"They beat us, slaughtered us and burnt our houses," says an elderly man, forced to flee the brutality of Myanmar's military. Our correspondent writes from a camp in Bangladesh, where Rohingya refugees are living in conditions unfit for animals.
PALONG KALI, Bangladesh — Razu Begum is slumped in an exhausted heap on the damp grounds of an overcrowded mosque. Her small baby is whimpering incessantly in her frail arms. Her four other children linger listlessly nearby. It’s taken them seven days to travel here on foot from their village in the northern parts of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, from where they escaped a brutal military operation that's been widely described as a “scorched-earth” policy. It involves razing to the ground scores of Rohingya villages, killing hundreds, if not more, along the way.
Myanmar says it is targeting “terrorists,” but that's of little comfort to Razu and half-a-million others who have fled Rakhine in the space of just one month in what is without doubt one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our times.
We meet Razu one night in a place called Palong Kali, which lies one kilometre from the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and is one of the few remaining entry points into Bangladesh. The numbers have now dwindled, but we've been tipped off that this is where we will find them.
We first spot them as we're filming in a school that is being used as a temporary shelter. Dozens of refugees, skeletal and wretched from days of flight, trudge towards us, barefoot in single file, struggling with the paltry possessions they managed to salvage. We're told thousands more are heading this way. Indeed, we see them soon after we drive off-road along a bumpy dirt track towards a small path on the edge of a paddy field.
The night sky is interrupted every now and then by flashes of lightening, and a steady drizzle leaves behind a dampness that seems to seep into our bones.
We are the only journalists here, and at first all we can make out is a stream of tiny lights moving steadily in our direction. Then suddenly, they are among us: thousands of refugees of all ages; old men and women bent double, leaning on sticks for support; ragged children, weaving in and out of the lines of adults as they make their way towards a local mosque or further inland.
There is a calmness about them, but it's far from the serenity that comes with peace of mind. It is a muteness brought on from having seen and experienced unspeakable horrors: rape, slaughter, kidnappings, and so much more.
Many of the refugees are crammed into two tiny damp outhouses next to the mosque. The rooms are not fit for animals, let alone humans. The smell of stale sweat and urine — and worse — is suffocating, but the Rohingya have no choice other than to sit here and wait.
Razu hasn't eaten properly for days.
"My last proper meal was seven days ago," she tells us. "My children had some dried fruit along the way [and nothing else]. They are sick and hungry."
Others talk of slaughter. It’s a word we hear often.
"They beat us, slaughtered us and burned our houses," an elderly man, Yunus, tells us. "Recently, I saw people being slaughtered."
There is no reason to doubt any of these testimonies. The satellite images published by human rights groups of burnt-out villages and spirals of smoke are proof enough.
Our visit to the local state hospital is merely an affirmation.
Among the many victims, we find one woman who has had a large chunk of her skull sliced off by the Myanmar military. Another woman is so severely burned that her facial features are barely recognizable. Some of the material we film cannot be broadcast because the injuries are so horrific. Doctors tell us most of the injuries are bullet wounds and fractures. The fingers point directly towards Myanmar’s forces. One patient, Imam Hussein, was shot in the foot after the army entered his village and opened fire indiscriminately.
“I don’t have any tears left to cry,” he says. “The Myanmar army had attacked us many times before, but this recent attack was the worst. When they started shooting indiscriminately, someone got shot in the leg. Another person was shot in the head. Fortunately, I took shelter in the jungle. Those who didn’t were slaughtered.”
Much has been reported over the past month about the squalid state of the camps, all of which is true: the lack of food, water and proper sanitation, the overcrowding and the challenges the aid agencies are facing. We, too, see all of this, but there are certain images that will remain with us for a long time.
More than half the refugees are children, including many young girls. Some are dressed in colourful traditional dresses, as if they are on their way to a child's birthday party. My colleague, Nick, says he finds these images the most distressing. I can see what he means. The deluded sense of innocent joy felt by these children as they dress up in charity clothes or play in the filthy, disease-ridden puddles, oblivious to the magnitude of their plight, is truly heartbreaking.
On one occasion, we climb to the top of a hill where a new camp is being built. It’s quite a trek. We drag our feet through inches — sometimes feet — of dense amber-coloured mud that seems to pull us back with every step we take as the torrential monsoon rains lash down on us.
When we reach the top, we look down onto the seemingly never-ending expanse of tents stretched out before us. This is the moment we really start to comprehend the sheer scale of this crisis.
Razu and her children will most likely end up here somewhere. Aid agencies will probably hand out sacks of rice every now and then, and her daughters may even find themselves dressed up in bright costumes from time to time. But that will be as good as it gets. There will be no birthday parties for Razu’s children.
The most they can hope for will be one bowl of rice a day and to not catch some horrid disease. This is the life they can look forward to as the days become weeks, the weeks become months and the months become years. This is what awaits them in the back of beyond in one of the poorest countries in the world. This is the fate of the victims of the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.