In grainy amateur video — shot mostly on a cellphone, vertically, the way many videos are recorded nowadays — we see vignettes of terror unfolding.
It is night. A house is burning. Someone is frantically barking instructions, or perhaps pleas. The man recording the video is out of breath, running.
Now, morning. A body is on the ground, draped in a purple blanket. Beside it, a man, knuckles white, crying with mouth agape. A woman wails while holding a child, the boy’s face expressionless.
Night again. It is pitch black apart from a small patch of light radiating from a torch. Rushing water. Crying children. People on the move.
Morning. A man is hiding in the bushes. He is watching his village burn, just 100 meters away.
In their haste, many could only bring little. A pot, a blanket, and sometimes, a cellphone filled with images few outside Myanmar have seen first-hand.
The scenes from cellphone videos pale in comparison to first-hand accounts of seemingly unrestrained violence.
It is still dark. A woman checks the time — 4 a.m. A nearby village is burning. She makes her move.
Hamida has a wistful, sad-eyed face and a downturned mouth, with lines running along both cheeks that make her look older than she is, a woman in her 20s. She lives in a village in Buthidaung, Myanmar, a coastal town near the border with Bangladesh.
Thirteen days ago, her husband was called to a meeting by the military along with other men in their village. Hamida's husband and two others never returned. She was told that he’s been “cut off” in the forest.
Hamida knew she had to leave on that cold October morning. The nearby military men are still asleep. All of the remaining villagers have decided to flee, 27 families in total. She carries her two small children, one on each arm. She is not able to carry anything else, not food, not water, not even clothes for the children.
As they walk away from their house, three military men wake up. They see Hamida, and start walking in her direction. Hamida runs.
These scenes are from Rakhine State in Western Myanmar, home of the Rohingya, described by the United Nations as “the world’s most persecuted minority”. Since August, over 620,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar from Bangladesh to escape persecution, violence, and death. A top UN offical has called the plight of the Rohingya a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”
In Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, a group of Overseas Filipino Workers is on their way to the refugee camps in the southern part of the country to distribute relief goods. They have prepared 300 sacks containing rice, dal, cooking oil, milk, tea, sugar, and rehydration salts. There’s even a pack of pinipig, a treat in the Philippines. “Paborito daw nila yan.”
After mounting a successful Oktoberfest party just a few weeks prior, the Filipino Grand Alliance of Bangladesh decided to use the proceeds to help the fleeing Rohingya. The group is composed of Filipino professionals, most of whom work in Bangladesh’s famed garments industry. Some of them, like president Enedina “Bong” Morato, have been in Bangladesh for over two decades.
Why are they doing this? Bong pauses for a while, like she doesn’t have the words to explain something that didn’t require explanation.
“Since maraming pumupunta rito na tumutulong, why not kami?” she finally says. “Siyempre tayong mga Pilipino, medyo alam natin ang mga ganyang situations eh, kasi nangyayari rin naman sa atin yan, so talagang tulung-tulong tayo. Kahit in a simple way.”
I join the group as we journey to Cox’s Bazaar. It’s 400 kilometers away, a 9-hour drive according to Google. Leaving Dhaka before sunrise in a rented coaster, we planned to get some rest on the way.
Crash. Shattered glass flies through the air.
We’re five hours into our journey, and we’ve just been rear-ended by a truck.
For a few seconds, we could only stare in disbelief. Two rows behind me, a man touches his right cheek just below the eye. It is bleeding.
As I step out of the coaster after a minute or two, shaking off drowsiness and shock, some locals are already dragging the truck driver to the side of the road. Whack. One of the men delivers a sharp blow to the back of his head. Whack. Another man joins in on the action. Traffic in the two-lane highway has stopped. Horns blare. There is shouting.
The crash felt inevitable, driving south on this crowded highway, vehicles weaving in and out of non-existent lanes, so close to one another that it would leave us breathless. The Filipinos we were traveling with told us not to worry; the drivers here know exactly what they're doing.
