“I heard the most heartbreaking and horrific accounts of sexual atrocities, reportedly committed in cold blood out of a lethal hatred for these people, solely on the basis of their ethnicity and religion. The wounds are extremely raw, dozens of women and girls dissolving to tears when recounting acts of unmitigated brutality.” – Pramila Patten, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict
Rohingya women who say they fled mistreatment by the military in Myanmar have told tales of horror that leading human rights groups have documented.
Now, living in massive refugee camps and settlements near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, victims must deal with past traumas and face new risks.
Rejina is a grandmother who didn’t want her last name used. She said she has felt empty inside since losing contact with her 15-year-old granddaughter, following the army’s first wave of so-called clearance operations targeting the teenager’s village of Khadi Bil in Myanmar’s Maungdaw township. The military action in October 2016 followed deadly insurgent attacks on border guard posts in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state.
“I heard that the military came and entered the house and grabbed her and stole her property,” said Rejina, 65, now living in the Kutipalong camp in Bangladesh.
“They checked the house and grabbed whatever they wanted. If they found any young women, they took them away. Lots of women were raped,” Rejina said.
A Rohingya Muslim woman holds on to a blanket and rests on the road after collecting aid at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhiya, Bangladesh, Dec. 21, 2017. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people have crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh.
While thousands of female refugees might appear to be coping with conditions in the border camps, many survivors of alleged sexual violence by Myanmar security forces suffer from severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Accounts gathered by rights groups support the accusations of widespread rape by the Myanmar army on the Rohingya population.
Pramila Patten, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, interviewed survivors in Bangladesh in November and said, “I heard the most heartbreaking and horrific accounts of sexual atrocities, reportedly committed in cold blood out of a lethal hatred for these people, solely on the basis of their ethnicity and religion. The wounds are extremely raw, dozens of women and girls dissolving to tears when recounting acts of unmitigated brutality.”
Access to therapy and treatment is lacking as more pressing issues like food supplies and adequate shelter take precedence in the 10 camps. Lack of communication adds to the dilemma, as efforts to get the word out to women in need prove difficult.
This 28-year-old mother of six, who did not want her name used, says she was raped by members of Myanmar’s armed forces in late August. She caresses her daughter while being photographed in her tent in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, Nov. 22, 2017.
“Many women also lost their husbands, so you have many female-headed households,” said Jessica Olney, regional spokeswoman for the Center for Social Integrity.
“Women are still needing to figure out how services work and how to access them, and they don’t necessarily have experience advocating for them, so they are going without and that puts them in a vulnerable position,” Olney said.
To aid in treatment, NGOs like the International Organization for Migration are building women’s safe areas where they can receive psychosocial support from medical professionals.
Safe place to talk
“In these centers, it’s safe and secure and there are only other women there and they can talk about the things that are important to them,” said Fiona MacGregor, IOM communications officer.
A Rohingya Muslim woman covers her face from the afternoon dust and heat as she walks through Jamtoli refugee camp, Nov. 27, 2017, in Bangladesh. Since late August, more than 630,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state into neighboring Bangladesh.
“It’s an opportunity to hear what their needs are and find ways of reacting to that,” MacGregor said.
“These are also people who come from very small villages, and suddenly they are finding themselves in a place where there are more than 800,000 people living in the camps,” she said.
In addition to previous traumas, many of the new arrivals face the added risk of human trafficking as criminal networks prey on those seeking work.
“One thing we identified as a particular risk in the camps here is trafficking,” MacGregor said. “Women and girls are particularly vulnerable, and we’re hearing about traffickers approaching women and tricking them or persuading them to go for what they think are safe jobs somewhere else and they are ending up in situations of real exploitation.” She said some wind up “in the sex industry, or we are hearing about girls and women being promised domestic work and find they’re in different situations.”
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have left Rakhine state since August 25, after insurgents attacked security forces and prompted a brutal military crackdown that has been described as ethnic cleansing. Since then, the IOM has provided 2,500 people with psychological first aid, but if stories gathered by rights groups are accurate, the refugees face a long road to recovery.
Myanmar’s government has repeatedly rejected claims that atrocities, including rape and extrajudicial killings, are occurring in northern Rakhine, the epicenter of the violence.
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