THAINGKALI, Bangladesh — Momtaz Begum, a 30-year-old member of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority, was raped, beaten, and locked inside a house that soldiers then set on fire. Myanmarese troops killed three of her four children and her husband, and methodically massacred hundreds of civilians in her tiny village of Tula Toli.
Despite the almost unimaginable horrors that Momtaz faced in Myanmar, though, her story is also a hopeful one.
That’s because Momtaz and one of her daughters escaped the carnage and made it to the relative safety of neighboring Bangladesh. Even more strikingly, Momtaz later found that two of her sisters, Tayyibah and Dildar, had also survived the massacre in Tula Toli and made their way to one of the sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh that house more than 650,000 desperate Rohingya refugees.
Today they’re still in the camp, trying to rebuild their fractured lives and relying on each other for support.
”Our father has gone, our mother has gone, everyone’s gone. Now we’re here together, and we have to depend on God to survive,” says Momtaz.
Her story highlights a new facet of the ongoing Rohingya crisis, one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world. Myanmar’s army has been carrying out a campaign of targeted violence marked by tactics like methodical mass murder and rape. United Nations officials say Myanmar’s military should be investigated for crimes against humanity and potential genocide, and the Trump administration recently accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing.
For hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, the first imperative is to find a way out of Myanmar, which means avoiding government troops hell-bent on killing them and their families. But survivors like Momtaz are starting to confront a new challenge: finding relatives and friends who are spread out among Bangladesh’s sprawling and overcrowded refugee camps.
That’s a hard task given that most of the refugees don’t have cellphones, and few have any documents that could help link them to other survivors. Bangladesh doesn’t have many resources to devote to the labor-intensive task of reuniting refugees with their surviving relatives and has made clear it wants them out of the country as soon as possible. The Bangladeshi government had been planning to begin sending the refugees back to Myanmar on Tuesday but abruptly announced plans for an indefinite delay, giving survivors like Momtaz a temporary reprieve.
Some families who were separated along the way have had success on their own, said Alexandra Goodlad of the International Red Cross. But there are no statistics on how many, and it can take time — “days, weeks, even months,” Goodlad said.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. If enough refugees can find their loved ones, the brutalized Rohingya community might eventually be able to knit itself back together. If they can’t, Momtaz’s story will stand out as a rare exception in a broader narrative of violence and heartbreak.
For the 600,000 people driven from their homes in Myanmar, survival is just the first step
Momtaz arrived in the Bangladeshi refugee camp at the end of September, roughly a month after Myanmarese troops raided her home village of Tula Toli. The violence began without warning, and the soldiers raped and killed without mercy. Human Rights Watch referred to it as a “methodical massacre.”
Soldiers shot dead her husband and children as they encircled Tula Toli’s villagers on the river bank. They dragged Momtaz to a nearby house, where a group of soldiers raped her, locked her inside, and set the house on fire.
Momtaz sustained serious burns to the right half of her body, and her daughter’s head was slashed with a machete. Still, the two managed to escape the house where they were imprisoned through a hole in the wall.
They hid in a nearby forest until the soldiers had left and were then found by fellow villagers, who carried them for 10 days to a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, near Bangladesh’s Kutupalong refugee camp.
Momtaz was in the hospital for weeks before she was released. Once she got out, she had to beg to obtain the bamboo, rope, and tarpaulin needed to pull together a shelter.
She lived in the camp for a month before stumbling across her youngest sister, Tayyibah, 25, who was living in another section of the camp. Tayyibah had survived the massacre because she lived up on a hill, where she and her family had watched the violence take place and fled before the soldiers could arrive.
After Momtaz and Tayyibah found each other, they still had no information about their other sister, Dildar, 27 — including whether she was alive or dead.
The persecution of the minority Rohingya community in Myanmar is not a new phenomenon. The group, which was concentrated in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, were stripped of their citizenship in 1982 and have been oppressed through forced labor, house evictions, restrictions on their movement, and outright violence from the military since the 1970s — leading the UN to describe them as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
But an incident on August 25, 2017, led to a whole new wave of violence. Members of the Rohingya community, organized by a little-known militant group, overwhelmed military posts near the border with Bangladesh, killing 14 soldiers. Myanmar’s army responded with a brutal crackdown that included the killing of 6,700 Rohingya, widespread rape, and burning down almost 300 villages in less than two months.