That is until, they don’t. The truck driver did not even have a license.
The police arrive and nerves settle. Traffic begins to flow. And the Filipinos? After repairing the gaping hole in the rear window with a piece of tarpaulin, we start to laugh. Even the guy with a cut his cheek, now covered in gauze. “Gusto mo gawin kong X yung benda mo? Parang Samurai X?” one of them quips.
Because of the road crash and the notorious traffic in Bangladesh, our nine-hour drive to Cox’s Bazaar became an 18-hour ordeal. Short on sleep, the OFWs headed for Kutupalong camp early the following day.
Entering Cox's Bazaar
More than 400,000 Rohingya refugees are now in the camp in Cox’s Bazaar, the biggest refugee camp among several in the district. The area used to accommodate just several thousand Rohingya who have been fleeing Myanmar for decades.
But because of the sudden influx of refugees in the past months, it is now a sprawling site, a mini-city. Surrounding forests had to be leveled as people continue to move in. Sometimes, confused elephants can be seen lumbering around.
There is now some semblance of order amidst endless activity as more emergency shelters, wells, and latrines are built.
But it wasn’t always this way. In the early days of the influx, refugees lived in squalid conditions. The monsoon rains brought water, and this water mixed with soil and human excrement created pools of filth around camp.
“I was afraid there would be a cholera outbreak,” says Alvin Gonzaga, a senior member of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) who hails from Iloilo. “But the Rohingya are incredibly resilient.”
Alvin has been working with the UNHCR since the 1990s. His first posting was in Palawan, where Vietnamese “boat-people” sought refuge to escape conflict back home.
Since then, Alvin has been assigned to many crises around the world, including ones in Indonesia, Czech Republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and recently, Angola and Uganda.
The seasoned humanitarian worker says it’s difficult to compare the situation of different refugees around the world. Nevertheless, he admits that the rate of refugee arrivals in Bangladesh in recent months is unprecedented. The desperation of the Rohingya is easy to see.
“Ang pinakamasakit na larawan na nakita ko na very humbling, eh 'yung dalawang bata na umiinom sa puddle ng tubig kasi walang mainom. Sa experience ko sa ganitong trabaho, wala pa akong nakitang ganoong kahirap na ang tao na umiinom ng tubig na galing sa putik,” Alvin says.
A deep divide
Aside from being refugees, the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, face the double whammy of being stateless. The central government does not recognize them as one of the 131 official ethnic groups in Myanmar, even though the Rohingya have been living in Rakhine State since at least the 15th century. Under British colonial rule in the 1800s, many others arrived because of the open migration of labor from today’s Bangladesh and India to what is now Myanmar.
After acquiring independence in 1947, the Union of Burma initially recognized the Rohingya as an indigenous ethnic nationality of Burma, with a few members of the group serving in the Burmese parliament as well as in other high-ranking government positions. But since Burma's military junta took control of the country in 1962, the Rohingya have been systematically deprived of their political rights.
Their identity as Rohingya has even been denied, with the government calling them “Bengalis” — illegal migrants from Bengal, or what is now Bangladesh. In 1982, the Burmese government enacted the citizenship law and declared that "Bengalis" are foreigners.
This intense mistrust and discrimination is rooted in history. Rohingya were caught in the complexities of the fighting between British colonial forces and Japanese invading forces in World War II. Many Rohingya were recruited by the British to fight the Japanese so they could recover control over their colony. In the process, these British-controlled Rohingya forces engaged Japanese-allied Rakhine Burmese in vicious fighting that involved war atrocities. Thus, a deep divide was etched between Muslim Rohingya and Rakhine Burmese.
With the rise of ultra-nationalist Burmese groups and the control of Burma by a military junta, the social and cultural divide exacerbated. The racial discrimination and persecution of the Rohingya got progressively worse over the decades with the Burmese military junta carrying out military operations against them. In turn, Rohingya separatist forces have launched armed attacks on Burmese military forces that have unleashed violent reprisal against the Rohingya civilian population.
