kyi’s government says is a counter-terrorist operation against an armed insurgent group that has claimed responsibility for a number of deadly attacks on border guard posts in the country’s Rakhine state. Every day since then, thousands of people have streamed across the border into neighbouring Bangladesh in what human rights groups describe as a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide — claims Mayanmar denies.
With access to the region restricted by the Burmese military, neither account is easy to verify. But multiple eyewitness accounts suggest that local government officials, often leading civilian vigilante groups, are cooperating with the military to perpetrate house burnings and massacres of ethnic Rohingya civilians across the state. Survivors of attacks on six separate villages described seeing local government officials taking part in bloody attacks over the past two weeks. The accounts all claim that soldiers were accompanied by men in civilian clothes and armed with sticks, knives and machetes, whom the Rohingya refugees identify as members of the Rakhine community, the majority ethnic group in Rakhine state. There are long running tensions between the two communities.
The alleged involvement of officials includes helping the military to identify houses belonging to Rohingya civilians in mixed villages; actively directing and taking part in killing; and promising sanctuary apparently as part of a deliberate deception.
Nurul Amin, 33, said such a promise persuaded him to take refuge in the colony of Tula Toli, a mixed Rakhine and Rohingya village, after witnessing vigilantes and soldiers massacre his wife, their three children, and his mother and mother-in-law in the village of Garatabil on August 28. “The soldiers shot people down with buckshot, and those who couldn’t get away were finished off with knives,” he said. “I watched it from behind a tree, but there was nothing I could do. I saw little children. They threw the children into the burning houses.” “I didn’t try to go to Bangladesh then, because there was nowhere to run to.
And in Tula Toli the village chairman said ‘stay here, I am here and I promise you will be safe’,” he said. Mr Amin said he did not know whether the chairman, an ethnic Rakhine, had prior knowledge of a similar attack that hit that village two days later. But Mohammad Islam, a native of Tula Toli who said he had received the same assurances of safety, said there was no question of the official’s involvement: “When I next saw him he was wearing the uniform of the military. He entered the village with them.” Rashid Ahmad, 50, said he had received no assurances or warning before helicopters began an attack on the village of Kowsinbong in the early hours of August 29.
But like witnesses from other areas, he was adamant that he saw the chairman of the six-village district enter the village with soldiers and civilian vigilantes afterwards. “He was carrying a gun, a long one like soldiers carry, and poured petrol on the homes that were set on fire,” he said. “Of the vigilantes I knew a few of the faces, but not names. They were not close neighbours.” Dil Ara, a 35-year-old woman from the same village, claims she also saw the chairman armed and alongside the militias.
She claimed he was helping the military identify Rohingya-owned houses. The Sunday Telegraph was unable to independently verify these accounts. However, human rights groups said the reports match a pattern of violence used by the Burmese military in the region in the past. Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said: “What we fear is there is coordination going on between Burmese army and police with local officials and mobs of extremist ethnic Rakhine, and the result is to chase out the Rohingya and then loot and torch their villages.” Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has blamed village burnings on the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the armed group that claimed responsibility for a number of deadly attacks on border posts in Oct 2016 and August this year.
Arakan is the Rohingya name for Rakhine state. It describes itself as a resistance movement “fighting for liberation of persecuted Rohingya”.
The International Crisis Group said in a report that the emergence of the apparently well-organised and well-funded group could be a “game-changer” for Burmese government efforts to resolve ongoing tensions in Rakhine state. However, AS Anwar, a Malaysia-based Rohingya journalist following the conflict, estimates their strength at no more than 1,000 people. “Although it calls itself an army, four fifths of their members are armed with swords, knives and sticks and wear sarongs and slippers,” he said.
Yesterday the United Nations estimated nearly 300,000 Rohingya Muslims had fled Buddhist-majority Burma in the past two weeks. But, said Vivian Tan of the UNHCR, this is a “best guess”. In the woods and on the crowded roadsides, a mishmash of aid agencies, Bangladeshi government organisations, and volunteers are attempting to distribute crucial supplies.
Everyone fears an epidemic brought on by inadequate sanitation. Aid officials said a coordinated response would probably depend on a formal request for assistance from the Bangladeshi government and agreement at the United Nations. “We have fed 4,000 people in four days,” said Ahmed Chowdhury, a businessman from Cox’s Bazar who organised two dozen friends and business acquaintances to hand out baby clothes and food to the exhausted families emerging from the paddy fields on the border near Tat Naff.
“We’re just local people contributing. We don’t have anything to do with the government or the aid agencies,” he said as a column of more than 1,000 trudged past.