LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:
The United Nations has called the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar the world's fastest-growing refugee crisis and has gone so far as to call it a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. Since August, more than half a million Rohingya Muslims have fled predominantly Buddhist Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape violence. They are considered to be one of the most persecuted ethnic groups on the planet. Jeffrey Gettleman reports on Southeast Asia for the New York Times. He recently visited Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. A warning to our listeners about some graphic content we'll discuss in our conversation with Jeffrey Gettleman, who joins me on the line from his home in New Delhi. Welcome.
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Thank you.
SINGH: For those who have not kept up with the story, why did the Rohingyas start fleeing Myanmar in late August?
GETTLEMAN: What we could piece together is that the government army of Myanmar went on a rampage against civilians. They burned down villages, they raped women, they executed men, they murdered children. And this was a response to some insurgent groups in the area, but it seemed like it became an excuse to try to wipe out these people - the Rohingya - who have been ostracized and marginalized for decades. And the effort nearly succeeded because, of over a million or so Rohingya who had been living in Myanmar, about 80 percent of them have fled. And they keep coming.
SINGH: In one of your pieces for The New York Times, you wrote about a young lady named Rajuma. Tell us a little bit about her.
GETTLEMAN: Yeah, this was one of the hardest stories I've ever covered. What she told me is that she came from a village in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. And in late August, soldiers arrived in her village, and they started setting homes on fire. And her family decided to try to escape. And they ran out of their house. They were quickly captured. They were marched out to a riverbank, and the soldiers then separated the men from the women.
And at this point in the story, Rajuma got very upset, and then she broke down. And what she told me was that the soldiers killed the men right in front of her, including her brother, and many people in her village that she knew. And then they began raping the young women and the older women.
And Rajuma had an infant boy in her arms. And she said that these men ripped the baby out of her arms, threw him into a fire, burned him to death right in front of her, and then they gang raped her and left her for dead in a burning house. And she narrowly escaped and one - was one of the few survivors of this massacre. And it was almost too much to believe. But then I spent more time talking to other people in that same area, including a couple of other young women who had very similar stories, and there was a distressing harmony to all these accounts.
SINGH: The U.N., Jeffrey, is now deliberating whether the Rohingya crisis has risen to the level of genocide. Why is that still a question here?
GETTLEMAN: You know, I covered the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, where it was very similar. And there was this big debate whether that was genocide or not. Was it ethnic cleansing? Was it crimes against humanity? I think the world is struggling with how to grapple with such atrocities, and maybe there is a need to try to quantify it or categorize it. And that's our way of dealing with this. But to the people who've been affected, they're not even talking about that. They're just sort of standing there, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people with no food, little clothes, no homes, no electricity and just looking for help.
And then, there's the issue of justice. Like, is somebody going to be held responsible for gang raping a young woman and throwing her baby into a fire and burning down entire villages, massacring innocent people? And so that's where we're at. It's like this evolving crisis. But I don't think we're at the end of it. I think there's going to be a real problem of, what happens to all of these people if neither side wants to take them into their country?
SINGH: Are you still in contact with Rajuma?
GETTLEMAN: I'm not. It's really sad. I've wrote these pieces about her, and I've gotten an overwhelming response by readers who want to help her and who were moved and felt horrible about what she went through. And she disappeared back into this camp. The last I saw her - and I wrote about this - it was like - it was really an unsettling feeling trying to say goodbye because there was nothing I could do for her. And I had just extracted this long, painful story. And I was - felt horrible putting her through the retelling of it.
And I wanted to give her money. And I wanted to give her a hug. And I wanted to, you know, punch somebody in the face. I was, like, really frustrated after talking to her. And we said goodbye, and she turned around. And I watched her walk back into this camp - this very traumatized young woman with no phone, no way to find her easily. You know, that's how thousands of people are right now.
SINGH: Jeffrey Gettleman. He's Southeast Asia correspondent for The New York Times. He was recently in Bangladesh covering the Rohingya crisis. Jeffrey, thanks so much for your time.
GETTLEMAN: Thank you.
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