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Myanmar: The Unfolding Tragedy

Senator Sam Dastyari travels to Kutapolong, a refugee camp at the Bangladeshi border, to report on the humanitarian crisis heading for breaking point.

The mother, whose name is Dila, is proud of her family. “Six children,” she says, holding up her left hand and right index finger in case the translator has failed. “Six.” Dila’s colourful sari, pink and gold, is a startling contrast against the muddy plastic-sheet tent she finds herself in. I sit with her in an unmarked lane, on an unmarked road, in one of the world’s largest refugee camps, Kutapolong, on the Bangladeshi side of the border with Myanmar.

Dila recounts the journey that led her to flee her village in Myanmar. Her story unfolds in the same tragic arc as hundreds of thousands of other stories in the camp. She witnessed the women from her village being raped. Despite attempts to hide the bruises with clothing, the marks on her body are still visible. They tell a horror story that she can’t yet bring herself to fully describe with words. She watched as her husband was tortured; tortured to ensure the men from her village would never return. Tortured so they would tell others, and so spread the fear and panic. So they would leave Myanmar forever.

But it is not until she talks about her murdered son that Dila breaks down. The children in her small village of Cowervil were playing soccer when they were killed. Dila could hear the gunshots before she heard the screams. Running towards the din, she found a playground covered in the blood of children.

Dila pauses and goes silent, carefully considering her words. “The men who came for him were young.”

She repeats: “They were very, very young.”

After witnessing rape, torture and the murder of her son, Dila’s house and the whole village were set alight. It took two days for it all to burn to the ground. Dila waited. She stayed to bury her son. Then she took her other five children and fled.

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Dila (left) and members of her family inside their tent in Kutapolong. Credit: Roland Kay-Smith.

In Kutapolong, her tent is made from bamboo and a black plastic sheet — the main building materials in the camp. They have the effect of creating a small black furnace — while it’s 30 degrees outside, it’s over 40 inside. The smell of food, sweat and exhaustion permeates everywhere. You can taste the desperation.

The only light inside the tent sneaks in through the seams of the door flap. Three metres by five, the tent is partitioned into two parts so that it can support two families. Clothes hang from the walls to dry, there’s a cooking station in the corner, and mats that are used for sleeping.

Yesterday, instead of oppressive heat, the camp experienced torrential rain. The tent-floor became a mud swamp, kids sleeping on top of their parents to stay dry. There is no space. The tents are cramped against each other in endless rows. Every space available is used to house a family. Every family knows of another family even less fortunate than them. Today, Dila’s husband sits in a corner, trembling.

“It’s just a fever,” he tells us. But in a camp like this, it is never “just” anything. A fever is the start. Shirtless and shaking, his malnourished body suggests far worse to come.

“When the monsoon comes, all these houses will be washed away,” Dr. Dipu Moni, the former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, tells me as we get a coffee in the airport waiting room later that day. “They will all just wash away. The monsoon always comes in April,” she tells me, pushing the point of urgency.

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Refugees at Kutapolong source materials for their tents. Credit: Roland Kay-Smith.

Just north of Australia, in Myanmar, a humanitarian calamity is taking place. Since August, over 600,000 Rohingya people have fled violence and relocated over the border to neighbouring Bangladesh. They have joined an existing 200,000 who had already left in the past few years.

As a muslim community, the Rohingya people have always been considered outsiders by the Buddhist majority. Based in the northern Rakhine province of Myanmar, they fought alongside British and Australian diggers in the Second World War, while the majority of the country stuck with the Japanese. After the war they were promised their own country, a promise the British never delivered. While they have always had a precarious position, it has now become much, much worse.

Nationalist fervour has now taken hold in Myanmar. An active government-led social media campaign has painted the Rohingya people as untrustworthy outsiders. Terrorists. Responsible for that country’s economic and social woes. The consequence is a crisis on the scale of the Rwandan and Somalian tragedies of the 1990s.

A combination of army, police and local militia have been systematically driving the Rohingya out of Myanmar, in what the UN Human Rights Commissioner described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The Commissioner has called on the Myanmar government to stop pretending the Rohingya are setting fire to their own homes and laying waste to their own villages — a claim designed to shift the blame for the crisis onto the Rohingya people themselves. The Myanmar government has responded by strenuously denying all allegations of military involvement in rape and killings.

The Country Head of Save the Children, Mark Pearce, turns to me as our car speeds between refugee enclaves and offers some insight into the crisis.

“When horror starts, it consumes everything,” he says. “It’s contagious. In Cambodia heads were smashed with hammers. In Rwanda, they used machetes. Across the river, in Myanmar, they are burning houses with people inside.”

A New Yorker by birth, he walks with the swagger of an American abroad. Twenty-five years of humanitarian experience behind him, he’s a no-bullshit kind of guy. A guy who can summarise an entire country in a sentence: “To understand Bangladesh, know one thing: it is illegal to sell alcohol but they have a national beer.”

Over the national beer, Pearce tells me he was in Indonesia after the tsunami, the Philippines after the hurricane and Nepal after the earthquake. “This is different,” he says. “This is people murdering people. This is human-inflicted.”

“Environmental tragedies are devastating,” he adds. “They require huge responses. But they are comprehensible. This is something else.”

While this tragedy has been unfolding, it has barely rated a mention in Australia. There have been more media mentions about the shooting in Las Vegas, more stories about Lisa Wilkinson’s pay dispute and even more mentions of Sydney identity Salim Mehajer.

Why? Is it just because the history of the Rohingyan people is complicated? Do we care less because they are Muslim? Are we hoping that the problem will just go away? Or is it simply that it’s easier to turn a blind eye to the pain and suffering of others when it isn’t directly in front of us?

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The monsoon season will be disastrous for the camp at Kutapolong. Credit: Roland Kay-Smith.

At the southernmost tip of Bangladesh, at a point formed by the sea and the river border with Myanmar, I sit and watch the refugee boats arrive. Only a few kilometres separate Bangladesh from Myanmar. It is possible to swim the distance. The border guard on duty couldn’t be a day over 20. “Seventeen boats arrived this morning,” he says.

Struggling to hold the assault rifle they have given him, the border guard tallies the arrivals as vehicles take them to the refugee camps for registration. An informal network of camps has sprung into existence, and as official places remain limited, informal tents and communities now litter the whole of southern Bangladesh.

The fishing boats used to smuggle people are lined up in rows on the river.

“What do they charge for a boat ride?” I ask. “$2.50 USA,” he says. Everything here has a price. Even safety. In quiet moments on the riverbank, you can hear gunshots from across the river.

“It’s better the air is cleaner now,” he goes on. “The fires have stopped. Less smoke.” There are no houses left to burn in the nearby villages across the water.

On the other side of the river, landmines are littered throughout the bushland. They have been planted by the military. Apparently, they’re an effective deterrent. You only need to plant a few and the stories will spread. People won’t return.

One day there will be an inquest of sorts and it will get to the bottom of what exactly has happened to the Rohingyan people.

It will answer the questions that circle the camps as rumours.

We will know one day if it is the army or militia that is co-ordinating the killings, which accelerant is being used to burn the villages, the age of the soldiers perpetrating the violence.

We will know because truth has a way of breaking free. There will be calls for justice. For financial retribution. There will be demands for action.

But as the debates rage on over what is happening in Myanmar, Dila will be lying on her thin mat on the muddy ground, still grieving for her son.

Shot while playing soccer.

Twelve years old.

All photos by Roland Kay-Smith.

This article features in issue #794 (January, 2018), available now.

Watch additional, exclusive footage from Kutapolong below: