Nazmul Islam watched as the army prepared to attack his home in Tula Toli, where its Rohingya residents were raped and murdered
Poppy McPherson in Cox’s Bazar
After they finished burning the bodies, the soldiers ordered chicken curry.
Nazmul Islam watched as local Buddhists set about preparing food for the men he says raped and massacred scores of Rohingya Muslims from the village of Tula Toli in the north of Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
By late afternoon it was quiet. The smell of burning hung over the village. An officer barked, “We need 100 plates of rice and chicken curry. Bring it to us.”
The soldiers’ savagery appalled but did not shock Islam, the 60-year-old assistant village chairman. He used to be one of them.
A former soldier and Buddhist who became a Muslim after falling in love with a Rohingya woman, Islam is an unusual sight in the sprawling Bangladeshi refugee camps now home to close to one million people.
While his wife and their five children fled Myanmar alongside their neighbours, Islam says he was detained for weeks in the Rakhine part of the village where officers tried to convert him back to Buddhism. Taken there before the violence, he says he witnessed the orchestration of a slaughter first reported last year by the Guardian.
“Ufffft. I saw everything,” says Islam, who is thin with sinewy, tattooed arms. “I couldn’t do anything but sit and look.”
His story, corroborated by more than half a dozen Rohingya residents of Tula Toli interviewed separately, sheds new light on one of the worst episodes of what the UN and global leaders have called an ethnic cleansing campaign.
More than 650,000 Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority long persecuted in Myanmar, have fled to Bangladesh since August. They say Myanmar soldiers, police and Buddhist militias staged mass executions, gang-raped women and children, and burned hundreds of villages to the ground during “clearance operations” targeting militants.
Who are the Rohingya?
Doctors Without Borders believes at least 6,700 were killed. A list drawn up by Rohingya puts the estimated death toll in Tula Toli at 1,179.
Last week the Associated Press reported it had found evidence of five mass graves in the village of Gu Dar Pyin. Two Reuters journalists who were investigating another grave are being tried under the Official Secrets Act.
The Myanmar army and its commander, Min Aung Hlaing, say the accusations are “fabrications” although it has admitted summarily executing 10 Rohingya men in another village and burying them in a mass grave. The army’s True News Information unit could not be reached for comment for this story.
Meanwhile Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed an agreement to send refugees back, but few want to return, saying they will face further persecution.
Islam, who spent more than a decade as a soldier, stationed mostly in Rakhine state, can understand that fear.
“In their mind, [the army] wants to wipe out the Muslim people,” Islam says.
After leaving the force in 1983, he settled in Rakhine, marrying a Buddhist woman from Tula Toli, a village also known as Min Gyi nestled in the bend of the Purma River in the northern part of Maungdaw township.
Rohingya lived down by the water’s edge; Rakhine Buddhists mostly on higher ground. But they often worked together, farming and fishing.
Islam began talking to a Rohingya woman in her twenties, Marbiyar Khatun, who worked in his home as a maid.
She was bold and funny, but Islam noticed the grinding oppression her people were facing. They had to get permission to marry or travel. Security forces took away their documents and harassed them for bribes. Despite the age difference, they grew close. “How can I define love? Sympathy is also a kind of love,” he says.
In 2008, he divorced his first wife, married Marbiyar and converted to Islam, a move he insists wasn’t solely for her sake.
They moved to the Rohingya part of the village and had four sons and a daughter. Educated and polite, Islam was widely respected and worked filling out forms in Burmese on behalf of Rohingya. Friends and neighbours describe him and Marbiyar as a bridge between the two communities.
In the early hours of August 25th 2017, Rohingya armed with guns, sticks and knives overran scores of police posts across northern Rakhine. The insurgents, from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army [ARSA] provided the pretext for soldiers to respond with brutal force across the state.
Shortly after the attacks, according to several witnesses, a group of Rakhine villagers came to Islam and took him to their neighbourhood.
Residents say a village elder guaranteed their safety and told them to gather by the river if soldiers came. “Maybe they played games with the Rohingya villagers,” says Islam. The chairman could not be reached for comment.
Soldiers swept into Tula Toli on the morning of August 30th. Islam and other Rohingya from the village say they were from a division unit usually stationed in the northwest of the country but deployed to combat ARSA.
“When I tell this story, I feel sick,” says Marbiyar, beating her hand against her head.
She and the children managed to escape across the river to a neighbouring village, but many Rohingya were trapped at the river’s edge, surrounded by soldiers and Buddhists with knives. Some scrambled into the water. Others ran and were shot at. The soldiers separated those who remained into groups: men on one side; women on the other.
According to survivors interviewed by the Guardian, the women were forced to stand in the shallows and watch as their husbands, sons and fathers were shot.
Some pretended to be dead. Some tried to hide their male relatives. Those who asked for water were cut with knives. So were children who cried.
Later, the women were taken into houses in small groups where they were raped and beaten. Then the houses were set alight.
“We have the order to kill everyone”
On the hill, detained in a military camp, Islam says he was aware of what was going on. “At first, I couldn’t see anything but I heard the sound of bullets and crying. I saw the fire and smoke,” he says.
At one point, a helicopter landed nearby, carrying some senior officers. “They gave bullets and guns. They ordered the military not to throw bodies into the water but to bury or burn them,” he says.
The task was delegated to the local Buddhists, he says. “If anyone disagreed, they would shoot,” he says. “I heard a corporal saying,… ‘We have the order to kill everyone and will kill everyone who disagrees.’”
The soldiers and villagers looted the homes that were still standing, taking rice, motorbikes and animals. He says he heard the locals talking about the dead “Bengalis” and raped women. “We couldn’t bear to be inside the village because of the smell from the burning bodies,” says Islam.
The soldiers beat and kicked him and tried to force him to denounce Islam, he says. They told him, “You’re our brother” and “This is our country. Kalars don’t live here anymore,” using a derogatory word for Muslims.
One night, he says he seized a chance to escape when the guards were drunk. He found his way into Bangladesh, where his wife and children were waiting.
“I fainted when I saw him first,” Marbiyar says, with a smile. “We thought he was dead.”
In Tula Toli, Islam and Marbiyar were well off. They had a good house. They owned cows, buffalo, and chickens. Now they live at the squalid edges of Kutapalong refugee camp. Flies buzz around their tent.
Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to send the Rohingya back to Rakhine state but Islam is skeptical. Earlier this week Bangladesh said the plan had been delayed because, among other reasons, there were difficulties drawing up lists of Rohingya willing to go.
“They say now that they will call us back. I have no house – it was burned down,” says Islam. “Who will pay me for my house and all the things looted from me? Which court will do justice for us?”
As a former Buddhist, Islam has the documents required to live freely in Myanmar. But he has turned his back on that life, in favour of statelessness and exile with his family. He has no regrets.
“I had freedom in Myanmar. I could go and visit every corner,” he says. “But I don’t want that, because my wife and children are here. They are crying, and God won’t let me leave them.”
Additional reporting by Patrick Brown