In August 2017, a guerilla attack by a separatist Rohingya group triggered a fresh wave of violence, forcing many to flee. But the persecution of the Rohingya goes beyond the current conflict.
“Ang pang-aapi hindi lang yan 'yung karahasan na ginamit para sila ay paalisin. Kung titignan mo, kahit andun pa sila sa Myanmar, pinapahirapan sila. Halimbawa makikita mo marami sa kanila walang edukasyon. Marami tayong naririnig na kinukuha 'yung mga property, sinusunog yung mga bahay, hindi sila masyadong pinapagalaw, hindi sila makahanapbuhay. So kahit wala pa yung violent action ng gobyerno laban sa kanila, iniipit na sila,” Alvin says.
By any means necessary
At the camp, the refugees were already assembled under a makeshift tent, around 300 of them, just enough for what the Filipinos brought. The refugees were patient and uncomplaining, but their piercing eyes provided a glimpse of untold hardships. Most of those in line were women and children.
We start unloading the relief goods under the watchful eye of the Bangladeshi military. A crowd of Rohingya starts to circle the distribution site, and they are chased away by stick-wielding guards.
“Mahirap pala talagang maging katulad nila, kasi kahit nandito na sila, pinapaalis pa rin sila. 'Yung iba 'pag wala silang token, gusto nilang pumunta sa line para makakuha sila ng relief goods pero hindi sila ina-allow, pinapaalis din sila,” says Bong. “Desperado na rin siguro.”
Three months into the crisis, more refugees are arriving at the borders, by any means necessary. One of the busiest crossings is in Anjuman Para, where the Naf river separating Bangladesh and Myanmar is the shallowest. Here, refugees can just walk across to their safety.
A group of around 800 Rohingya are now perched on an embankment here, in what is called “no man’s land”, a narrow strip just inside the Bangladeshi side of the border. They have been waiting for three days to get clearance from border guards to finally come in. Meanwhile, refugees are exposed to the elements, with just a blanket or tarpaulin protecting many of them from the sun and rain.
I join Alvin at the border. The UNHCR was allowed to visit refugees to distribute tokens that can be exchanged for relief items later in the camps.
On a tiny ridge no wider than six feet across, families were huddled together, weak, sick, hungry, almost inert. A newborn baby, still blind to the world, yawns under her mother’s gaze. Another woman lying on her side hardly stirs as she looks up and puts her hand to her mouth. Despite the language barrier, I understood her instantly: she is desperately hungry.
Here they were, tired and afraid. But most devastating of all, utterly robbed of dignity.
One of them, Norul is sitting on a plastic sheet with his wife, a blanket propped up behind them for shade. He says his brother was killed by the military when he tried to stop their house from burning. They made their way to the border, walking for 17 days. The harrassment continued.
“The police and other authorities there, they make us stop and sometimes they just let sit for three to four hours, and if you have money and other things like mobile phones, those are taken away,” Norul says.
Norul also confirms, obliquely, a brutal method of ethnic cleansing employed by the Burmese military: the systematic rape of women. “They are always trying to touch us and touch our family members especially the women, our sisters, our mothers,” he says.
A 37-page report by Human Rights Watch documents these abuses. They interviewed 52 Rohingya women and girls who had fled to Bangladesh, including 29 rape survivors, three of them girls under 18. In one instance, a 15-year-old girl said soldiers “stripped her naked and then dragged her from her home to a nearby tree where, she estimates, about 10 men raped her from behind.”
Under the cover of darkness
Meanwhile, Hamida and her two children arrive at a forested area after running away from the military men. They seem to have abandoned the chase. Still under the cover of darkness, they continue walking along with other villagers. It is a long journey ahead.
Hamida has neither food nor money. She resorts to begging to feed her two boys. The men from the village would look for food wherever they could find it. Some were able to bring rice, a precious commodity, which they would cook in small fires and share amongst themselves — but only every other day, because the smoke might attract unwanted attention. Water would be collected from rivers and puddles. When there was nothing to eat or drink, Hamida’s children would cry themselves to sleep.
