What They Carried When They Fled Genocide

Rohingya arrive in Bangladesh after crossing the Burmese border in September 2017. They walked for days to escape the violence that destroyed their families and homes. —Photo by Greg Constantine

A cell phone photo.

A land ownership document.

A mandolin.

A child’s shirt.

Rohingya who survived mass atrocities committed against their Muslim minority community by their own government grabbed whatever they could carry when they fled their homes in 2017. The Burmese military and security forces confiscated much of their money, jewelry, and family heirlooms. Yet survivors managed to hold onto some objects, sentimental and otherwise, that would come to represent all they had lost and all that remains. They also carried invisible and unwanted reminders of what they experienced.

This month marks three years since the Burmese military murdered more than 9,000 Rohingya throughout Rakhine State on Burma’s western coast. During this month-long massacre in 2017, soldiers burned thousands of homes, schools, stores, and mosques. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh.

They left behind the remains of their loved ones killed in front of them — or missing and never found. They left behind the remains of decimated homes and schools. They left behind the ability to work and send their older children to school, neither of which are possible in the sprawling refugee camps. These are a few of the things they carried with them:

Cellphone photos of loved ones: Perhaps nothing drives home that this was a modern massacre more than the images captured on mobile phones — Parents, sons, daughters, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends smile or pose for the camera in the years, months, and days before the atrocities. A new mother and father hold up their infant daughter. Brothers pose side by side. Teenage friends look up from studying. That new mother was murdered. The younger of the two brothers has lasting physical and neurological damage. Those teenage girls haven’t seen each other since August 2017.

Some Rohingya survivors believe the Burmese military targeted people because of their status within their communities. Those singled out included teachers, religious leaders, business owners, and students. For their surviving loved ones, the photos on their cell phones are all that remains.

Documents: Birth certificates, political party membership cards from decades earlier (when they still had the right to vote and run for elected office), proof of land ownership (often passed down from one family to the next), these documents are reminders of an existence and inheritance, a history and lineage of belonging. Hastily shoved into plastic bags, tattered and often wet or ripped on the weeks-long exodus from home, these papers have no value and are invaluable at the same time.

Musical instruments: Rohingya communities include artists, poets, and musicians who have made it their life’s work to tell the stories of their people. “Innocent little babies were snatched from their mothers’ laps and thrown into the blazing fire!” sings Mohammed Taher as he strums the first few strings on his juri, a mandolin-like instrument. The lyrics to the musician and poet’s piece, known as a tarana, chronicle the persecution of Rohingya by Burma’s military. Mohammed’s music and poetry represent part of the Rohingyas’ long and enduring tradition of oral storytelling.

A school bag and shirt: With little warning, Burmese soldiers stormed into Rohingya homes in August 2017. Separating the men from the women, separating husbands and wives, parents and children. In the chaos and in desperation, Rohingya reached for a household item from a table or a piece of clothing from a hook on the wall. Sometimes the single book or shirt or school bag is all a parent has to remember a son or a daughter, all a child has to remember an older or younger sibling.

Nightmares. Some Rohingya children, haunted by the death and destruction they witnessed and the desperate and precarious journeys they took to safety, have drawn pictures to try to process their trauma. Working with UNICEF, they recreated the guns, the fire, the violence. Their drawings reveal a glimpse into how their young minds continue to wrestle with what they experienced.

PTSD: Rohingya, including children, have experienced devastating psychological consequences from what they endured and the daily stressors they continue to experience in the overcrowded camps. Unable to work, they must rely on international aid for food and access to health care and other social services. The medical services offered cannot compete with the volume and degree of psychological trauma, including severe depression and anxiety. “The military had persecuted us for a long time, and we never had hard proof to show. Mohammadul is now living proof,” a survivor named Showife shared about the lasting impact of the violence inflicted on his younger brother in August 2017.

The things Rohingya carried with them represent their lived experiences over the last three years. They represent their grief for old lives, lost loves, and the security of belonging to a place and to each other. Rohingya will continue to carry these things — which were rarely just things at all — into their uncertain future.

Jennifer Koons is a global storyteller based in Washington, DC. The conditions that led Rohingya to flee Burma in August 2017 are explored in an online exhibition, Burma’s Path to Genocide, from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires people worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. www.ushmm.org

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