'I Would Rather Die Than Go Back': Rohingya Refugees Settle Into Life In Bangladesh A year ago, Myanmar soldiers launched what the U.S. and the U.N. say was a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims. "I would rather drink poison than go back to Myanmar," says a refugee.
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'I Would Rather Die Than Go Back': Rohingya Refugees Settle Into Life In Bangladesh

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'I Would Rather Die Than Go Back': Rohingya Refugees Settle Into Life In Bangladesh

'I Would Rather Die Than Go Back': Rohingya Refugees Settle Into Life In Bangladesh

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This week marks the one-year anniversary of what the Rohingya have begun to call the genocide. In late August of last year, Myanmar government soldiers and pro-government militias began coordinated attacks against the Rohingya Muslims. Hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed into Bangladesh. It was the start of the fastest human displacement since the Rwandan genocide. Over the course of the coming months, nearly 700,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh, where they now live in limbo in massive makeshift refugee camps. NPR's Jason Beaubien just returned from the camps and has this report. And just a warning - this story does include graphic details.

DILDAR BEGUM: (Foreign language spoken).

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: "The Myanmar soldiers arrived in the morning," Dildar Begum says, and surrounded her village. It was in the days before the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha. Her family had been preparing for the upcoming feast, a feast that would never happen. In the ensuing attack, she says government troops killed 29 members of her family.

BEGUM: (Through interpreter) It's been 12 months that I'm living in Bangladesh, but there's not any days in which I don't remember my family. I miss them every day. I shed tears for them every day.

BEAUBIEN: While the exact details of Begum's account can't be confirmed by NPR, she's from the village of Tula Toli, where Human Rights Watch says hundreds of Rohingya villagers were killed on August 30 of last year. Begum estimates the death toll was in the thousands. A river runs along the edge of Tula Toli, and she says hundreds of villagers fled to the riverbank where they were trapped by the Myanmar troops. She described soldiers ripping her baby from her arms and hacking him to death. She watched them slit her husband's throat, she says. People were being killed all around her. Begum and her 10-year-old daughter were dragged to a house where Begum says she was repeatedly raped.

BEGUM: (Through interpreter) My daughter was screaming for help. The soldiers beat her. She got cuts on her head and her body. Eventually, we both pretended to be dead.

BEAUBIEN: When the soldiers left, they were able to escape and hid in the forest for almost a week before starting the trek to Bangladesh. The crowded encampment where Begum now lives is the largest refugee camp in the world. Bangladesh officials have made it clear that eventually they want the Rohingya to go back to Myanmar. Begum says, at least for her, that's not going to happen.

BEGUM: (Through interpreter) I don't expect they will let us stay here very much longer, but I would rather die than go back there. I would rather drink poison than go back to Myanmar.

BEAUBIEN: And many of the other refugees also say they're afraid to return home. Myanmar says the military action against the Rohingya was a cleanup operation targeting Rohingya militants who'd attacked government police stations. Along with earlier waves of refugees, there are now roughly 900,000 Rohingya living in Bangladesh. The Muslim minority has suffered persecution in Myanmar for generations. Myanmar, also known as Burma, claims the Rohingya are Bangladeshi. Bangladesh claims they're Burmese. Myanmar stripped most of them of citizenship decades ago, making them essentially a stateless people. One year after this latest exodus from Myanmar, the conditions in the refugee camps in Bangladesh remain far from ideal.

FIONA MACGREGOR: This is an extremely difficult situation.

BEAUBIEN: Fiona MacGregor is the spokesperson for the International Organization of Migration's operation in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

MACGREGOR: It's almost a million people entirely relying on aid. It's the biggest refugee settlement in the world, and it's in an area that suffers extremely difficult environmental conditions.

BEAUBIEN: Shelters made out of tarps and bamboo are jammed together on steep, sandy hillsides. Heavy downpours turn the dirt pathways into rivers of mud. Aid agencies have sandbagged cliffs, put in pit latrines and dug water wells, but services remain minimal. Officially, the Rohingya are not supposed to work in Bangladesh so most now survive primarily off international food aid. Each day in the Shafiullah Khata (ph) camp, the Turkish government runs a huge soup kitchen that distributes hot meals to 20,000 people. On this day, they're scooping chicken curry and rice out of giant aluminum pots. Nurulol Houqwe (ph) and his son are walking out of the distribution compound of what Houqwe says will be enough curry for lunch for his family of five.

NURULOL HOUQWE: (Through interpreter) We always come here.

BEAUBIEN: Every day?

HOUQWE: (Through interpreter) Every day.

BEAUBIEN: Every day.

People line up before sunrise to try to get the cooked food. When the volunteers have ladled out the last of the curry, there are still hundreds of people in line jammed chest-to-shoulder blade, like a human accordion. The World Food Program also distributes dry rations every two weeks. But cooking in the camps can be a challenge as firewood supplies dwindle and finding dry firewood during the monsoons is almost impossible. While many of the Rohingya continue to focus on surviving from day to day in the camps, others are setting up businesses. There are bustling markets offering fish and vegetables and piles of fire engine-red chilis. Refugees have started barbershops and small grocery stands. Abdu Rokim owns a small tea shop known as the Police Station Restaurant in the Balukhali 2 camp. It got its name simply because it's next-door to a Bangladeshi police barracks.

ABDU ROKIM: (Foreign language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: "If a man is jobless, he's not respected by the people," he says. "That's why I opened this restaurant, to sell things and make a living." His restaurant, like most structures in the camps, is made out of tarps strung over bamboo poles. The floor is dirt. There are a dozen mismatched plastic tables surrounded by mismatched plastic chairs. Rokim serves tea and samosas and soft drinks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COMMANDO 2")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, foreign language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: A TV blares a Hindi action movie while a half-dozen of Rokim's employees cook, clear tables and wash dishes.

ROKIM: (Foreign language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: "I expect to be here for at least five years," he says. The United Nations Refugee Agency says that the Rohingya will not be forced back to Myanmar and any repatriation will be voluntary. But if other refugee crises are any guide, the longer the Rohingya stay, the less likely it is they will ever leave. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And we will hear more reporting on Myanmar later today on All Things Considered. As we just heard, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are still living in Bangladesh. They are living in perilous conditions. And Bangladesh says it wants to send them back to Myanmar. To listen to that story and more, ask your smart speaker to play NPR, or you can ask for your local member station by name.

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