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Rohingya see no end in sight, 6 months after attacks began

In this Nov. 11, 2017  photo, Rohingya Muslims travel on a raft made with plastic containers on which they crossed over the Naf river from Myanmar into Bangladesh, near Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh. (A.M. Ahad / Associated Press)
In this Nov. 11, 2017 photo, Rohingya Muslims travel on a raft made with plastic containers on which they crossed over the Naf river from Myanmar into Bangladesh, near Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh. (A.M. Ahad / Associated Press)
By Tofayel Ahmad and Julhas Alam Associated Press

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh – Their houses are often made of plastic sheets. Much of their food comes from aid agencies. Jobs are few, and there is painfully little to do. The nightmares are relentless.

But six months after their horrors began, the Rohingya Muslims who fled army attacks in Myanmar for refuge in Bangladesh feel immense consolation.

“Nobody is coming to kill us, that’s for sure,” said Mohammed Amanullah, whose village was destroyed last year just before he left for Bangladesh with his wife and three children. They now live in the Kutupalong refugee camp outside the coastal city of Cox’s Bazar.

“We have peace here,” Amanullah said.

On Aug. 25, Rohingya insurgents attacked several security posts in Myanmar, killing at least 14 people. Within hours, waves of revenge attacks broke out, with the military and Buddhist mobs marauding through Rohingya villages in bloody pogroms, killing thousands, raping women and girls, and burning houses and whole villages. The aid group Doctors Without Borders has estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in Myanmar in the first month of the violence, including at least 730 children younger than 5. The survivors flooded into Bangladesh.

Six months later, there are few signs Rohingya are going home anytime soon.

Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed an agreement to gradually repatriate Rohingya in “safety, security and dignity,” but the process has been opaque and the dangers remain. New satellite images have shown empty villages and hamlets leveled, erasing evidence of the Rohingya’s former lives. And with 700,000 having fled Myanmar since August, more Rohingya continue to flee.

So for now, the refugees wait.

“If they agree to send us back, that’s fine, but is it that easy?” asked Amanullah. “Myanmar must give us citizenship. That is our home. Without citizenship, they will torture us again. They will kill us again.”

He said he would only return under the protection of U.N. peacekeepers: “They must take care of us there. Otherwise it will not work. “

Buddhist-majority Myanmar doesn’t recognize the Rohingya as an official ethnic group, and they face intense discrimination and persecution.

On Sunday, two female Nobel Peace laureates visited refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and talked to rape victims. Human Rights Watch has said in a report that Myanmar security forces raped and sexually assaulted women and girls before and during major attacks on Rohingya villages.

Katia Gianneschi, a spokeswoman for the Nobel Women’s Initiative who accompanied Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman and Northern Ireland’s Mairead Maguire to the camp, said in an email that the women talked to the victims and heard their stories. Another laureate, Iran’s Shirin Ebadi, will join her colleagues on Monday.

The Nobel Women’s Initiative, established in 2006, is a platform of six female Nobel Peace laureates.

The three laureates, who are on a weeklong visit to Bangladesh to meet the refugees, especially Rohingya women, accused Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her country’s military of unleashing atrocities, and said the international community should bring those responsible to justice.

Minara Begum, 25, who was raped and tortured by soldiers, told reporters after the laureates’ visit that they hugged her and held her tightly and cried as they heard the stories of brutality and repression.

“They were overwhelmed, they cried with us, they could not hold their tears,” Begum said. “I was also touched by their eagerness to know our sad stories.”

Karman said in an email Saturday that she and her colleagues were standing “in solidarity with displaced Rohingya women and calling for Rohingya women’s voices to be heard.”

She said Rohingya women are twice victimized – for being Rohingya and for being women – and “are affected by the ethnic cleansing and are also subject to high levels of sexual and gender-based violence.”

“Rohingya women’s unique needs are largely unmet in refugee camps in Bangladesh,” she said. “Less than 20 percent of displaced Rohingya women who have survived sexual violence have access to post-rape care.”

Meanwhile, the children in the camps face a particularly difficult time. The U.N. estimates children are the heads of 5,600 refugee families.

A survey of children’s lives inside the camps showed they faced an array of terrors, from girls reporting concerns of harassments near the camp toilets to fears that elephants and snakes could attack them as they collect firewood.

“We cannot expect Rohingya children to overcome the traumatic experiences they’ve suffered when exposed to further insecurity and fears of violence in the camps,” Mark Pierce, country director for Save the Children in Bangladesh, said in a statement.

The study was prepared jointly by Save the Children, World Vision and Plan International.

“The overwhelming message from these children is that they are afraid,” Pierce said. “This is no way for a child to live.”

The situation will worsen soon. Seasonal monsoon rains will begin pounding the refugees’ plastic-and-bamboo city in April.

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