In the same rivers where they collect water, Hamida sees a dead body, and another one. They press on. Some of the villagers are not able to keep up. They get left behind. Children get sick along the way, dying in their mother’s arms.
Eventually, they arrive at the riverbank where others have gathered. Hamida and the boys stay here for a few days, but she couldn’t secure a spot on the boats that were crossing the river, more than a kilometer wide in these parts. Some are walking to another part of the Naf, shallow enough for people to walk across. After a few more days of walking, Hamida was almost there.
“The border guards have just relayed their instructions. They are letting them come in now,” says Alvin.
We are back on the other side of no man’s land, where the flimsy shelters are still barely visible in the distance. Now the refugees are moving. A column of people grows longer and longer, twisting between rice fields, a single creature straining forward. Dots begin to separate, and here come fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. There is a slight spring in their step as they walk towards the refugee camps, all they have wrapped around their arms or slung over their shoulders.
Alvin is hard at work. How many are coming in? Who needs immediate medical attention? Do we have vehicles to transport the sick? After two months of overseeing the influx of refugees for UNHCR, he seems indefatigable. However, he seems to have caught a cold. “Just an allergy,” Alvin insists.
“Kailangan dito malakas ka, dapat malakas ang loob mo kasi araw-araw kung nasa emergency ka na ito, marami kang makikitang kahirapan. Kailangan maging resilient ka rin. Ito ay mahirap na trabaho pero at the same time rewarding. I think makikita mo sa mga kasamahan ko na gabi na umuuwi, pagod pero parang may satisfaction pa rin yun pagkatapos ng trabaho,” he says.
“Kahit sino naman siguro kung may oportunidad na gawin ito para sa ibang tao, kahit sa anong bayan or bansa, kung may makikita kang naghihirap, hindi ka mag-aalangan na tumulong,” he adds.
And so, 800 more Rohingyans arrive in Bangladesh. Exhausted but safe, for now.
Sky within reach
I meet Hamida in Kutupalong camp. She arrived here a few weeks ago, after crossing the border in Anjuman Para perhaps, she isn’t sure. Like the refugees who recently arrived, they had to wait for a couple of days before being allowed to fully enter Bangladesh. But at least they did not have to worry about the military men at the embankment, she says.
She is slowly adjusting to life in the camp and is preparing food for the family: rice and boiled vegetables. Her two boys are cheerfully running around the shelter’s earthen floor.
“One of my legs is also injured, so I cannot work. It’s very hard. I am really scared about how I will feed my two kids. They are very still young and small,” says Hamida.
She turns silent for a while. “Sometimes, they still look for their father and cry.”
It is difficult to see what the future holds for refugees like Hamida. Myanmar has said that they are ready to take back the Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh, but the details remain unclear. For their part, the UNHCR says that the return must be “voluntary, and take place in safe and dignified conditions that pave the way for lasting solutions.” But since refugees are still fleeing and deep divisions between the communities remain unaddressed, current conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine State may not enable safe and sustainable return.
Most of the refugees we spoke with want to go home. But some, like Hamida, don’t want to risk it anymore.
“We don't have any plan to go back to Myanmar because our parents and grandparents have been fleeing to Bangladesh since 1978. Every time, the military destroys our place, so this time we won't go back to Myanmar, we wil stay in this country,” she says.
Outside, dusk settles around camp. Smoke rising from hundreds of small cooking fires envelops the hills in a bluish haze. The relentless construction stops for a moment, and families sit together in their bamboo huts speaking in soft voices. Here, in the fastest growing refugee camp in the world, there is hope in waiting. The children, a pack of frightened animals upon arrival from their arduous trek, begin to loosen up in the refugee camps. Their innocent laughter and unrestrained playfulness provide a bright side to an otherwise bleak landscape.
Hamida stretches out both arms.
“I feel like the sky is within our reach.”