Sunday, August 18, 2019

Rohingya crisis: One grave for 10 men

  • >> Reuters
    Published: 2018-02-09 09:44:51 BdST

Bound together, the 10 Rohingya captives watched their Buddhist neighbours dig a grave. Soon afterwards, on the morning of Sept 2, all 10 lay dead. At least two were hacked to death by Buddhist villagers. The rest were shot by soldiers, two of the gravediggers said.

The killings marked another episode in the violence sweeping Myanmar's northern Rakhine State. The Rohingya accuse the army of arson, rapes and killings. The United Nations has said the army may have committed genocide. Myanmar says its "clearance operation" is a legitimate response to attacks by insurgents.

Rohingya trace their presence in Rakhine back centuries. But most people in majority-Buddhist Myanmar consider them to be unwanted Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. The army refers to the Rohingya as "Bengalis," and most lack citizenship. In recent years, the government has confined more than 100,000 Rohingya in camps where they have limited access to food, medicine and education. Nearly 690,000 Rohingya have fled their villages and crossed the border into Bangladesh since August.

Reuters has pieced together what happened in the days leading up to the killings in Inn Din, drawing for the first time on interviews with Buddhist villagers who confessed to torching Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims.

This account also marks the first time soldiers and paramilitary police have been implicated by testimony from security personnel. Three photographs, provided to Reuters by a Buddhist village elder, capture key moments, from the Rohingya men's detention by soldiers in the early evening of Sept 1 to their execution shortly after 10 am on Sept 2.

The Reuters investigation was what prompted police authorities to arrest two of the news agency's reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, on Dec 12 for allegedly obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine. Then, on Jan 10, the military issued a statement that confirmed portions of what Reuters was preparing to report, acknowledging that 10 Rohingya men were massacred in Inn Din.

But the military's version of events is contradicted in important respects by accounts given to Reuters by Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim witnesses.

The military said the 10 men belonged to a group of "200 terrorists" that attacked security forces. But Buddhist villagers interviewed for this article reported no attack by a large number of insurgents on security forces in Inn Din. And Rohingya witnesses told Reuters that soldiers plucked the 10 from among Rohingya who had sought safety on a nearby beach.

A human skull is seen in a shallow grave in Inn Din, Myanmar Oct 26, 2017. Reuters

A human skull is seen in a shallow grave in Inn Din, Myanmar Oct 26, 2017. Reuters

 

Scores of interviews with Rakhine Buddhist villagers, soldiers, paramilitary police, Rohingya and a local administrator further revealed:

- The military and paramilitary police organized Buddhist residents of Inn Din and at least two other villages to torch Rohingya homes, Buddhist villagers said.

- An order to "clear" Inn Din's Rohingya hamlets was passed down the command chain from the military, said three paramilitary police officers and a fourth police officer at an intelligence unit in the regional capital Sittwe.

- Some members of the paramilitary police looted Rohingya property including cows and motorcycles in order to sell it, according to Inn Din's Buddhist administrator and one of the paramilitary police officers.

Asked about the evidence Reuters has uncovered about the massacre, government spokesman Zaw Htay said, "We are not denying the allegations about violations of human rights. And we are not giving blanket denials." If there was "strong and reliable primary evidence" of abuses, the government would investigate, he said. "And then if we found the evidence is true and the violations are there, we will take the necessary action according to our existing law."

When told that paramilitary police officers had said they received orders to "clear" Inn Din’s Rohingya hamlets, he replied, "We have to verify. We have to ask the Ministry of Home Affairs and Myanmar police forces." Asked about the allegations of looting by paramilitary police officers, he said the police would investigate.

He expressed surprise when told that Buddhist villagers had confessed to burning Rohingya homes, then added, "We recognize that many, many different allegations are there, but we need to verify who did it. It is very difficult in the current situation."

Zaw Htay defended the military operation in Rakhine. "The international community needs to understand who did the first terrorist attacks. If that kind of terrorist attack took place in European countries, in the United States, in London, New York, Washington, what would the media say?"

Neighbour turns on neighbour

Events began to unfold on Aug 25 when Rohingya rebels attacked police posts and an army base in northern Rakhine. Fearing for their safety, several hundred of Inn Din's Buddhist villagers took refuge in a monastery. On Aug 27, about 80 troops from Myanmar's 33rd Light Infantry Division arrived in the village.

Five Buddhist villagers said the army officer in charge told them they could volunteer to join security operations. He found willing participants among Inn Din's Buddhist "security group," members of the organization and villagers said.

In the days that followed, soldiers, police and Buddhist villagers burned most of the homes of Inn Din's Rohingya Muslims, a dozen Buddhist residents said.

One of the police officers said he received verbal orders from his commander to "go and clear" areas where Rohingya lived, which he took to mean to burn them. A second police officer described taking part in several raids on villages north of Inn Din. Security forces wore civilian shirts and shorts to blend in with the villagers, according to the second police officer and Inn Din's Buddhist administrator, Maung Thein Chay.

After the Rohingya had fled Inn Din, Buddhist villagers took their property, including chickens and goats, Buddhist residents told Reuters. But the most valuable goods, mostly motorcycles and cattle, were collected by the commander of the 8th Security Police Battalion and sold, said the first police officer and the village administrator.

Reached by phone, the commander, Thant Zin Oo, did not comment. A police spokesman, Colonel Myo Thu Soe, said the police would investigate the allegations of looting.

By Sept 1, several hundred Rohingya from Inn Din were sheltering on a nearby beach, witnesses said. Among them were the 10 men who would be killed. Five of the men were fishermen or fish sellers, two ran stores, two were students and one was an Islamic teacher.

