On the morning of 30 August 2017, Shahidul Amin was already in the forest cutting wood when, around 8 am, his wife Hasina Begum saw Burmese military helicopters landing. This was the beginning of the massacre of Tula Toli, a peaceful village set in a beautiful lush green hilly area and surrounded on three sides by a rapidly flowing mountain river.
Badiur Rahman, former chair of the village council, told me that until that fateful day the village had been home to more than 3,000 Rohingya Muslims, primarily subsistence rice and chili pepper farmers. The village also housed about 300 Buddhist Rakhin.
Today only the Buddhists remain, for about 1,700 of their fellow Muslim villagers were slaughtered and those who survived spent the next four to five days making their way to Bangladesh. All that remains of their homes, shops and mosque are ashes, the signs of which can be seen in satellite images.
Along with most of her fellow villagers, Hasina Begum, the 20-year-old wife of Shahidul Amin, a 25-year-old agricultural worker, fled south toward the river to escape the Burmese soldiers, who were attacking from the north. This was their only escape route.
Unfortunately, the rapidly flowing river is not easy to cross and many of those who jumped in drowned. Some of the soldiers, who separated the captured men and women, began killing the men while others told the women to stand in a stream with only their heads showing. I asked one survivor, Mohammad Suleiman, why he did not try to defend himself. He responded that “they had guns and we had nothing.”
Hasina was one of the women standing in the river. Around 3 or 4 pm, the soldiers were through burning everything in the village that belonged to the Muslims. After killing most of the men and throwing their corpses into a fire pit — even those who were still alive — the soldiers came for the women.
Five soldiers at a time dragged five of them, including Hasina, to a hut. One snatched away her 16-month-old child and threw it into the fire. As they began ripping her clothes off to rape her, she resisted them and was hit and thrown into a hut, which was then set ablaze.
But she remembers only one blow, saying that she did not feel the ones that damaged her jaw. Finding a small opening in the burning hut, she managed to escape and hide in a vegetable patch for the rest of the evening. Late at night and without any clothing, she made her way to a nearby forest where other survivors gave her some clothes.
Hasina’s mother-in-law, father-in-law and one sister-in-law were killed. At that time, she did not know that her husband Shahid had survived, for he had not been in the village with the soldiers had attacked. He came to know about the loss of his child, parents and sister only after he managed to find Hasina via the Internet.
The Rohingya are familiar with technology. Many have cell phones, and some carry two SIM cards: one to talk with relatives in Burma and another one to communicate with those in the Bangladeshi camp. As a matter of fact, I saw more solar panels in the refugee camps than in my Chicago neighborhood. A small solar panel serves almost every 200 huts, allowing refugees to charge their cell phones.
Someone uploaded a video of Hasina’s tragedy to an Internet group. Her husband, at that time still in Burma, saw it and began looking for her in various clusters of people traveling through Burma’s jungles and mountains. After finding her, a generous Rohingya lent him enough money to reach Bangladesh and seek treatment for his wife.
Based on the 30 testimonies that our team received and that I recorded from Tula Toli survivors, the timeline of events suggests a planned military operation. The military had been attacking people weeks before the alleged 25 August attacks.
Ten days before the 30 August massacre, the soldiers had searched the villagers’ homes and confiscated their valuables. The village council had held meetings beforehand to ensure the presence of the households’ male members, purportedly for national verification card registration purposes. But no such registration took place.
The current village chair had actually assured the villagers that although the soldiers might burn their houses, they would not kill anyone. The villagers, however, believed that they had been marked for extermination.
As I went up and down the hills where these latest refugees now live in plastic and bamboo huts, I kept meeting survivors of one massacre or another. Whenever I started talking to a person, others would gather and eventually turn a one-on-one conversation into a meeting. And so I started asking one standard question: How many of them had seen someone being killed? Almost always, 40 percent of the crowd raised their hands.
No one knows the actual number of people killed so far in this genocide. The Burmese government, not known for its truthfulness, maintains that only 400 Rohingya have been killed. The people of Tula Toli, however, insist that at least 1,700 — more than half — of their fellow villagers have died.
An approximate estimate could be based on a recent UN survey, which states that 14 percent of the refugees are single mothers who are holding their families together with little support. That would put single mothers among the recent arrivals to 84,000.
One cannot say with certainty that at least 84,000 men have been murdered, since some of them may have been detained by the military or be either alive (in hiding) or lost, as was Hasina’s husband.
Only a thorough survey of the population casualties can determine the actual number of casualties. The Burma Task Force (https://www.burmamuslims.org), which will have three teams documenting personal and property losses through the survivors’ recorded testimonies, has asked the Bangladesh Human Right Commission to take up this project.
This documentation project will be guided by legal scholars of genocide and will be helpful when the lawsuits and claims are filed.
I saw women everywhere. Almost all were hijabis dressed in Burmese-style clothing as opposed to Bangladeshi-style clothing. Many were niqabis. As I neared the area where the Rohingya camps are, I began noticing cluster of families, mostly women and children, standing silently on each side of the road; some were literally sitting in mud. As I moved nearer, I saw crowds of people on both sides of the road. I asked one family why they were standing there. They told me that they had just arrived and didn’t know where to go.
I developed a very high degree of respect for both the Rohingya and the Bangladeshis. The former seem to be the embodiment of patience and endurance, for despite being subject to genocide they almost never raise their voices or fight among themselves in the crowded camps. They are gentle souls. There are Buddhist temples all around their camps. Some of these areas actually have a Buddhist majority, and yet there is not one single case of the Rohingya ever attacking even one of them.
I saw Bangladeshis driving vehicles of all sizes, shapes and ages — all full of aid for the refugees. And yet many times the traffic came to a standstill, because only a single, narrow one-lane road serves this area of Cox’s Bazar, a tiny strip of land in the remotest part of Bangladesh that ends in the Bay of Bengal.
Well-meaning Bangladeshi Muslims are bringing supplies from all corners of the country. The government, the army, various UN agencies, and all legal and not-so-legal foreigners trying to help must use this sole road. Logistics, not the absence of love, care and resources, is causing hunger and malnutrition in the camps.
Just as helicopters became lifesavers in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake, Bangladesh needs helicopters to speed up the distribution of supplies. One million poor but nevertheless self-reliant people have now been forced to depend upon others.
Forbidden to work or leave the camp, all they can do is wait for someone to give them food, medicine and shelter. This is where Washington can help, as it has done in so many disaster zones around the world.
One of the Burma Task Force’s major requests is that Washington send helicopters to Bangladesh. That is coming, but it might be too late if the helicopters cannot improve distribution quickly enough to save lives, including those of 85,000 pregnant women who do not have enough to eat.
Abdul Malik Mujahid, president of Sound Vision and chair of Burma Task Force, visited Bangladesh in September and late November 2017.