Amina’s voice shook as she began to cry, “I remember seeing those 18 men dead, and all I wanted to do was leave.”
They’d heard the gunfire while the military was still in the distance, so 18 men (including four of her nephews) stepped up as look outs – watching for the military and telling the villagers when to run. By the time the military reached the village, all 18 men had been shot and killed.
Acting, the soldiers said, “Who did this? You did this to your own people!” They began killing more people, but the villagers said they would leave without any trouble. The military gave them a short respite as they fled, but over the hills came more soldiers that continued the slaughter.
Amina and her grandson stand on muddy embankment in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh.
Again, her voice trembled and eyes moistened as she relayed the atrocities she saw 11 months ago. “They were grabbing children by the neck and throwing them into the pond,” she said, gently placing her hands on her grandson’s throat to demonstrate. “When their mothers would try to stop they would shoot them or throw them down into the mud.”
Two hundred households from their village in Rakhine State in northern Myanmar fled that day. Amina and her grandson are ethnic Rohingya, part of a minority group that lived in Rakhine State until violence erupted there late last summer. International observers have called the violence “ethnic cleansing.” It resulted in the deaths of thousands and the displacement of more than 700,000 people in just a few months.
Running to Safety
Amina’s family ran together, her two grown children, her daughter-in-law, and her three grandchildren – the youngest of which was just twelve days old. Devastatingly, Amina’s son-in-law had been on lookout when the village heads told the rest of the family to flee, so they ran and never saw him again.
The four-day journey to the border of Bangladesh was a difficult one – up hills and through muddy ponds. “We saw so many dead bodies along the way. By the time we arrived at the border we were starving – there was no food, no water.”
Eleven months into living in the camp, things have changed for the better. “Listen carefully,” she said, “In Myanmar it was hard to sleep – if a dog barked we were afraid the military was coming. Households would trade off staying awake at night to keep watch for the military. Here we sleep soundly.”
For the past several months, she’s been living in Bangladesh, in what is now the largest refugee camp in the world.
One of the positive changes for Amina is the access to quality health care. “In Myanmar there was a good hospital, but to access it we had to take a vehicle and cross a bridge with a military checkpoint. Sometimes the military would let people through, but sometimes they wouldn’t. Many people were so afraid of the military that they chose to die rather than cross the bridge.”
In Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Amina has visited the Food for the Hungry/Medical Teams International clinic three times for her own ailments. When her three-year-old grandson, Kolimullah, was feeling under the weather she trusted the clinic to provide him with excellent care. Her other grandson has recently developed a rash, a common occurrence in the camp, so she plans to bring him into the clinic soon.
“I am so happy to have the clinic close to my home – I can come anytime. I tell the doctors my problems and they understand completely.” At each visit Amina receives the medicine she needs to treat her health conditions.
The stark contrast of the care and safety Amina feels in the camp, compared to the oppression of the military the past six years in Myanmar was fresh on her mind this week. She received a call from her sister still living in Myanmar in a village not too far from her old home. The soldiers came, pulled 19 children under 18 out from their homes, and killed them in front of the village.
Amina’s words were strained, but forceful, “We do not want to leave Bangladesh – if we are taken back to our country they will do the same thing. We do not want to die.”
While the number of refugees crossing into Bangladesh has slowed, the new arrivals and Amina’s story serve as a reminder that this crisis is far from over and the needs are great.
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Jenny Stoecker is a Program Support Officer who has spent weeks in Bangladesh responding to the Rohingya refugee crisis. Nihab Rahman is an interpreter and photographer with a passion for documenting life in the camps and telling the personal stories behind the crisis.