World News

A Great Migration

Posted December 29, 2017 7:04 p.m. EST
Updated December 29, 2017 7:06 p.m. EST

Myanmar says the story of the Rohingya is “fake news.” The military says they burned down their own villages, staged massacres, left their children for dead. This is the real story of how 650,000 Rohingya Muslims fled.

I. Fire

Roughly two-thirds of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar — an entire people — migrated this year in one of the most rapid mass exoduses in modern history. Their only option was to run under the threat of being shot or raped by soldiers or of having their homes torched. Even in the chaos, it was clear the soldiers were bent on inflicting the most horror and fear possible, boasting that the Rohingya would never see their land again. Hillsides were wrecked; livestock was killed; and entire villages were systematically razed.

II. Exodus

For the Rohingya who escaped — mostly women and children — leaving home was just the beginning. Miles of monsoon-flooded land and treacherous, mud-slicked hills awaited. Each village along the way held the prospect of more danger. Could they evade Myanmar’s soldiers? If they made it to the border, would Bangladesh’s guards turn them back? Should they risk a river crossing at night? None of the options were good.

III. Crossing

Hundreds more would die trying to cross into Bangladesh, their overloaded rafts jolted by flood-swollen rapids, their bodies washed up on the sodden banks. Many who survived were dehydrated and starving, and their journeys to refugee camps were not yet finished. “You are asking details about our journey,” Ramida Begum said. “Will you force us to go back? We don’t want to go back.”

IV. Camps

Just months ago, much of the Bangladeshi terrain was forest.

Now a sprawling camp is where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya wait in limbo for their fates to be decided by countries that want nothing more than to be rid of them.

The sickness and hunger of the early weeks in the Bangladeshi camp have been mostly contained as aid groups gained their footing. But camps are not a permanent home, and a miasma of untreated trauma, fresh exploitation and apprehension about the future has set in.