Radija is not certain who shot her 5-year-old granddaughter. Sitting in a refugee camp on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, she called the little girl over and lifted her shirt to show me an untreated bullet wound on the child’s stomach.

Their family fled a brutal military assault in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state last month, joining the more than half a million Rohingya people now camped on the Bangladesh side of the border.

I went to the border region to speak with Rohingya human rights defenders – the experts on the subject – about the violations they had documented in Rakhine and the risks they continue to face. I work at an Irish human rights organization, Front Line Defenders, which provides emergency security and protection assistance to human rights defenders at risk. For decades, Rohingya community workers, journalists and advocates have lived and worked under immense threats in Myanmar. Escaping to Bangladesh as refugees was the first time many of them could speak openly about their work.

The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim minority in Myanmar, long marginalized and denied citizenship. Bouts of fighting between Rohingya militants and Myanmar’s military have resulted in previous waves of refugees fleeing to Bangladesh. More than 300,000 already lived in Bangladesh’s border camps before the August exodus began.

Myanmar’s government denies that the military is indiscriminately killing people. Instead, it claims to be carrying out “clearance operations” against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a militant group that it considers a terrorist organization. ARSA attacked Myanmar military outposts Aug. 25; the military responded with a bloody crackdown on Rohingya villages that the United Nations has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

A Rohingya family reaches the Bangladesh border after crossing a creek of the Naf river from Myanmmar. The Myanmarese army is fighting a militant Muslim group. Associated Press photo/Bernat Armangue

Refugees tell me they watched Myanmar soldiers set their neighborhoods on fire. Some say whole families were killed, locked inside a burning home. Several women told me they saw civilians dragged to the ground and shot while lying face down. The types of injuries showing up in Bangladesh border camps corroborate stories of civilians shot from behind as they fled.

One young mother showed me a gaping burn wound covering more than a quarter of her 2-year-old’s back. When the Myanmar military set their house on fire, she explained, a burning piece of plastic fell from the ceiling and pierced her child’s body before she could reach him. She and 11 members of her family fled their village that night, as the houses of everyone they knew burned to the ground.


Today, more than half a million newly arrived Rohingya refugees are surviving on muddy, slanting hillsides on the Bangladesh side of the border, packed together under tarps they purchased themselves.

Thousands are hungry and wet, huddled on the side of the flooding roads. An estimated 60 percent of the refugees are children. The majority of toddlers and infants I saw were naked. Miles of road around the camps are littered with excrement; health experts say disease outbreak seems imminent. Food, shelter and medical aid are desperately needed and slow to arrive. Bangladeshi bureaucracy and government restrictions are preventing international aid groups from providing anywhere near enough critical humanitarian aid, and global funding for crisis response is also insufficient.

Flames engulf a house in Gawdu Zara village in the northern Rakhine state near the Myanmar border. Security forces and allied mobs have burned down thousands of homes in Northern Rakhine. Associated Press photo, File

Locals are doing what they can to keep people alive. Groups of well-meaning volunteers are throwing packages of food and clothing from the tops of trucks, but the need is so great that hundreds rush to the moving trucks. I saw children and the elderly being stepped on as hundreds of hungry people rushed to a truck carrying food. Last week, a mother and her two children died trying to reach an aid vehicle.

The vast majority of those who have crossed the border have not seen a doctor. Mothers have shown me bullet wounds on their toddlers, rashes and burns covering the majority of infants’ bodies, children’s stomachs already beginning to protrude from hunger, and newborn babies who have yet to be properly cleaned. One mother told me she went in labor just after she and her husband ran from their burning home during a break in the gun fire. She gave birth in the next town and kept walking. After 15 days in the forest, one in a canoe, and 21 days under a muddy tarp in Bangladesh, she and her baby have yet to see a doctor.


In a speech Sept. 19, Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, claimed there have been no conflicts or military “clearance operations” since Sept. 5 – which directly contradicts the first-hand accounts from refugees and human rights defenders still fleeing across the border. Suu Kyi has received waves of international criticism for her failure to speak out against the murder of Rohingya civilians, especially considering her storied history as a Nobel laureate and rights activist.

Among those to appeal to her to intervene on behalf of the Rohingya is fellow Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.

For now, keeping refugees alive on the border needs to be a top concern for the international community. Bangladesh is poor, densely populated, and cannot handle this crisis alone. A strong, global humanitarian response is critical. But in the long term, this problem is much larger than getting aid to Bangladesh.

Citizenship needs to be reinstated for the more than 1 million Rohingya who lived in Myanmar. Northern Rakhine state must also be opened for independent investigations into the military’s crimes. Rakhine has been effectively off limits for journalists, the U.N. and rights groups for years. Conducting research in Myanmar last year, most human rights defenders I met refused to speak about Rohingya rights because the issue had become so dangerous. Suu Kyi has promised right of return for “verified” refugees in Bangladesh, but it remains unclear who would qualify. And until the violence stops in Rakhine, journeying back would be a lethal decision for those who have fled. Mainers know better than most Americans what happens when refugees are not guaranteed safe passage back home. Portland, where I grew up, has transformed from an almost entirely white middle-class town into a mix of faces, cultures, religions and languages representing most world conflicts since the 1970s. In the 1980s, Vietnamese food popped up downtown long before we were a “foodie” city. In the early 1990s, the demand for Somali translators in parent-teacher meetings sky-rocketed. By the late ’90s, many of us were using Cambodian as a “secret language” on the playground. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Baghdadi shops began to line Forest Avenue. Four years ago, I was working at Riverton Elementary School with LearningWorks AmeriCorps when we learned that “our first Syrian family” would join us in September.

As proud as Portland should be of its immigration history and the new town we have built together, those among us who fled war zones before becoming Mainers never stopped loving their homelands.

As the world mobilizes to keep Rohingya alive on the Bangladeshi border, their right of return to a home free from violence must not be forgotten. Bangladesh cannot, under any circumstances, forcibly repatriate Rohingya to Rakhine state’s killing fields.

But pressure needs to be kept on Myanmar to immediately end the military’s brutal campaign, and to ensure full safety and security of Rohingya who wish to go home.

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