Rohingya witnesses said the Islamic teacher, Abdul Malik, had gone back to his hamlet to collect food and bamboo for shelter. When he returned to the beach, at least seven soldiers and armed Buddhist villagers followed him. Then the military beckoned to the Rohingya, these witnesses said, and picked out the 10 men.

A photograph, taken that evening, shows the 10 kneeling on a path in the village. On Sept 2, they were taken to scrubland near a graveyard, Buddhist villagers said, where they were photographed again. Security personnel questioned them about the disappearance of a local Buddhist farmer named Maung Ni, according to a Rakhine elder. Several Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya villagers told Reuters they knew of no evidence connecting any of the 10 to the farmer's disappearance.

Three Buddhist witnesses said they watched as the captives were led by soldiers towards the site of their deaths. One of the gravediggers, retired soldier Soe Chay, said Maung Ni's sons were invited by the army officer in charge of the squad to strike the first blows. The first son beheaded the Islamic teacher, Abdul Malik, according to Soe Chay. The second son hacked another of the men in the neck.

A Rakhine elder provided Reuters reporters with a photograph which shows the aftermath of the killings. Explaining why he chose to share information with Reuters, he said: "I want to be transparent on this case. I don't want it to happen like that in future."

The victims

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel in Inn Din village on Sept 1, 2017. From left: Abul Hashim, Abdul Malik, Nur Mohammed, Rashid Ahmed, Habizu, Abulu, Shaker Ahmed, Abdul Majid, Shoket Ullah, Dil Mohammed. Reuters

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel in Inn Din village on Sept 1, 2017. From left: Abul Hashim, Abdul Malik, Nur Mohammed, Rashid Ahmed, Habizu, Abulu, Shaker Ahmed, Abdul Majid, Shoket Ullah, Dil Mohammed. Reuters

Abul Hashim, 25 - One of the wealthier villagers in the west hamlet of Inn Din - a neighbourhood known to the Rohingya as Fosinpara - Abul Hashim ran a store selling machine parts and fishing nets and also stored rice for a nongovernmental organization. He owned a 3-acre plot of trees in the hills near Inn Din that were used as firewood and as construction material. He also had 16 buffalos, which were left behind. “I can’t think why these men were taken. They were all good men,” said his wife of five years Hasina Khatun. They have three children together, including Abdu Majid, born in November in Tenkhali refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Abdul Malik, 30 - A religious teacher or mullah, he was made the imam at the west hamlet’s mosque in his early 20s in recognition of his teaching ability, according to several residents. The mosque was an old building in the centre of the hamlet, but in recent years villagers said they were restricted from using loudspeakers to announce the call to prayer. In addition to teaching, the father of five children ran a small stall where he served tea from a flask, and sold kerosene to fishermen, according to his wife, Marjan, 25. Some villagers remember the stall as a place men would gather to share local news and gossip.

Nur Mohammed, 29 - He was known by the affectionate nickname “Bangu.” He sold fish and had a small rice paddy field and would grow vegetables and beans in a small garden, according to his wife, Rehana Khatun. “He was only interested in looking after his family. He was hardworking and eager to improve our lot by farming and selling fish,” she recalled.

Rashid Ahmed, 18 - He was a bright student at Inn Din’s high school, excelling in Burmese and English, according to his parents, father Abdu Shakur and mother Subiya Hatu. His father said he had hoped Rashid Ahmed would go on to become the first person in the family to receive a higher education. “His report card was good. I looked after everything so that he could concentrate on his studies,” said Abdu Shakur, 50.

Habizu, 40 - He sold fish and kept a small rice field and 15 goats. His wife, Shuna Khatu, 30, is now living in the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh, where she said she has dreamt of Habizu’s return. She gave birth to their third child, baby boy Mohammed Sadek, after she arrived in Bangladesh. Habizu was working and saving toward buying a cow, Shuna Khatu said, and he hoped that he could provide for his children so that they could be educated.

Abulu, 17 - A student who was about to go into his final year at Inn Din’s high school before violence broke out in October 2016, disrupting daily life across northern Rakhine state. The student, whose full name was Abul Hashim, would go fishing with a net in a pond near their house in the west hamlet, said his mother, Nurjan, 40. He was planning to open up a pharmacy in Inn Din after he finished school, she said. “He was a good boy, always polite,” Nurjan said, breaking into a smile as she recalled an exception: “He liked meat, but he didn’t like dried fish. Whenever I prepared dried fish, he would run off and have dinner that night at a relative’s house."

Shaker Ahmed, 45 - He would make about 5,000 kyat ($3.70) each day selling fish, said his wife, Rahama Khatun, 35. “That was good for us. We were well off even with nine kids,” she said. His son and ninth child, Sadikur Rahman, was born in November, after Rahama Khatun arrived at the Kutapalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. “When the kids say where is Dad, I don’t know how to reply,” she said. “Now, I’m feeling very scared. It’s difficult for me to manage everything with nine kids and my husband is not here to help.”

Abdul Majid, 45 - He ran a small shop selling, among other goods, areca nut wrapped in betel leaves. His wife, Amina Khatun, 40, is now staying in the Tenkhali refugee camp in Bangladesh with their eight children, aged from 1 to 19. "We had to leave six cattle and 3 acres of land, our house and all our belongings," she said. "It was all lost. I saw it myself – it was burned when we came back to the shore."

Shoket Ullah, 35 - He moved to the west hamlet three years ago from Inn Din main village to live with his in-laws after he married his wife, Settara. He was a fisherman and also collected firewood to make extra cash. He was partially deaf since childhood, according to fellow west hamlet residents.

Dil Mohammed, 35 - He was widely known in Inn Din as “Dilu," and made a living buying the catch from fishermen who went out into the Bay of Bengal and selling it in Inn Din’s market. He’s known as a sickly man with gastric problems. His wife and 15-year-old son now live in the Bhalukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh, according to fellow former Inn Din residents.