Hundreds of thousands of people have fled across the border to Kutupalong-Balukhali, a refugee camp which houses some 550,000 people. Other new refugees live in a network of nearby camps elsewhere in Bangladesh.
The cash-strapped Bangladeshi government isn’t equipped to deal with that massive influx of refugees — a third of Bangladesh’s 160 million citizens live on less than $2 a day. Support for the Rohingya refugees has come from the UN, which raised $344 million at a conference in October, and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced in November that Washington would contribute an extra $47 million for the refugees.
But money won’t necessarily be enough to help individual refugees. Single mothers like Momtaz — who make up 16 percent of all Rohingya refugees, according to data from the Bangladeshi government and UNHCR — are especially vulnerable to abuse. They are targeted by human traffickers, which the International Organization for Migration says is a major problem in the camps, and some are forced into prostitution.
There are more mundane problems as well: little privacy, and a lack of sanitary systems or toilets. Momtaz and others like her are forced to walk through thick, isolated forests to find firewood for cooking, which exposes them to further danger.
The Bangladeshi government has also barred the Rohingya from straying too far from the camps, making it hard for Momtaz to look for work. She could find a trafficker to smuggle her out, but refugees who take that route are often placed with employers who beat and exploit them. So she and her daughter depend on help from camp medical clinics and small rations of lentils and rice to survive.
Simply making it from one day to the next is an enormous challenge. Finding lost loved ones is no easier.
Finding family members in a sprawling refugee camp can seem like an impossible task
Many families were separated amid the chaos and violence of Myanmar’s military crackdown; others lost contact while trudging through swampy forests or escaping on overloaded boats bound for Bangladesh.
There are almost a million refugees spread throughout hills, forests, and valleys in the Bangladesh border region, so finding each other can be extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Further complicating matters, the Bangladeshi government has forbidden refugees from using cellphones, citing security reasons. A black market for SIM cards has sprung up in refugee camp markets, but very few people actually have the money to pay for them.
The International Committee of the Red Cross and the local Red Crescent have tried to solve that problem with a program called Restoring Family Links. They’ve placed volunteers at the main camps for new arrivals, like Kutupalong–Balukhali and Thaingkali, where they take down names and try to match up relatives. They also let refugees make calls and give people who carried their phones with them access to electricity and a place to charge their phones.
Momtaz, however, found her second sister through a combination of determination and luck.
At a funeral that was being held near her tent in the refugee camp one night, she met another refugee who said he’d seen a woman who looked like her and had similar scars. That was when Momtaz realized there was a chance that Dildar, 27, had also survived the massacre.
She searched hospitals in the refugee camp and walked the streets, begging anyone for leads. One day, three months after her arrival, Momtaz heard that her sister had been sighted in Thaingkali, another camp on the other side of the hills.
When the two finally found each other, they both began weeping when they saw how the massacre had taken its toll. “It’s not a problem for me to be injured, but there are so many scars and burns on my sister’s body. I couldn’t control myself,” said Dildar. Momtaz still can’t hear out of one ear, where her face was burned from the fire.
Momtaz and Dildar, who also survived the massacre with one daughter, lean heavily on each other for emotional support. But they also live in different camps because they worry that moving would mean missing out on the aid supplies that are usually distributed three times a week. Those include food rations and basic household items like cooking pots or blankets to guard against the evening chill.
Goodlad said there are no figures on how many families have been reunited, either through their own efforts or ICRC’s. They have managed to help refugees make more than 8,500 phone calls to family members that are also in Bangladesh or loved ones they left behind in Myanmar.
Whether they succeed will determine the next chapter of this tragedy. If family members can find one another in the aftermath of Myanmar’s genocidal campaign, then the Rohingya have a chance to rebuild some sort of stable life. If they can’t, the future of this oppressed minority will be one of broken families, parentless children, and mass despair.
For now, Dildar sleeps in a corner of a hut built by one of her father’s close friends, sectioned off with a bit of worn cloth draped from the bamboo frame. She says that she feels helpless to change their situation, but she can, at least, visit with her sister. “When she comes, we’re two sisters together,” Dildar said. “That gives us some peace.”
Kaamil Ahmed is a journalist reporting on conflict, labor, and the environment in Asia and the Middle East.